The language in which the debate about abortion is often conducted is one which has tended to make this blog shy away from it; there is only so much one can take by way of abuse from those who see nothing morally wrong about killing babies in the womb. As we live in an age of ‘rights’ it is natural that those opposed to abortion on demand should have resorted to it for their arguments, thus opposing a ‘right to life’ against the ‘woman’s right to choose’. But do we have a ‘right’ to life, or a ‘right’ to ‘choose’? ‘Rights’ are constructed by legal systems and contain whatever it is the legal system concerned wishes to legalise or to make illegal. Legal systems have a relationship with moral codes, but as anyone who imagines there is a one on one correlation between ‘justice’ and what is legally correct will discover, that relationship is often a contested one.
In the world into which Jesus was born, abortion was not uncommon, neither was its (to the mother) safer option, exposing unwanted infants to the elements. But, as for most of history, abortion was a process fraught with danger for the mother, and so tended to be a last resort for the desperate; this changed with modern medicine, where it is now fatal for only one of the two people involved; since foetuses have no voting power, it has been the voice of those who do which has come to influence our legislatures. As the procedure has become closely identified by feminists and others as an essential ‘right’ for women, it has attracted a vociferous lobby, one which objects most especially to the other partner in a pregnancy, the man, daring to comment on it at all. As ever, in response to one hard line, the ‘right to life; lobby, hardened its rhetoric. Calling women who choose to take advantage of their legal right to have an abortion ‘murderers’ helps no one. I have never been sure, ‘virtue signalling’ apart, what such language was designed to achieve? It is all too obvious what it does achieve – which is to pour petrol on the flames.
From the beginning, Christians were to be distinguished from the society within which they lived by their attitude to life. Since no one in first century Judea used the language of ‘rights’, they did not construct their views in those terms. The argument then, and now, was much simpler. Life is a gift from God, each of us is a unique soul. Human life is valuable because of that; it should not be extinguished. We know early Christians argued over whether being a soldier was compatible with being a Christian, and that some early martyrs were soldiers whose consciences told them they could not kill others. The Church eventually evolved the doctrine of the ‘Just War’, which certainly made the Roman Empire less hostile to it and its teachings. Early Christians also fought shy of the death penalty – a natural development for a religion whose founded died on the Cross. Again, the Church found a way of reconciling its teaching with the death penalty, only recently returning to something closer to its earliest attitude – to the dismay of those who still want the death penalty in force. But the Church (as opposed to some modern Catholics) never found, or even tried to find, a way to justify or reconcile itself to abortion. The best (or worst?) some of its teachers have done is to argue over when a foetus becomes a person and whether abortion before that date is justifiable; but again, for most of our history, such a procedure has carried such high risks for the mother that the argument has been more theoretical than practical. It is only in our era, as that risk has lessened, that the argument, such as it is, has gained some purchase in liberal circles.
It is plain that in the UK, whatever the intentions of those who passed the original laws on abortion, that we have moved close to something like abortion on demand. But, as recent events have shown the view that the procedures are quite as safe for the mother as claimed is not quite accurate; that it can have (for many) adverse mental health effects has been stressed for some time. It is the only medical procedure guaranteed to end with a human life being terminated. Arguments over whether a foetus is a human life tend towards a place which has already been occupied by others seeking to dehumanise beings they intended to enslave or destroy. The only difference, and that is why it is emphasised, is that the foetus is incapable of independent life; but then so is the new-born unless someone looks after it. Those who wish to argue over when it is right to extinguish a life are already in a place from which argument will not dissuade them.
There are social media campaigns telling us black lives and women’s lives matter, and so they do, but, it seems, only once they emerge from the womb, which leaves only those opposed to abortion arguing in favour of black and females lives in the womb. But point that up to those otherwise campaigning for black lives and women’s lives, and you do so at your peril. At the moment, in Ireland, George Soros seems to be funding a vocal campaign to repeal the 8th amendment to the Irish Constitution. The motive is clear. If Ireland can be shifted from its legal position, other states with legal systems influenced by Catholic teaching may be persuaded to follow suite. Which takes us back to the legal side of all of this. We heard much, during the recent Referendum campaign in the UK about ‘taking back control’, which was shorthand for popular resentment at too many of our laws being enacted by those whom we could not throw out at elections. It will be interesting to see how the Irish respond to well-funded attempts by foreign organisations to change their laws.
Whatever the effect may be, it is not going to change Catholic teaching on abortion. Those groups calling themselves ‘Catholics for choice’ argue eloquently in the language of secular aid agencies that:
The Catholic hierarchy’s lobbying against contraception and abortion has disastrous effects on women’s lives both in the US and abroad and especially on the lives of poor women.
But such groups have less to say about the disastrous effects of abortion on the unborn. They argue that:
In Catholic theology there is room for the acceptance of policies that favor access to the full range of reproductive health options, including contraception and abortion
To which the only response is that this is not an option that has ever been taken by the Magisterium, and is favoured only by those with a DIY attitude towards what is authentic Catholic theology. There are, of course, many such, and as so often, they find it scarcely credible that their ‘insights’ continue to be be rejected by the Church. They tell us the Church may not impose its teaching on the unwilling faithful,but if you do not willingly accept Church teaching, in what sense can you be described as ‘faithful’? Such groups make much use of arguments about ‘conscience’, but the sign of a badly-formed conscience is it cannot align itself with what the Church teaches.
In all of these arguments we should never lose sight of the lives at stake, and however provoked someone might feel, it is wrong to make women who feel they have no alternative to abortion feel even worse about themselves and their decision. We are back here in a familiar place – whether love is better than seeming to judge others? Organisations such as the SPUC show the way here, by offering help and support to anyone considering an abortion. God alone can judge the heart – all we can do is to show love and support for those going through crises many of us cannot comprehend. In our secularised society, Christian arguments will have no traction with many, and we must recognise that, too. That it is so is a sign we have have failed in the past, and we may want to reflect on why that is, as well as how best to change it. Imitating the worst rhetorical excesses of the other side produces only a confrontation which helps no one. One of our greatest failures as Christians is the problem we find loving those who hate us; but we sometimes don’t even get to the point of loving those who merely fail to understand where we are coming from. We need to do better.