When the current abortion debate blew up in the wake of the Savita Halappanavar tragedy and the ABC case I wrote to the Irish Times Letters page (Published Nov 22nd 2012) arguing for the ‘Middle Ground’ to makes its voice heard so that we could progress beyond the extreme polarity of the ‘Pro-Life’ & ‘Pro-Choice’ campaigns. I am not going to repeat all the points I made on that occasion but in essence I suggested that this is a complex issue which is ill-served by either ‘side’ demonizing the other. Sadly and despite the attempts of people far more qualified and influential than I the middle ground has not really been heard and we are if anything becoming daily more polarized on this issue. The debate around suicidality in particular has driven into a cul de sac and only addresses a tiny fraction of the issues around abortion.
On a personal level I too (to my surprise and a certain amount of discomfort) have become more polarized and I wonder am I alone in this. Leading into the current debate my position would have been that abortion should only be available in cases of rape, unviable pregnancy and a threat to the health and/or life of the mother. My inclusion of the threat to health as well as life would it seems to me be justified in the light of the ambiguity over the transition from threat to health to threat to life in the Savita Halappanavar case.
I would not have been and am still not in favour of abortion on demand. I certainly do not want abortion to become an alternative form of contraception. Equally I would hate to see abortion used as a means of genetic selection where pregnancies of Downs Syndrome or other Special Needs were routinely terminated. I say this as the parent of a child with Special Needs who has brought untold joy to my life and that of my wife.
My views on abortion are not merely speculative in that in my ministry I have encountered the issues outlined above where I feel abortion should be available. Incidentally in my experience abortion has not always been and indeed was rarely the desired choice of the mother but it is my belief that that choice should be there.
So what has changed? Where do I stand in the wake of the debate to date? Well in the absence of a middle ground I am forced to make a hard choice and I do so fully conscious of the potential for many of the things that I do not want to see happen become a reality.
In my original letter to the Irish Times I regretted the at times casual regard for the life of the foetus by many in the ‘Pro-Choice’ camp and I went on to say that to minimize the reality of abortion as the termination of a life is to ‘undermine our own humanity’. However I find even more disturbing the approach of many in the ‘Pro-Life’ camp and I still stand over what I wrote in that earlier letter:
‘When it comes to the ‘Pro-life’ group the principal fault is ironically the failure to take seriously the life of the mother. Their pro-life stance is somewhat selective. The mother is portrayed as a vessel whose sole purpose is to support the life within her with no account for her own humanity, welfare and integrity. Her motivations in choosing abortion, no matter how traumatic or medically necessary, are ignored and her actions are described in terms of murder regardless of the circumstances. This is cruel and for want of a better word tantamount to misogyny.’
There are times in ones life when a choice has to be made. Choice is part of what it means to be a human being. Many of the choices we face are not black and white and we do not always have the luxury of chosing between what is obviously good or bad, right and wrong. I believe that abortion is such an issue and that for any of us from a distance to presume we know what is right in any given circumstance is at least naaive and perhaps more than a little arrogant.
There are a number of factors which sway me. As the debate has continued I have become more and more uncomfortable with the predominance of male voices who pontificate on this issue with little if any sympathy for the complex variety of situations in which women considering abortion find themselves. Yes there are ‘pro-life’ women too but I think we as men need to ask ourselves a question before we even presume to weigh into this debate: How would we feel if we were the one’s who had the privelege and the pain of childbearing? The answer is we don’t know and thus all our contributions should be made in the context of respect for the role of women in child bearing and humility in the light of our own inevitable ignorance.
I am also increasingly concerned at the level of amateur interference in medical issues that this debate has fostered. We are putting doctors in an impossible situation as we attempt to second guess their every decision. There is something quite bizarre about non-medical politicians, clergy (of any church) and others trying to argue medical technicalities with highly qualified consultants and other medical specialists. Our doctors need to be given clear and unambiguous guidance in principle by legislators and then given the necessary level of trust to perform their duties and maintain the integrity of the doctor/patient relationship which is hugely undermined by the proposed legislation.
I have deliberately not until now argued my position from a religious perspective as I am not under the illusion that we religious have a monopoly on wisdom or on respect for life. However I do think there is something within the Christian tradition which speaks quite powerfully on this issue and that is our role as Co-Creators with God. We human beings as well as being created have been given the ability to create life and that is our choice. We are not forced by God to do so. Even Mary, the Christ bearer, was given the choice to say yes or no to bearing the Incarnate Lord. Her yes is at the root of the faith of those of us who call ourselves Christian. This may be irrelevant to those who are of another faith or of no faith and if so feel free to disregard but to those of us who profess a Christian faith I think the cooperation of Mary as Mother is something we should reflect on.
On a pragmatic level I am also increasingly swayed by the fact that we already have abortion in Ireland. Its simply that we export the implementation of it and in so doing condemn women to an often lonely and frightening journey to foreign shores. Here they have non of the support structures of friends and family and even on arrival home are afraid to disclose what they have experienced. In some cases where post-abortion complications arise this is potentially life threatening and does not reflect well on our compassion as a nation. What we don’t know may not hurt us but this 'fool's paradise' we choose to live in is hurting women every day.
And finally it comes down to TRUST. If we are to truly respect the role of women in childbearing then we have to trust them with that role without subjecting them to the kind of overbearing oversight that is proposed in the new legislation. Yes all life is precious and deserves respect but that includes the lives of women who must face the joys and agonies of childbearing and childbirth and all the complexities that involves. Their ‘yes’, and even their ‘no’ is something which we must respect.
And so if you haven’t already realised I have vacated the Middle Ground and must now declare myself Pro-Choice. I do so because I feel that I must trust women with the integrity of their own bodies. The alternative is to be party to a culture of coercion and enforcement which takes from women that most fundamental right of determining their own role in Creation. That is for me fundamental to their humanity and to mine.