Thursday, 12 May 2016

My position on abortion: setting the record straight

There are situations in life when the Christian vocation to peace is profoundly challenged by the reality of a violent and often tragic world. To pretend that one can remain entirely innocent of violence in such a world is escapist. To ask when, if ever, a Christian can engage in an intentionally violent act, is to step into a quagmire of competing and conflicting moral claims, where certainty demands too high a price by way of denial, selective engagement and responsibility, and wilful self-delusion. That is why Christianity is ultimately not about moral certainty but about forgiveness and healing, renewal and hope.

Over the last few weeks, I have found myself the target of a hostile and ill-informed online campaign regarding my views on abortion. I have ignored it, for to attempt to respond would be to degenerate to the same level as those involved.

However, I know that some people of good will might be concerned about some of the views attributed to me, if they are not  familiar with my own writings. I am posting this blog for the benefit of those people. Let me begin with the background.

Letter to the Polish Bishops:

In early April, some Polish Catholic women shared their concerns in a social networking group, about a statement from the Presidium of the Polish Bishops' Conference that had been read out in churches across Poland on Sunday, April 3rd. The statement called for nationwide support for the total prohibition of all abortion in Poland, while also calling for support for the parents of sick and disabled children and those conceived by rape. Poland already has the strictest abortion laws in Europe. There were widespread protests and demonstrations against the bishops' statement.

I suggested that we form a group to draft an open letter to the Polish bishops, the content guided by those expressing their concerns, but protecting them from becoming the target of campaigns directed against them as individuals. We agreed that the letter should not in any way align the signatories with a pro-abortion or so-called pro-choice position. The letter supports “the Church’s moral stance against abortion” and “upholds the sanctity of all human life, including the right to life of women and their unborn children.” That is its starting premise. It distinguishes between morality and legality, and it does not claim that abortion is ever a morally good or right decision. It acknowledges the “complex ethical challenges involved in any intentionally abortive act.” It does not ask the bishops to morally justify such acts, nor does it in any way align itself with the so-called “woman’s right to choose” position. It defends freedom of conscience as a right. It does not claim that abortion is a right. It expresses concerns about the possible consequences of criminalizing all abortion whatever the circumstances, and asks for dialogue between the bishops and women most affected by such laws. You can read the letter with a list of signatories here. These include people from a  range of cultures and contexts, including a number of highly respected Catholic theologians and numerous Polish signatories. There is a claim circulating that "Other than Beattie, few signatories of the letter were theologians." That is simply not true. The ninety nine signatories include sixteen theologians, many of them well known and highly respected. Other signatories include a number of medical professionals.

My Position:

I have defended the Church's consistent teaching that abortion is never a good or moral act. To argue against criminalization of an act is not to argue for the right to commit that act. I do not believe that people should be criminalized for committing adultery, but that does not mean that I think adultery is a human right. Abortion should be a matter of profound ethical concern, and it should never been seen as an alternative to contraception. Indeed, I think this is the greatest failure of secular feminism - the social acceptance of abortion goes hand in hand with the increasing pressure on girls to be sexually available, and absolves men of any responsibility for the consequences of casual or coercive sex.


I agree with those who argue that abortion on grounds of disability is a form of eugenics. I do not believe in screening for Down's Syndrome nor indeed for any foetal condition that is compatible with viability. I refused such screening during my own pregnancies.

There is no reference to screening in the letter I signed. There is a reference to pre-natal tests to diagnose conditions which are sometimes treatable in the womb, and sometimes allow for abortion under existing Polish law. In my understanding, that applies to foetal abnormalities of such severity that they are incompatible with life. It does not refer to the wide range of disabilities and differences that form part of the human condition. There are conditions such as ectopic pregnancy and anembryonic pregnancy where there is no possibility of foetal survival, and if such a pregnancy does not spontaneously miscarry, abortion is necessary to save the mother's life. There are other conditions such as anencephaly, where the newborn child has no chance of survival. For some couples, to allow such a child to be born and to cherish it for its short life is redemptive and healing, but I question whether such a decision can ever be legally imposed on parents. Sometimes, life is unbearably tragic and neither law nor ethics can heal the wounds of living and dying. Only faith in the redeeming and merciful love of God can bring healing in such situations.

I am not pro-abortion - I am pro-life. That means trying to balance a concern for the lives of unborn children, the lives of the women and girls who bear them, and the roles and responsibilities of the men who father them. In a perfect world there would never be any conflict between a mother, a father and their unborn child. However, ours is not a perfect world, and there are intensely complex and anguished dilemmas associated with pregnancy and childbirth. The World Health Organisation estimates that around 47,000 women die every year from unsafe abortion, and many thousands more are injured. Not a single blog or tweet I've read condemning abortion has mentioned these deaths, which happen among women and girls who are the poorest of the poor. To be anti-abortion is not to be pro-life if it refuses to acknowledge the ethical challenges posed by the consequences of illegal and unsafe abortion, in contexts where pregnancy often results from rape, abuse and incest.

I’ve lived in Africa for much of my life. My deep struggle about abortion comes not from the autonomous individualistic creed of western feminists, but from the knowledge of what poor women in despair will do to avoid carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term, in situations where they often have little if any control over their own sexuality. They know full well that if they seek illegal or unsafe abortion they risk terrible injury or death through infection or blood loss, but that is still what thousands of them “choose” - as if that could ever be called “choice” in any meaningful sense of the word. They too are the silenced victims, and they are often barely more than children themselves. Until and unless we speak out for them as well as their unborn children, we cannot claim to be the voice of the voiceless. I have been unable to find a discussion of the challenge of maternal mortality in any official document of Catholic social teaching, despite the fact that of the 300,000 women who still die through pregnancy-related causes (including illegal abortion) every year, 99% are in the world’s poorest countries. Here are the latest facts and figures. The men who father the children of women who seek abortions never seem to come into the firing line either, nor does any of the rhetoric seem to be asking what we have to do to educate boys and men about the responsibilities of sex and pregnancy. Abortion is not simply a question of personal morality. It is a question of creating a social order in which women and the children we bear are able to grow and to flourish in truly human conditions, and that is a responsibility we all share.

I believe that the perfect Christian life is incompatible with all forms of violence, including abortion and war. I have the greatest respect for those who set an example by holding to those principles, even when the cost to themselves is very great. But the Christian life is not a life of moral perfection, far less of dutiful conformity to rules imposed by law. The Christian life is a life of failure and forgiveness, sin and grace, healing and redemption, faithfulness and trust. It is, above all, as Pope Francis reminds us, a life that puts mercy and love before judgement and condemnation, and a life that offers hope amidst the messy confusion and tragic dilemmas of the human condition.

For a brief summary of my  position on abortion, I refer to a short piece published in Reform magazine in December 2014/January 2015, which can be read at this link.