A friend wrote to me this morning asking for my opinion about the new law in Ireland allowing abortion. This is a difficult one to approach, being a priest in a conservative Church. Objectively, abortion involves the destruction of human life, in the same way as euthanasia or executing a condemned criminal, or yet “ethnically cleansing” a part of the world by genocide. Man is rarely as hypocritical as when considering death.
Over the past forty or so years, there have been cases of right-wing conservative people, motivated by some aspiration to theocracy, who will demonstrate outside abortion clinics and occasionally cause destruction. We have come a long way since a woman was guillotined in France in the 1940’s for aborting foetuses of women in the tragic situations that drove them to such desperate measures. It has become a political issue like many others, and involves fanatical and single-issue thinking.
I once saw the film The Cardinal, in which the young Fr Fermoyle is brought to make a decision for his young sister who had to face an abortion or die in childbirth. The weight of this decision brought the young priest to take a rest from his vocation to work out his guilt for causing his sister’s death (because he refused to allow the abortion). We are often told by anti-abortionists that women choose abortion lightly and from their looseness of morals. Does any woman go through something like this for mere convenience or expedience? There are many situations in moral theology where hard choices have to be made by analysis of the finis operis of the act. Sometimes, no amount of reasoning will relieve human tragedy.
I have read a little about the Loi Veil of 17th January 1975 in France removing the illegality from abortion and creating the possibility for it to be done according to hygienic surgical procedures. I do believe that Simone Veil (1927 – 2017) had a very fine moral assessment of the issue. Making something legal doesn’t necessarily mean that it ceases to be wrong morally. Sometimes, something that is morally wrong can be justified in extreme circumstances.
“Abortion is a drama and will always remain a drama”. The law of 1975 removed the hardship and risks from illegal abortion, and the expense of having it done in England. According to Mme Veil, I quote:
I say it with all my conviction: abortion must remain the exception, the ultimate recourse for situations without a way-out. But how to tolerate it without it losing this character of exceptionalism, without society appearing to encourage it? I would like first of all to make you share a conviction of a woman – I’m sorry to do it in front of this Assembly that is almost exclusively made up of men: no woman resorts to abortion light-heartedly. You only have to listen to the women. It is always a drama and will always remain a drama. This is why, if the project which is presented to you takes into account the existing de facto situation, if it admits the possibility of a termination of pregnancy, it is to control it and, as much as possible, to dissuade the woman from it.
Abortion needs to be seen not as a political issues involving fanatical reactions, but a calm reflection on humanity and moral conscience. It involves an unborn baby and a women in a tragic situation in her life. The woman may seem to be claiming a right to freedom from the pregnancy that has been imposed on her (sex outside marriage, rape, etc.), but is confronted with the reality of having her child killed. Where do the woman’s rights end and where do the child’s rights begin?
In a civil society where theocracy does not prevail, laws cannot always follow moral principles of right and wrong. They sometimes have to be adjusted for pragmatic considerations. The abortionist woman in France who was guillotined was another life that was snuffed out – but I am not writing about capital punishment (which I oppose).
The right answer is not always a simple matter. Anyone who has been involved in the care of women in this kind of situation will be aware of the tragedies suffered by the women themselves and their families. Many women who have abortions bitterly regret their decisions. Mme Veil did not see abortion as a right to be used lightly or callously, but something that should be very exceptional. In most cases, there are certainly ways of helping the mothers concerned by an “unwanted” pregnancy. There is the accouchement sous X (anonymous birth), allowing a woman to abandon a newly born baby legally to the services of the State, which will then offer the baby for adoption. There may be other ways to help the single mother keep the baby through social security benefits.
If it does not prohibit any more, it does not create any rights to abortion – Mme Veil
Many conservatives saw the Veil law as the thin end of the wedge, leading to abortion on demand and a banalisation of evil, which has certainly happened in many cases. For Mme Veil, the notion of “distress” was a prerequisite for abortion – and now, some women get aborted because having a baby isn’t a part of her lifestyle!
Where is the line drawn. We find the same dilemma with euthanasia, seeing a depressed woman being given a glass containing a liquid by a doctor, and lying down and dying. We are always revolted by death, our own like that of other people. Should life be cheap, so that something like Nazism becomes acceptable? Should we return to guillotining the old lady with a coat hanger in Paris who was caught? Somehow, the hypocrisy has to be taken out of the equation.
The problem with law is that it is equal for all, but we are not all equal or in the same situations of life. Perhaps, abortion and euthanasia should remain illegal, but judges and juries should be given more powers and help in discerning things from a moral and human point of view.
Human life is sacred, but I don’t have all the answers. Death, especially our own, is not the end of all – if we are believers or simply recognise that life and consciousness precede matter. We can discuss these issues, but I hope from a point of view of moral humanism and a real aspiration for the good and the beautiful.
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Addendum: I found this article by Peter Hitchens: Its Hour Come Round At Last? Reflections on the Abortion Referendum in Ireland.
His thought and mine largely concur. Abortion is objectively wrong, because it is the wilful killing of a human being. The problem is that the “discussion” is not about the foundation (human life, morality) but about words being hurled around with anger. Like all the other “hot button” issues, like homosexuality and gender dysphoria, abortion and shrill feminism become fashionable, aspects of groupthink. Nietzsche would certainly have had something to say. I see the parallels with Robespierre and the Terror of 1793, a new form of Jacobinism, something murderous and very ugly. The reaction of the Romantic is the same, leave the noise and violence behind and seek transcendent truth and beauty from the point of view of the individual person and consciousness.
What this is all about is not really women going to see a specialised surgeon to have her pregnancy ended, but about the hot-button words being hurled against each other. 1966 in England was like France in 1975, the easing of the law for a few desperate girls who got raped or deceived by a man who wanted sex but no responsibility. Now, it is about abortion on demand for flippant pretexts like “lifestyle”. “Pro-choice is a “sacrament” of the cultural revolution ideology, the new Robespierre. It creates a feeling of solidarity. “Pro-life” is the same thing from the conservative religious camp a way to make the faith relevant in this world of noise and slogans.
The reflection on utopianism is interesting, and I am not entirely with Hitchens. I think people can aspire to live an alternative life and still bring up children and honour life. We can’t generalise too much. He seems to draw something of a dualistic choice between moral dissolution in “hippie” camps and suburban commuter life that depends on authority and obedience.
We need to get to the content of things, and not merely slogans and words. I do think that if we are going to promote life, we need to support a notion of meaning of life, of spiritual consciousness, of a departure from materialism. You can’t ask people to obey a God they don’t believe in. There needs to be a whole foundation before people can be asked to form their lives around the family and children.
The way to easy and convenient consumer abortion is a major evil of our time, and a symptom of the dissolution of the spiritual world view.
I’m interested in what kind of ideal society requires the easy disposal of unborn babies, regards making that action easier as a subject for public rejoicing, and loves it so much that it seeks to spread the idea to its neighbours.
In the first part of this article, I showed my disappointment in the “pro-life” movement and how it is associated with theocratic conservative politics. The abortion party is just the opposite, and just as blinded by its own ideologies and groupthink.
My own marriage is childless, but not for lack of good will or the desire to accept new life into the life of the marriage. Doubtless, had we had children, we would have had to live in a more “suitable” house, have the job needed for a much higher income and fit into a world in which I feel totally alien. In the early years, my wife became pregnant, but it ended with a miscarriage – a “natural abortion”. The foetus was probably deformed to such an extent that it could not survive the womb, let alone birth and life. It died and was expelled by the miscarriage. It was bitter to see the hope of a son or daughter go this way. On another side, it spared me a great deal of suburban and urban conformity in a world where I am a stranger. This bitter-sweet event formed a whole new way of thinking about everything. It was even an element of my self-knowledge and awareness of my own wounds and differences. To this day, our lost foetus has a name engraved on a pendant worn on a necklace. I have no descendance and my only heirs will be those who benefit from whatever I can create and the few possessions I have.
How someone can set out and induce what happened to us accidentally is beyond belief. A person who deliberately deprives herself of the gift of life and descendance is incomprehensible outside the extreme cases mentioned elsewhere in this posting. There are these tragic cases of the past, evoked by Mme Veil, meriting merciful treatment by the law, but this is something totally different.
All the distinctions made, this is a serious and grave moment in European history, and perhaps another reason why Islam and its iconoclasm are the future that will seal our tomb as a civilisation.