Compassion for families facing awful dilemmas does not always dictate the remedy of abortion, writes BREDA O'BRIEN
RÓISÍN INGLE inspired an unusual event this week. I put my little girl, aged 10, on weighing scales for the first time since she was six weeks old. I didn’t tell her why, and she just accepted it, shrugged, and went back to playing.
Róisín wrote about her niece in her last column. She wanted to know why she had to make her first Holy Communion, a question Róisín found hard to answer, as she is not a Catholic nor particularly fond of what she sees as a religion that specialises in indoctrination.
I winced a bit at Róisín’s description of the sacrament, as eating “crispy bread that she will be asked to believe has been transformed into the body of Jesus Christ”. However, for someone to whom it makes no sense, it was probably within the boundaries of fair comment. Róisín goes on to say she was mellowing a bit, moving on from her “ranty, anti-organised-religion” stance. Maybe there is no harm in these rites of passage. Maybe she would even get her own twins baptised after they are born, adding mischievously that the multi-denominational school was a bit further than she would like to walk.
Then her mother told her about the nine- year-old in Brazil who became pregnant with twins after being abused by her stepfather. The child’s mother took her for an abortion. The Archbishop of Recife excommunicated the mother and doctors, but said the rapist’s crimes did not merit excommunication.
At that point, not surprisingly, the detente was over. Róisín hopes that her niece does not ask her again about why she has to make her Communion, because “despite what I told her, I don’t know and I never will”.
One detail really struck me from Róisín’s column. The little Brazilian girl, called Carmen in some reports, apparently weighed only 36kg even though she was 16 weeks pregnant with twins. I asked my little girl to let me see what she weighed. Twenty nine and a half kilos. She disappeared, and I remained, staring at the scales, feeling faintly sick.
I kept remembering a time a few months ago when my daughter had a really severe headache. She was begging, “Make it go away, Mammy. Make it go away!” As usual, I was certain it was a brain tumour or meningitis, but my husband calmly suggested that we wait and see if the Calpol kicked in, which it quickly did. Crisis over.
I tried to imagine what I would do if she were pregnant as a result of rape. What if she were begging me to make it go away, Mammy, make it go away? What would I do?
I don’t blame Carmen’s mother for the choice that she made, especially since she was also dealing with the horror that it was her husband who was the father. He apparently had also been raping his other, older step-daughter who is physically handicapped.
The archbishop’s comments, if made as reported, were desperately lacking in compassion for the dilemma facing Carmen’s mother. It emerged that a high-ranking Vatican official, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the Pontifical Academy for Life, thought so, too. He talked about the way the case was handled, which “unfortunately hurts the credibility of our teaching, which appears in the eyes of many as insensitive, incomprehensible and lacking mercy”.
However, even though the mother’s decision to choose abortion for her daughter was absolutely understandable, I knew it was not one I could go through with. I am well aware that our culture has moved to a place where it is impossible to envisage that denying a child an abortion might ever be motivated by compassion.
I know that for some people it would simply put me in the same category as Josef Fritzl forcing his daughter to go through incestuous pregnancies. I don’t feel like Josef Fritzl. I feel like someone desperately trying to decide what would be best for all three lives in a situation where all of the alternatives were truly appalling.
Children should not have to have children, especially after rape. But the younger a child, the less likely she would be to be able to rationalise an abortion, no matter how great the initial relief. Even a rapist does not receive the death penalty. Could a little child cope with 20 more weeks, in order to possibly save two lives?
Doctors in Brazil disagreed about whether there was a threat to Carmen’s life. Some of them pointed to Lina Medina, who gave birth at the age of five (yes, five) to a healthy baby in Peru in 1939. (The internet coverage of this well-documented case gives the impression that some of the doctors at the time were more interested in her as a medical freak than in discovering who had raped her. Her father was arrested, but was released without charge. An internet image of Lina Medina, her tiny belly swollen with the pregnancy, verges on the pornographic.) However, for any mother, the fact that a five-year-old survived a pregnancy would hardly be comforting. My head hurt with the awfulness of it all.
Answering why a child has to make a First Holy Communion was a snap in comparison. The short answer is that she doesn’t have to. And if it is only viewed as a rite of passage, with no deeper meaning, she probably shouldn’t make it at all.
But if it does mean something, if it is not all about frilly dresses and bouncy castles, then it is one of the most moving moments of any parent’s life.
Seeing our children commune for the first time with a God who is love, so loving that he was willing to become completely part of our sad, muddled, often heartbreaking existence, brought tears to my eyes.
Just because so many of our so-called celebrations of Mass seem to manage to mask entirely the heart-stopping mystery and wonder of a God who is with us always, doesn’t mean that the wonder no longer exists. And just because some church people say and do appalling things, perhaps including from time to time this columnist, does not negate 2,000 years of a message of love.