Real life demolishes absolutist stances on abortion


I FIND the debate on abortion in this newspaper fascinating, not least for the personal reasons that I outlined in a previous column.

In line with a basic human inclination, both sides to the argument are guilty of trying to reduce an extremely complex issue to black-and-white absolutes, where principles seem to be of more importance than the people affected.

Yet each decision on whether to terminate a pregnancy is taken in isolation from all others, and is predicated on a human tragedy that has arisen from a particular set of circumstances. Most people on the “pro-life” side argue that abortion is always wrong, irrespective of extenuating circumstances: that such an act may even be on a par with murder.

Within this stricture, one can only presume, fall rape victims (including girls barely out of childhood and victims of incest); women and girls whose mental and/or physical health could be irreparably damaged by giving birth; foetuses so malformed that the baby’s chances of survival outside the womb would be negligible; and children who might survive but have only a short lifespan with little or no quality of life.

I sometimes wonder how a typical fundamentalist’s pro-life position would fare in a head-on collision with personal experience. Would it remain intact even if, for instance, instead of abstract woman it was oneself or a wife, daughter, mother or sister left pregnant by rape, or found to be carrying a hopelessly malformed foetus?

On the other side of the debate is the equally trenchantly held view that a woman alone should have the right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, regardless of the wishes of the prospective father. So vocal on this point are some pro-choice advocates, one might easily imagine that if they had their way the first question every just-informed father-to-be would be compelled to ask is, “Are you going to keep it, my love?”

It is worth bearing in mind that, even in countries where abortion is readily available, for the overwhelming majority of pregnant women the issue never arises. Abortion is only ever a last resort. Despite what many anti- campaigners like to suggest, no woman regards abortion as a means of birth control. And no one who has ever been privy to the traumatic after-effects of the termination of a pregnancy could possibly believe otherwise.

Should it be for a woman alone to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy? I would argue that, all things being equal, it shouldn’t be. But that position is rendered meaningless – merely rhetorical – by life’s realities. No woman in a loving, stable relationship would consider not consulting her partner before having an abortion. For those not in a stable relationship the decision falls by default upon the woman alone.

What if loving partners fundamentally disagree on whether an abortion is the least-worst option? Then, I’m afraid, no matter how strong the relationship, it has little hope of enduring, regardless of who finally acquiesces to the wishes of the other, as one partner will be left bitter and resentful.

For me, logic dictates that, in the event of a disagreement, it should be the woman’s wishes that prevail. It will be she, after all, who is left with the baby or the emotional scars.

The above does nothing to address the plight of a youngster or person with learning difficulties who has fallen pregnant. All one can hope in such an instance is that any decision taken by parents or guardians will reflect the wishes of the expectant mother, which might include a desire to carry the baby to full term and/or raise her or him.

Of course, most “pro-life” campaigners are driven by religious conviction and, outside of personal circumstances forcing a change of mind, they are unlikely to be swayed from their position. The churches and believers in general have as much right to their views as anyone else, and are as entitled to try to influence decision-makers as any other members of society.

However, while we all have a right to be heard, no one is under any obligation to act upon what we say. It isn’t even as though the Catholic Church, the most vocal opponent of abortion, is entirely at one on “sanctity of life” issues. Until recently, it was totally opposed to any use of contraceptives. However, this didn’t stop missionary nuns and priests who had to deal daily with the realities of HIV and Aids from distributing condoms in developing countries.

The church’s official position is now confused on the use of condoms, proving that even with religion, nothing is set in stone. As The Book of Mormon, a musical by the creators of South Park apparently puts it (in reference to a change in Mormon teachings that allowed non-white people to be priests): “I believe that in 1978, God changed his mind about black people.”

Perhaps He will change his mind again, in response not to clarion calls, but to the human tragedies that sometimes make abortion the only viable option.

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