Why I cannot think of abortion as murder

In spite of having written on many occasions about abortion, some of the ways I think and speak about it still seem internally…

In spite of having written on many occasions about abortion, some of the ways I think and speak about it still seem internally contradictory, even to me.

For example, although I believe passionately that the little creature in the womb is a human being, I have never in the past written an article opposing abortion on the grounds of the humanity of the unborn child. Nor do I ever think or speak about abortion as murder. (Nor, to be fair, do any of the people I admire in the pro-life movement use the term).

At best, my stance that abortion is not the same as murder seems illogical, at worst woolly headed. If someone believes as I do that children in the womb are the youngest members of the human community, deserving of all the rights of any other human being, why do I not believe that abortion is murder? Am I less convinced than I think?

Or am I just indulging in special pleading for women, of the infuriating kind where women are excused from norms which apply to mere men, such as the Fifth Commandment, thou shalt not kill?


Or worse, am I indulging in special pleading not just for womanhood in abstraction but for myself in particular? I have never had an abortion, but had I become pregnant while in college, I am very much afraid that I would have fled to an English clinic. I had seen other friends who became pregnant quietly drop out and never finish their degrees. More importantly, my family had already been through some difficult times and I could not have faced burdening them further.

At any rate the choice of having an abortion remained hypothetical. But if it had become real, I could imagine myself screaming at anyone who said abortion is murder: "You don't understand! You don't know what it is like!"

Moreover, since I have met many women for whom abortion has brought untold suffering, I have absolutely no desire to add to it by labelling them as murderers.

At this point, some people who are opposed to abortion will feel that I am letting women off the hook, that I am denying full moral status to women by implying that they are so distressed when they go for abortion that they are not responsible for their actions. It might be legitimately asked, what about those who are not so distressed, who make what appears to be quite a pragmatic decision?

On the other hand, people who believe in a woman's right to choose to terminate the life in her womb might with justification query whether my compassion only extends to those with whom I identify. What about those who apparently experience only relief after an abortion? Does it simply suit my anti-abortion purposes to focus on women who are completely shattered after an abortion? In other words, do I actually prefer women to suffer after abortion?

I have held this dialogue often in my head and quite honestly, have not come up with answers even to satisfy myself. All I am certain of is that I do not want women to suffer. It is one of the major reasons I oppose abortion.

At the level of logic, it seems so clear cut. An unborn child is an innocent human being. To kill an innocent human being is murder. Therefore abortion is murder. Relentlessly logical. But to live truly human lives, we need more than logic.

Likewise, pro-choice rhetoric leaves me cold. Women have the right to be equal to men. Men enjoy freedom from pregnancy and its consequences. Until women can control their fertility to a degree which gives them the same freedom as men, they will never be truly equal. Again, it's logical. And again, too much has to be sacrificed on the altar of logic.

The debate about abortion centres on conflicting rights, but the reality of abortion as chosen by women has almost nothing to do with that debate. Women do not choose abortion to exercise some abstract right to reproductive equality. Nor do they choose abortion because they want to deprive their children of the right to life. They choose abortion because it seems like the only viable alternative at the time. Far from exercising a right to choose, nine times out of ten it is an acknowledgement of a lack of other choices. As a society, surely we can offer a better choice than ending the life of a member of the next generation?

Medb Ruane wrote a column recently in these pages where she argued in favour of earlier abortions. What struck me most was how the reality of late abortion came home to her when she, through the circumstances of her daughter's birth, spent time with what she called the Thumbellinas, the tiny babies who struggle for life outside the womb although born at only 22 or 24 weeks of gestation. Her experience changed her.

I wonder what Medb would make of the experience of a friend of mine who miscarried eight weeks into her pregnancy. She passed a tiny sac, not much bigger than a marble. She opened the sac, not expecting to see very much, only to be stunned by the recognisable humanity of the miniature creature within. Although no bigger than a small fingernail, there were tiny buds of arms and legs, and even the sealed crescents of the eyes were visible. The little heart could be seen through the flesh of the chest, this heart of her child which would never beat again.

She and her husband felt an overwhelming desire to honour and cherish this tiny life. With utmost tenderness they kissed their child, wrapped it in a wisp of material from the mother's wedding veil, and placed it in the cushioned interior of her engagement ring box. They kept a candle lighting , and the mother told me that despite her grief, she had a strong sense of the presence of her little one with her all that night.

Late abortions appall me. I do not believe the solution is earlier abortion, but instead to change women's circumstances so that they do not feel that abortion is the only solution. Rhetoric? Perhaps. But advocating the end of female genital mutilation must appear like the most idealistic rhetoric in parts of Africa. That doesn't mean that people give up campaigning for an end to this practice.

I choose the analogy deliberately. Genital mutilation denies women the right to pleasure in their sexuality. Pro-abortion rhetoric is also profoundly anti-woman, profoundly in denial of the uniqueness of women's sexuality, with its awesome power to give life.

Abortion is also a business in which people earn a living through ending human life. I feel no shame in admitting that I would see it as a great advance for humanity if there were no abortion clinics anywhere, and no shame at all in admitting that I do not want to see them opened here in Ireland.

I do feel shame, however, that in spite of my feeble efforts over the years to promote a dialogue which would make abortion far more rare, the numbers continue to rise.