The Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019 came quickly into the NSW Parliament, without much fanfare or advance warning. On the morning of the debate of the bill a friend of mine walked to work down Macquarie Street. He saw and heard the people who were gathered outside the NSW Parliament to protest the bill. His companions on the footpath saw them as well.
‘We need to crowd out these f***ers,’ one of them said. His companions crossed the street and joined a chorus of those protesting in favour of the bill.
Is this how we wish to make decisions on important matters in our society? By crowding out one another? Or is there a more expansive way of decision making that allows us to both speak honestly and listen carefully to one another? Both sides of the abortion debate offer something of great importance to this issue, but we will miss it if we aren’t listening.
Many who are in favour of this bill believe that the issue of abortion represents control for women over their own bodies as well as freedom from repression and freedom of choice, a necessary counterpoint to what they see as centuries, if not millennia, of oppression.
The Irish writer, Sally Rooney, writing in the London Review of Books last year about Ireland’s abortion referendum, framed the issue around female agency: ‘Irish women’s freedom to decide what happens to their bodies has been restricted by many and varied means: the prohibition on contraception until the 1980s, the legality of marital rape until 1990, the threat of incarceration in institutions like the Magdalen Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes. These legal and social practices were not arranged around the protection of unborn life, but around control of reproduction.’
Women like Rooney have a set of moral principles about the treatment and freedom of women that undergird their convictions on abortion. For them, the difference between a world without legalised abortion and a world with legalised abortion is the difference between slavery and freedom. For them, it is the difference between right and wrong. There is something unalloyed about these convictions, rarified even.
The reasons a woman has an abortion are complex and varied. I know women, dear to me, who have had abortions. For some, abortion was a choice they dreaded, but believed was necessary, even merciful to the dying child they carried.
A person close to me fell pregnant when she was 19. She was an adult, but young. Her father encouraged her to have an abortion. He drove her to the clinic. Part of me wonders if she felt forced, if she felt like she had a choice. But I never asked her. Perhaps I am afraid even now of what she would tell me.
A number of years ago I was living in a country where abortion is legal and easy to access. I thought I might be pregnant. I went to my doctor for a blood test. It was positive. I started to cry.
‘Do you want to terminate the pregnancy?’ my doctor asked.
‘No’, I said.
Her eyes filled with tears.
‘Why are you crying?’ I asked.
‘Most women say yes.’
There are moral and philosophical contentions about the status of an unborn child; our society treats the unborn in radically different ways depending on the context.
During the debate about Zoe’s law in NSW Parliament in 2013, academic Helen Pringle wrote that the bill invited us into such a conversation about the status of an unborn child, because in making space for Zoe, ‘what this patchwork of recognition does is to acknowledge and respect that something of value has been wrongfully lost when the unborn are subject to unlawful harm or destruction, that is, something of more value than a clump of cells’.
Sally Rooney objects that if the foetus is seen as a person, it has the right to ‘make free, non-consensual use of another living person’s uterus and blood supply, and cause permanent, unwanted changes to another person’s body’. I cannot agree with her assertion that pits the foetus as a child against the rights of the mother, in some sort of zero-sum game.
Surely there is a matrix for persons-in-relationship that more faithfully comprises the human community?
Many who oppose abortion profess a Christian faith, and it a Christian ethic that undergirds their convictions about abortion. For them, all life is precious. At the heart of this ethic is the belief that life is a gift of God, the same God who valued human life so much that he entered the human story as a baby in the womb of a teenage girl. For them, life is an end in itself and is not a means to any other, and as such, it is worthy of protection.
This Christian ethic works itself out in our society in a myriad of ways: it springs up in the creation of hospitals, schools, homes for women fleeing domestic violence. It bubbles up in the care of the dying, the infirm, the elderly, and those living with dementia. It splashes out in clubs for people with Down’s Syndrome, care for children with nowhere to go, and lunches for people with no food to eat. The Christian ethic runs through our society, under its surface, like a secret river that pools in places of uncommon good for the common good.
The outworking of a Christian ethic in our world is big enough for all of us; for babies not yet born and for women in search of a choice.
While it may be tempting to crowd out this ethic in regard to abortion, if we do we may find that we have undermined the very ground beneath our feet. To misquote Obi Wan Kenobi, these are not the f***ers you’re looking for.
We need more uncommon good in our world, not less. We need more expressions of care for one another, not fewer. The outworking of a Christian ethic in our world is big enough for all of us; for babies not yet born and for women in search of a choice. The Christian ethic seeks out the protection and care and support of life in all its diverse array, in all its beauty and pain and discomfort and complexity.
It should worry us all when the best solution proposed to any problem and the best expression of care that can be conceived of is death. We need laws that can think imaginatively, creatively, humanely about the complex issues of our life together, including the complex issue of abortion.
Laurel Moffatt is a Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article first appeared in The Spectator Australia.