The Rector

   THE RECTOR

On holiday in the west of Ireland last year I became a daily listener to the breakfast show on  Midwest Radio. The presenter Tommy Marren is a cheerful chap in the manner of the late Terry Wogan and to a stranger in the area his show was an ideal introduction to local life. There was a plug for just about every event taking place in County Mayo and much excitement at the Gaelic Football semi final against the neighbouring county of  Roscommon. But what I found most interesting was the extent of the religious content and how it was woven seamlessly into the  secular material of the programme. Each day notice was given of all the funerals taking place in the County, almost all of which were church funerals, and several times a week current church issues, including the ordination of women, were the subject of public phone-ins and clergy interviews. To the outsider it seemed that Ireland is still a deeply religious society and yet, underlying many of the interviews and discussions was a palpable sense of anxiety. The constant refrain was that the church is losing ground, congregations diminishing, and secular forces becoming increasingly dominant.  At the time the abortion referendum was some way away but it was always likely to be a litmus test of the church’s influence and authority. In the aftermath of a strong vote in favour of liberalising Ireland’s abortion laws, I can only imagine that the church’s influence in society seems more fragile than ever.

On this side of the water, the abortion law was liberalised in 1967 as a result of a private member’s bill introduced by the young Liberal MP, and subsequent party leader, David Steel. But it would be wrong to think that prior to legalisation abortion didn’t happen.  It did and always had. The wealthy found doctors willing to do it for them whilst the less privileged had long resorted to herbal methods and other  dangerous interventions.  It was an age in which notions of duty, obligation, and self-sacrifice, were being rapidly supplanted by the priority of individual rights and personal choice. That process has continued apace so that public debate about abortion is almost always presented as a clash between competing rights, that of the woman and that of the unborn child. From a Christian perspective I think this is a wholly unsatisfactory framework for debate.  The vocation of the Church is to be the voice of the voiceless and to champion the cause of the downtrodden and dispossessed. It follows that the plight of the unborn is close to the heart of the church but no less is that of women who find themselves in impossible situations, sometimes vulnerable and alone. In such circumstances the question of whose rights should prevail  is an unhelpful one, all too easily presented as a clash of adversaries; who are we for and who are we against? My response is that the church is an advocate of the life and dignity of all humankind. Life is a gift and must be nurtured and protected as such whether that be the life of an unborn child or that of a vulnerable pregnant woman. But whilst this may be a satisfactory basis for pastoral engagement, it doesn’t of course engage with the question from a legal perspective.

The new law in Ireland allows abortion on demand at anything up to twelve weeks gestation. Were such a law to be introduced in England and Wales it would mark a considerable move in a conservative direction,  for whilst in theory we do not have abortion on demand, in practice we do, even up to the stage where children born prematurely have survived. This is the most pernicious aspect of the current law creating the absurd and repugnant scenario whereby medical practitioners may find themselves battling to save premature lives at the same time as terminating those of a similar gestation. For many Christians the only acceptable reform of the law would be an outright ban on abortion.  However, aside from the unlikely scenarios of Britain becoming a puritanical theocracy or an Islamic state, this is clearly not going to happen. It is a hallmark of a liberal society that sin and illegality are not one and the same thing.  Abortion is sinful but if that is justification to stand aloof from the legal debate then we are in danger of becoming like Scribes and Pharisees who sought to preserve their supposed purity by disdaining the company of tax collectors and sinners.  Taking our part in society is a messy and compromising business  but it must be done as Martin Luther acknowledged when he urged Christians to sin hard and repent hard.    This means that however personally compromising , it is important to engage in this matter and form a view on what is the most practical, humane and enforceable law. Current legislation is certainly not humane, there being many late abortions, nor is it enforceable, as medical authorities sit light to the psychological tests. A law similar to that in Ireland would remove from doctors the decision-making that they have largely abdicated and ensure that no abortion is carried out at stage of near viability. Yes, this is far from ideal, and every abortion remains a tragedy, but as an alternative to the current law I think it a reform  worth striving for.

 

Charles Booth

 


 


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