ABORTION THEOLOGICALLY CONSIDERED (2): Minding our Language

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

“The first task of normative reflection about New Testament ethics is to form the thought and practice of the Christian community.” (Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 445.)

What Hays argues here is crucial to the challenge of thinking about abortion. Where do we begin? In the last post I listed some possible jumping off points. But notice how none of them fulfil Hay’s primary task above.

Debates about whether the foetus is a person with inalienable human rights is language and thought foreign to the New Testament. Focusing on practical arguments against, and negative implications of, abortion fails to ‘think Christianly’ about the issue.

For example, arguments about the high level of safety for giving birth in Ireland, the negative impact on the life-saving ethos of the Irish health system, the traumatic impact on many women, how abortion favours men, possible gender selection and abortion as a form of euthanasia could be made (and are) by those with absolutely no Christian commitment.

Don’t get me wrong. Many of these are good arguments in their own right. But they are political and pragmatic arguments that fit the norms of secular pluralism. If this is the primary language Christians have for opposing abortion, then we are failing to be salt and light to the world.

For what is the church but a community of disciples called to witness to the good news of Jesus Christ, the risen Lord? Our thinking and practice for all of life is to be shaped by this story above all others. To use political and pragmatic arguments against abortion is to fail to articulate who we truly are and what we believe.

At the risk of getting side-tracked, there are, I think, at least three reasons Christian opposition to abortion tends to be framed in the language of secular pluralism. Feel welcome to add your thoughts on comments on others

i) We hope that we will get a better hearing from those in power if ‘religious’ ideas and language are avoided. In other words, we play the political game on its own terms.

ii) We have deep (perhaps explicit, perhaps unconscious) assumptions that society should and can be shaped by ‘Christian values’ and that it is our job to ‘save’ or ‘transform’ Irish society. Our focus is outward, on seeking to influence and shape the public sphere. There tends to be a blurring of distinction between the church and the world.

iii) A more negative one – we don’t actually believe what we say we believe. When push comes to shove, it is in politics and power that we trust to bring justice and hope, not the foolishness of a crucified Messiah. We put all our hopes and energy and money and time in the political process.

So, following Richard Hays and others, when it comes to abortion I’m suggesting that our language needs first and foremost to be that which is forming the thought and practice of the Christian church as an alternative kingdom community in the world.

Hays puts it this way

“Regardless of what others may do or think, regardless of what the law allows, how shall we as people who belong to Jesus Christ live faithfully under the gospel with regard to our treatment of the issues of pregnancy, abortion and childbearing?” (445)

To begin to answer those questions we need to think biblically and theologically for this is the language of the people of God (next post).

But notice how this also shifts the focus of the discussion.

Rather than ‘by-passing’ the Bible and theology and jumping straight to the politics of the world, we first must do business with what Scripture says – and does not say. And we need to listen hard what the issue of abortion says to us – to the Christian community. In other words, abortion is not an issue ‘out there’ which we sit ‘above’ in moral purity, it is one which will challenge our practice and priorities.

It is one thing to be against something, but a deeper challenge is how can the church embody a life-giving alternative vision of a world without abortion?

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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Abortion theologically considered (1) : what we are not going to talk about

Ireland and Abortion
Credit: RTE

CONTEXT

First, some context for the vast international readership of this blog.

On 25 May 2018 Ireland will hold a referendum on abortion. Or, to put it more precisely, a referendum on whether to repeal the 1983 8th Amendment to the Constitution which reads

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.

The Supreme Court has recently made it clear that the unborn have no constitutional rights. Those rights begin at birth. If the 8th is repealed, this leaves the way clear for the Government to introduce proposed abortion legislation.

The new law, if subsequently passed in the Dáil, will include the following:

  • Abortion being allowed up to 12 weeks “without specific indication”. Effectively abortion on demand.
  • Abortions to be provided on the grounds of risk to the life or ‘serious harm’ to the health of the mother.
  • No distinction will be made between physical and mental health risks.
  • Abortions legalised in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities, including cases which will lead to the loss of life of the baby shortly after birth

The choice to include mental health on the same footing as physical threat is highly significant. In practice abortions for a physical threat to the mother account for about 0.2% of births. In the UK, 99.8% of abortions are carried out due to threat to the mental health of the mother.

There was some uncertainty about whether the legislation therefore would allow for full-term abortions on the basis of risk to the mental health of the mother. The Government proposals will theoretically prohibit abortion once the foetus is ‘viable’. This is roughly up to six months of gestation. (The bill cannot be formally tabled in the Dáil unless the 8th Amendment is repealed. Obviously, if it is not repealed, general abortion is off the table).

So, as I read it, the Government is effectively proposing abortion on demand up to around 6 months. This represents a dramatic shift from an extremely restrictive approach to abortion to an extremely liberal abortion regime.

How to ‘think Christianly’ about such an issue?

One option is silence, but that’s simply avoiding the issue. Abortion needs to be talked about. Individual Christians and churches need to be speaking and teaching and reflecting self-critically on the ethical and moral challenges posed by abortion and the upcoming Referendum.

WHAT WE ARE NOT GOING TO TALK ABOUT (apart from this post)

Now, at this point one route would be dive into all sorts of observations as well as various arguments against abortion. At the risk of self-contradiction, I’ll talk briefly about some below and then not talk about them any more in posts that follow. An explanation is at the end if you get that far.

Some potential leaping off points are:

(1) The obvious one that the Referendum itself is indicative of huge cultural, political and religious shifts within Ireland since the 1983 Abortion Referendum.

(2) There is the back story of the X case and subsequent 1992 Referendum on the right for a woman to travel overseas for an abortion without fear of prosecution.

(3) There is the fact that Ireland is one of the safest places on earth to give birth. To use fears about the mother’s safety to introduce abortion on demand is wildly disproportionate. Current legislation allows abortion if there is a life-threatening risk to the life of the mother. There could be a debate about legislation specifically to allow abortion for fatal foetal abnormality and / or cases of rape and incest without introducing general abortion on broad grounds.

(4) We could talk about the political reasons behind the campaign to introduce abortion in Ireland. These are not irrational and inconsistent: they make perfect sense within a certain understanding of political reality otherwise abortion would not be widely available globally. They include: a Western narrative of the liberated autonomous individual; freedom from ‘misogynistic law’ that ‘controls’ what women can do with their own bodies; and the belief that maximum choice equals maximum freedom equals the maximum good. In this sense abortion is a regrettable but necessary experience for a pregnant woman who for whatever reason does not want a child at that particular time in her life.

(5) Abortion could be framed as a human rights issue. Evangelical Alliance Ireland has taken this approach “rather than as a matter of religious dogma or of reproductive health.” If the baby is a human being, he or she has a right to life as much as any other human. (This approach does seem to have been dismissed in law by the recent Supreme Court decision mentioned above).

(6) Some talk about the essential ‘sacredness of all human life’ and try to oppose abortion that way. This tends to lead to all sorts of complicated medical discussions about when life begins and is the foetus a person?

(7) We could talk about how damaging abortion is for women; many of whom come deeply to regret past action.

(8) We could go the political activism line and examine where TDs and their parties stand and seek to influence their decision-making.

(9) We could begin by talking about abortion as a form of euthanasia, namely the deliberate eradication of people with disability. For example, in Iceland, there is now a 100% abortion rate for babies with Down Syndrome. This despite Down Syndrome not being an illness and Down Syndrome people being some of the most loving and fun people in existence (not that being loving and fun is required to be able to exist). New technology for non-invasive testing for Down and other disabilities will inevitably lead the UK (and Ireland if abortion is introduced) to follow Iceland’s trend.

(10) We could talk about the impact of introducing a culture of intentional and medically needless death into the Irish health system that was designed and intended to save life.

(11) We could talk about abortion being, far from a victory for feminism, a victory for patriarchy and men acting irresponsibly. Quite simply, men benefit significantly from abortion. Men do not have to bear the pain, trauma and memories of ending a life within their own bodies.  Men don’t face the possibility of subsequent long-term complications from an invasive medical procedure; men don’t face the threat, implicit or explicit, that their partner will leave them if they don’t have an abortion. Rather, abortion suits many men because they don’t have to face the long term consequences of their actions – financial, emotional and relational. They remain ‘free’ of such inconvenient ties.

(12) And we could talk of the implications of continually improving technology for earlier and earlier gender identification within pregnancy. If the current Irish legislation leaves open abortion up to viability, it would be naïve not to be aware that a proportion of abortions will be due to the baby having the ‘wrong’ gender. Globally, and ironically, the ‘wrong’ gender is female (think China and India for example).

But we are not going to talk more about any of these issues. Why? Because, quite simply I do not believe that they are the place to begin when thinking ‘Christianly’ and theologically about abortion.  We’ll try to do that in the next few posts.

(civil) Comments, as ever, welcome

Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas (3)

9780567669964This is the second in a series of short excerpts from each chapter of Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas edited by Leixlip lad Kevin Hargaden.

The outline of the book is in this post. This excerpt is from Chapter Two on CONTINGENCY, VIRTUE, AND HOLINESS.

The exchange below is located within a complex discussion about Aristotle and virtue. It speaks, I think, right into our contemporary Western culture and its obsession with materialism, comfort, tolerance and equality. Brock’s question about a modern distaste for strong moral convictions evokes a classic Hauerwasian response about having children, abortion, faith, hope and a determination not to let suffering have the last word.

It also speaks to me of the adventure and challenge of being Christian.

BB: … Does it admit the debate or ought we to admit the debate, “Maybe I’d fare better if I didn’t have strong moral convictions?”

SH: Well, that’s one debate that would be well worth generating, if we could! I do think that people are afraid of having strong convictions today.

BB: Life certainly seems to go more smoothly in at least in the short and middle term with less strong convictions. How else would utilitarian and consequentialist modes of reasoning become our dominant modes?

SH: It’s clearly a bourgeois ethic! Or at least the way it works out most of the time. It’s a bourgeois ethic that asks how I can get through life with as little suffering as possible, given the fact that there is nothing that I  deeply care about. My problem with those kinds of lives is, “God, how do you stand the boredom of it!” If we weren’t Christians Brian, what would we end up doing? Drinking, screwing, and dying!

I think that you see the results of the attempt to avoid strong convictions in the avoidance of having children today. I’ve always regarded the debates around abortion as a failure to get at what’s really at stake. And what’s really at stake is people’s lack of confidence that they have lives worth passing on to future generations. So, abortion really is a nihilistic practice that says we’re not going to impose the meaninglessness of our lives onto future generations. That’s really a very sad result.

The supposed lesson of the Wars of Religion was that if we could just get people to not take themselves so seriously, then maybe they wouldn’t kill anyone. Well, they end up killing their children. I have a lecture I used to give on the yuppies as the monks of modernity, because the yuppies really have an ascetical discipline; they would rather have a boat than a child. So they discipline themselves not to have children exactly because why would you want children when you would rather have a boat? What strikes me about such a way of living is it is just so sad.

I regard one of the great moral witnesses of the last centuries as refusal of Jewish people to let Christian persecution stop them from having children. That they would have children in the face of Christian hatred was an extraordinary faith in God, because it’s not that you’ve got faith in your children turning out OK, it’s that you have faith in God, who would have the Jewish people be for the world a sign that God will not give up on us. (49)