Abortion in an open society: What can we do?

In this Year of Mercy, the woman taken in adultery (chapter 8 of John’s gospel) might well be our starting point for considering this question. Her accusers want to kill her by stoning (but they apparently have nothing to say about the man involved in the same act of adultery).

Jesus simply invites whoever is without sin to throw the first stone. When the crowd has melted away, Jesus tells her that no one has condemned her and neither will he.

Jesus is not saying that we should forgive once in a while. He asserts instead (chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel) that we should do so “seventy times seven”) – that is, always.

How do we apply this today in the context of abortion? There is in fact much that we do already.

Church agencies put their Catholic principles into practice by providing professional services and personal support to many women who may be thinking about having an abortion (or have had one already). Catholic hospitals refuse to perform abortions. Individual Catholics and community groups offer friendship and a helping hand to prospective parents under stress.

All this may persuade some not to have the abortion they might otherwise undergo. There may also be a longer-term impact on social attitudes such that abortion will be less frequent.

This is all very well, one might say, but what about the unborn child’s right to live? How can we protect that? Didn’t Jesus say to the woman taken in adultery to sin no more?

The Catholic Church has placed the unborn child at the centre of its concerns. It has fought what has become a losing battle against decriminalising abortion.

It may be difficult to imagine that the trends of the last half-century can be reversed in the near future. Even staunchly Catholic politicians say that abortion is settled as a political issue and that they are not prepared to reopen it.

It is surely true, however, that the Church – and that includes all of us – is bound as a matter of conscience to continue insisting on the principle that the unborn child has a right to live. It is just as true that individual Catholics, whether clerical or lay, can do more than arguing for the criminal law to reflect Catholic views.

In our day-to-day interactions with those around us, for example, we can challenge the assumption that the issue is about the right to “choose”. We can ask if there can ever be a moral entitlement to opt for what is fundamentally wrong – just because abortion is legal does not make it right.

We can question whether public subsidies for abortion through Medicare are a good use of scarce resources. Would it not be better for these resources to be saving rather than taking children’s lives?

We can say emphatically that men play a central role in the abortion context. Many are very supportive of the wife or partner carrying their child. All too often, however, they put pressure on the mother to terminate the pregnancy. The point here is not to condemn men who do this – we are in no position to judge – but simply to recognise that fathers-to-be often have an equal or greater influence than do mothers-to-be on decisions about abortion.

We can honestly admit that there is an unavoidable tension between advocating for a child’s right to be born and supporting those who might have decided to abort a child. We can say that we do not condemn people who have made such decisions – we cannot know the pressures that they have faced.

It is possible that, by approaching the issue of abortion in the form of a dialogue, we will begin to open people’s minds and to shift conventional views. More immediately, we might also persuade some parents-to-be who are thinking about abortion not to take such a step.

In short, we cannot expect Catholic teaching on abortion to be fully reflected in public policy or personal practice. We can, however, work towards a more pro-life society than we have today.