The Abortion Dialogue

A Discussion by Bishop Howard Gregory

In recent weeks, the subject of abortion has come to the fore once more with the lead story of a daily newspaper indicating the scores of botched abortions that lead women to seek medical attention at government facilities, and the cautious comment by the Minister of Health that the subject of abortion needs to be re-visited beginning with a medical audit to determine the extent of the frequency of these botched abortions.  This, of course, will only account for those who have turned up at public health facilities.

In light of this situation, I would like to re-visit and share an article which I published some time ago when the issue surfaced in a similar public manner.

The subject of abortion is one which has strong legal, religious, and ethical implications, and has the ability to erect battle lines among practitioners and adherents of these disciplines once the word is mentioned.  This means that it is difficult to have any meaningful exchanges between different parties, as their responses are usually driven by emotion, irrationality, and a conviction that the position to which he or she adheres is the only tenable one.  The problem is that the subject of abortion is not one which involves mere philosophical discourse and in which those who have the time and inclination can be engaged over a glass of wine or other beverage.  Abortions have to do with the life of real human beings and require decision-making and action at the end of the day.

Anyone who dares to venture into a public discussion of the subject must be aware that he or she is not likely to be the recipient of public affirmation but a barrage of criticism by those of opposing persuasion.  This is the nature of discourse which has the kind of multifaceted religious, moral, and legal dimensions which have been suggested.  At one end of the pole one usually finds those who accept the notion that we now live in a postmodern, post-Christian era, sometimes referred to as the age of moral pluralism and secularism, when religion has lost its value and meaning, and who argue from a position of individualism which allows each person to choose his or her moral imperatives and absolutes.  For those who hold to this position there is hardly any common source and point of authority which can serve as a starting point since, in the long run, it is all about personal preference and choice.  In this context, positions on moral issues advanced by institutions such as the church are perceived to have authoritative weight only for the faithful adherents.  On the other hand, there are individuals who find the current post-modern, post-Christian trend untenable in a world of seemingly endless change and lack of certainty on just about any issue, and therefore seek to establish moral and religious absolutes which can serve as defining pegs, not just for the faithful, but for the entire society.  The problem is that those at both ends of the pole tend to be as passionate about their position as possible and usually will not entertain the other as deserving of respect, a hearing, and of having any credibility.  Unfortunately, when this happens, exchanges move away from the issues to become an assault on persons, their character, and their integrity.  I now venture into the arena of public discussion of the issue of abortion with no illusion about how what I have to say will be received.  I do so also from a perspective that what I believe to be most helpful at this time is not a debate which seeks to establish winners and losers, or the right and the wrong, but a dialogue which seeks to have persons engaging their differing perspective in the realization that no single individual or institution, has a corner on the truth.

One of the things which really irk me about life in our nation is our reticence, if not failure, to take action on matters of national significance as a sovereign people who have achieved a level of maturity and independence and as a consequence can make decisions without opting for shelter under the wings of the United Kingdom or looking over our shoulders to see what others are doing or are going to say.  It is, therefore, untenable that at this time in our history, the way to address the issue of abortion is to continue to operate under the British Act of 1861and which was subsequently amended in 1939.  So to those who question whether the time is right for us to be focusing on such legislation, I would simply respond that the time is overdue.

In venturing into the dialogue I need to state some positions to which I hold from the outset.  I am not in support of those positions which argue that it is the sole prerogative of one person or the other, whether mother or doctor, to decide on whether an abortion should be undertaken.  I believe that the issue of abortion raises fundamental issues concerning what theologians refer to as “theological anthropology”, that is, the understanding of the human being from a theological perspective.  We must have an understanding of the human person and human life, its dignity, its integrity, and its purpose, as a starting point for discussing the issue.  What we have tended to do in the face of modern scientific developments and the opening of new frontiers, is to adopt a position of impotence and believe that we have to capitulate to what individual scientists have to say, even when there is disagreement within the scientific community itself on such matters.  So we cannot merely dismiss as irrelevant some of the concerns expressed by some about when life begins, the value of the human soul, the right to life, the protection of human life, and the setting of limits concerning the limits of a pregnancy within which an abortion should be permitted.

There is a medical model with which I am familiar, and which is operative in hospital settings, in which there is the “medical round/conference” which, at its best, takes an interdisciplinary approach to the management of the care of patients.  In my experience, it brings together the doctors, nurses, nutritionist, social worker, chaplain and, in the case of Psychiatry, even the recreational therapist, who all have an input into the treatment plan for the patient, and where staff members operate as colleagues who respect the contribution of each other since, in the final analysis, they are treating a human persons and not just a thing that has a medical problem.  However we choose to resolve the dialogue and to shape our laws, I would like to see something which approximates to this model of treatment in designated treatment centres, should the decision be made to authorize legal abortions.

The second thing that I would want to assert is that we should not be seen to be authorizing anything that looks like abortion as a means of birth control.  The problem with the position advanced by many anti-abortionists is that, while being determined to plug the hole in relation to the availability of abortions for those with “unwanted pregnancies”, they are not equally invested and present in educating persons about responsible sexual behavior, neither are they being realistic in recognizing that “responsible sexual behavior” is not just about abstinence, but providing persons with access to contraceptives where they are sexually active by choice or by circumstance.  For those who may feel scandalized by this position, I want to make it clear that I have no problem with abstinence as a Christian ideal but, until we get to the state where people live only by the ideal, I will take the pragmatic route and opt for what I consider the lesser of two evils.

The third thing which I would like to assert is that I do not support the position which says that the law should not allow for abortions under any circumstance.  This I believe is an untenable position and one that is inhumane in the exercise of a strategy which is supposed to be preserving the humanity of the race.  I support the position which some gynaecologists have advanced over the years, that they do not do extraordinary things to save a foetus when there seems to be a spontaneous abortion in evidence, and which may be nature’s way of indicating that something is wrong and the foetus is not developing normally.  Beyond that, I believe that while every attempt should be made to save a foetus, the life of the mother is primary and, if a decision has to be made to save one or the other, the mother’s life should come first.  Additionally, the reality is that there have been, and currently are, women who are having abortions by persons and methods which not only do irreparable damage to their bodies and psyche, but there are also women who lose their life from infections and complications from these back door procedures.

Over the years I have come to a position which supports limited availability of abortions because of my experience working with real persons and not just philosophical concepts or political platforms.  I recall working with a patient in a psychiatric hospital whose working life came to a premature end as she experienced a major emotional collapse.  Not only was she hospitalized for an extended period of time but she even burnt her house to ground.  The long and short of the story is that she was raped as a teenager and, for one reason or another, was forced to carry the pregnancy full term.  Caught between all of the shame, guilt, and other emotions associated with the experience, and at the same time trying to love this child that was not responsible for the circumstances of his birth, she was only able to hold herself together for a number of years and then the collapse came.  I am not prepared to set myself up, as a man, and declare that every woman who finds herself in such a situation must go the road of motherhood, and create the kind of nurturing conditions for the child which we are told begin with maternal contentment while the foetus is still in the womb.  Neither am I prepared to say that the many girls who have barely entered into their menstrual cycle, and who have been impregnated by their fathers or stepfathers, must be forced to carry a child full term which, their poor little bodies hardly out of childhood, can barely deliver and nurture.

Having said all this, however, I want us to understand that we cannot take the position that suggests that abortions are to be taken lightly as a private decision that a woman makes in the way she chooses what wardrobe to wear to work for the day.  The matter is far more profound and affects the woman at much greater levels.  I recall several years ago while working in a tertiary institution, a female student who was then working on her master’s degree came to see me as she was unable to continue to be focused on her studies and was experiencing herself in a process of emotional collapse, because she had become pregnant while in high school and her parents had insisted that she have an abortion, and now she was just riddled with crippling feelings of guilt.

I recall also when I was in graduate school in the United States pursuing a course which took us to a medical facility which was authorized to perform therapeutic abortions.  The medical director in his presentation to us pointed out that, although they had extensive counseling for all their patients, they still had patients who insisted that the foetus should be baptized after being aborted.  This was indicative of the depth of struggle involved for women who face the decision as to whether to proceed with an abortion.  The director indicated that the staff would always comply with the request.  One thing he stated most emphatically is the fact that when the patient asked to be told the sex of the foetus, the staff would not comply as it may generate a deep sense of guilt in the future for the patient about the son or daughter which they had aborted.

It should be apparent that this issue of abortions is not just a debate which seeks to determine who are the winners or losers, the right ones and wrong ones.  It is rather about a dialogue which should take seriously the issues being advanced from various sides and then arrive at a legal position which reflects a responsible handling of the matter, and no single individual, institution or entity should be allowed to railroad the process and impose its position.

Prepared by Bishop Howard Gregory.