It wasn’t so long ago that you rarely saw debate about abortion in the news here in the UK. While it’s long been an extremely divisive issue in the USA, with heated protest, violence and even murder as common features of the ‘abortion wars’, it’s something we have, on the whole, delivered a more measured response to. Over the past few years, however, things have changed. We’ve seen demonstrations. Vigils, calls for new legislation, media exposés of counselling services, outrage at the stances of various politicians. Suddenly there’s more animosity about which ‘side’ you’re on, than how you feel about time limits.
In a debate where people are so quick to judge and jump to conclusions, there’s often little room for nuance. Take the recent debates on the possibility of lowering the upper limit at which an abortion can be carried out from 24 to 20 weeks. If you identified as ‘pro-life’, you were an extremist – probably wanting abortion completely outlawed, and you hated women. If you put yourself in the ‘pro-choice’ camp, you had a total disregard for the sanctity of life, and were selfish and barbaric.
At one end of the spectrum you’ve got people recalling the days when women suffered and died from the horrific effects of backstreet abortion, at the other you’ve got people distraught at the deaths of unborn children. Listening to and understanding the other side sadly doesn’t often come into it, and it’s often assumed that as Christians we have a default position on the issue – one that has little sympathy for women, is judgemental, and seeks to undermine medical research. This is persistent but also misleading. Recently I discovered that until the 1970s, the accepted evangelical position on abortion in the USA was one that we would call ‘pro-choice’, which would be almost unthinkable now. It’s a reminder of how things can change within a generation.
I call myself ‘pro-choice’, because I believe that abortion should be safe and legal. I know that strict laws don’t reduce the number of terminations; women will go to whatever lengths they can and endure terrible procedures to end a pregnancy when a medical professional can’t do it for them – this much we know from worldwide statistics. But at the same time, I hope for a more wide-ranging definition of the term ‘pro-life’, one that addresses why women want abortions, and one that wants to tackle these issues just as much as it wants to save the lives of babies. If we are to ever move forward with the best outcome for everyone in mind, this is vital.
A term that gets thrown around a lot at times like these is ‘social abortion’ – terminations that don’t happen for medical reasons. People don’t agree with those; they’re often mentioned with pursed lips and talk of ‘selfishness’ and ‘irresponsibility’. But ‘social abortion’ is a term that encompasses a variety of reasons given. Poverty, addiction, homelessness, domestic abuse, mental health issues. If you want to lower the number of abortions that are carried out, you need to address all of these, along with effective sex and relationships education and access to contraception.
It’s one of my great wishes for the Christian response – and also the political response – to the abortion debate, that we see real concern for women and their welfare, and understanding of the issues that affect their lives, as part of a commitment to reducing the number of abortions. Not just from the point of view of wanting to persuade them to carry on with their pregnancies, but to meet them where they’re at and support them through the decision that is best for them and their circumstances.
Sadly for the current government, it’s simply not enough to talk about abstinence education and restricting the time limit while condemning more families to poverty and cutting funding to women’s shelters. The wellbeing of women – mothers or not – and of children who have safely exited the womb should be paramount, something that’s all too often forgotten when we engage in wrangling over doing what we want with our bodies, the point at which life begins, or the lowest gestational age that’s considered ‘viable’ .
Image via internets_dairy on Flickr.