W.B. Yeats, Irish poet, fascist, and spiritualist, for all his weird views brilliantly penned the following:
"the centre cannot hold … the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."
In the abortion Referendum in Ireland, at the end of May, the majority voted to legalize abortion. These are the 'passionate' who hold an ethic of so-called rights, in particular the right of a woman to require a doctor to kill her unborn baby. But that ethic has been given such publicity, it seems over recent years to have led to a loss of 'conviction' on the part of those supporting the ethic that no doctor should perform an abortion. Yet that was the normative ethic for humanitarian communities since the Greek Hippocrates, 'the Father of Medicine' (BC 460-370), and certainly since the time of Christ.
The traditional Christian ethic follows the witness of the Bible: namely that abortion together with research destructive of nascent human life are, in principle, wrong. The Bible provides at least five pointers that lead to this conclusion.
First, violence to the foetus is considered a lesser offence than violence to the mother, but offence it still is (Exodus 21.22). Secondly, a reverent agnosticism and humility over the generation of human life is to be encouraged: "you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child" (Ecclesiastes 11.5). Thirdly, the history from conception, of that which is in the womb belongs to a discrete individual and not to a mere combination of cells: "The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name" (Isaiah 49.1). Fourthly, according to the Gospel narrative, the incarnation of the Son of God – the revelation of what is truly human – began not with Jesus' birth but conception. As the Creed says, "He was conceived..." And, fifthly, human life is a 'gift': "the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away" (Job 1.21).
So human life or being a human individual is not an 'achievement'. This last consideration means that the duty to protect human life is not based on any 'achievement', whether of physical performance or psychological development. Indeed, such a grounding has sometimes led to a totalitarian exclusion from the category of the 'human' of non-achievers. This is because of non-achieving in terms of racial origin, adult mental health or even political views. They are then treated as 'sub-human'. That was the wickedness of the 18th and 19th century slave trade. Rather the duty to protect human life is based on the 'given' fact of young or old, well or ill, developing or developed, being in the image of God:
"whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image" (Genesis 9.6).
In the jargon, a person's humanity depends on ontological rather than functional factors (what someone 'is' rather than on what someone can 'do').
The principles that gave rise to the Christian ethic of 'no abortion' are not only there in the Bible. They have been underlined by Church tradition, in Canon Law and other Church pronouncements. These have been pretty uniformly of opposition to abortion from the earliest days of the Church until some ideas of liberal Protestants in the last third of the 20th century. The early Christians would have judged such teachers as heretics. They, too, knew there were alterative points of view. For abortion and infanticide were common in the ancient world. Yes, they preached forgiveness through the Cross of Christ for any sin, including abortion. But as is well documented in the period of the early church Fathers, the Church was noted for resisting abortion and extending protection to developing human life. In this they were quite counter-cultural. So Ireland and much of the West is not being progressive. Rather it is going back to pre-Christian times.
The earliest Church 'manual', the Didache, speaks of "two ways, one of life and one of death." To avoid the way of death, it includes prohibitions not only of murder, adultery, "corrupting boys", fornication, stealing, magic, sorcery, but it also says,
"do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant."
Another example is Clement of Alexandria (AD 150-215), an early theologian, who wrote that those who "in order to hide their immorality, use abortive drugs which expel the matter completely dead, abort at the same time their human feelings."
But it is not only Scripture (the Bible) and tradition that witness to the wrongness of abortion but also reason. For a start, abortion is now known to be damaging to people who have abortions, as Clement hinted. The sheer lie that all is well with having an abortion is a wicked lie. I have been in meetings where I have heard women speak of their experiences; and they were uniformly bad and sad. John Wyatt, the distinguished neonatologist, documents some:
"After the abortion I felt relief. I was just pleased to have made a decision. However, as time goes by, I realize what I have lost. I miss my child. I feel empty and guilty. It was a horrific experience which will stay with me for a long time. I don't blame myself because I know I was upset and confused."
"On the day of the procedure I was petrified, and I cried for hours. I felt like the worst person in the world. I couldn't understand how I was about to murder my own child. I love children dearly and had previously worked as a nanny. I just didn't know where all my emotions were coming from … Now I think about it every day. I think about how selfish I am. I have nightmares of giving birth, of looking for my lost child. I fear that this has been made worse by the lie to my partner, and the guilt I feel as he too is struggling with the situation."
"The day I 'terminated' my baby is the day my life changed forever. I have three beautiful children and whenever I say that to people, I always feel a lump in my throat as I so want to say 'four'. When I look back (four years ago now), I see so clearly the huge mistake my husband and I made, but it is so weird that at the time you just don't see it. Maybe your mind is fogged with sickness, financial worries, or lots of other 'reasons' that seem so acceptable at the time. As soon as I woke from the anesthetic I cried and cried, not from relief but from regret."
I could give more. John Wyatt also tells of talking to a BBC producer who was making a major documentary on abortion. She told him how she interviewed doctors who used the politically correct phrase, "termination of pregnancy". However, in her view the women interviewed were more honest on abortion's emotional impact. They virtually all spoke about "killing their babies". But none of that should be surprising. For abortion seems to be a breaking of what the theologians call "natural law" to which our consciences witness. Paul describes that in Romans 2.14-16.
There is much more to say about Scripture, Tradition and Reason and how there cannot be a general moral right for a woman to require a doctor to kill her unborn baby. But if there are compelling grounds to say abortion is wrong, how were so many persuaded to vote to overturn the 8th Amendment in Ireland? One reason was that half-truths were told regarding sad cases. For example, on the day after the Referendum result was known, The Observer newspaper wrote:
"The tragic, avoidable death of Savita Halappanavar in 2012 became the rallying cry for reform. Denied an abortion when she began to miscarry, she died of sepsis in hospital a week later. Over the years, there have been many more cases that illustrate the costs of religious fundamentalism trumping compassion and common sense."
But the Sunday Telegraph had the honesty to mention regarding Savita Halappanavar the following:
"it would later emerge that her death was more medical incompetence and carelessness than denial of abortion, but few care about the facts."
More, too, is to be said about hard cases; but legalizing abortion is only minimally about hard cases.
The latest figures for abortion in England and Wales for 2016 are that 190,406 abortions were carried out. Only 1.7% (3,208) were for the risk that the child would be born 'seriously handicapped'! So 187,198 healthy human individuals were killed in 2016 by the medical profession in England and Wales. We are talking about most abortions being 'social' abortions. That is very serious. So what next? Part 2 is to follow.