From the Parish Priest, Fr Nicholas Clews
THE RECENT REFERENDUM IN IRELAND has opened up the debate again on abortion.
The churches in England are not vociferous on this matter but the Church of England is on record as saying that it ‘combines strong opposition to abortion with a recognition that there can be strictly limited conditions under which it may be morally preferable to any available alternative.’
All churches begin the debate on abortion with the principle of human rights – central to the gospel message and modern liberal society. The problem is that in this situation there are two people with rights which may conflict – the unborn child and the mother. The Irish constitution attempted to deal with this by asserting that the two rights should have equal value.
UK law requires the rights of the unborn child to be weighed against those of the mother and other family members. The ‘right’ to abortion is not absolute: it requires two doctors to certify that it is necessary for the sake of the mental or physical health of the mother or her children.
Furthermore this limited right to an abortion extends only to the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy. After that period an abortion is possible only in the case of a threat to the mother’s life or the risk of severe abnormality in the child.
These limitations on the right to abortion may explain why it has not been a major political issue in the United Kingdom.
However the recent availability of safer and easier testing for abnormalities has raised concerns. In a report entitled Valuing People with Down’s Syndrome the Church of England has warned that parents should not be pressurized to take this test. Over the last few years society has become much more welcoming to people with handicaps such as Downs syndrome. It would be ironic if new technology were to eliminate such people from our society:
People with Down’s syndrome are complete human beings, made in the image of God, deserving full inclusion in both church and society. It is imperative that every step is taken to ensure that they are welcomed, celebrated and treated with dignity and respect.
However, some churches take a stronger line – for example that life and human rights begins at conception. This makes all abortions morally wrong. This is the current Roman Catholic position. However, until 1869 the Roman Catholic Church regarded abortion as a mortal sin only after 166 days gestation – 24 weeks. The change seems to have been influenced by the official adoption of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary!
Perhaps we might regard it as interesting that the same gestation period is regarded as crucial by current UK law on more scientific grounds.
Perhaps we might also reflect that an action being wrong is not necessarily enough to justify making it illegal. Christians believe that telling lies or committing adultery are wrong but few suggest that they should be a crime.
The difficulty, however, is that abortion involves ending the life of another at least potential person. It can be argued that basic human rights cannot be left to personal decisions. No-one believes, for example, that enslaving another human being should be a matter of personal conscience. The law simply says that slavery is not permitted.
The debate is not over. The Irish people have made it clear that they want a more liberal law on abortion but their government will have to decide how; and someone will have to decide who decides what in Northern Ireland.
And we have to remember that liberalizing Abortion Act of 1967 was passed in part because women were dying when they resorted to back street abortions.
There are no easy solutions: please keep all those involved in your prayers.