A Very Difficult Decision

"What really upsets me are those feet," said the greatgrandmother, one of my parishioners in a former life. She was talking about the little gold lapel brooch worn by a husband and wife in our congregation. It was shaped like a tiny pair of feet, and was this couple's silent protest against our nation's provision for legal abortion. The old lady who found them disturbing was not concerned about their pro-life stand. Her reaction was much more personal. She had learned, a few years before, that one of her granddaughters had had an abortion at the age of seventeen. Those tiny feet acted as a painful reminder of a great-grandchild she never got to hold. And from then on, when I saw that pin, I thought of her, and the child, and its mother, who was also part of our church family. Later in my time in that town and other parishes, I came across numbers of others for whom abortion was part of their personal history. Some looked back with pain and regret, others with an utter peace that they had made the right choice. But for every one, it was a difficult decision.
I remembered those women this week as I read in the New Zealand Herald about MP Steve Chadwick's attempt to bring to Parliament a bill that would decriminalise abortions up to 24 weeks gestation.

"Mrs Chadwick's Abortion Reform Bill would take abortion out of the Crimes Act, making it solely a health matter and a choice for the patient, at least in the first part of pregnancy. She said it would remove the requirement for patients to gain the prior approval of two "certifying consultants", encourage abortions to be performed earlier in pregnancy, and increase access to medical abortions.
Before 24 weeks' gestation, registered health practitioners could carry out an abortion at the patient's request. It would be regulated like any other medical procedure.
After 24 weeks, abortion would be permitted if a medical practitioner believed it was appropriate medically and with regard to the patient's "current and future physical, psychological and social circumstances".
Although my views on abortion are not nearly as simplistic as they were in my student years, I still find this prospect problematic. The issue is far more complex than can be dealt with in a blog posting, but we can hear from some of the cacophony of voices who have a stake in the matter. (For these and other relevant points I am grateful to a marvellous book - now out of print - published in 1972 by Dr Rex Gardner, a Christian doctor and minister, consultant gynecologist and expert, at the time, on the effects of induced abortion. He shares dozens of heartwrenching case histories where he, or other Christian doctors, have agreed to termination as the better option in a very difficult clinical decision.) First let me put on my scientific hat:
  • The beginning of a human life is clearly at the point of conception, despite attempts over the years to define it at other transition points such as the development of recognisably human features, or the taking of the first breath. At fertilisation, all the genetic code is lined up to determine the makeup of this unique human being. Although the child will not survive if the gamete does not implant in the uterine wall, this is a question of a conducive environment and ongoing nutrition, not an issue of the child's ontological identity as human.
  • 24 weeks is an arbitrary watershed, not associated with any dramatic change in the the child's development. Sure, babies born before this stage do not survive, but many mums and dads under my pastoral care have lost a child under 24 weeks and felt a profound grief only ameliorated by the holding of a suitable funeral.
  • The abortion of a human child at any stage is not merely a health matter. There are two parents involved, and a wider society that plays a part in setting the boundaries for ethical decisions.

Followers of Jesus also need to attend to the biblical and theological voices:

  • We live in a fallen world, saturatd with sin. No one can pass through it without incurring guilt (Thieleicke)
  • The Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 give the injunction 'Do not kill' - but since the next chapter goes on to describe cases where criminals of various kinds should be executed, this law is usually translated as 'Do not murder.' Abortion decisions then come into the same ethical class as waging war, euthanasia, and global inequities causing death by starvation.
  • Although the Bible is clear that God knows the child during its time in the womb, there is a distinction made between the foetus and the child, for example in that same chapter of Exodus, the penalty for assault causing a miscarriage is treated differently from a case where the mother dies from the assault.
  • The New Testament testimony is of a Master whose compassion often led him to move beyond the letter of the law to a deep empathy and concern, for example, with the woman taken in adultery.
  • The faith and experience of the Christian church is that there are some things more important than survival in this terrestrial life.
  • Individual believers have sometimes in all conscience made a decision that involves the taking of a life - eg in war, in terminal illness. We believe the Holy Spirit can guide us in such difficult places.

The voices of the caring professions chime in with their different viewpoints:

  • Even when a pregnancy is planned, virtually everyone goes through feelings of ambivalence about having a baby. The option of abortion needs to be a considered decision. (However many counsellors recommend making arrangements with a clinic early on, so that if the decision is made to have a termination, it can be done when the pregnancy is only 7 - 12 weeks on)
  • For couples, becoming parents is far more binding than marriage. Your couple relationship may not last, but you can never get a divorce from your child. Apart from the issue of whether you want to be a mother, you may not want to be bound to the father of your child in this way, for example, if the relationship is toxic.
  • For singles, especially students, pregnancy and childbirth can literally change the course of your life. In another era, I was a school guidance counsellor. Part of my role was to see young women who feared they were pregnant and then enable them, if they chose, to gain swift medical access to termination. Sadly, most of these girls refused to tell their parents, even though their mothers, often known to me in that small town, would have provided loving support and possibly even enabled a different outcome.
  • A woman who at first feels alone and desperate can, with the right support, end up being a marvellous mother. (Years ago, an optimistic someone observed that there are no unwanted five year olds)
  • Although having an abortion poses known risks to mental health, a woman who receives appropriate information and support at the time of an unexpected and undesirable pregnancy can experience termination as a positive and healthy choice.
  • A very useful handbook "A Difficult Decision" by Joy Gardner (written from a new Age viewpoint, but offering visualisations that are eminently transferable to the Christian's life of prayer) notes that as a society we have agreed that rape, even in marriage, is an unacceptable imposition on a woman's body, mind and emotions, and asks "Is there a sense in which the imposition of an unwanted child is similarly unacceptable?" Hmmmm......

And finally the pragmatic voice:

  • In New Zealand, abortion practice has gone far beyond the societal decision envisaged by the Royal Commission on Abortion Contraception and Sterilisation which put in place the present system of certified consultants, to ensure there was a real risk to the mother's health or sanity if the pregnancy went to term. We now have abortion on request; last year, 17,550 pregnancies were terminated, compared with 17,940 in 2008. The vast majority of these were for reasons of mental health.
  • The existing system could therefore be seen as a farce and a waste of time and money; Steve Chadwick says just make it a medical procedure, like having a mole removed. But do we want this very difficult social decision to be treated as of so little consequence?
  • In an pretechnological world, these decisions were "left to God". Natural attrition is part of the human reproductive cycle; scientists calculate up to half of fertilised eggs never make it past the first few weeks. Now however, we make babies in a petrie dish, from donated eggs, or sperm, or both, and society has accepted interventions on that scale. I recently met a couple - good Kiwi Baptists! - who purchased an egg in the USA, fertilised it with the husband's sperm and implanted it in the wife's uterus to make a baby. Is there a significant difference between intervening in the natural probabilities of the forming of a foetus and in its destruction?

I don't have simple answers and I'm still working out my response to this proposed law change. I know the magic of conception and treasure my own four children. I know abortion can have devastating effects. But I also know that if it had been my sixteen yearold daughter knocking on the guidance counsellor's door to ask for referral to the school nurse, and thence to a certifying consultant, I would be on the side of the desperate teenager, not the half-formed grandchild.

A helpful quote from Karl Barth:

"If God can will that this germinating life should die in some other way, might he not occasionally do so in such a way as to involve the active participation of (other people) how can we deny absolutely that he might have commissioned them to serve him in this way and that their action has thus been performed ...in that service? (Church Dogmatics III/4.)

To Chew Over: Is this in ethical issue that touches you personally? Is there a conversation you need to have with Jesus, or a close spiritual friend, about your experience?

Somewhere at some time
They committed themselves to me
And so, I was! Small, but I WAS!
Tiny, in shape
Lusting to live
I hung in my pulsing cave.
Soon they knew of me
My mother --my father.
I had no say in my being
I lived on trust
And love
Tho' I couldn't think
Each part of me was saying
A silent 'Wait for me
I will bring you love!'
I was taken
Blind, naked, defenseless
By the hand of one
Whose good name
Was graven on a brass platein Wimpole Street,
and dropped on the sterile floor
of a foot operated plastic wastebucket.
There was no Queens Counsel
To take my brief.
The cot I might have warmed
Stood in Harrod's shop window.
When my passing was told
My father smiled.
No grief filled my empty space.
My death was celebrated
With tickets to see Danny la Rue
Who was pretending to be a woman
Like my mother was.
Spike Milligan