Monday, May 28, 2018

Theologian Tina Beattie on Irish Abortion Referendum: "It Can Be Seen As the Assertion of the Common Good Over and Against a Corrupted and Dysfunctional Institutional Church"

Tina Beattie's reflection on the results of the Irish referendum on abortion is, in my view, exactly right — balanced, thoughtful, theologically dense and well-informed:

A band of brigands eventually collapses in on itself, to paraphrase St Augustine. So the Irish referendum cannot simply be dismissed as a symptom of collective moral disintegration. On the contrary, it can be seen as the assertion of the common good over and against a corrupted and dysfunctional institutional church. But the most effective way of accommodating this decision might be to recognise that a modern shift in church teaching might now be unsustainable, unless one is willing to demonise and condemn countless millions of women and girls around the world who have abortions. 
The Church's absolute prohibition against abortion from conception (there is no "moment" of conception - it's a process) is relatively modern and was vigorously promoted by Pope John Paul II. Traditionally, there was always a distinction between the moral gravity of early abortion and the more severe gravity of late abortion. This was also a debate that, until very recently, was conducted entirely without consulting women (and still is in the Catholic hierarchy). Now women themselves are having a say, and the Irish referendum suggests a sea change is happening. The answer is not to have a panic attack about the decline in modern values, but perhaps to bring back that important distinction. There is a difference - physical, psychological, social and yes, moral, between very early and later abortion…. 
Abortion is traumatic and involves the deliberate taking of human life. It should be, as Hilary Clinton once said, rare, legal and safe. The challenge in Ireland now is to make sure it is all those things, and that means providing the kind of society that makes it possible to have a child in difficult circumstances. The struggle against abortion cannot be a struggle to force women to carry to term an unwanted pregnancy. It is a moral struggle, but it is also an educational, economic and social struggle. It means providing secure housing and health care for all, and weaving a social safety net that is capable of holding the most vulnerable, desperate and isolated members of society. It means recognising that children are not possessions or commodities but shared responsibilities, and that born children are among western society's (and the Church's!) most vulnerable, abused and neglected people. It is also a struggle to understand and address the profound problems created by the male sex drive - something that remains woefully under-researched and unexplored, and which may be the most significant but unacknowledged factor with regard to unwanted pregnancies. 
Yes, the referendum result means that there will now be some who have abortions who might otherwise have come to terms with their pregnancies and become loving mothers. Those women will always know that in their heart of hearts. They will always grieve the unborn child and wonder what might have been. I hope that there will be good counselling services in place for Irish women facing this decision, and that the counselling will always lean towards continuing a pregnancy if at all possible. Here is where the kind of pastorally responsive and doctrinally flexible vision Pope Francis advocates could come into its own. 
But there is another factor in this. Research shows that, while in the short term abortions might increase as a result of liberalisation, the most effective way to reduce abortion rates in the longer term is to respect the moral responsibility of women themselves. There is mounting evidence to show that, with few exceptions, abortion rates are declining rapidly in countries where women are educated and have access to contraception and safe legal early abortion. When women know they have a choice, they increasingly choose to have the child. Perhaps a society in which such choices are available is one in which women also feel respected and cared for - secure enough perhaps to go ahead with a problem pregnancy.

Insofar as the Catholic hierarchy and its "pro-life" stormtroopers have equated the crusade against abortion with attacking the human rights of women (and LGBTQ people as a corollary to that attack), they have entirely vitiated their arguments to be all about respecting human life across the board. 


Insofar as they continue with the attacks on women (and LGBTQ people as a corollary to those attacks), they demonstrate to an increasing number of people with heads on their shoulders and informed consciences that the "pro-life" movement is not really about defending life across the board: it's about stopping feminism in its tracks, turning back the clocks to a time when women belonged unambiguously to men and were primarily machines to breed babies.

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