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Who speaks for the Catholic Church? Women, abortion and theological ethics

Tina Beattie

A recent newspaper report described the trauma of women undergoing coerced or forced abortions in China. One woman tells of how her pregnancy was induced at six months, resulting in the birth of a dead daughter. China claims to have ended forced abortions, but many women still face severe punishments if their pregnancies do not conform to China’s strict two-child policy. (The number was increased from one child to two in 2015).

Meanwhile, the British newspaper, The Guardian, recently reported that abortion services at Marie Stopes International clinics had been suspended following concerns about safety standards. According to the report, ‘Hundreds of young and vulnerable women’ would be sent to other clinics. The women most likely to be affected ‘are those under the age of 18 and those who are more than 12 weeks pregnant, which means they cannot take the abortion pills but must have surgery to complete a termination.’ There was no acknowledgement of the ethical problems associated with teenage pregnancy nor with late abortion. Instead, women were portrayed as helpless victims who were being deprived of their abortion rights.

The Roe vs Wade supreme court ruling in 1973 is often cited as a landmark in the liberalisation of US abortion laws, when the name ‘Jane Roe’ became a symbol of the struggle for abortion rights. However, the case has become more ambiguous as full details of Norma McCorvey’s (‘Jane Roe’s’) story have emerged and she has become a pro-life activist. The Guardian recentlypublished eight women’s stories of abortion, which were intended to support the pro-choice movement. Though none said she regretted her abortion, these women’s stories gave some insight into the emotional turmoil and relational difficulties that surround abortion decisions. The men responsible for the pregnancies were shadowy figures hovering around the edges of the stories – absent, disinterested, broke, abusive, fickle. The role played by men in pregnancies that end in abortion is rarely addressed by either side.

Such stories suggest some of the challenges that arise in ethical conflicts surrounding abortion. In the clash between so-called ‘pro-choice’ and so-called ‘pro-life’ polemicists, real women’s stories fall between the gaps because they embody a complex reality that neither side wants to hear. It is easier to take an unambiguous stand on difficult moral dilemmas when one closes one’s mind to what Pope Francis frequently refers to as the messiness of the human condition.

The Catholic Church has an important contribution to make to these debates, but in order to do so it needs to become a credible dialogue partner. That means including women theologians as full and equal participants in the formation and communication of Catholic moral thought. It also means abandoning an unyieldingly absolutist stance that finds little support among many in the Church as well as outside it. To insist, as the Church always has, that abortion is never a morally good act, need not mean denying that it is a complex issue, nor is it inconsistent with asking if there are any circumstances under which abortion might be justifiable. There are ethical arguments on all sides which deserve to be taken seriously.

The absolutist position that applies the commandment ‘thou shalt not kill’ from conception became definitive in Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. This makes the Catholic position on abortion more rigid than that of either Judaism or Islam, and it abandons a long tradition in moral theology which distinguished between the moral gravity of early and late abortion. As a result, any Catholic seeking to enter public debate from a less than absolutist position is likely to meet with the full prohibitive force of the Catholic hierarchy, backed up by an increasingly aggressive and hostile campaign led by bloggers and tweeters, most but not all of them men.

Let me give one example. Earlier this year, Polish bishops distributed a letter to be read in Sunday Masses, calling for a complete ban on abortion. Poland already has the strictest abortion laws in Europe. Many walked out of Mass when the letter was read, and there were demonstrations in the streets. However, some Polish women theologians and pastoral workers felt unable to express their concerns, in case they lost their jobs or suffered similar penalties. A group of Polish- and English-speaking theologians came together to draft an open letter to the Polish bishops, supporting the present law but arguing against any further restrictions. English and Polish versions of the letter were circulated for signature. The ninety nine Catholics who signed represented many professions and vocations, ranging from moral theologians, pastoral workers, health care professionals and members of religious orders, to musicians, artists and journalists.

Yet despite the range and respectability of these signatories, the letter triggered a virulent online campaign which, for reasons too complex to explain here, focused primarily on my role in drafting the letter. The point I want to make is that the women most directly affected when the Church politicises abortion are often afraid to speak out, and anyone who supports them also becomes vulnerable to attack. One well-known anti-abortion campaigner castigated me for thinking that ‘western feminists’ had any right to speak on behalf of Polish women, who she insisted do not want legalised abortion. Such misleading claims go unchallenged when the only women who are permitted to speak in Catholic institutional contexts are those who agree unquestioningly with what the Church teaches on every moral issue.

The Church needs to become part of a debate in which women who raise difficult questions or describe complex life experiences are not bullied and silenced by men who will never face the anguish of a doomed or unwanted pregnancy. Abortion is a uniquely female dilemma, involving as it does two lives sustained by one woman’s body. Both sides of this polarised debate deny this intimate relationship by concentrating on one at the expense of the other. The pro-choice lobby shows no concern for the unborn child, and the anti-abortion lobby shows no concern for the mother. Abortion is repeatedly condemned in Catholic social and moral teaching, but one will search in vain for a reference to maternal mortality. Church teaching simply has nothing to say about the largely preventable deaths of more than a quarter of a million poor women every year through causes relating to pregnancy and childbirth, including nearly 50,000 deaths from illegal or unsafe abortions.

Despite his repeated calls for a poor church of the poor, Pope Francis has yet to acknowledge the complex realities of poor women’s lives with regard to reproductive health, pregnancy and childbirth. Responding to a journalist’s question about abortion and the Zika virus, he described abortion as ‘a crime, an absolute evil’. That remark is widely quoted by those who support the criminalisation of abortion. With his long experience of working with the poor in Argentina, surely Francis realizes that it is poor women and girls, often pregnant through rape, coercion and incest, who bear the brunt of such rhetoric? Women who can afford to pay will always be able to procure abortions without fear of criminalisation and the threat of imprisonment.

These are hugely difficult issues with no easy solution. Poor women are the most vulnerable when it comes to deaths from illegal and unsafe abortions and lack of good gynaecological and obstetric care, but they are equally vulnerable to aggressive population control policies promoted by the deceptive rhetoric of the right to choose. The word ‘choice’ makes little sense when applied to the terrible conditions in which many poor women and girls face abortion and its aftermath, or when it is applied to contraceptive programmes that discourage women from exercising their choice to have children.

There is now extensive research which shows that the most effective way to tackle these issues is to educate women and improve their living conditions. If we care about the lives of unborn children, we must first care about the lives of the women who bear them. Educated women who are protected from sexual violence and coercion, who have access to good health care and good sanitation, and who can access reliable methods of birth control if they decide to use them, are capable of making informed decisions about when to have children and how many children to have. Unless and until the Church listens to such women, the opinions of a theological elite comprised exclusively of celibate men will become less and less relevant for the vast majority of people in the real world, including many Catholics.