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Ethics and politics of abortion debate

By Fr Tony Kelly

A foetus at 11 weeks.

A foetus at 11 weeks.

THE ethics and politics of abortion continue to be unsettlingly lively issues. The estimated hundred thousand abortion procedures each year tend to make one stop and think.

Point-scoring debates don’t seem to do much good. Least of all on TV, they don’t permit any change of mind let alone seeing any good in the contrary views.

They seem to lead to what is commonly called the ‘demonising’ of the opposition. Still, a calm review is in order.

Socrates declared long ago that the unexamined life is not worth living. In this case, when the lives of potential new citizens are at stake and their parents and families are so radically affected, some re-examination is desirable.

If the social life of a country is to be worth living, it must be prepared conscientiously to face up to the causes and conditions that allow no right to life to so many of the unborn.

The liberalisation of abortion laws was, of course, an emblematic issue for the Women’s Liberation Movement. It was successful.

Dangerous abortion practices are no longer necessary. Whether those early protesters on behalf of women envisaged the scale of the present practice of abortion might be doubted. Did they really want this to happen?

But there is an ever larger context. Demographic concerns over our rapidly ageing population raise new questions. Is the path to the future secure when in fact there are so few births, and so many aborted?

Culturally speaking, the abortion question seems to have slipped under our guard.

Society has grown in its awareness of ecological responsibilities. The recognition of endangered species calls forth a prompt and effective protection.

But here we are dealing with a danger rather closer to home.

A third of the next generation is being terminated. A 30 per cent casualty rate would point to a particularly bloody military engagement.

Ecologically speaking, would this be an acceptable proportion, say, in regard to black cockatoos or great white sharks?

Still, a dramatic ethical development has occurred in many areas.

The death penalty has been outlawed. Violence, rape, racial prejudice and the corruption of children cause moral revulsion and are met with the full force of the law.

More positively, equal opportunity, extending especially to the handicapped and the underprivileged, is taken for granted, even at considerable economic cost. Any form of cruelty to animals provokes outrage.

These instances of genuine moral sensitivity would normally, we might expect, cause grave concern over the present scale of abortions.

Social conscience is strangely tongue-tied on this question. It seems to have become an ethical no-go zone.

But just as no woman can be just a little bit pregnant, none of us can be just a little bit moral. The ethical vision must extend even to weakest and most innocent form of life. Is life worth living if so many lives are considered not worth defending?

The flickering character of our moral vision in regard to abortion looks for an explanation.

Who is to blame? I would suggest that all of us are. Each of us is in some way responsible for the cultural mood that accepts abortion as a fairly normal fact of life.

There is no need to ‘demonise’ anyone, least of all the women most intimately faced with this issue.

Some of us, for religious or philosophical reasons, consider abortion a moral evil. But that was never going to be enough. Somehow we have failed in forming a society that would support women in this kind of crisis and which would welcome the children they feel unable to have, for whatever reason. For all of us, a humble confession of sins is in order. The sex-crazed condition of modern society has affected everyone.

More deeply, perhaps, a consumerist culture of increasingly autistic proportions, is keeping all of us in its thrall.

Needless to say, no one has a corner on compassion.

Compassion, however, for the suffering, threatened or inconvenient ‘other’, be it the mother, the parents, or the unborn child, is a good place to start. But we don’t get far if discussion takes place as a collision of different forms of selective compassion.

Compassion needs to call on the best resources of intelligence – scientific, medical, philosophical and theological.

Deep issues deserve a worthy level of discussion if our lives are to be intelligently ‘examined’. An intellectually enlightened compassion can extend to all parties, even to those who are conscientiously opposed to one’s view. Otherwise, some form of mutual ‘demonisation’ will take place, and a larger comprehension of what is at stake will be impossible.

In the meantime, those who belong to this present generation know that they were born into being in a dangerous world.

Society never assured any one of them the right to exist. A third of their number was aborted.

The chilling possibility exists that these survivors will have learnt an early lesson.

Why should the rapidly ageing members of the society which never assured them of life now deserve to be cared for, let alone loved? With an inconvenient number of elderly people drawing on overtaxed resources, other laws of termination will come into play.

It need not be so. In the context of abortion, the flickering moral vision and the selective compassion of our time can only benefit from a review of what we have come to and where we go from here.

Fr Tony Kelly is a Redemptorist priest, Professor of Theology in the Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology at Australian Catholic University and Australia’s representative on the International Theological Commission in Rome.

Written by: Staff writers
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