It was impossible to go on social media in recent weeks without seeing a barrage of messages urging people to vote for either the yes or no camp for the abortion referendum in Ireland last Friday. Voters were asked whether they approve of the statement: “Provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancies.”
The vote decided whether to repeal a part of the constitution, known as the Eighth Amendment, which holds that the life of the mother and the unborn child are equal under law. Currently, abortion is only allowed in Ireland when a woman's life is at risk either physically or mentally by suicide. At the moment, women wanting abortions have to travel to the UK to access services that are not available to them in Ireland. The vote has now been decided – the nation voted overwhelmingly to overturn the abortion ban by 66.4% to 33.6%.
Expats flew home to Ireland from around the world to show their support and make their mark on the law of their country. There is no shortage of passion in the debate but I am worried that some of the passion is misdirected, revealing a skewed understanding of our bodies and the gift of life.
Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar spoke in favour of the ‘yes’ vote on International Women’s Day, saying the referendum was about “trusting women to decide, in the early weeks of their pregnancy, what’s right for them and their families.” When the vote was counted, and the result announced, he said: "We choose to provide companionship where there was once a cold shoulder and medical care where we once turned a blind eye".
That all sounds brilliant on the surface but when you examine his words a bit more closely, and in light of what God teaches us about who we are, there are some problems. This argument sets up women as the sole decision makers in the baby-making process. Biologically, we know that baby humans are made from equal amounts of their parents’ genes – mother and father create a baby, and ideally, mother and father should be present to raise the child so that they grow into the person they were created to be.
As Catholics, we also believe that we are made in the ‘image and likeness of God’. Each one of us was planned by God and he knew us even when we were in the womb. (See Psalm 139 – it’s beautiful). God’s vision for the world, revealed to us throughout the Bible is one where every life is valued and honoured because it is an expression of God himself. God has set up the human family as the first church each person encounters when they are born because it is the place of love between two people and God, which bears fruit. Each and every person on this planet has a unique relationship with God, and a unique purpose for being alive. If that is taken away from the very heart of the family through abortion, then God’s loving plan for creation and procreation goes wrong. God ultimately wants us to trust him with our whole lives. By taking away the gift of life, we are also taking away some of his power to move creatively in the world.
Our whole selves are supposed to be a gift to others – we are at our most fulfilled when we give freely. Abortion does not allow for this. It halts a gift in the midst of the giving.
The other problem is: legalising abortion is not an act of ‘companionship’ to a mother in a crisis. Abortion will not stop the fact that a single mother can’t afford to feed her family; nor can it stop any of society’s other ills. It is like a sticking plaster – it covers up the problem but more often than not it dislodges to show a gaping wound underneath. That wound is society’s hardened heart – shown in a lack of compassion and support for young families and vulnerable people. If each person acted in a more loving way with less judgement and condemnation and more self-sacrificial love towards our neighbour, the world wouldn’t have half the problems we experience today with mental health, financial instability, hunger and poverty. Instead, we would each see the other as family we were created to be, and we would step in to provide for each others’ needs.
Another argument I have seen on the internet is one that says we cannot judge if we are not in the situation ourselves. I think it’s more nuanced than that – we should not condemn another person because we commit sin ourselves, however, we can speak out to help shape society in a way that values life in all its forms, and that honours God’s creative intentions.
Very sadly, I know several people in my life who have terminated pregnancies. In none of the cases was it a decision that was taken lightly, and in all of the cases, it has had a lasting impact on the life of the family. When debating this issue, we must always uphold truth with love, otherwise we are adding to the problem ourselves.