Pro-life?

Some weeks ago, as we were in the throws of preparing for our move, I ran across this meme in my Facebook feed:

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[Black square with the words “NOT A PERSON” across the top and a series of three pictures with a date underneath. First an image of a slave, 1815. Second an image of emaciated Jews, 1945. Third a baby in the womb, 2015.]

This meme found its way onto my newsfeed from a source that didn’t surprise me. I now have Facebook friends from almost every political and Christian stripe from extreme conservative to extreme liberal. I usually shrug off whatever posts I don’t agree with and carry on with my life, but this one gave me pause. So I decided to explore it here.

Before I begin, I would like to say that I would never consider myself “pro-abortion.” I have always found the very thought of taking an innocent life in this way tragic in the extreme, and I was raised in an environment that clearly considered every abortion ‘murder’ without qualification. So I continued as the years rolled by, but time and experience have modified and nuanced my thoughts on this subject.

Firstly, there is a tendency in our society to talk about “having children” as if it is something we can control. We attempt to plan our families and control our fertility. It is true that some understanding of how these things work can help people avoid unwanted pregnancies, but more than four years of suffering through infertility has taught me that we don’t have nearly the control over this aspect of our lives that we would like to think. Perhaps we want to plan our families, control our reproductive systems, and sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. The reality is, however much we may be able to influence our fertility, we cannot control how and when we have children. Conception (and successful implantation) happens, or doesn’t, for inscrutable, or, at least, uncontrollable reasons. Equally, an enormous number of pregnancies spontaneously “abort” in the early stages or miscarry, often causing significant emotional and physical trauma to those involved.

Secondly, it is easy to make ill-informed judgements about the process and experience of pregnancy, especially when one has not experienced becoming a parent. When I first discovered I was pregnant with the child I had longed for and despaired of having, I felt fully as much shock and fear as I did joy. Here was I, a woman in my 30’s, in a stable relationship finally pregnant after years of trying, and the knowledge was terrifying, overwhelming, violently unsettling. In the midst of my own bewilderment I thought of discovering this news as a teenager, an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy. Suddenly I understood what would drive a woman to abortion, that wave of emotion and fear coupled with uncertain life experiences and a lack of support could easily wash away other considerations.

But pregnancy also brings with it other life changing experiences. When we went in for our first scan at about 11 weeks, my husband and I stared at the screen, seeing that tiny life we had made. I cried, and he saw the abortion debate in a whole new light: there really is a life in there. I love my baby. I loved carrying him, but I wasn’t prepared for how he would change my life.

Thirdly, all too often those who label themselves as pro-life demonstrably aren’t.

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[“Only in American can you be pro-death penalty, pro-war, pro-unmanned drone bombs, pro-nuclear weapons, pro-guns, pro-torture, pro-land mines and still call yourself pro-life.” – John Fuglesang]

Or, to put it more constructively:

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[“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.” – Joan D. Chittister]

As Sister Joan points out, to be “pro-life” requires a much more comprehensive approach to humanity and compassion than simply wishing to force every pregnant woman to carry her baby to term.

Fourthly, when a baby is born, it may be the end of a pregnancy but is the beginning of something else far more challenging. Newborn infants are delicate, helpless and extremely demanding. Since I have had my own baby to nurture, I have heard numerous stories about sleep deprived parents fantasising about throwing the baby across the room or other comparably violent things. Although such things sound horrendous, when the baby is still crying for no discernible reason at 3 am and you’ve had six hours sleep in the last 48 hours such thoughts come to mind all too easily, and this in parents who love their children and wanted them. While it may be horrible to think of the hundreds of thousands of terminated pregnancies, would it be less horrible to see hundreds of thousands of neglected, abused or otherwise traumatised children perpetuating destructive cycles in society because there were no responsible adults to take caring for them seriously?

Caring for a newborn baby demands a level of selflessness and sacrifice that tests a new parent to the core. This may be somewhat mitigated by sharing the burden of care, but the reality of this responsibility is real and important.

As a side note – I realise that for some, simple morality will fix this problem. If people never had sex outside of a relationship that would welcome a child, there would be no ‘unplanned’ pregnancies. However attractive this idea may be, and it may work well for some, it is simply not the reality in our world. Quite apart from what some might condemn as wantonness or promiscuity, sex happens. Whether healthy or not, whether consensual or not, whether in marriage or not, sex happens. Pregnancies will, therefore, also happen. We must find a way to deal with this reality without condemnation, demonisation, shaming or rejection.

Finally, I return to the meme which started me off on these reflections. Is a baby in the womb “not a person” in the same way as African tribespeople who were trafficked as slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries or European Jews who were systematically starved, tortured and killed under the Nazi regime. No, I don’t think so. I realise this meme comes from a place that would want to affirm that “life begins at conception” an idea that can be problematic (this article has some helpful thoughts on this point). Even if that is true, “life” is not the same as “a person” – algae and plankton are alive.

But I think the real difficulty is more profound than that. The trans-atlantic slave trade victimised any and all individuals of a dark skin colour that it could. There were traders of both black and white ethnicities, and together they decimated tribes and cultures to feed the industrial and colonial machines of Europe and the Americas. This was the wanton and indiscriminate victimisation of a people group for the sake of greed.

Similarly, any Jew caught under the Nazi regime was subject to discrimination, concentration camps and/or death. No exceptions. The Holocaust also swept up others who protected/helped the Jews, homosexuals, and anyone else considered sub-human for whatever reason. Such people were systematically rounded up, segregated, institutionalised, experimented on, starved and killed. No compassion, no exceptions.

No one is systematically killing all unborn infants. The comparison might work if applied to male infants born to the salves in Egypt at the time of Moses birth. However morally questionable, however disturbing, however much one would wish to stand against abortion. It is not genocide, the wholesale slaughter of an entire group of people for no other reason than they are who they are. Children are born safely every day – the comparison is incorrect.

I didn’t like it when medical professionals referred to my son before his birth as ‘a foetus.’ To me he was always my baby – even when the thing we saw on the monitor looked nothing like an infant. When we went for those scans we could see his heart beating; already at 11 weeks this tiny thing had a heartbeat. I hate abortion. I hate that it happens. I hate that we live in a world where some women find themselves in a situation where they feel they have no other choice than to end a pregnancy in this way.

But there are many other things in the world I hate as well – war, starvation, lack of clean water and sanitation, children growing up with inadequate health care and no education. It’s time we stopped isolating the question of whether or not to end a pregnancy from the complicated emotional, physical, phycological, economic and cultural factors which affect it, and started taking the whole of life seriously, including the lives of the women who will be profoundly affected from the moment they discover they are pregnant, no matter what they decide to do next.

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