‘Dad, I’m pregnant,’ is one statement, that whatever the context, I’ll be very mixed about. If she’s in a loving mutual relationship, I’ll be elated, at the same realising that my daughter is going to be yet another step away as her family becomes a more self-contained unit.
The other extreme would be a violent rape. Where I’d be desperately trying to hold my broken child, angry and filled with self-loathing for not protecting my own.
But what if she says, ‘I don’t know whether to keep it.’ ?
This hypothetical situation is important. Because it is a possibility. Hopefully beyond remote yet a possibility. The recent death of a woman in Ireland and Mehdi Hasan’s article brought to the fore my need to possibly try and get to the bottom of where my beliefs are considering the rather complex question of abortion.
There are two camps here on the issue known by very loaded terms. Pro-life often associated with right-wingers who believe that the foetus must be protected at all costs and Pro-life often associated with left-wingers who believe it is the mother’s right to decide at all costs. Of course there are large cross overs and gradations for this. Any blog post on such a topic will be simplistic!
Both the names of the camps are misnomers. I think at the centre quite literally the question is : what is the nature and being of this biological event that’s happening within a woman? Some pro-lifers say that from the instance of conception that this is human life and therefore sacred. Some pro-choicers say that until this biological entity can survive on its own it is not a person of its own but part of the woman’s body and therefore under the full sway of the woman’s decisions.
Guess what? I have sympathy for both sides. I don’t think that just because an entity can’t survive or speak for itself means that it can be dealt with any way. At same time women so often have pregnancy forced on them through rape and coercion. Then in some cases a lifetime of resentment against what becomes a human being.
The question that I’d like to look at is what a person is. The thoughts of Zizioulas have been quite influential in how I at least think about what persons are. The essential rational I reckon for what a person is, is defined by her network of relationships that she has. Zizioulas defines these relationships primarily with the Trinitarian God to which I agree but I think it’s more than that. I think the network of human relationships is also key to what makes a person.
So my relationships with my family, friends, work colleagues all make me who I am. I don’t think there is any ‘real me’ or ‘real you’ stored in some metaphysical hard disk out there. As a Christian I believe that the relationship with God is a key part of realising my personhood.
So what of this biological thing in the womb? I remember my lecturer Max Turner saying that Jesus at his point of conception was loved by the Father and the Spirit and so it opens up a set questions around the issue of abortion. This is quite interesting. If at the point of conception this biological thing is loved does it become a person and therefore wrong to curtail its existence? Reflecting further upon this, the one thing that we didn’t discuss is Mary’s part in the conception of Jesus
It’s interesting that Mary doesn’t just find herself pregnant one day. An angel comes and gives her a long spiel. (Sorry Gabriel). But she’s sensible. She wants to know how, since she’s a virgin. She’s practical. The angel then explains. Mary then says let it be as God says. There is a strong sense that Mary needs to agree. Joseph isn’t told of this plan. He only hears of it afterwards. So I think in some sense Mary chooses to have Jesus. She knows it’s going to be hard. Yet she chooses it.
Then she concieves. I believe that it’s Mary’s choice that allows Jesus to be an incarnated person. The cell that is Christ is fully dependant upon Mary’s body, and fully loved by the Father and Spirit, but Mary too loves him. And I think it’s the mother’s choice that makes Christ a person in the incarnated sense.
So the question comes up if Jesus wasn’t loved by Mary does that make him a non person. I think it’s a bit nuanced. The initial cell which is the basis of the human is responding purely biological initially. But as it grows it starts realising that there is an environment out there. I think all this constitutes a person. So obviously when a foetus is older it’s no longer an unthinking, unfeeling bit of biology but on the path to becoming an individual.
So from this rather simplistic and shortened view I regard myself to have some pro-choice leanings. I’m definitely pro-life too. I believe that the biological thing has the potential to be a full person but I think in the very initial stages of conception there is an ambiguity as to when personhood begins. From Mary’s story I believe it is the mother who initially confers personhood on this bunch of cells and later as the cells grow other factors outside the mother contribute in the conferring of personhood.
So when the mother has been forced to concieve through rape, I think that this hateful encounter does allow her not to love this biological thing in her. And therefore for the initial ambiguous time that is not a person. Now defining this ambiguous time does bring us back to these arguments about 24 weeks and 20 weeks and so on.
There’s another story in the bible that informs me about what I think of abortion. Jesus’ ancestor David went through his most disgusting phase when he had sex with Bathsheba and had her husband killed (2 Sam 11,12). I think it is fair to classify this as coerced sex. A child was born from this but then died. The circumstance of conception meant that this child died. Yes I know it’s after the child is born and from my viewpoint already had some sort of personhood however, the circumstance in which the child started it’s biology was the reason why it couldn’t survive. So I think definitely in the case of rape I think that the hateful nature of the conception allows the mother to not confer personhood.
Later in 2 Sam 12:24 it says that David comforted Bathsheba and made love to her. (NIV) Now the circumstances have changed. From this event Solomon is born who becomes an iconic king.
So to sum up I think that I’m both prochoice and prolife. I believe that from the point of conception that that cell is a person if the mother has been a willing participant in the consumation. Of course there are lots of other issues around this which I haven’t touched but this is the simplistic version anyway.
So what if my daughter comes to me with that question? Well first I would like to hope that I could do everything for that question not to come up. That she could live safely and would have a sex life that’s responsible and mutual and faithful. This requires education, open conversations and of course more maturity for both boys and girls. But accidents do happen and if I still have to deal with this question then I would hope that there is a safe way and supportive way to manage my daughter’s choice. I will offer all my love and support whatever her decision. I would have hopefully spoken to her about it much earlier and she’ll know where I stand. I would hope that there would be good support from hospitals and doctors. I would also hope that there is much more open research into understanding what life means at this pre-natal level so that in the event of a horrible event or a mindless accident we can be supported and helped through a difficult decision.