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Angela Tilby: Pro-choice and -life both fall short

01 July 2022


Pro-life and pro-choice protesters confront each other outside the US Supreme Court last week

Pro-life and pro-choice protesters confront each other outside the US Supreme Court last week

OVER many years, I have listened, as a colleague and friend and also as a priest, to individual women who have wanted to talk about abortion. Those who have chosen to have the procedure to end an unwanted pregnancy often express relief, sometimes overladen with guilt; others express lasting regret. It is hardly surprising that, after the US Supreme Court’s ruling to end the constitutional right to abortion, feelings in the States are running high. Donald Trump is claiming that God made the decision, and pro-choice supporters describe it as part of a fascist takeover.

Three years ago, the celebrated American priest and author Fleming Rutledge explored her own mixed responses to the issue in a helpful (if inconclusive) blog (available to read at generousorthodoxy.org).

She starts from the conviction that abortion is a violation of human life and an offence to the Creator. Yet she wonders why so many of those who are vehemently pro-life are relatively indifferent to other such violations, such as the murders committed by easily available guns. And she worries that few pro-lifers show much interest in support for those pregnant women whom they would compel to go to full term, let alone for their babies. There is a chronic shortage of babies in the Western world available for adoption; so she implies that the pro-life position falls short ethically because it fails to follow through.

Yet she cannot accept the slogan “A woman’s right to choose.” As she notes, “There are two other human beings in this equation, the father and the unborn (not to mention God).” Pro-choice arguments simply exclude them, and that is unjust.

She compares the well-worked Roman Catholic arguments against abortion to the theological and ethical emptiness of most of the Protestant Churches, which, she says, have tended to line up uncritically with secular, pro-choice voices. (Apparently, however, since the Supreme Court’s judgment, a group of Episcopalians have produced a template for a liturgy of lament and healing, which, they hope, can be used by both sides.)

She admires Mario Cuomo, who, as Governor of New York, made a speech in 1984 in which he declared his unwavering loyalty to the teaching of the RC Church at the same time as refusing to make abortion illegal.

The Church of England’s stance is fairly conservative, and I am grateful for that. I am also grateful that our pastoral tradition allows us to respond to those considering or coming to terms with abortion without judgement. No individual should have to bear sole responsibility for a choice that society has shown that it cannot deal with. What I most appreciated about Fleming Rutledge’s blog was her willingness to live with the discomfort of the question: she was not seeking a comforting via media between two views, but enduring, and witnessing to, the sharpness of their opposition.

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