IT IS impossible to set aside the political aspect of last week’s United States Supreme Court decision that overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade judgment recognising abortion as a constitutional right. The identification of abortion as a faultline between the US political parties and its use as a means of rallying support for a morally dubious president are well documented. As a result, a topic that deserves a considered and compassionate response has been turned into a binary argument between two misleadingly simple extremes: a baby’s right to exist and an individual mother’s right to decide whether it does. Churches, including those in the UK, need to reflect on their contribution to this state of affairs. It is unhelpful for Christians to express absolute opposition while at the same offering little support to women or couples faced with such a serious decision.
Since the case for permitting abortion now needs to be made afresh, it is perhaps easiest to start with medical dilemmas. Even strong opponents of abortion favour preserving a mother’s life at the expense of her unborn child, and rightly so. Orthodox Christians believe that humanity’s ultimate value is realised in the relationship of persons to God and to one another. Where choices must be made, a mother’s web of relationships may be favoured over the foetus’s, which are as yet undeveloped.
Aside from medical emergencies, each woman who considers an abortion — and it is worth noting that 93 per cent of abortions in the US in 2019 occurred during the first trimester, the period when the common occurrence of miscarriage hints at what nature thinks of the sacredness of life — is attempting to predict her own and her potential child’s future. Those who oppose abortion tend to dismiss financial arguments; but, when society at large denies its relational responsibilities with its poorest members, as a Republican-led United States has, pregnant women are forced to make a choice based on their individual circumstances. Christians will be happier with an argument based on relationships rather than material concerns, but, even here, human responses are complex. One victim of rape might choose an abortion with a clear conscience. Another, and this is particularly evident in Africa, where rape is widely used as a weapon of war, might see her child as redemption from within that trauma.
Every person considering an abortion faces a unique set of circumstances. The fact that this is not merely a decision about a “group of cells” but about a wider web of relationships argues that abortion should remain one of the options available to women, while resisting its casual or coercive use. Once again, the Church bears a weight of responsibility, having in the past contributed to the stigma faced by many pregnant women in difficult or dangerous circumstances. But it has a gospel message of mercy and release for those who must make hard choices, even bad ones. As a consequence, the Church must play an active part in supporting lawmakers who seek to recognise the complexity of this issue. Those who seek to outlaw abortion tout court do not fall into this category.