A Reflection on the Abortion drug RU-486

(made available in Kippax Church foyer Feb 2006)

The safety of this drug is obviously an important issue. Who decides on its safety is also an important issue. These are matters that are disputed in the public arena.

However, a more fundamental issue is at stake here. The effect of RU-486 is to terminate the life of an embryo/foetus. It is evident that many people in our society are of the opinion that a woman should have the right to do this, if that is her choice. What values are the people who espouse this opinion upholding? How reasonable is their point of view?

Two values stand out. One is respect for an individual’s freedom to choose. Another is compassion. It must often be a truly traumatic experience to find oneself unexpectedly pregnant, especially if a woman is not supported by a strong commitment from the man involved, and feels herself without support from other significant people in her life. It is often traumatic for the man as well. Surely our first response to those who find themselves in this situation must be love, and love that is as practical as circumstances allow. Clearly, it is such compassion that moves some people to support a woman’s right to procure an abortion. Some argue as well that abortion can be the simplest and most effective way of removing the trauma and bringing healing and peace. Others argue that the data does not support this.

There are other ways of showing compassion and helping out. There are other choices that the pregnant woman and the others involved can make. Some women, often with significant supportive love, but not always, have chosen to continue the pregnancy. Some have chosen to keep the child. Others have adopted the child out to loving people who have nurtured the child with joy and the child has matured beautifully. In this, as in all other areas where we humans are involved, things do not always work out for the best, but where genuine love is brought to bear, beautiful things can and do happen.

Even if we assume that people are acting from the best of motives, and are genuinely concerned with the values of freedom and love, the question still remains: Is it right to terminate the life of an embryo/foetus? The values that a society upholds are supported by laws that, for the common good, curtail individual freedom in many areas. Should this be one?

We don’t have to prove that we are dealing here with life. Nor do we have to prove that we are dealing with the early stages of human life, and human life that is distinct from that of the mother or the father. An embryo/foetus is not ‘a part of the woman’s body’ as is sometimes claimed. It is utterly dependent on the mother for its survival, and so is utterly vulnerable, but it is a distinct being.

Thanks to advances in medicine, it is rare that a pregnancy is a threat to the mother’s life. In these situations we try to save both lives, but if we cannot, we do all we can to save the life of the mother, even if this requires that we terminate the life of the embryo/foetus, which would die in any case if the mother were to die. The vast majority of abortions are not in such a life-threatening situation. Clearly not everyone finds a problem with terminating human life in the early months of a pregnancy. Others judge that we should respect life even in its earliest stages. There are arguments around crime and especially around unjust aggression, where, as a last resort, the only way to defend life is to take the life of an unjust aggressor. But no rational person supports taking the life of someone who is innocent, in order to attain some goal, however attractive. Isn’t this what we are doing when we procure an abortion? Some wonder what all the ‘fuss’ is about since embryos/foetuses are being naturally aborted all the time. In some places infant mortality is tragically high. Does that make infanticide defensible?

We need to ask: How healthy is a society that sees the terminating of innocent life in its early stages as a solution to the problems associated with ‘unwanted’ pregnancy? It is tragic not to be wanted by one’s biological mother and/or father. But a woman/man can come to ‘want’ what was initially ‘unwanted’, and there are others, apart from our biological parents, who can ‘want’ us and love us very beautifully. We need to ask: Is it reasonable to argue for abortion on the basis of a woman’s right over her own body when science clearly demonstrates that an embryo/foetus, while utterly dependent upon the mother, is a separate, living, human being in the early stages of development – a development that continues after birth and right through life?

Some are claiming that those who oppose the procurement of abortion are driven by religious convictions, and that they are trying to impose their views on the community. Certainly, those who believe in a God of love are influenced by their religious beliefs when it comes to how they behave. But the arguments against procuring abortion are based on values that are supported by careful reasoning, not by arbitrary religious prejudice. Pope Benedict XVI in his recent encyclical states clearly (n.28) that the Church does not seek to impose its views on the State, which has the responsibility for making laws for the good of the whole community. However, the Church has the right and the duty to keep before people’s minds and hearts the values revealed by Jesus. It is hard to imagine a more important value for a healthy society to uphold than that of respect for life. It is important that the arguments are presented with clarity and compassion. If truth is to prevail, it should be by winning people’s minds and hearts. Truth must persuade by its own persuasive power.

As disciples of Jesus let us keep love to the forefront and let us check that our convictions are, indeed, rational, and our arguments clear. If we fail to love, no one will listen. If we are genuinely moved by compassion and are genuinely seeking a way forward that will, indeed, keep society healthy by supporting cherished values, and so help bring true liberation and dignity and peace to people, we can continue to hope that reason, supported by love, will lead to the triumph of truth, the truth that will ‘set us free’(John 8:32), the truth that will lead us to ‘live and to live to the full’ (John 10:10).

Appendix: From Benedict XVI God is Love n. 28

‘The Church’s social teaching argues on the basis of reason and natural law, namely, on the basis of what is in accord with the nature of every human being. It recognizes that it is not the Church's responsibility to make this teaching prevail in political life. Rather, the Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well as greater readiness to act accordingly, even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest. Building a just social and civil order, wherein each person receives what is his or her due, is an essential task that every generation must take up anew. As a political task, this cannot be the Church's immediate responsibility. Yet, since it is also a most important human responsibility, the Church is duty-bound to offer, through the purification of reason and through ethical formation, her own specific contribution towards understanding the requirements of justice and achieving them politically.

The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper. A just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church. Yet the promotion of justice through efforts to bring about openness of mind and will to the demands of the common good is something which concerns the Church deeply.’