00:17, August 12 201 0 theguardian.com

2019-08-12 00:17:05
As a Uniting church minister I think abortion can be a morally good choice

The New South Wales parliament is considering whether a 1900 law that criminalised abortion is appropriate for its regulation in 2019.

In 1900 it was widely accepted that women’s bodies and women’s sexuality were appropriately controlled by patriarchal power inherent in government, medicine, religion, and family life. The 1900 legislation was influenced by the racist ideology of eugenics in response to declining birthrates and claims that “selfish” white women were using abortion to control fertility.

The Reproductive Health Care Reform Bill 2019 legislation treats abortion prior to 22 weeks as a healthcare matter to be determined by the pregnant woman or non-binary person. Agreement of a second doctor is required after 22 weeks, when abortion is almost exclusively sought due to a crisis of foetal or maternal health.

People of faith have as much, but no more, right as other people to engage in public deliberation on matters of law or ethics. As a Uniting church minister and teacher of ethics, I support the move from criminalisation to reproductive justice because it separates divisive questions of moral justification (for or against) from the law that applies to all citizens whatever their religious or ethical beliefs.

The Uniting church acknowledges that its members have diverse views on abortion but holds that it is unjust to criminalise women or doctors for the act of abortion. It advocates a response based on compassion and sensitivity to the complex realities of human life. I contend that recognising the moral agency of women, the capacity of women to make good decisions about whether or not to continue a pregnancy, is crucial for human flourishing, which should be the goal of religion.

In the face of strident (sometimes violent) religious opposition to abortion, some feminists have proclaimed that abortion is a health issue, not a moral issue. I believe it is both. However, unlike some religious voices in this space, I consider that the choice for abortion can be a morally good choice, and that it is morally wrong to coerce a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy.

The ethical debates are undoubtedly divisive. Philosophers, religious leaders, lawyers, bioethicists, and feminist theorists debate the status of the foetus vis-a-vis a woman’s right to bodily integrity and self-determination. Meanwhile, moral decision-making is lived out in the real lives of women who must determine whether or not to continue an unplanned pregnancy.

Women draw on the resources of their personal values including religious beliefs, scientific and medical knowledge, and their moral wisdom. They weigh up sometimes conflicting values in the context of complex lives, giving consideration to their emotional, physical and financial capacity to parent a child; the stability and safety of their relationship with the father; their responsibility to the children they already have; risks to their physical or mental health; and the health of the foetus. While the language of rights is pivotal in the legal debate, the language of care and responsibility, toward other people and themselves, features prominently in women’s moral discernment.

In the public legal and religious debates about abortion, the status and rights of prenatal human life is a central factor. Christian teaching about this is varied, historically and today. It is not true that Christian faith has always taught that life begins at conception. For much of Christian history human personhood was considered to begin at quickening or when the child was able to exist outside its mother’s womb. Abortion has not been regarded as murder of an innocent human by the vast majority of church leaders and theologians. Christian scripture is silent on the topic.

Condemnation of abortion, when it does occur in Christian teaching, was part of a broader rejection of non-procreative sex, and associated with abusive practices of punishing women for sex outside of marriage. Few Christians realise that the Catholic church did not completely prohibit abortion until 1889, or that strident conservative evangelical opposition to abortion, stirred up by the religious and political right in the US, dates from the 1970s.

An ethic of reproductive justice is needed to attend to the broader social context in which women decide whether or not to continue a pregnancy. Criminalising abortion does not address larger social problems that prompt some women to seek abortions. Religious and political leaders who oppose decriminalisation would be far more effective in reducing the numbers of abortions performed in NSW if they addressed issues of poverty and violence in the lives of women and their families.

An ethic of reproductive justice must include attention to the rights of Aboriginal women fighting to limit the state’s involvement in their personal lives, demanding an end to forced sterilisation and the prescription of long-term contraceptives without informed consent, and struggling for the right to have and keep their children.

The current law is unjust. It denies women’s capacity for moral agency. It requires that women justify to a doctor their reasons for seeking what is, in legal terms, a health procedure. It implies that women can’t be trusted.

Abortion is not a trivial decision, but it is one that women should be able to make free of fear that they will be criminalised by the state, or judged by the church. It is time to trust women.

Rev Dr Margaret Mayman is a Uniting church minister and lecturer in theological ethics