The Irish referendum to repeal the 8th amendment of the Constitution took place at the weekend. That is was won by such an overwhelming majority confirms a number of things about Irish society, including that the power and influence of the Catholic Church over its members is broken. It is very hard to believe that, when most people look at the 1980s as a time of change and even progress, the people of Ireland were being asked to vote on this regressive measure that was intended, not only to make abortion illegal, but also unconstitutional.
It’s hard to be nuanced in the debate around reproductive rights. It is hard for pro-choicers to admit that some women who undergo terminations later regret their decision; hard too for pro-lifers to admit that there are extreme cases of violence and abuse when only the most hard-hearted would deny a teenager the right to terminate a pregnancy borne of rape or incest. When campaigners start shouting about how simple the choice is, that’s the signal that it is far from easy or straightforward.
I am always saddened when the religious voices heard most clearly are those who offer to play this polarity game. It makes for great TV and shows that broadcasters are being balanced if they can interview two extremists, but it does no justice to those who are caught up in the midst of the complexities.
I am pro-choice, by which I mean that terminations of pregnancies should be accessible to all women, with appropriate counselling and support and free from fear, shame or stigma.
I am pro-life, by which I mean that every termination is regrettable and every effort should be made to ensure that they are early on in the pregnancy, they are safe, and that they are rare.
The Methodist Church’s position is, thank God, nuanced and worthy of an audience. Rather than talk about a definite point at which life begins, the statements of the Conference in 1976, 1990 and 1991 point to a ‘growing significance’ in the individual as it moves from pre-embryo to viable foetus. The language of rights makes little sense when talking about an undifferentiated bunch of cells or even a foetus that is completely reliant on its mother to keep it alive. Whilst there is something qualitatively different between a fertilised egg and, say, a finger, it is not enough to argue for equal human rights with the mother. So early terminations are better than late ones, and better contraception and sex education should prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place.
And differentiated rights are not new. When children are born, they do not have the same set of rights as their parent. Many of their rights are mediated through their parents and require consent. Likewise, people sectioned under the Mental Health Act or imprisoned, or living with dementia, all only have rights in as much as they have capacity. Whether we like it not, responsibility and dependency are key to our current understanding of the human rights of the born. Why should this be different with the unborn?
This vote is also part of a pattern of resistance seen across Europe that includes age of consent, access to contraception, strengthening of laws on rape and domestic violence, and equal marriage. The message is clear: the Church, or anyone else, has no authority over my personhood or my body. This is especially true for those who do not share my experience of personhood or identity: men seeking control over the bodies of women; heterosexuals seeking to control the lives of LGBTQ+ people.
It feels that Church leaders are yet to learn that control is not a weapon that they any longer have access to. They have attempted to assert their influence through guilt and shame, tools they wielded successfully against vulnerable women and minorities. So, Irish women have been, for decades, forced to make a journey abroad, filled with shame and anguish, whilst the men who caused these pregnancies have seen no such reproach. This is why it is a gender issue.
The 21st century Church seems obsessed with sex and scared to get involved in economics or politics. Yet it claims to follow a Saviour who spoke almost nothing about sex and marriage and a huge amount about religious hypocrisy, freedom from shame and economics. When did we stop following …?