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.