Earlier this week BBC European news reported: “A controversial bill in Spain to end women’s right to abortion on demand is set to be passed after an opposition challenge was defeated in parliament.” Abortion on demand was only introduced in Spain in 2010 in legislation passed by the Socialists. Since then the ruling power has moved to the conservative Popular Party. The new legislation will restrict abortion to cases of rape or where the mother can prove that having the child will pose a severe risk to their physical or mental health.
Discussing abortion (but not rights)
Abortion raises many conflicting opinions. The reporting quotes ‘rights of the child’, protestors in particular talk of women’s rights. The Catholic Church supports the new legislation.
For myself, I could wish abortion did not exist (other than mother nature’s will). But wishing won’t make it go away.
I can only begin to imagine the mental and emotional anguish of having my body nurturing a new life created from a traumatic beginning and I could wish that no child was conceived because of rape. I could wish that rape did not exist. But wishing won’t change things.
I don’t believe any parent truly wants a child with disabilities* and I could wish that no child was born with severe disabilities. But wishing won’t help them or their parents.
* This is not including societies where a disability, especially in a child, is seen as an advantage when it comes to begging. If acute poverty did not exist and begging was not necessary then I still doubt that any parent would truly want a child with disabilities.
I could wish that all children were planned and conceived within a loving and stable relationship. I could wish that no child was unwanted. I could wish that no child was conceived from incest or sexual abuse. I could wish a lot of things but wishing doesn’t change reality.
The “good old days”
There was a time of course when abortion was not legally or readily available, although to some extent it has always existed: the medicine woman who knows of a few herbs that will do the trick, the back street abortionist with her famed knitting needle. Women desperate enough have always found ways to end an unwanted pregnancy, despite the risks to their own health in these practices. And often, in their time, for very good reasons: it’s only a hundred years ago that in England a pregnancy outside of marriage resulted in the woman being imprisoned (for life) in a mental health institution and her baby forcibly removed at birth. Pregnant teenagers and young women might be lucky and sent to a maiden aunt somewhere in the country where they could give birth in secret and return, childless, to their family, the family reputation still intact, the ‘future’ of the girl restored. Even as late as the mid 1970’s something like this happened to a 15 year old relative of mine, who was sent to a young mother’s unit for her pregnancy and birth.
Those were the not so good features of the ‘good old days’. But there was one aspect of life 100 years ago that we have since lost: the value placed on family and community. A young couple facing the birth of another child in an already overcrowded home might have the option of one or more of their children living with aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. Such as when, in the early 1900’s, after the death of his father and with the family sinking deeper into poverty, my grandfather went to live with a childless aunt and uncle. In many African, Caribbean and Latin American cultures today it is still possible to see communities where parenting is seen as the responsibility of the wider family group, where childcare is shared, where children are loved and absorbed into the community without stigma or concern.
Are there alternatives to abortion? Not many.
Pregnancy outside of marriage is no longer stigmatised. It no longer carries the shame. Illegitimacy is no longer stigmatised. In fact the word illegitimate is increasingly falling out of use. However, before the 1926 Legitimacy Act a child carried the stigma of illegitimacy until death regardless of whether or not their parents later married. After 1926 legitimacy was granted providing the child had not been conceived while either parent was married to someone else, but it was not until the 1959 Legitimacy Act that children were legitimised regardless of whether either of their parents had been previously married or their marriage annulled for some reason. That should have been great news for my father but to this day he still feels the acute shame of his generation, of having been ‘born out of wedlock’.
What this means is that there is a realistic option to abortion inasmuch as giving birth and caring for the child is an option today in a way it was not an option 100 years ago. And certainly that has been an choice for many if the cries and criticisms of the likes of the Daily Mail castigating profligate ‘single mothers’ is anything to go by. They can’t win can they. Condemned by pro-lifers for opting for abortion, condemned by the government and press as scroungers and wasters if they don’t.
Which only leaves one other option: adoption. And here I return to my ‘wish list’. I could wish that society was more tolerant of women who choose to give birth and then willingly allow their child to be adopted. It’s no easier a decision than abortion, in some ways it is more difficult. Both result in emotional pain. But abortion can be done in secret. Adoption is very public. We live in a society where it is automatically assumed that a pregnant woman will want to keep her child: after all, she would have had it aborted otherwise. Standing up and say, ‘Yes, I’m pregnant but I’m choosing to have my child adopted because …..’ takes a special strength of character, and support from those closest to her.
The role of the Church and other religions
It’s all very well for the Catholic church to support the change in legislation in Spain, severely restricting the option of abortion. It goes completely with religious beliefs that life is sacred, that abortion is murder, that only God can give or take life. But focusing on topics like this is taking the easy option – and legislation doesn’t change human behaviour. It’s also not real life for a significant proportion of society. The church (and other religions against abortion) should be asking why women want abortions, why there is rape and incest, why families struggle and break down. And then the really hard question: what can they do to support society so that the cause of what they perceive to be the ‘problem of abortion’ is tackled rather than the symptom.
In doing so, perhaps religions will also be helping young women to choose the open difficult path to adoption rather than the secret path to abortion. Then at least young women will have three genuine choices when faced with an unwanted pregnancy rather than just two.