It’s the sort of case that is, thank God, extremely rare but when exposed re-ignites the entire abortion debate. A 10-year-old girl in Paraguay is pregnant after her stepfather allegedly raped her. Her mother has been charged with failing to protect her child. Abortion is illegal in this bastion of conservative Catholicism unless the life of the mother is in danger and in a grotesque and convoluted response the authorities have argued that the little girl could survive the pregnancy and thus will not receive an abortion. The incident has divided Paraguay, where sexual abuse of young girls and teenage pregnancies are a major problem, and led to protests outside of the country. Leading, always, to a great deal of shouting but very little listening.
The notion of criminalizing abortion in any jurisdiction is repugnant. Even beyond the obvious hideousness of the Paraguayan example it would criminalize millions of people and alienate even more. It would give state legitimization and authority to a minority view and what is to a very large extent a particular religious teaching. It’s the use of a clumsy hammer on a fragile discussion, would never work in Canada and is little more than a demand from those who prefer pious failure to holy success.
That having been said, abortion is never desirable and life is indeed sacred. Aside from the possible physical risks and emotional consequences to the mother — which many abortion advocates insist on denying in spite of mounting evidence — there are also some deeply significant questions to be asked about what it says of the human condition and the nature of human life. But the way to limit abortion is various and complex and involves a sound sex education given to young people, the eradication of poverty and the empowerment of women, particularly in Third World nations.
Which is where it all becomes even more paradoxical because the standard approach from the more aggressive opponents of abortion is to call for draconian laws and to ignore, dismiss or even reject genuine gender equality, modern sex education and meaningful campaigns against poverty; frankly most of these aspects of progress and change are entire catechisms away from what most within anti-abortion circles consider important or even acceptable. So those reforms that might actually reduce the number of abortions are ones to which the anti-abortion movement is either opposed or indifferent.
One of the tragedies of the entire issue and consequent debate is that the irrational now infects both sides. Those who claim to be pro-life have adopted abortion as a sacrament of their faith and as we often learn to our great cost there is limited if any room for debate within religious fundamentalism. They have convinced themselves that they satisfy the Christian call to compassion and social justice by an exclusive commitment to opposing abortion, even comparing it to the Holocaust. Some of their language is dangerously obsessive and, while I have met numerous people who seem to love the unborn, their affection for the born is often a little less obvious. Believe me, I have witnessed this yawning contradiction in abundance in the past few weeks. Some of my cruelest and most dishonest critics since I began worshipping in an Anglican church have been Catholic pro-life activists. I say this not in anger but in great sorrow.
If we genuinely believe in the beauty of life we have to accept it as a seamless garment and must see God in the homeless, the poor, the marginalized and the broken just as much as we do in the unborn. Listen to the silent scream by all means, but never close our ears to the cries of the living.
On the other side within those who defend abortion rights as a bulwark of modern civility there is often a worrying intransigence. Abortion is seen as an end itself, an outward manifestation of the victory of progress and modernity. They have a point of course but it leads to a refusal to listen to some elegantly moderate and compelling arguments about the definition of human life and its beginnings. It simply won’t do to claim that abortion is a morally neutral or even cosmetic procedure; it defies the reality of the experience, scientific knowledge and the invincible splendour of motherhood.
Finding some axis of moderation and consensus is difficult and surely Canada’s lack of any abortion law at all is not the answer. Much of the western world prevents abortions from taking place after the third month of pregnancy. While the truth is that the vast majority of abortions take place before this time anyway and that doctors may be willing to be somewhat liberal with chronology if a woman is perhaps a week or two later than that in her pregnancy, such a law does at least provide a moral guideline, a symbol of compromise and an admission that this is not just about excess tissue and that we are indeed listening to all opinions.
One thing we know for certain is that a nation drenched in archaic perceptions of gender equality and myriad social challenges has little to offer this debate and in this case is behaving abhorrently. A terrified little girl victimized by those around her and forced by a government to give birth to the child of her rapist? That is not justice, that is not life, that is not right. God must be weeping.
Coren can be contacted and booked for speaking at firstname.lastname@example.org