Abortion should not be 'a silent topic'
So reads a BBC News headline published this week, quoting Audrey Diwan, the director of Happening (L'événement in the original French). Diwan was nominated for the best director BAFTA in 2001 and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for her work on this film based on a 2000 novel by French author Annie Ernaux. The film tells the story of a lady who becomes pregnant during her university studies in France in 1963, twelve years before abortion was legalised there, who seeks an illegal abortion. Diwan says she was drawn to the story because she read the book soon after having an abortion herself. The director is quoted as saying:
I was mesmerised by this story of this very brave character and everything she wanted her life to be. But I was enraged by this story of illegal abortion. Women can't even imagine what it was like then.
It's a special book, but it's the only one of Annie's that wasn't really noticed by journalists at the time. Abortion has been a silent topic somehow. I think there is fear - we fear a woman's body and its secrets.
I don't agree with Diwan that the reason why abortion is sometimes a silent topic is because of fear of women's bodies. I think the main reason is shame because some people may disapprove and because, deep down, most women know that what has been done is wrong. This is despite the fact that such untruths are woven arounf this issue, such as when the BBC article says that making abortion harder to access may mean that "some women who seek an abortion struggle to find a safe termination for their pregnancies". This is a euphemism. Abortion is not simply terminating a pregnancy - it is killing an unborn human being. As such, it can never be safe for one of the two human beings it affects! Having said this, I agree with Diwan that women should feel able to open up about their experience of abortion so that they can find support and help. It is never helpful to pretend and to hide the truth, even if it is shameful, and Christians and others who are opposed to abortion should be concerned to show love to women after abortions just as much as to their unborn children. We are pro-every-life and we believe in forgiveness and restoration.
This news story caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly, during last week the team who organise the NIvoiceless events, which I am privileged to chair, met during the past week to debrief after our gathering at Stormont (seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly) towards the end of March. The event commemorated lives lost to abortion since our laws changed two years ago, highlighted the importance of every life and urged people to stand, speak and serve for life. Several hundred people joined in. In our first event, before the law changed, we had an estimated 20,000. Why have the numbers dropped so much? There may be several reasons, including the fact that people remain wary of large gatherings so soon after the removal of COVID restrictions, but there seems to be a dimension that some people were willing to 'protest' when they thought it might change the law, but now that the law has changed some of these accommodate to the reality of abortion which, after all, they don't see daily. Sadly, people complained to us on the day that their churches had not been announcing the event. We could only say that we had done all we could to let churches know about it - whether they announce it is up to them. We still believe, though, that a large annual gathering to remember lost lives and keep the issue to the fore is important and can serve those pro-life organisations doing excellent providing practical support to families in need and to campaign for a change in the law. Why should we not have an annual remembrance day for these lives just as we do for lives lost in wars?
The second reason this story caught my attention is that we have local Assembly elections coming at the start of May. In Northern Ireland we have several parties and many politicians that claim to be pro-life, often on the basis of Christian convictions - in this we are quite blessed. Yet I have watched with interest the election literature that has come through my door to see what the parties are saying about this issue. After all, this is the first Assembly election since our laws around abortion changed and the changes were not made by locally elected politicians but undemocratically from Westminster without a single NI member of parliament voting for them. Surely this would be a high priority issue for truly pro-life parties and politicians? Yet only two of the parties standing in or around the constituency I live in make a mention of the issue - one as a footnote on its leaflet and the other as the first priority on its election posters. How can any other issue be more important that this? I am not saying that the economy, the Northern Ireland Protocol, healthcare, equality and education are unimportant. Of course they matter! But what point is there in any of them if we embrace the lies that underpin abortion?
Let me explain why I believe this issue is the most fumdamental facing NI at this time and why I agree with Audrey Diwan that abortion should not be "a silent topic", not only in that women should be able to speak about it but also in that everyone should be speaking about it and politicians who are truly pro-life should be making it their top priority. Abortion is not just a private issue for pregnant women or a personal decision for them to make. It affects us all. Why? Because it strikes at the very foundation of a fair and just society in two ways:
Abortion denies the most basic of all human rights, the right to life. If we accept abortion, we accept the principle that some human lives (yes, because there is no debate about the fact that unborn children are, from conception, human lives) should not be protected in law and have no right to continue. If we accept that for unborn lives, how can we defend the right to life of others? Someone might argue that an unborn child is a living human but not a person, but now we have a very strange category of 'human non-person'. Who else might we put in that category? Why not the severely disabled or the elderly infirm? You might find that abhorrent, but serious ethicists argue the case and I think you'll struggle to argue your point if you accept that it is alright to kill unborn children. Perhaps more pointedly, why should I not put my own life in the category of 'ok to end it'? If I find myself depressed and suicidal, how can you argue that I should not act on my impulse? If I do not want my own life should I not have the right to end it just as a mother can choose a course of action that ends the life of her unborn child? In fact, is it not all the more true that I can reject my own right to life - after all it's my life, not that of another. How can a society that accepts abortion truly and consistently work against suicide, which is widely accepted as a great tragedy and social ill?
Abortion undermines parental love. There is another, less direct, link between acceptance of abortion and the undermining of the value of the lives of persons living after birth. Parental love is unique among human loves in that it is unchosen. We choose our romatic partners and friends, but we do not choose our children. We receive them as strangers and yet we love them instinctively. When parents are committed to their children, this provides a stability that sets a child on a steady path in life. I can say, and often do, to my children, with complete honesty, that their mother and I love them unconditionally, would have loved them whatever they were like and will always love them whatever they do. I can think of nothing that provides greater security for a child in this tough world. I would add from a Christian perspective that this love of mine can help them to understand the nature of God's love for them. But what if my wife and I had countenanced the idea of abortion? I could not then honestly say these things to my children. The best I could say is "I love you because you came at the right time for us and you had none of the kinds of disabilities that might have caused us to have you aborted". I realise there are few pro-abortion parents who would be that honest with their child, but I hope you see my point. Now extrapolate that to a societal level. If we accept abortion, what we are saying is that lives have value not intrinsically but because someone made a judgement that this particular life was wanted. How, then, can we as a society tell people that their lives matter?
These are not the only reasons I believe abortion to be a great evil, but they are reasons that are not, in my experience, discussed enough. I want to reiterate that I hope, with Audrey Diwan,that women post-abortion can feel free to speak about their experience so that they can find the support they will need after their trauma and, ultimately, the forgiveness for the wrong they have been complicit in and the assurance of their own inestimable worth that only God can give. But I also hope that those who see how evil abortion is will not be silent on this issue. If you are a NI voter, please think about this issue when you decide who to vote for. And please speak gently and humbly to people about the value of life. Yes, be sensitive to the fact that you may be speaking to someone who has had an abortion, but we must speak about the wonder of human development and the reasons why every life is precious from day one. If you're able, please also serve women in need by giving to and volunteering for organisations or ministries that provide practical help, a listening ear or a safe home (or maybe offer these yourself informally as a friend. Please don't let abortion be 'a silent topic'.
If you are a Christian and want to clarify or express your beliefs about abortion, please see the Life Affirmation, which you can also sign: www.lifeaffirmation.org.
If you live in NI and want to know about NIvoiceless or organisations providing practical support to women around pregancy please visit the NIvoiceless page: www.nivoiceless.com.