The language used about abortion – especially in light of the Supreme Court decision in the USA – has become increasingly vitriolic. Accusations of hate and division seep across the oceans to other nations, and into churches, and sadly, contribute to deep division.
How can I say anything without stepping into controversy – being accused of being a leftist pro-trans activist or a right wing religious bigot?
The Supreme Court judgement has been the catalyst for headlines like: “heavy blow to abortion rights” (Financial Times), “Abortion rights groups take up fight” (NY Times), “new fights over abortion” (CNN) and “pro-life offices torched, vandalised by abortion activists” (Christian Post).
Emotive words and placards leave no space for anyone who might want to pause for thought and acknowledge the moral complexities of being pro-life or pro-choice.
And the pictures of women, protesting for or against make us focus only on the woman’s choices, the woman’s body; the men responsible for the babies are nowhere to be seen. And pregnant women (mostly in their twenties, single and poor) who are already feeling vulnerable and a bit scared, are further pressured and victimised.
Men are let off the hook, while women are burdened with the emotional and financial weight of an unwanted pregnancy.
So how we can talk about abortion and sex with compassion and in ways that do not focus only on unwanted pregnancy?
I think we can all agree that we want to see the number of abortions drastically cut.
I remember being in a meeting years ago with Julia Gillard (former Australian PM) and inter-faith leaders, who were quite hostile to her pro-choice views. She argued sensibly that abortion should be legal, but rare.
Abortions in Great Britain are not rare. They were at a record high in 2021 – over 214,000 terminations . That’s about 1 woman in every 150 women of child bearing age who terminated a pregnancy last year.
Some might have viewed the termination as an easy, consequence-free form of contraception: clinics tend to downplay the emotional pain of terminating a pregnancy – you may feel “deep sadness” for a couple of weeks, says one. But grief, guilt and doubt can be long-lasting, so reducing the number of abortions is in the interests of all.
How do we do that? We educate girls and boys about sex so they make informed decisions. I must admit I wasn’t very good at this with my own kids but I wanted to be! Sex education does not mean teenagers have more sex. Not talking about something doesn’t mean it goes away. Talking sensitively and with a moral framework makes sense.
The liberalisation of sex has not turned out to be such a great freedom for women, because it has been detached from commitment. We all need intimacy and security in relationships. A Psychology Today article said that women “need men to show kindness, patience, understanding, empathy, and compassion.”
But we are so tied up (hopefully not literally) about sex being liberating even when it is not, that young women are afraid to speak about such seemingly traditional values. Louise Perry in her book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution, says women have been cheated by modern attitudes. She posits that sex is different to other interactions and should not be just a commodity. This is not such a revolutionary thing to say – it should not be hard to promote long-term healthy, faithful relationships!
What if we stressed to our boys to take responsibility for their sexual encounters. Right now, men are the winners when it comes to casual sex and it is overwhelmingly women and girls who are still blamed and shunned for their sexual behaviour. The double standard is still alive and well.
We also need to talk about the practical impact of keeping a baby. Even though abortion is framed as a rights issue, having a baby has economic implications which impact the decision to choose abortion. We need to make sure that having a baby does not result in poverty. It is interesting to note that financial insecurity is given as a major reason for abortion in the US and the UK. Women who have terminations are typically in their 20s or 30s. Over half are already mothers. So they are not going to be impressed with a simplistic assurance that it will all be OK.
In the United States, commentators are already saying that it is poor black women who will suffer most from any new abortion bans. Middle class women will be able to take time off work and cross borders to have an abortion or get pills delivered somehow or be able to provide for their child. We cannot make pregnancy into a class war.
When religious leaders brought an adulterous woman to Jesus to quiz him on his knowledge of the legal situation, the story played out unexpectedly. I notice that the religious leaders wanted to blame and punish the woman and I notice that the adulterous man was not publicly shamed – he was not even present. But more than that I notice the response of Jesus.
He did not use the language of hate or division. He asked bigger questions that made the men feel uncomfortable. They melted away, leaving the woman standing there. He was compassionate and truthful, releasing her into new life.
Such an ancient story, but totally modern. I want to be that kind of Jesus follower.
 The media declare all abortions are now “banned” in the US. But this is misleading. It is now up to states to legislate and 26 have indicated they will ban all abortions, in some states even in the case of rape or incest. In 10 states, this will happen almost immediately. Other states will take action to protect the right to abortion.