To abort or not to abort


Wednesday, February 06, 2019

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There are just some issues in life that will never go away and on which there will never be a settled opinion. Abortion of foetal tissue is one of them.

If by the next 1,000 years we do not end up destroying ourselves by a nuclear holocaust or some other catastrophic event one can be sure that this is an issue that will continue to be debated without any real consensus on either side of the debate. Like hives, it erupts occasionally with passion and emotion.

One recalls how little things have changed over the last 40 years when the subject was a constant moot in high school debates in which one participated. One recalls the passion and emotion which characterised the debates. If anything has changed it is that people have become more passionate about the sides they take, and this is particularly so because it has been interwoven in the politics of the day.

We are going through that 'flare-up' moment in Jamaica in which the Government is being urged to enact legislation to allow women to have greater access to abortion. Hard-core anti-abortionists, and largely religious conservatives, argue that there should be no abortion under any circumstance. For them it is a sanctity of life issue which is strongly prohibited by the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Thus the Government should not give legitimacy to an issue which is clearly proscribed by God.

Those of a more liberal view often reject the scriptural approach and will argue no restraint for abortion under any circumstance. The more radical in this group will argue wholesale abortions with the view that the woman has sovereign control over her body and it is her right to choose or not to choose an abortion. She should not be prevented by law if she so chooses. A more reasonable argument among some in this group is that abortion should be allowed for defined circumstances such as if the mother's life is in danger, or in cases of rape and incest. Many people, with the exception of the hard-core religionists, are likely to consider these caveats reasonable. The reasoning is that a woman should not be compelled by law to bring to term a child that will forever remind her of the traumatic experiences of a rape or impregnation by one's father. How could one object to the termination of a pregnancy when a mother's life is clearly in danger, especially in the first trimester of pregnancy?

Yet, in both the instance of rape or incest it must be left to the mother's right to choose. It should be reasonable to abort the growing foetus in those circumstances, but any decision should be left to the woman, and I would add with the necessary counsel and advice of competent, professional people.

As a priest, I uphold the sanctity of all human life. This is the fundamental reason I am against capital punishment as I do not believe the state should be given any authority to take a human life. I also firmly believe that all life begins at conception. As one whose hobby is gardening, and does so successfully, I understand that however hard a grain of red pea or corn is, it has in it the kernel of life. If I put it in the 'womb' of the ground, and conditions are right, it will germinate, grow and go on to reproduce its kind many times over.

As far as biology allows it takes the sperm (seed from a man) to fuse with the egg of a woman in the womb for life to begin. The question is whether the beginning of life philosophically meets the definition of personhood. Some argue that it does not; others that it does. I see conception as a progression to personhood as that growing foetus emerges into a fully formed person by the third trimester. For this reason I would not countenance late-term abortions, or any abortion after the first month of pregnancy. Of course, this would not include natural abortions as in a miscarriage. Although one does not agree with abortion even in the first month of pregnancy — apart from the caveats noted above — I can see the veracity of the application of the “morning-after pill” (levonorgestrel) if there is fear of pregnancy on the bursting of a condom, or if one forgot to take necessary precautions to avoid pregnancy. Even then, one cannot be sure whether conception occurred, much less to say a person is being killed in the womb.

It is the politicisation of abortion, especially in America, which has complicated debate on abortion. The debate is often around the woman's right to choose. But what about the man's rights? Does he have a say in the decision to terminate in an act in which he clearly had to participate?

It must be noted that in loving relationships between couples there is consensus in the decision-making process and so the man's position is accounted for. Understandably, the debate is more heavily weighted in the direction of the woman's rights since she has to bear the greater burden of carrying the child to birth. But there ought to be greater recognition of where the man stands.

Also, abortion is more than a religious matter. It has serious legal, political, social and economic implications which cannot be left to the sole determination of a religious community. We must insist on the sanctity of life in all spheres, but we must also be open to all aspects of life that are threatened by the predation of others. It may be easy for some to argue, and sometimes glibly, that all abortion is murder without an appreciation for the murderous criminality which is a plague on our society.

In considering abortions, women must avail themselves of all the help such as counselling services that are available to them. Abortion should never be an easy decision to make. Neither should it be lightly considered. A woman must consider carefully the precious gift which is given to her alone to bear a child and nurture it to become a productive citizen. Abortions can have long-lasting psychological consequences in which guilt becomes a permanent resident in one's life. The social and economic costs must be considered and women should ponder the possibility of their child being adopted, instead of being aborted. She may very well be eliminating an Einstein or the potential founder of a cure for cancer.

In a country like Jamaica, where religious sensibilities run deep, and often on a hypocritical grid, we must be very careful of any theocratic approach to abortion. The views of God cannot be shrivelled down to the often-parochial emphases that we adopt. Life is more complicated than that. God would expect us to be open to the full ramifications of the debate and not pin him down to narrow ecclesiastical definitions of what we believe to be right or wrong. The God that I know is too expansive to be so narrowed.


Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or

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