The abortion argument: I just don’t get it

Everyone knows the Catholic Church is opposed to abortion in principle, and for a very simple reason. But I will come to that soon. For now, let me just note that I say “in principle” because of the tendency for opponents of the church to suggest that, by being against abortion, the church is condemning all women who have had a termination, or is just anti-woman to start with. That, of course, is absurd. The church understands that many women resort to abortion in desperation, feeling they have little or no choice. They are not bad people. It’s a fault in our society that there is not more support available.

Society has again recently been caught up in debate about, so let’s start by looking at the social reality of abortion. How many abortions are performed in Australia? It seems ridiculous in 2019, but the fact is, nobody knows. South Australia has kept records, and Western Australia more recently, but national figures are only estimates. The present estimate is 60,000–65,000 abortions. Compare that to 309,142 live births in 2017, about one termination for every six births. The leading cause of death in Australia, ischaemic heart disease, killed 18,590 people. Our appalling incidence of suicide was 3128 or about 5% of the number of abortions. What sort of draconian programs would governments introduce if 60,000 died on the roads each year, or in industrial accidents? Even those who insist the foetus is not a person must see what a massive loss of human potential is involved.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric around abortion has become threadbare. In the old days of abortion law “reform”, we used to hear a lot about women who had been raped, children with birth defects and births that threatened the mother’s life. These situations are hardly mentioned now. Thanks to South Australia, we know that 0.7% of abortions there were performed to protect the physical health of the mother and that 3.7% were performed because of foetal abnormality. Fully 95.7% of SA abortions were for the mother’s mental health and well-being. So the rhetoric has had to shift. In NSW recently it was all about women’s “reproductive rights”. Abortion was presented as properly a medical matter, a women’s health issue.

Which brings me to the church. We cannot accept that abortion is solely a matter of women’s rights. There is so clearly another life involved, another set of rights. From the beginning, the unborn child is genetically distinct from the mother. She is female; the little incipient life within her may well be male. She’s tall and blonde, but the genes say the child will be short and dark. Legal systems are already being asked to deal with events in the womb. If it’s wrong to be drinking or using drugs while pregnant, because it might harm the child, how can it be OK to do the ultimate harm, to take the child’s very life? I just don’t get the argument.

Let’s end by saying again that neither the church nor I want to condemn any particular person. People have not known what else they could do. People have been coerced or at least told by other people that this is what they must do. Women have been led to believe that it’s their right. What I have written is not about blaming anyone, though I realise that I may cause distress to some. I am sorry for that, but silence about where we have arrived on this issue is not really an option. To lose a child in the womb by misadventure is tragic for parents. How can we, as a sort of nation-family, avert our eyes from the loss of tens of thousands of our children every year? Or even one?

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Bishop Bill Wright Image
Bishop Bill Wright

Most Reverend William (Bill) Wright is the eighth Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and is the pastoral leader of more than 150,000 Catholics in the region.

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