It was dismaying, wasn’t it, that the head of the Catholic Church in Britain, Cardinal McCormick, chose the run-up to a general election to express his concerns about abortion? Almost immediately, all the usual Christian conservatives rushed into the battle.
It is dismaying because the early termination of a pregnancy is an event filled with suffering and confusion and therefore requires safe, patient and considered attention. To add to the situations difficulties by pouring on to them the petrol of short-term political campaigning is cruel.
It is also inappropriate for fundamentalist Christians to take the high ground as if they alone have some absolute wisdom with which to judge the situation.
But to be sensitive to the rights and the existence of the foetus is indeed appropriate. The problem is in judging the timing when those rights begin to have a sovereignty that demands a respect equal to that of the mother. Taken to its most extreme, the fundamentalist Christian stance is that the new sacrosanct life begins the very moment that a sperm marries with an egg. From that precise second of conception, the argument goes, a complete human being is imbued with full dignity and human rights.
This is to say that a single-celled biological entity has all the integrity and consciousness of a full human being. This is a very extreme assertion. But it also contains an important grain of truth honoured in a different context by mystics, animists and pagans, Buddhists, Hindus and Taoists – which is that every cell and every atom, every aspect of life and wave of energy, is filled with value and consciousness. According to this perspective, the whole of existence is a field of consciousness out of which innumerable beings emerge into what we call Life.
From this perspective, the single-celled foetus is indeed sacred but it is sacred along with all other forms of life, alongside every animal, plant and rock. The right-to-lifers would demonstrate consistency and integrity if their respect for life was extended to all other human beings and life forms. Are these campaigners environmentally careful? Do they respect what they eat? Do they stand against the savagery of corporal and capital punishment? How many of them support moves to ban parents from striking their children?
If you love life, you love life. It lacks integrity and it lacks love if there are only certain inclusions, in this case the impregnated eggs. Any discussion about the ethics of early termination has to take place within an atmosphere of reverence for the sacred life of all beings.
One of the reasons for my engagement in this subject is that my father, Philip, was a medical doctor and psychiatrist, much beloved of feminists because during the years of illegal abortions, he was one of the few medics always prepared to provide one of the necessary signatures for a legal abortion. For years I was proud of his radicalism, but I then began to have second thoughts because of his utilitarian attitude. He never paused to contemplate the whole situation.
The whole situation not only includes the wellbeing of the mother, the respect for all cellular life and the rights of the foetus, but it can also include another important spiritual insight, that of reincarnation. From this perspective, subscribed to by many world religions and by folk as distinguished as the Dalai Lama and Plato, the sacred incarnation of a human being does not just happen once. Incarnation is a process of the souls education and is an event that happens many, many times. So, when we look at a developing fetus, we are not only looking at a miraculous biological event, we are also witnessing the reincarnation of a soul who will blend intimately with the physical creature.
This adds a dramatic new perspective. It shows that the souls sacred incarnation is not a once-only event, but part of a long process of lives. This one life is not therefore the only opportunity for having a life. There have been and there will be many more. Equally, it illuminates the mothers condition too. This is not her only life and ideas about her life being ruined forever need to be placed in a much longer time frame.
The philosophy of reincarnation therefore adds a dimension, but it does not provide moral clarity. The needs and suffering of the new child and of the mother have still to be clearly contemplated.
All of this goes to support the original point that a discussion about abortion should not take place in a politically charged and impatient atmosphere. It is true that the general guidelines do require careful debate, especially about the time limit after which a termination is obviously wrong. Careful debate is also required about terminating the lives of the disabled, who can bring a profound blessing and education into many families, and who may live deep and fulfilling lives.
This debate would be enhanced by spiritual insights beyond the usual Christian and humanistic ideas, especially by those two important concepts, animism and reincarnation that there is sacred life in all atoms, cells and beings, not just in people, and that the spiritual path of a human being is one of many lives, not just one.
Several times in my life I have known women seeking early termination. The most inspiring I have encountered were the women who knew early on that they were pregnant and had deep instincts that it was inappropriate. In these cases, the women went into meditation and prayer, talking to their wombs, to the cells of the early foetus and also to the soul that was seeking incarnation. They entered into conversation with these elements, explaining their side of the story, apologising for the situation and respectfully asking for a spontaneous and early termination. They gave their bodies and spirits the utmost respect.
Two of these women did indeed spontaneously terminate. Two others did not, but they proceeded with a surgical intervention, knowing that they had spiritually and morally behaved with integrity and care.
At its most ideal, making love, getting pregnant, childbirth and parenting are a sequence of conscious and loving events. But life is not like that. At the very least, though, as we consider these crucial matters, our guidelines need to be those in which we attempt to create a culture that includes more contemplation and long term awareness.