It’s already more than two years since I conducted the funeral of the two premature babies that got me thinking about where the line between life and not-life might be drawn, and who determines the status of a pregnancy. If I’d been an Irish citizen on Friday I would have voted for change, but when the result came through I wouldn’t have cheered: the issue of abortion is too fraught with sorrow to feel any joy about it.
As I said then, I can’t think of a blob of cells as a human being in the same sense I am, or you, reader, presumably are, nor does the Church behave as though that was the case, no matter what it says. It does not conduct funeral services for soiled sanitary products after a pregnancy has spontaneously miscarried in the very early stages, when, if it was being consistent, it surely should. Even when a foetus has all the structures which are going to turn into the organs and features of the finished being, even when some of them are functioning, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s 'alive'. What is life? We find it hard enough to determine the answer at life’s end; its beginning is no less obscure.
A pain-free abortion policy, whether liberal or restrictive, is as much a fantasy as a war in which nobody gets hurt. We dwell in the battleground of good and evil, and in this case women’s reproductive systems are one theatre of war; one in which, ultimately, women have to fight alone. To imagine that the moral war can be avoided by one sort of legislation or another is as unreal as pretending that it isn’t happening, and that there isn’t an issue. We must keep arguing that life is sacred, that every human being should be valued for something more than their social utility or their conformity to one particular model of worth. That can be done even while conceding to individuals the responsibility to decide whether to end it.
One aspect of the vote worth cheering, at least quietly, is the Roman Catholic Church’s decision to keep out of it publicly. It seems finally to have sunk in that its ability to comment constructively on any moral debate is so dreadfully compromised by its past that its only option is to stay silent. I would like to think that the Church of England might also have gone so far along the journey of purging itself of its desire for power and control, but being in a less extreme condition to start with, I’m not sure there is not some way to go yet.