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Posts Tagged ‘abortion rights’

When I was reflecting on the Year of Faith in Cardiff, I spoke about the power of witness. I gave the “40 Days for Life” movement as an example of what this can involve, and how effective it can be.

In case you haven’t heard of it before, 40 Days for Life is a peaceful prayer vigil that takes place outside a number of abortion clinics in the UK and throughout the world. At this very moment, people are keeping vigil. It’s not a protest or a political campaigning group but a form of witness.

There are three aspects to the project: prayer and fasting, education, and offering practical support and alternatives to women and men who are seeking abortion with an unplanned pregnancy.

40 Days for Life is not about trying to win an argument. There has been a feeling amongst many within the pro-life movement that the arguing, the dialogue, the political campaigning, have only taken us so far. It shows the limits of dialogue; not the futility – just the limits.

So there was a need for another strategy: witness.

First, the witness of prayer. Not just private prayer, which is hugely important, but also praying in public. With this public prayer, part of the purpose is to show that prayer matters, that there is another way of changing hearts, that we’re not alone in our struggles and sufferings – but that God is with us. This may sound a bit ‘pharisaical’. Didn’t Jesus ask us to shut the door and pray in private? Yes, but he also prayed with and for people, drawing them into his own prayer, and witnessing to the central importance of that prayer for all people.

Second, there is the witness of truth: offering information, leaflets, education, conversations, insights, etc. Sharing the simple scientific facts about human development; the physical, psychological and moral dangers of abortion; the practical alternatives. Being prepared to speak about this in public, to help those who are asking questions. And always to speak with patience, kindness and peacefulness; sometimes in the face of aggression or anger.

And third, and most importantly, there is the witness of charity, of love, in the 40 Days for Life vigil: offering real, practical support to women who are considering an abortion, very often because they have no support from anywhere else, and feel pressured into this choice by others or by circumstances. So this is not just the offer of leaflets or kind words, but very concrete assistance: helping them to find a supportive advice centre, giving them possibilities of financial help if they need it, even offering them a place to stay during the pregnancy and birth if they have been pushed out of their own home.

40 Days for Life really changes lives. I don’t just mean the number of women who decide to keep their babies because of the vigil (although, by the grace of God, there are many of these). I also mean the powerful and often unexpected effects of this witness on so many others: men and women who walk by and feel drawn into conversation, many of whom will have been touched by abortion in some way, because at last they have found someone who understands the sadness and the seriousness of it; people drawn to pray, simply through the witness and faith of those who are praying on the street corner there; people who stop to talk and enquire and even disagree – some of them having their minds changed, softened, or challenged in a non-aggressive way.

Another miracle is the effect that the vigil has had on so many of those who work in the abortion clinics. Over the years, internationally, quite a few abortion workers have had powerful conversion experiences, or small changes of heart, that have led them to leave the clinics and find work elsewhere. This isn’t because they have been pressured into this, but because through the witness of those on the vigil they have had the opportunity of seeing others who see things differently. The witness to life gives another way of looking at the world, another possibility, that awakens something deep in their hearts, and actually fits with what they secretly believed all along.

I am not putting this forward as an ideal model of what Christian witness looks like, and my purpose is not actually to open up the life issues themselves. I simply use this as one example of what witness can involve: prayer, words, and the work of practical charity and love. And I hope it gives an encouragement to all of us to see how powerful our witness can be.

[For more information about 40 Days for Life, see the international site here, and the London site here. I shared my own experiences of the vigil in this earlier post.]

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When I told a friend I had been at the 40 Days for Life prayer vigil, she told me I should read Abby Johnson’s book Unplanned: The Dramatic True Story of a Former Planned Parenthood Leader’s Eye-Opening Journey Across the Life Line.

If you haven’t heard of it, here is the blurb:

Abby Johnson quit her job in October 2009. That simple act became a national news story because Abby was the director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Texas who, after participating in her first actual abortion procedure, walked across the road to join the Coalition for Life.

Unplanned is a heart stopping personal drama of life-and-death encounters, a courtroom battle, and spiritual transformation that speaks hope and compassion into the political controversy that surrounds this issue. Telling Abby’s story from both sides of the abortion clinic property line, this book is a must-read for anyone who cares about the life versus rights debate and helping women who face crisis pregnancies.

In many ways it’s a simple story, simply told. She’s young, idealistic, naive, and a little bit damaged; she ends up working for Planned Parenthood almost by accident; she’s good with people and good at her job; she’s increasingly uneasy about what she is doing and what the organisation stands for; and this is brought to a head when she’s asked to participate directly in an abortion procedure because they need another pair of hands in the theatre.

It’s not a story of a radical pro-abortion campaigner having a sudden conversion; it’s more about how an ordinary person without strong moral convictions and without a habit of reflection can drift into this world and find themselves standing in a place they don’t really want to be. I was struck by her apparent innocence, her naivety; and then by the courageous way she reacted when she knew she was in the wrong place.

You learn a lot about Planned Parenthood and the reality of day-to-day life in an abortion clinic. You see, in a non-judgmental way, how much of this work is motivated by sincerity and misplaced compassion; and it is a credit to Johnson that she writes with kindness and respect for her former colleagues. You also get an insight into the ongoing development of the pro-life movement in the States, and the genuine charity and concern that motivates those involved in the vigil outside the clinic where Johnson worked.

The drama of her final conversion, and her decision to cross the line and seek help from those on the other side is incredibly moving.

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There have been various reports recently about a new test for Down’s syndrome that could be offered to pregnant women by the NHS within a few months. Unlike the tests used at present (amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling), the new techniques are non-invasive and low risk; they work by analysing DNA from the foetus in the mother’s blood. The company Sequenom has already introduced such tests in the United States. [See, for example, Mark Henderson's report in The Times, 29 Oct 2011, p3]

In itself, there is nothing morally wrong with pre-natal diagnostic testing, and it can bring a number of benefits. It can help parents to come to terms with a child’s disabilities early on; to prepare (psychologically and practically) for the birth of their child; and in some cases it can alert parents and doctors to the medical support and intervention that might be needed after the birth, and even before it. So there can be good reasons for parents to choose to have different kinds of pre-natal tests.

But the reality is that in most cases (about 90%), a diagnosis of Down’s syndrome in pregnancy becomes not a means to support the unborn child but a reason to abort it. So anyone with a concern for the unborn child, and anyone aware of the various psychological and social pressures on parents to choose to abort their Down’s syndrome child, might feel justifiable unease and even alarm at the advent of this new test. It’s not to be anti-science or anti-progress; it’s to recognise that some scientific advances can bring more harm than good when they are used without moral discrimination.

The reality is that eugenic screening and termination has become an accepted and largely unquestioned part of the British moral landscape, ever since disability became one of the grounds for abortion. It’s one example of how a change in law doesn’t just reflect the mores of a culture, but it actually helps to reshape them. It is now socially acceptable in Britain to think and say that people with Down’s syndrome have no right to be born, and consequently no right to live, simply on the grounds of their disability. (Eugenics: ‘the science of improving a population by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics’; Oxford Dictionaries.) The intention of the parents or of the medical establishment may not be strictly eugenic (there are many complicated reasons why parents make these choices); but the background assumptions of a culture which is at ease with selective abortion on the grounds of disability are surely eugenic, in that such a culture has already decided that a certain category of human beings does not have the same dignity or rights as others, and that their exclusion will not harm the common good.

Isn’t it strange that this unacknowledged acceptance of eugenics sits side by side with an increasing social abhorrence of any form of prejudice against disabled people. In the same month that this test was publicised in the British media, which will allow more efficient screening for Down’s syndrome and probably lead to further abortions, Ricky Gervais is vilified for using the word ‘mong’ as a term of abuse, because of its associations (via ‘mongoloid’) with people with Down’s syndrome. (See Joe Public’s Guardian blog here.)

In 2001 the Disability Rights Commission was brave enough to put into words the very obvious link between the disability clauses of the 1967 Abortion Act and public prejudice against disabled people (much to the annoyance of Polly Toynbee):

The Section [1(1)d] is offensive to many people; it reinforces negative stereotypes of disability and there is substantial support for the view that to permit terminations at any point during a pregnancy on the ground of risk of disability, while time limits apply to other grounds set out in the Abortion Act, is incompatible with valuing disability and non-disability equally.

In common with a wide range of disability and other organisations, the DRC believes the context in which parents choose whether to have a child should be one in which disability and non-disability are valued equally.

Here are Betsy Hart’s thoughtful comments on the testing issue [people in the US prefer 'Down syndrome' to 'Down's syndrome'; see the explanation here]:

The vast majority of instances of Down syndrome occur in babies carried by women 35 and younger, but that age group has historically been less likely to get tested. Now a simple and accurate blood test for this condition can be safely and routinely administered to virtually anyone who wants it as long as a doctor authorizes it.

So for the math: If more than 90 percent of women who find out they are pregnant with a baby with Down syndrome abort, does this mean we might eventually have almost no babies born with Down syndrome? Will we have gotten rid of a supposedly “undesired” human condition by getting rid of the people themselves who carry it?

And what does that do to the rest of us? I am the first to admit that I’m not signed up on any “adopt a baby with Down syndrome” list. I also didn’t sign up on the “raising four children on my own” list. We never know what challenges life is going to present. Accordingly, what a false sense of security a “no Down syndrome” test result can give parents.

Sure, the new test is just a tool, after all. If used to prepare expectant parents for a baby with Down syndrome so they can learn about the condition before their little one enters the world, great. Maybe they can be assured that life expectancies and outcomes for children with Down syndrome are so much better now.

Early intervention for cognitive development and surgical and other treatments for physical impairments have fundamentally and positively changed the playing field for babies born with Down syndrome today.

But how many minds will change when they have this information? We live in a supposedly humane and tolerant age. I question that. Not when we apparently still have so little tolerance for humanity that might be a little different.

I don’t doubt (and I know from the experience of parents themselves) what a huge shock and a huge challenge it can be when parents discover that their unborn child might have a disability. That’s one reason why it’s so heartening to read various personal stories that have come into the media in the light of the publicity about these new tests; above all from parents who might not have been particularly pro-life, but have had a kind of conversion through learning to love and value their disabled children in ways they never imagined would have been possible at first. Bonnie Rochman reports:

For Amy Julia Becker, who has written a book about life with her daughter, Penny, who has Down syndrome, coming to terms with her daughter’s intellectual limitations has taken time. “I went to Princeton, I graduated Phi Beta Kappa, I have always been smart,” she says. “I didn’t realize how much I assumed I’d have a daughter just like me. Having Penny really challenged me to rethink what it means to be a whole and full human being.”

In her book, A Good and Perfect Gift, Becker transcribes a journal entry written soon after Penny was born: “Can she live a full life without without ever solving a quadratic equation? Without reading Dostoyevsky? I’m pretty sure she can. Can I live a full life without learning to cherish and welcome those in this world who are different from me? I’m pretty sure I can’t.”

But many expectant parents don’t feel that way. Up to 90% of women who know in advance of a Down syndrome diagnosis choose to end the pregnancy, according to the few studies that have tracked this. The new test is not being marketed only to women who would end a Down syndrome pregnancy, say advocates of testing. Mothers who plan to have the baby may also want to know ahead of time in order to prepare emotionally and medically; half of infants with Down syndrome, for example, are born with heart defects. “I don’t think it’s all search-and-destroy,” says Canick. “That is an awful way of looking at this.”

But parents of children with Down syndrome are skeptical of the intent of early screening. “There is a real disconnect between hospitals, administrators and OB/GYN doctors’ understanding of what has changed for children with Down syndrome over the years,” says Howard, whose daughter, Lydia, starts conversations with strangers and cracks jokes in her inclusive preschool. “There was encouragement to get screened with the understanding that I would terminate because that’s what most people do.”

It’s true that mothers who learn soon after delivery that their babies have Down syndrome describe being overwhelmed with sorrow and disbelief on what they’d presumed would a joyous day. Howard cried every day for nine months after Lydia was born. Perkins McLaughlin says it took her eight hours after her C-section to muster the nerve to go visit her daughter, Gracie, in the neonatal intensive care unit. “There are people out there who feel the test is great,” says Perkins McLaughlin. “In some ways, it is great. But it is scary too. Will more people terminate because it’s earlier in the pregnancy and why not just try again? I don’t know what I would have done if I had found out at 10 weeks.”

Gracie is now 3 1/2. In the two years since Perkins McLaughin, now 44, has served as a parent mentor for the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress, she’s told the dozen or so conflicted pregnant women who have contacted her that Gracie is bright: she started signing at six months and had accumulated 100 signs by age 2, prompting her grandmother to ask, Are you sure she has Down syndrome? She loves music, dancing and her older brother and sister. Perkins McLaughin tells them how Gracie has added perspective to her life, softening her Type-A edges. “She’s not going to do quantum physics, but I don’t do quantum physics,” says Perkins McLaughin. “Gracie has showed me in a profound way that I am not in control of everything. I have a bumper sticker that says, Grace Happens.”

I wonder if serious reflection on ‘disablist’ prejudices and disability rights in this country will eventually lead us to reconsider the inherently eugenic abortion laws we have at present.

For more information about Down’s syndrome, see the Down’s Syndrome Association website here.

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