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Posts Tagged ‘gender’

I published this piece in Independent Catholic News earlier in the week:

Why is it ‘female infanticide’ to abort a baby girl on the grounds that she is a girl, but not ‘infanticide’ to abort the same baby girl on the grounds that she is just a baby?

The strong and provocative language about ‘female infanticide’ (rather than ‘termination’) and ‘babies’ (rather than ‘fetuses’) isn’t my own, it’s straight from the front page of the Daily Telegraph.

As you have probably heard, undercover reporters working for the paper have found that a number of abortion clinics in this country are willing to arrange terminations on the grounds that the mother or both parents are unhappy about the sex of the baby – which is illegal.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying that having an abortion on the grounds of gender is right, or that the abortion law should be changed to include this extra criterion. I’m just perplexed by the selective nature of the moral outrage that has come to the surface in the accompanying comments.

Why is it so wrong to abort this baby on the grounds that she is a baby girl, but not wrong to abort the same baby girl simply on the grounds that she is an unwanted baby? Thousands of baby girls and baby boys are aborted every week, and this doesn’t make the front page of the Telegraph. But the fact that some of them are being aborted because they are baby girls suddenly becomes an issue of national concern – even though if the same baby girls had been aborted for different reasons, this would have gone unquestioned.

I know the possible answers: It’s because one kind of abortion is illegal, but the other is not; it’s because one kind of abortion seems to be chosen for a trivial reason, or a sexist reason, or a reason that arises from an alien culture, etc., but the other seems to be chosen for more weighty and culturally acceptable reasons. It’s because, in the terms of moral philosophy, the motivation behind the decision does in some ways affect the moral character of the act.

But this is what lies at the root of my own perplexity at the selective moral response: the outcome is the same in both cases; the harm done to the ‘baby girl’ (using the language of the Telegraph) is the same in both cases – whether it’s done for apparently trivial reasons (‘she’s the wrong gender’) or apparently more serious reasons (‘we simply can’t cope with another child right now’, etc). The motivation doesn’t make any difference to what actually takes place in each case.

I’m not making a point here about whether abortion is right or wrong (although I do believe that it’s wrong). I’m saying something simpler, in the light of this discussion about sex selection: If it is wrong and morally shocking (because it is wrong to abort a ‘baby girl’ or a ‘baby boy’), then it is still wrong and morally shocking to do it for reasons that are legal, or for reasons that seem more culturally acceptable or serious. It is the same act, the same harm, the same outcome.

Put another way, if we feel moral outrage because a 12 week old baby girl is being aborted in the hospital down the road, on the grounds of her sex, why do we not feel a comparable moral outrage because another 12 week old baby girl is being aborted in the same hospital on the same day but on different grounds? The selective moral outrage feels a bit narrow, a bit arbitrary – as if there is some kind of wilful blindness.

This is the soundbite from Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, quoted in the same article:

Carrying out an abortion on the grounds of gender alone is in my view morally repugnant.

But why only on these grounds?

And here are some comments from Allison Pearson, also writing in the Telegraph:

Just imagine the idea that babies are being culled because of their gender in the UK today. Unbelievable. Horrifying. Yet, that is precisely what an undercover investigation by this newspaper has revealed – and today, shockingly, we learn that an expert believes the practice is “widespread”. I actually shouted aloud with dismay when I read the stories.

A woman who was 12 weeks pregnant had an appointment with the Calthorpe Clinic and explained to a doctor that she and her partner wished to terminate the pregnancy because they “don’t want a girl”. A certain Dr Raj responded, “That’s not fair. It’s like female infanticide, isn’t it?” He then proceeded calmly to fill out a form for the abortion, casually giving a different reason to the mum and dad simply not fancying a baby girl. “I’ll put too young for pregnancy, yeah?”

Most appalling of all is that the doctor’s response proves he knows that what the woman is proposing is deeply wrong, even criminal, yet he happily suggests another reason to get the abortion done. It’s as though he were penning some excuse for a work sick-note, not aiding and abetting the disposal of a baby when the only thing “wrong” with it is it hasn’t got a willy.

Pearson is so outraged that she ‘shouted aloud with dismay’ when she read the stories. This is a writer who goes on to admit that she supports abortion if it is ‘safe, legal and rare’ (quoting Bill Clinton). I certainly give her credit for writing about the ‘moral coarsening’ that has taken place since abortion became legal in this country, and for reflecting on the “slippery slope leads from guilt-free annual terminations – three for two, anybody? – to a “gender-balancing” service, which helps you plan the perfect family by vacuuming away infants of the wrong sex.”

But Pearson doesn’t shout aloud with dismay if someone else chooses to ‘vacuum away’ a 12 week old ‘infant’ if they are unwanted for another more socially or culturally acceptable reason. That’s what really puzzles me. It could be the same ‘infant’, the same ‘vacuuming away’, the same ‘aiding and abetting the disposal of a baby’ (her language) – but without the outrage.

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St Hilda of Whitby, Abbess

I’ve just written a piece about women and the priesthood, in response to this week’s bus campaign promoting women’s ordination. It was posted on Independent Catholic News, and then used as the basis for an article on CNN’s Belief Blog, which has so far received a staggering 1087 comments! Not all of them very edifying…

Anyway, the copyright is mine, so I can paste the original article here for anyone who is interested:

Last year the religious slogans on London’s buses were hesitant, and ended with gentle exhortations: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Now they end with a shout: “Pope Benedict – Ordain Women Now!”

The latest posters, timed to coincide with the Papal visit, are funded by the campaigning group Catholic Women’s Ordination. It’s unlikely that Pope Benedict will be using his Oystercard, but the hope must be that if his Popemobile gets stuck in traffic, one of these buses will glide by and catch his attention.

The Catholic insistence that only men can be ordained as priests is incomprehensible to many people, and the cause of much personal anger and ecumenical heartache. Pope John Paul II seemed to close the door to any revision when he wrote in 1994 that this teaching “is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful”.

He took a surprising approach. He didn’t stamp his feet and shout: I won’t! Instead he said: I simply can’t. I don’t have the authority to change something that has been such a fundamental part of Christian identity from the very beginning. The argument is not about holding onto the past for its own sake, but trying to be faithful to what Jesus wanted for his Church.

In the New Testament, Jesus chose twelve men to represent him as his first priests, as the Twelve Apostles. Every generation of Catholics (and Orthodox) since then has understood this to have been a choice that was deliberate and significant, not just for that first period of history, but for every age.

Some argue that Jesus couldn’t have done otherwise in the Jewish society of his time. This doesn’t stand up, as he was quite willing to involve women in other aspects of his mission and ministry, in ways that would have seemed revolutionary.

Others say that women’s ordination, even if Jesus had wanted it, simply wasn’t conceivable in the pre-feminist religious cultures of the last 2000 years. But this ignores the staggering diversity of cultures in which Christianity has been embedded.

Even in societies that have been broadly matriarchal (with rich Roman matrons running the early Christian house churches, or powerful medieval abbesses ruling ‘double’ monasteries of men and women); even when women ‘priestesses’ were an established part of the surrounding religious milieu – Christians still took for granted the idea of the male priesthood.

This is why Pope John Paul II, and now Pope Benedict, are saying that this is much more than a time-bound cultural norm that needs updating. It’s something deeper that touches on the very meaning of priesthood.

This teaching is not at all a judgment on women’s abilities or dignity or rights. It says something about the specific role of the priest in Catholic understanding – which is to represent Jesus, to stand in his place. The Church is saying something quite radical. On the one hand, there is a fundamental equality between all human beings, between men and women. On the other hand, this does not mean that our sexual identity as men and women is interchangeable. Gender is not just an accident.

People sense this. If I announced that I was making a film about Jesus or King Arthur or Wayne Rooney, no-one would be surprised if I said I wanted a male actor to play the lead. It’s a weak analogy, but it shows how the notion of ‘representation’ can only be stretched so far. A woman, as much as a man, can reflect the love of Jesus, and help others to know his presence through her faith and witness. But it shouldn’t surprise us if we expect a man to stand ‘in the person of Christ’ as a priest, to represent Jesus in his humanity – a humanity that is not sexually neutral.

Where does this leave women in the Catholic Church? In the same position as the majority of men (that is, all those who are not priests). It leaves them to live their faith passionately in the service of others, to use their many gifts to the full, and to realise that ordination is not the measure of an individual’s worth in the Church.

The young Catholic women I know, especially those with a strong sense of vocation in the Church, are channelling their energies into all sorts of creative projects and life choices. Some of these choices are very humble and hidden; others involve more public responsibilities – in politics, education, social work, Christian mission, the media, etc. Most are working ‘in the world’, but some have very significant roles within the Church itself.

These young women seem less interested in internal debates about ordination, and more concerned with rolling their sleeves up and putting their faith into practice. They are Christian feminists, whether they like the title or not. But it is a feminism that is untroubled by this Catholic understanding of the male priesthood.

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