The real debate about abortion is not actually about “when life begins”. For a start, the classic arguments about bodily autonomy – the right of a woman to do as she wishes with her body – were specifically made in order to establish a right to abortion regardless of when life begins.
But in discussion with thoughtful people, it becomes clear that even ‘the limits of bodily autonomy’ is no longer the real question.
Instead, I believe the key ethical questions in relation to abortion are about parental responsibilities and showing love in ambiguous situations.
Parental responsibilities because the disagreement about bodily autonomy masks that what is being staked out is not a rights-claim in relation to an abstract body, but the relationship of a mother to her child (or at least a potential child); and love-in-ambiguity because there will always be disagreement about when life begins, and so the question is how we should respond to a biological life which isn’t yet able to display to us or interact with us in familiar ways.
It’s interesting that these are the two important questions, because it’s to these – rather than questions about when life begins or bodily autonomy – that the gospel can make a more distinctive and significant contribution to discussion.
When it comes to parental responsibilities, the gospel calls us to fulfil our vocations in community. Parental obligations are not just individual ones: they are ones that are only possible to fulfil with the support of a community. The church can make a distinctive contribution in helping mothers to relate well to their child through loving support throughout a pregnancy.
So too, love in ambiguous situations demands going “beyond the phenomenon” that we see (to quote theologian Oliver O’Donovan). The love displayed in the gospel of Jesus Christ is a love shown when we were far off, and indeed is a love that we are not even aware of until called by the Spirit through the gospel word. Even though we cannot relate to a foetus in the same way we can with other people, and its visible form causes many to question exactly how and when they are a person, love as defined and known in Christ Jesus will go ‘beyond the phenomenon’ in committing to them and caring for them.
Each generation must think about how it will relate to the big moral questions we face. I pray that Generation Y might be able to see wisely beyond the traditional debates to make a gospel-infused contribution that brings the love and light of Christ Jesus to bear on issues of human life.