In the time it took the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly to kill 17 people, around 500,000 children were killed in the wombs of their mothers.
One of the consequences of 24 hour news and social media is that you get to observe the moral confusion that would normally go on solely in people’s minds were they not to have a laptop in front of them. Ill considered, irrational, ‘extreme’ actions tend to provoke the same response, and now we get to see what they look like. For example, one minute a person will proclaim ‘Je suis Charlie’, and you can almost see the thought process, like the guys who can read the code in the Matrix, “Oh wait, Charlie Hebdo was a right wing mag. That’s bad, isn’t it?” Next status update: ‘Je suis Ahmed!’, and so it goes on. When I think of my electronic trail, I shudder. My confused little brain splattered all over the web forever.
One moment, reported after the event, troubled me. It was the interview with Michele Catalano, the Kouachi brothers’ final hostage. Captured by these ‘monsters’, he found that they were quite polite, friendly even. They shook hands and assured him that they did not intend to kill him. He made them cups of coffee, dressed wounds and was eventually set free. “Damn”, the unarticulated word in my heart, “they’re human now”. They too, were some mother’s sons, brought to birth in pain and love (they necessarily go together in this life). I wished I hadn’t heard that, because now I felt for them. My moral confusion had been transformed into moral obligation by the revelation of their humanity. So I prayed for them.
The humanity of the subjects concerned in most debates over abortion usually involve one casualty, if not materially, then always notionally. Abortion is ‘the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth’ (Evangelium Vitae #58). This is no more than a strict rational and scientific definition of the act, no judgment is yet implied. From facts, we can move to judgments of the moral quality of an action. Thank God, most people today deem the death penalty for criminals to be morally unjustifiable, and even those who don’t would hold that ending innocent life is wrong. Seeing as the human being in the womb could not be more innocent, there would seem to be no category of person for whom the killing of an unborn child is morally justifiable. And yet… 500,000.
For such a number to die (the global annual figure is around 50 million), a state of collective, mutual forgetfulness must take place, of many of those who champion the right to choose abortion and those who champion the right to life of the unborn child. The opposed views can both agree – I’m not saying that they always do, but they can – that there are two subjects directly involved in the question of abortion, the mother and the unborn child, and that they are both human beings. Reason dictates that they do. What can be so easily forgotten is the humanity, so to speak, of the human beings in question. The unborn child is in a more precarious situation because he or she lacks even the simplest form of defense: ‘He or she is weak, defenceless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defence consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby’s cries and tears’ (Evangelium Vitae #59). I’m sure that legislation for abortion is defended by many good hearted and compassionate men and woman who can visibly see and experience the suffering of women who have been made pregnant as a result of rape or long term abuse. The humanity of these victims is evident, their suffering is evident, and compassion for the one who can be seen takes over. We want to take the problem away, or ease the pain of suffering. However, if we take too long to meditate on the humanity of the person in the womb, helping the person before our eyes becomes more difficult, because now we assume the moral obligation to care for both equally. From the ‘pro-life’ perspective, the noble desire to defend the defenceless can often lead us to forget or at least sideline the concerns and needs of the vulnerable mother, often alone, abused, and afraid. It is easy to bemoan the immorality of present society, or a consumerist culture which allows abortion for even the most trivial reasons, but do we weep for the abused, the unloved and afraid? Do we give of our own resources, do we give of our own time and convenience, engaging with the fragile human face of the mother? If not, can we truly say that we are pro-life?
The extreme cases do not justify the morally unjustifiable, but unless our response is extreme love, love which sacrifices all to save both lives from oblivion, then a true culture of life will never be fostered. We need to feel the pain of those who suffer, the broken heart of the mother who mourns her child but feels she has no one to turn to. We need to surround with love the 11-year-old rape victim who cannot even comprehend what is happening to her. God created the world in an eternal act of love and redeemed it with a supreme sacrificial gift. How can life be won if it is not borne of self-sacrificing, compassionate love?
One of the hurdles that a young man has to leap in his application for seminary is to have a psychological examination. Mine consisted of an interview with a psychologist from Brighton. The dilemma he presented to me that day still resonates. He asked me:
“What would you do if a woman came to you and told you she’d just had an abortion?”
“I would try to help her to think on it and ask if she wanted to go to confession”
“No, no. She has thought on it. She is convinced it was the right thing to do”
“Then I would have to try to convince her otherwise.”
“That’s not going to work. She is crying, she is distraught. She has come to you. What are you going to do?”
“…. I guess I’ll just hold her”
He had forced me into a corner. I was trying to solve a problem, but the doctor would not let me escape the human face of the person so desperately in need of love. I would not be able to save the life of the child already dead, but I could be part of the redemption of the life of the one I held, and those she bore in future. We all have a chance to be a part of such privileged moments. On those moments, a culture of life is built.