Anthony Bell considers some moral dilemmas
ABORTION BESIDES taking the life of the baby, damages the conscience of the mother.” , said the late Mother Theresa of Calcutta. It is also fundamental to my perception that the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the incarnation of Our Lord cannot be separated from the traditional Christian doctrine that Life is inviolable from the time of conception. The power and the majesty of God lies in the Holy Trinity but it was through the human womb of Mary that the divine became “earthed” in our fleshly existence.
“Begotten or Made?” This thought provoking phrase originates in lectures published by Oliver O’Donovan, Professor of Moral & Pastoral Theology in the University of Oxford in 1984.
O’Donovan leads off with a chapter entitled Medicine and the Liberal Revolution. You may ask; What revolution? Are the technical triumphs of human reproduction the herald of a revolution, or do they in fact signal its culmination?
A NICENE DISTINCTION
We need to mark the difference between ‘making ‘and ‘begetting’. The Fathers of the Church in framing the Nicene Creed pointed up the contrast between Our Lord and the rest of the human race by affirming Him as ‘the only begotten of His Father before all worlds, begotten not made…’ We indeed take our human nature from our parents and are ‘begotten’ by them not ‘made’, but ‘sub specie aeternitatis’ we are creatures ‘made’ of God, and not ‘begotten’.
It is our task as inheritors of this dogmatic tradition to consider the state of human ‘begetting’ in a culture which has been overwhelmed by ‘making’, i.e a technological culture. What marks this culture out is not any thing it does but the way it thinks. It thinks of everything it does as a form of instrumental making. This manner of expression has overflowed from technology and science, into social and relational language; we now speak of ‘making a better world’; we speak of love as ‘building a successful or fulfilling relationship’. We seek to involve people in ‘decision making’. There is no place for simply ‘doing’. “Blindness in the realm of thought is the heart of what it is to be part of a technological culture.”
In a characteristic remark Professor R.G. Edwards, the pioneer with the late Patrick Steptoe of the reproductive technique known as ‘in vitro fertilisation’, affirmed in these words; “to do nothing is just as much an ethical decision to be defended as to introduce new methods of therapy”. Of course any decision is ipso facto a decision to be defended. But understood in another and more clinical way it says something which previous generations of Western thinkers would have denied. A decision to do nothing is not merely a disguised decision to act by other means. There can be a presumption in favour of letting alone – one which acknowledges the difference between action and non-action. In medical ethics this has always played a large part. ‘Primum non nocere’; The first obligation of a physician was not to act where there was normal life and health, which his action might harm.
When Dr. Edwards laid the onus of proof back to those who wish to maintain the status quo, he apparently intended to refuse the burden of proof which traditional moral thought about medicine would have laid upon the physician who would intervene.
The relation of human beings to their own bodies is the last frontier of nature. St Paul wrote (Eph. 5 v.2) ‘no man hates his own flesh, but nourishes it and cherishes it.’ To hate one’s own flesh marks the limit of self-contradiction to which the human yearning for self-determination is drawn; it marks the point at which the assertion of ourselves against the constraints of nature becomes an attack upon ourselves. If it is true to state ‘no-one hates his own flesh’; the corollary must be ‘self-hatred is the end to which our proud self-assertion is inevitably drawn’.
This liberal revolution has been generated by a communal desire to fashion the future untrammelled by protocol and tradition. There has been a social and political quest to be freed from the bonds of religion, custom and nature. It could be said that this is more truly a revolution than any of the previous upheavals in society; for it expresses both the common desire to mould the future according to a humanist vision, and also the scientific and technical knowledge to bring it to pass. The media takes up and broadcasts with eager expectation every new achievement of medical science. The ethical implications follow as an afterthought. So the liberal revolution is set to continue in answer to a visceral desire. In this we all participate; it is far from being the vision of a scientific elite. The pioneers of research are giving authentic expression to the heart of social longing, and we cannot be permitted to disown them.
In the conclusion of his deeply perceptive assessment, O’Donovan asserts that we live not at the seedtime of the modern age, but in its harvest time. For we have the privilege of seeing what is its true character more clearly than those who have gone before us. We need now to consider the next seed time, and ask what shall we sow?
If the Christian mind is to make an effective contribution to this human stocktaking, then a stand must be made on the dogmatic foundations of divine revelation, which must include:
1. Christians should confess their faith in the natural order as the creation of a good God. This presupposes that there must be limits placed on the use of techniques to interfere with or manipulate the elements of the natural order. Integral to this natural order there is the experience of suffering. Where the humanist tends to perceive suffering as an affront to human dignity, the Christian tradition perceives in conflicting circumstances the opportunity for selflessness and sacrifice. There is a heavy price to be paid if Christians follow the scientists in seeing every evidence of suffering as an invitation for interference to limit or disperse it.
2. Christians should confess their faith in the providence of God as the ruling power of history. Man cannot assume an arrogant responsibility for his own future by denying that his existence is contingent upon the world in which he is placed.
3. Christians must not, at their peril, compromise their faith in the Word which was in the beginning with God, and which was made flesh for us in the person of Jesus. Such a faith needs to be a speaking, thinking, arguing, debating exercise, which will not be afraid to confront the prevailing humanist dogmas in intellectual and dogmatic contest.
Herein lies the contemporary weakness in Christian apologetics. There seems to have been a failure of nerve among prominent leaders of Christian thought and pastoral practice to engage in controversial dialogue with the lions of a largely humanist establishment.
A principal symptom of this malaise is the tendency, all too common in academic circles, to back down on the unique claims of the incarnation of Jesus Christ and the universal implication of His death on Calvary. Incarnation and Atonement are inseparable. It is only from this firm biblical tradition that aggressive humanist assumptions can be effectively challenged.
TECHNOLOGY EMBEDDED IN LAW
This leads me to a consideration of the human reproductive technology which is now firmly embedded in our national laws. It began with the contraceptive pill, and has progressed through AID (artificial insemination by donor), in vitro fertilisation, egg donation, surrogacy, to the use of human embryos for research, and now to the medical establishment’s proposal to endorse the cloning of embryos; a course which the government seems to regard with approval though the consensus of the European Union is that it should be banned. It is not coincidental that this explosion of scientific experiment followed upon the Abortion Act of 1967 which reversed a basic Christian assumption in law that the unborn life is protected. it is worth observing that the Association of Lawyers for the Defence of the Unborn (ALDU) consistently assert that it was never the intention of the 1967 Act to withdraw protection from the child in the womb. It is a measure of the extent to which the Act has been abused that 96% of terminations of pregnancy are undertaken for social reasons.
I will contend that there are two grounds upon which Christian tradition should meet and challenge the dominant utilitarian philosophy which drives the research into interventionist means of human reproduction. One the mode of the incarnation, which is inextricably linked to the natural order of human reproduction; the second is the cost in terms of the mental, spiritual and physical health of the generation that has been the victim of this wholesale human experiment.
Traditional Christian faith defines its origin in the unique circumstances of the conception and birth of Our Lord. Jesus was conceived in the womb of a woman. The motherhood of the Blessed Virgin Mary is crucial to the mystery of the Word made flesh. Fear and anxiety are part of the mystery surrounding the birth of Jesus, as they accompany the human psyche at every conception. Clearly the advances of modern medical knowledge have greatly reduced the fear and the danger which in former centuries attended every childbirth.
Medical science marches on, and the aim, thought now to be within the grasp of progress, is to eliminate hereditary disease and to overcome the distress caused through physical and mental handicap. What could be more praiseworthy? But what of the cost? We are hearing much talk about the therapeutic advantages of embryonic research; Parliament is to be asked to permit the cloning of the human embryo in the cause of seeking remedies for hereditary genetic conditions. The ambivalent word is ‘therapeutic”. The scientists can offer no certain outcome for their experiments upon human embryos. Some years ago I heard an eminent specialist in this field state very firmly that progress towards the elimination of hereditary factors in certain diseases did not depend upon experiments upon human embryos. The late Dr. Lejeune of France, who was not a Christian, affirmed that there is no need to subject any living embryo to harmful experiments. Whom are we to believe?
MEETING EXCITED EXPECTATIONS
There is a tendency, on account of the excitable state of public expectancy, fuelled by inflated media assumptions, for scientists to make claims for the success of initial clinical trials which are unjustified in the light of the results which follow. This is partly a failure of communication and the ease with which complicated scientific procedures get over-simplified in translation for an uninformed public. But much is due to impatience for results.
This tendency goes back to the beginning. How many women have suffered on the basis of untested assurances that the contraceptive pill is absolutely safe? The menstrual cycle is part of a natural process in the preparation for human procreation; does its deliberate suppression by chemical means lead to unforeseen consequences? Has the widespread use of this method had a bearing on the increased prevalence of infertility among both men and women?
Hard upon the contraceptive pill, came the Abortion Act 1967, whose provisions to give some protection to the unborn child, have been widely ignored. Contrary to the assurances of the Department of Health, abortion is not safe. There is a proven link between breast cancer in women and termination of pregnancy. Screening for cancer of the womb is not considered necessary for women who have not had sexual intercourse. Gynaecologists know all about these effects, but those who would wish to sound warnings are unable to make themselves heard. There is a reluctance to explore the incidence of post abortion trauma, and the long term mental effects of terminating a pregnancy. The agony of infertility used to be met with success and joy through adoption. But where now are the babies for the childless to adopt?
All these and many more effects stem from the interference with and intrusion into the natural cycle of gestation within the womb. Is this not a violation of the sacred call of motherhood? And I find it very sad that those who perceive clearly the harm that is being inflicted upon the present and future generations are denied a hearing. The much vaunted impartiality of the BBC does not extend to this vital area of human concern. ALDU, in commenting on the setting up of the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority in 1989, observed, “never do the powers-that-be invite suspicion more than when they place the regulatory oversight in the hands of those engaged in the practice”.
Clause 9(a) of the Bill clearly envisages that some or indeed most of those entrusted with the granting of licences for research on embryos may be the very people who will themselves be seeking licences. Competent persons holding traditional Christian convictions have been rigorously excluded. The media carefully avoid mentioning how very low is the success rate of infertile women seeking to become pregnant by IVF; nor how stressful and emotionally draining such procedures prove to be.
The second ground upon which the secular model of human life must be challenged is the universal spiritual nature of human personality.
THE POWER OF DEATH
I have always found it significant that even the most confirmed agnostic still finds death the hardest of human experiences to face. For just as each one of us must enter this world alone, alone each one must leave it. All societies, from the most primitive to our present sophisticated age, have been meticulous in the observation of exact rites of burial or cremation. Further there has been a cautious desire within the rites to ensure that the departed soul does not remain earthbound or return to disturb the living. Why should this be so? Surely it is the outcome of experience. If we examine the circumstances of acute spiritual disturbance in people today, can a link be discerned with cases where burial rites have been ignored or overlooked?
Some readers may be familiar with the studies of Dr. Kenneth McAll, detailed in his book, “Healing the Family Tree.” He has recorded many cases of neglected burial, in war, in famine, in rampant disease, in natural disaster, in the loss of ships at sea, where this link has been discerned. But in recent years the most common circumstance when funeral rites have been overlooked, is the miscarriage of an infant or its termination by abortion. To a large extent this is due to the secrecy with which the medical handling of termination has been surrounded. And why should this secrecy ever be lifted? It is lifted when the pressure of the departed soul seeking release is manifest in the serious illness of a person in kinship. “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation.”
Some years ago I was contacted by a family who had moved to a new house in my parish; they had moved because of spiritual disturbance in their previous home had upset their eldest child. Their parish priest had blessed the house but they had still been unsettled. When I called on this family, it appeared that this little boy, about seven years old, was being disturbed at night by voices; when I began questioning the mother to find the cause, she admitted that she had had three terminations. So we named and commended these three children to God. I then blessed the house with Holy Water. This family were not church people, nor did they appear to have any religious conviction, but after the visit they did not contact me again; when months later I called and enquired, it was plain that there had been no recurrence.
It is my conviction that this Family Tree ministry has become an important resource in the pastoral approach of many parish clergymen. It requires gentleness and patience, but difficult situations are found to yield, not least when a Requiem Eucharist is held to commend deceased family members who are found not to be at rest.
This does however pose awkward questions for the Christian churches; overall there has been a reluctance to take up a strong position deploring resort to abortion and putting pressure upon the medical profession to stand by the letter of the Act and to honour the Hippocratic tradition. Is it not time for this cautious approach to change? Are we not looking at a scenario much wider than the family disturbance which I have described? There is a mindless violence abroad among many young people of both sexes, which is not explicable in any ordinary way. We should never forget that induced abortion is an act of extreme violence; none the less because it is carried out under conditions of secrecy. It would be surprising if such violence were not to spill over in unpredictable ways to more and greater violence. If O’Donovan is to be believed, we have reached the culmination of the secular revolution, and it is time to look to a new and more hopeful beginning.
In conclusion I would suggest that the time has come for the Church to reassert the authority of its foundation documents; to proclaim afresh by every means that our faith is a faith revealed by God, not discovered and tailored by man to his own assumptions. This must depend on a new found confidence that materialist science had led the Western world up a cul de sac from which there is no exit. It also calls for a deep sense of repentance that we have failed to trust the Divine Son of God who entrusted himself to the human motherhood of Mary.
Anthony Bell is a retired priest living in Somerset