Thursday, May 20, 2010

Interruptible

I vividly remember a movie that my mother took me to see in the '60s called The Cardinal. (1) Tom Tryon played an Irish Catholic priest who eventually (the film was three hours long) rises to the title of Cardinal. Near the end of the film there is a scene in which Carol Lynley, who played Tryon's sister, is having a baby. But the delivery is complicated and the doctor can only save the mother or the child. Tryon tells the doctor to save the child, and the scene closes with Lynley's uncomprehending screams as she is dying.

I recall that I was very angry when the movie was over and I asked my mother why on earth the man would sacrifice his own sister. My mother explained that it was the official policy of the church in such cases. I felt that if it was the church's policy, the church must be stupid.

Abortion "on request" (2) is illegal in the Philippines, just as it is illegal in many other former Spanish colonies in Latin America, like Costa Rica, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile. Whenever reproductive rights legislation is proposed, leaders of the Catholic church, despite the constitutional separation of church and state, make their position on the subject abundantly clear. Contraception, according to the church, is acceptable only in marriage and only in the form of so-called "natural" birth control. Artificial contraceptive use is officially banned. So whenever a reproductive rights bill is introduced in the Philippines, it is quickly withdrawn.

Among the nations of the world, the Philippines is ranked 72nd in land area. If all its more than 7,000 islands, many of which are uninhabitable, were put together, the Philippines would only be the size of the U.S. state of Arizona. But the population of the Philippines is ranked 12th in the world. It is close to 100 million at present, but if the birth rate continues at its present level, the population could be 158 million by mid-century.

Abortion is, as one obstetrician put it, (3) a "failure" - a breakdown of existing preganancy prevention measures, and a last resort to contravene the birth of unwanted children. In the United States, where abortions are legal, the issue continues to attract controversy. It is regarded as "murder" by "Pro-Life" advocates and its practitioners, including women seeking abortions and physicians who perform them, "murderers". Morally, it is an intractable issue. Even if a woman seeking an abortion were completely apprized of all the ramifications that "pro-life" advocates emphasize, her decision to interrupt her pregnancy is still "murder".(4)

The direct consequence of the criminalization of abortion is simple: abortions will be carried out in secret, by people, almost invariably other women, who have no medical training and only rudimentary knowledge of obstetrics and gynecology, under unsanitary conditions that endanger the lives of the women seeking to interrupt their pregnancies.

Politically, however, the anti-abortion argument is as untenable as the pacifist argument. Pacifism, in which no resistance is made to an aggressor, is only feasible when one is prepared, as few pacifists have ever been, to accept the consequences. Gandhi, for example, was a pacifist who understood that if people do not die in war, they will have to die in other, less heroic, ways. He famously told an interviewer, when the Nazi death camps were discovered, that the Jews should have committed mass suicide. Astonishing as this argument sounds, Gandhi was able to accept the condition that the inevitable prospect of pacifism in the face of such unyielding aggression as the Nazis presented to the Jews was death one way or another. The manner of death, of course, is the only matter of choice to such pacifism.

Similarly, the only anti-abortion stance that would make sense is the one in which the deaths of women seeking illegal abortions is understood and accepted as an inevitable consequence. If one is not prepared to accept the legal interruption of preganancies, one must be prepared to accept the loss of life, of both fetuses and mothers, from illegal abortions.


(1) The Cardinal (1963) Directed by Otto Preminger.
(2) Some countries have compromised when an abortion concerns the life of the woman, or when there is proof of sexual assault.
(3) In the BBC News program My Country, Brazil: O Aborto dos Otros, which aired 15 May 2010. It is estimated that over one million illegal abortions are carried out in Brazil every year.
(4) An ironic consequence of the availability of artificial contraceptives to men and women, which the Church fails to notice, is that it diminishes the number of abortions, legal or otherwise.

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