50 years ago today, the 1967 Abortion Act came into effect, making it legal for medical staff to terminate pregnancies in certain circumstances. Since that time, over eight million abortions have been performed in Great Britain.
Abortion continues to be a highly emotive and controversial issue, and groups on both sides of the debate have seen this significant anniversary as an opportunity to lobby the government for changes in the law.
There have been suggestions that woman should be able to take abortion-inducing medication in their own homes; the ‘We Trust Women’ campaign has been arguing for abortion to be made legal up to birth; and there has been renewed interest in whether women are choosing to terminate pregnancies based on the gender or disability of the foetus.
Understandably, Christians who are opposed to abortion want to have a strong voice into these debates. It is important that abortion is well regulated and many Christians would like to see tighter restrictions in place in order to lower the number of terminations that can happen.
However, if our goal is to reduce abortions, focusing all our energies on changing legislation may not be the best way forward. As our growing prison population shows, just because something is illegal, doesn’t mean it stops happening.
Real women, real lives
In the years before the Abortion Act was introduced, many women still sought to end their pregnancies, despite abortion being both illegal and life-endangering. Of course, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have effective laws. As every classroom teacher will tell you, clearly defined rules are essential for any well-run society. But as every classroom teacher will also tell you, intrinsic motivation to behave in a certain way is much more powerful than externally imposed regulations. Therefore helping women to interpret their pregnancies in the light of credible alternatives to abortion is likely to be a much more effective way of helping them to decide against having a termination.
If our goal is to reduce abortions, focusing all our energies on changing legislation may not be the best way forward
A further problem with focusing all our attention on abortion legislation means that we risk viewing it as an abstract moral dilemma. In the current climate of on-screen activism, it is easy to feel that we’ve contributed to preventing abortions simply by tweeting our MP or signing a petition. While these things may be a part of the solution, they are not the whole picture. We mustn’t allow ourselves to be removed from the fact that the decision to terminate a pregnancy concerns real women and the often very difficult situations they find themselves in.
It’s also important to remember that abortion doesn’t occur in a vacuum, but takes place within a social and cultural context. As Kathy Rudy points out, it’s not what women know about the foetus that influences their decisions regarding abortion, but what they know about the world. Women know how the world views people with disabilities; they understand the impact taking maternity leave would have on their career; they can well imagine how emotionally and financially hard it might be to raise a child on their own.
Changing the narrative
Therefore, if we are serious about changing the statistics on abortion, we have to change the story that surrounds it. Abortion is held up to be a practice that empowers women, but you don’t have to dig very far below the surface to find that it is actually quite the opposite.
Offering abortion as the solution is a profound vote of no confidence in a woman’s ability to cope with an unexpected pregnancy. The ability to simply get rid of an unwanted pregnancy implies that to succeed in the world, women must have the choice to become more like men. It privileges the male perspective as ‘normal’ and devalues pregnancy and birth, which are uniquely female experiences.
Offering abortion as the solution is a profound vote of no confidence in a woman’s ability to cope with an unexpected pregnancy
The Church, however, has a much more compelling narrative to tell. Throughout the Bible, giving birth is frequently referred to as a sign of divine activity and purpose (John 3:3-6; Romans 8:22). And when God decides to come to earth as man, he chooses birth as his method of arrival.
The Gospel is also the story of God’s abundance and generosity. It is the story of the God who helps us in every challenge we face and the community that helps families to raise their children for as long as they need it. It tells the story of men who are faithful and take responsibility for their sexual behaviour. It tells the story of women who are strong and courageous and who have discovered their true worth in the God who loves them completely.
Changing the narrative on abortion will take no less than a major paradigm shift. This is difficult work that requires much patience and commitment for the long haul. But, as Teilhard de Chardin wrote, we must "trust in the slow work of God."
As Jesus did, we tell our stories both to the crowd and to one person at a time. We show up time and time again offering love, acceptance and support in all its various forms. This is how we will change the story of abortion. This is the work of the kingdom.
Abby King is a writer, teacher and avid reader from Birmingham