One of the thoughts that keeps nagging away at me (in between mundane concerns such as what to cook for dinner tonight) is that if we are to light the grim darkness of the world with goodness and truth then we cannot afford to beat around the bush. I have been thinking about Hanukkah (which started last night) and how it reminds us to share our light with the world rather than keep it to ourselves. It is a celebration that encourages us to be less self-absorbed. It is the story of a constant minority triumphing over a corrupt majority.
This is particularly relevant to the recent passing of the Tasmanian Reproductive Health Act. The formal opposition to the bill engaged in what can only be described as pettifoggery, quibbling about petty points. This is something pro-lifers and pro-choicers should be able to agree upon as vexatious and lacking in integrity. Instead of having the courage of our convictions and denouncing the decriminalisation of abortion as morally repugnant, many Tasmanian pro-lifers chose to focus on the provisions that affect us most personally. This is natural enough, but we should try to learn from hindsight, not just ignore it.
Allow me to explain. The Reproductive Health Act removes abortion from the criminal code and precludes a woman from ever being prosecuted for having an abortion. It takes one form of murder and proclaims it is not a crime as long as the perpetrator is the mother of the victim who is yet to exit the womb. Elsewhere, pro-lifers have introduced legislation (such as ‘Zoe’s Law’) that recognises the human rights of the unborn, but here in Tasmania prominent pro-lifers dismissed this as a red herring and concentrated on a practical strategy instead of a moral one, sometimes even rejecting interstate advice that ‘whittling away’ doesn’t work. We – and please note I say ‘we’ and not ‘they’ – became indignant about the lack of respect for our conscientious objection, the breach of civil liberties, and the potential long-term harm that might result to the perpetrators of abortion. None of us made human rights our focus. Few of us even mentioned human rights.
The problem with this approach is that although our arguments were true they are secondary to the primary issue, that abortion is wrong and any attempt to decriminalise it is depraved. To use the words of Pope Francis, every violation such as abortion “cries out in vengeance to God and is an offence against the creator of the individual”. Now, some of you who are not believers may ask: what has this got to do with me? ‘Everything’ is my answer. Sin is not a concept reserved for the actively religious. We all believe in sin, though we may not call it sin. When we rightly denounce the Nazi and Stalinist crimes of the twentieth century, we are denouncing sin. We are denouncing what is fundamentally wrong and which cannot be made right by laws of the state. No man-made law can justify genocide. No legislation can make the killing of a defenceless child right. Whatever we call it, we all believe in sin.
So, when we ignore this sin – or, worse, condone it by supporting decriminalisation – in order to focus on things like conscientious objection, civil liberties, and the side effects of abortion, we communicate that our main objection to the legislation is a personal one. It is relative. It is not a moral absolute.
It is certainly important that we all be allowed to follow our conscience, but making our right to conscientiously object the basis of our opposition puts abortion in the same basket as Jews and Moslems not eating pork. It is something to be respected but not something that applies universally. In short, our opposition becomes a subjective matter, and it means pro-choicers quite logically can say to us: “as long as you don’t have anything to do with it, it shouldn’t bother you”. This was illuminated in the debate over amendments to the doctors’ conscientious objection section of the bill when the subjectivity of conscientious objection was applied to complicity in wrongdoing, as if involvement in something depended on whether you ‘felt’ involved rather than on whether you were involved. Legislators who voted for the bill were concerned about whether doctors ‘felt’ complicit, confusing doctors’ varying opinions about whether to conscientiously object with the actual acts of complicity. Complicity was portrayed as a subjective opinion rather than an objective reality. The fundamental reason for conscientious objection became inconspicuous amid the discussion of the right of doctors to conscientiously object and speculation about what might salve their consciences.
Likewise, the access zones ended up being a balancing of women’s rights versus protesters’ rights. The unborn children weren’t even in the picture. This was also the case in the discussion of the harmful effects of abortion. The obvious harmful effect of death on the unborn child aside, did anyone mention the most harmful effect of abortion on the perpetrators, that when someone so perverts their conscience as to justify killing their own child they are on the road to Hell? You see, this is the real harm that occurs when we commit a grave sin – things like substance abuse and depression are just symptoms. The real harm of choosing to sin in such a grave manner is that we set ourselves on a path away from all that is good, including (if you are a believer) God. Turning around on that path becomes more and more difficult the further you go. When we don’t tell women that abortion is fundamentally wrong we are letting them skip down that path away from coming to terms with what they have done, away from all that is good.
Pro-lifers in Tasmania have little cause to celebrate. Knocking off the ‘rough edges’ of this legislation is undoubtedly better than nothing, but it’s questionable whether ‘we’ have any right to claim credit for it. If we had any integrity, if we didn’t live in fear of what people might think, we would decry this legislation as an abomination that makes murder of our unborn offspring legally acceptable. Our laws reflect what we consider right and wrong. Tasmanian law now rejects the idea that killing one’s own children (instead or nurturing and protecting them) is wrong. As long as we remain silent on this issue and dismiss it as a red herring we fail to share the light in our lives. Metaphorically, we are closing our curtains so that the Hanukkah lights cannot be seen by passers-by. We are choosing not to illuminate the world with goodness and truth.