Despite the availability and use of reliable contraception, unintended pregnancies happen outside of marriage as, indeed they happen within it. One in three women in the UK will experience an abortion during their reproductive life. This is not, therefore, a ‘fringe’ issue, either within our churches or outside its doors. Even if it only affects a small number within our Christian communities, it will have touched the lives of many of our families – a sister, cousin, aunt, mother or grandmother, perhaps. It is not surprising, therefore, that since the passing of the Abortion Act in 1967 there have been repeated attempts to repeal or amend the legislation, most of the initiative coming from individuals or groups with a Christian background.
The most recent of these initiatives sought to amend the health and social care bill to guarantee that all counselling of women seeking an abortion would be ‘independent’ of abortion providers. It was based on the premise that providers such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Marie Stopes’ clinics have a financial incentive to pressure women into choosing a termination, leaving women feeling rushed and unable to control the process. We may leave aside the most misleading of these assumptions, as they are ‘not-for-profit’ organisations. On the other hand, should Christians be concerned that women facing an unplanned and problem pregnancy might feel rushed or pressurised into a procedure that terminates a life or the potential for life?
As someone who has counselled hundreds of young women attending a young people’s clinic who were facing a problem pregnancy, this is an issue that I have faced with them and alongside them. As a professional social worker and counsellor working in a secular setting and as a Christian, my focus was on the need for this young woman to explore what, for her (and, as far as is possible, the father of the child) was the ‘right’ solution, in the sense of having the greater potential for good. She was also encouraged to grieve for the ideal that she could not realise in her situation and in this way she had the opportunity to learn from and grow within the process of following her decision through. Roughly half of the young women we counselled chose to continue with their problem pregnancy and the rest chose to seek a termination of the pregnancy. Even when this latter group were referred to a clinic providing an abortion service, they would be given further opportunities to review their decision. This ‘non-directive’ approach to counselling is followed by any professionally qualified counsellors working in the private or ‘not-for-profit’ agencies offering abortions.
So what really lies behind the amendment debated by Parliament? And why should we, as Christians, be concerned? If this amendment was passed, it would have opened up the provision of counselling women seeking an abortion to separate, ‘independent’ agencies, adding a further hurdle for such women to seek out and overcome at a time of stress. Bids for such work would come from the network of crisis pregnancy centres closely linked to religious organisations or founded by those various faith groups, whose basic assumption is that abortion is a sin and should be avoided at all costs. Women who are ambivalent about having an abortion receive support and guidance to continue with the pregnancy from those agencies. Those who feel they cannot do so, for whatever reason, are given advice, rather than non-directive counselling. They invariably report that they felt intimidated and were made to feel guilty for their decision, leaving them distressed and no further forward as such agencies would not refer them on to a clinic providing abortions.
There are, however, some church-based agencies in the Midlands and in London that offer non-directive, professional counselling and evidence-based information on all the options available to women facing a problem pregnancy, but these agencies are rare. There are, of course, individual Christians working on a professional basis within secular organisations such as BPAS, Brook and Marie Stopes. Again, they are rare. A woman looking for such help may have the good fortune to encounter them and even find a sympathetic and informed response to any faith based concerns they may have.
Should we not, as Christians, speak openly of the dilemma faced by women coping with a problem pregnancy, rather than deny her the freedom to explore all the options open to her? How might we express the compassion and understanding that Jesus demonstrated, for example, in his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery? As in those cases, there was also a man involved who needed to be considered. I can only offer my own thoughts that have been developed in dialogue with other Christians working in this field and those who have looked to me for a Christian perspective on their situation.
If the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the basis for our understanding of how good can come from evil and nothing is too evil that it cannot be redeemed it has a very powerful message for a woman facing a problem pregnancy when, in effect, she ‘cannot do right for doing wrong’. There is no ideal solution, for each solution to the problem falls short of the ideal. Hence she needs to be encouraged to seek what for her seems to have the greater potential for good. I believe she should then be supported by her church community in realising that potential for good.
Freedom of choice lies at the root of this approach and is based in the freedom to choose good or evil that God gave to humanity at our creation as embodied in the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is also based on the supreme example of humanity’s freedom of choice in the risk God faced in allowing his people to choose to accept their Messiah or reject him. Christians should not be involved in strategies that misinform those who come to them for guidance or support when facing a potentially life changing situation. Nor should we impose our own beliefs on other people, especially those who are vulnerable because of their need or distress. Rather, we are called to respond with compassion to their dilemma, travel alongside them as they consider options that may challenge our own beliefs and encourage them to seek, with honesty, what for them is a solution to their problem.