Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Divisive abortion debate requires responsible society to show tolerance

RITE & REASON: The opportunities for self-indulgence and pure malice are ample in this debate.

Many people will be disheartened at the prospect of another bruising debate on abortion in this country.

It is a delicate and deeply felt topic that can cause bitter conflicts, and even violence, in society. 

I have no intention here of going into its morality or of joining in the dispute between those who are “pro-life” and those who are “pro-choice”. 

Least of all am I trying to situate myself between two extremes.

I am against abortion; though I am aware of the medical, legal and moral intricacies involved in certain complications that can arise in the everyday practice of doctors.

The two terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are thoroughly unsatisfactory because they are slipshod and lazy slogans for belligerent attempts to stake out a territory that has to be defended at all costs.


In this situation each combatant sees his or her opponents as enemies to be defeated at all costs. And they act as if righteousness is to be found in one camp only. That is never the case in any debate, least of all in this one.

It is possible to disagree radically and fervently with a position, while at the same time respecting the sincerity of those who hold it.

There is a text in the New Testament that could be profitably taken to heart by any Christian, Protestant or Catholic, and even perhaps by unbelievers.

The First Letter of Peter reads: “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet.3: 15)

Opponents of abortion should be ready to say clearly and courageously where they stand on the matter; but they should do it “with gentleness and respect”. 

Conviction about the rightness of a cause is never a licence for a policy of reckless hostility. 

The opportunities for self-indulgence, self-righteousness and pure malice are abundant in this debate.

In the matter of abortion there appear to be few attempts to listen with respect to the other side. 

Religious people can easily overlook the fact that their opponents have consciences too. 

Listening respectfully to the other side, needless to say, does not mean agreeing with it; but willingness to listen is more likely to win attention than unbridled condemnation.


This is true of the debate over abortion. 

It is all too easy to allow revulsion at what the other side is arguing to blind us to the fact that others have their own reasons for sponsoring a view that is unacceptable to us.

There seems to be an idea that gentleness and toleration in the defence of a good cause show weakness, and that we display greater moral assurance by stating our convictions in a peremptory and even bellicose fashion.

The ultimate outcome of such an attitude may be recourse to threatening and even violent behaviour, both of which are outrageous and do nothing for the cause except to discredit it.


The recent intervention of the four Catholic archbishops left no one in any doubt about where authorities in the Catholic Church stand on abortion. 

Their words were framed in the uncompromising language that we have come to expect of them.

One could agree with the general drift of the statement while regretting its combative tone. 

By failing to speak in a measured and compassionate way it missed a golden opportunity to set a badly needed example of temperate and restrained firmness.

The position of the Catholic Church on abortion is crystal clear; however, if the bishops had pointed out that there was a right and a wrong way to support a cause, they would be listened to, if only because it would be unexpected.

The main contribution of Christians, leaders and people, should be to show tolerance. 

Is it too much to hope that the present debate on abortion will show that we are capable of having strong convictions, on either side, while expressing them “with gentleness and respect”?

* Fr Gabriel Daly is a theologian and an Augustinian priest

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