As a Christian doctor in the USA, you might expect me to be anti-abortion. But I support repealing the eighth
Vote YES on 8! There. I said it. Such a vote is needed to change abortion laws in Ireland, granting women the safety and dignity they are entitled to as human beings. As an African American man, a scientist and a Christian living in the Deep South of the US, I am weighing in on Irish abortion law because I have the same aspirations for women in Ireland that I have for women in the Mississippi Delta in my country: that they live healthy lives in safety and dignity.
Under current Irish law, women seeking to end pregnancies live under unnecessary regulations and standards that deny them access to this care.
It was regulations such as the eighth amendment in 1983 that led to the tragic and unnecessary death of Savita Halappanavar, a 31-year-old Indian dentist who died on 28 October 2012 at University Hospital Galway due to the complications of a septic miscarriage at 17 weeks’ gestation. These are laws that make talking about abortion in counselling a crime, and make the self-administering or assisting of an abortion a punishable offence. These penalties have deluded some into thinking that abortion does not occur for Irish women, turning it into a national “open secret”. But nothing could be further from the truth. Around 3,500 women travel out of Ireland every year – about 10 per day – mostly to the UK, often alone and at great expense to seek an abortion. In addition, around 1,500 women in Ireland access medication to induce an abortion in a clandestine manner.
For many, Irish abortion opposition is rooted in teachings from the Christian church, identical to our situation in the US. Such teachings are not foreign to me. I too am Christian and for the first 12 years of my practice, I didn’t provide abortions until I was able to reconcile my faith identity with my profession as a women’s health physician. A sermon by Dr Martin Luther King Jr, in which he spoke about the parable of the good Samaritan, liberated me in my thinking about the appropriateness of my becoming an abortion provider. The teaching by Dr King, of the Samaritan being more afraid of what would happen to a fallen traveller if he didn’t stop to help than what would happen to him if he did, is precisely the moral reasoning that I now apply as I travel to provide abortion services in remote areas of my country.
The Bible says nothing about abortion. This is also the case with many sacred texts upon which the major religious traditions in our world rely. Yet some church leaders insist on maintaining religious customs regarding human reproduction that were established prior to scientific understandings about how that process occurs. This has created a false tension between science and religion, which I explored in my book, Life’s Work: A Moral Argument For Choice. I recently saw a cartoon in which a woman and man were engaged in a conversation about where people come from. The man had apparently invoked a religious understanding of reproduction, declaring to the woman “you came from my rib”. The woman’s replied: “I didn’t come from your rib. You came from my vagina!” This humorous exchange really goes to the heart of the issue in Ireland, the States, and worldwide: women’s health policies are being shaped by non-scientific understandings of reproduction. MLK addressed this very topic: “Science gives mankind knowledge which is power. Religion gives mankind wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts, religion deals mainly with values. The two are not enemies.”
With what we know about the outcomes of pregnancies worldwide when abortion is illegal or greatly restricted, we can’t allow public policies to be determined by non-scientific understanding. Nor can we assume that the effects of these laws are negligible for Irish women, even as Ireland has one of the lowest maternal mortality ratios in Western Europe and the world. Despite Ireland’s laudable low maternal mortality, the occurrence of even one unnecessary death related to pregnancy, especially if attributable to delaying or inhibiting a woman from safely achieving her reproductive life goal, is unacceptable.
Secondly, religious opposition to abortion and contraception is not uniform. There are many Catholics in particular who understand and support the importance of a woman’s innate right and need to control her body and fertility. Catholics for Choice, for instance, has faithfully supported and defended the right of Catholic women to act conscientiously in the context of their faith. This is important to note, in a country as deeply Catholic as Ireland, as one decides whether or not support for women to safe abortion is actually in conflict with the teaching of the church. This pro-choice position may be in conflict with patriarchal customs of men running the church, but they are not in conflict with the values and teachings of Jesus, who says that men and women are valued equally. I think that the words of European Rabbi Moses Sofer, several centuries ago, capture the position of those who support Catholic women in their reproductive choices: “No woman is required to build the world by destroying herself.”
In these final days leading up to this historic vote on the Eighth Amendment in Ireland, some may ask “who are you to care or speak out on this important issue that will be addressed in a country whose people are not your own, whose colour is not your own, and where those most affected biologically are different from you?” I suppose that is a fair question, if one is similarly curious about why Christians are concerned about the persecution of Muslims, heterosexual people fight for LGBTQ rights, or why Caucasian abolitionists sought the dismantling of the enslavement of Africans in America during the 19th century.
My answer is a simple one. MLK was challenged regarding his opposition to the Vietnam War when he was best known as a civil rights leader. He responded that he simply refused to segregate his human rights concerns and felt called to seek justice wherever it was necessary to do so. He noted that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.
If the women of Ireland are not free, then neither are the women of the US or anywhere else for that matter, whether they are black or white, rich or poor, religious or atheist. Ultimately I want for all women what I want for myself: a life of dignity, health, and well being. These things should not be determined by one’s national border. So, vote on 25 May as if Irish women’s lives depend on it, because they will.
Dr Willie Parker practices obstetrics and gynecology, specializing in abortions and is a reproductive justice advocate. He is the author of Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice.
This article was originally published in The Independent.