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The beginning and end of human life: the view from Australia

By Peter Sellick - posted Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Whether something is good or bad often depends upon circumstances. A glorious sunset may be a good for one who has a warm bed to go to, but it may be a bad sign for a homeless person who must endure another cold night. One could argue that the birth of a child is a good for a couple expecting a much-wanted child, but it may be bad for a single mother who has no means or stable partner. The question arises, for example, as to whether a child should be aborted so that the single mother could finish her education and wait for a more acceptable time to raise a family. Can aborting a child be a good?

A thought experiment throws light on this question. It is inconceivable that I should wish that my mother had aborted me. To so wish would be to break the golden rule that I should do unto others that which I would have them do to unto me. Ending my life as a child in utero cannot be relativised as are other circumstantial goods.

The practice of legal abortion produces dissonances in all walks of life. For example, an article in the Sydney morning Herald on Saturday November 20th entitled "Longer terms for offenders whose crimes cause the loss of an unborn child" informed about two new laws passed in NSW that establish two new offences. These offences refer to the loss of a foetus after a pregnant woman is harmed or killed. One would think that these new offences would have repercussions on abortion law because they place a value on the foetus regardless of its age. However, the last sentence in the report tells us that, "The legislation will have no effect on abortion rights." This is an example of the dissonance in our approach to abortion. The foetus is valued in one instance (up to three years in prison) and not valued when its mother decides to abort it.


The dissonance in the abortion debate is apparent between couples who, on the one hand, experience miscarriages and grieve deeply, even at an early stage of gestation, and on the other, those who decide to end the life of the child they have created. For one couple a child is a precious member of the family even before it is born, for the other he or she is an obstacle, a problem to be solved. The inability to produce children often produces a feeling of emptiness and often destabilises the marriage. Yet only 310 adoptions were finalised in Australia in 2018–19, of which 82% were of Australian children and 18% were intercountry. The total number of abortions in Australia for 2018 was about 80000. Such figures may not be as accurate as would be liked; however, adjustments do not substantially alter them. Although I hesitate to introduce a utilitarian argument, there is something wrong when, in the midst of demographic decline, we are eliminating about 25 per 100 livebirths. We have become a nation that is willing to kill a significant part of the future generation.

When we observe such dissonances as legal abortion creates, we know that something is not right. The pro-abortion argument is to say that the embryo is not an identifiable individual. But if it is not, what is it? It is not an organ of the mother nor a cancerous growth. In most regimes, a foetus may be aborted up to 24 weeks gestation at which time it is deemed to be viable outside of the womb. I take this to mean that the child can breathe by itself. This is arbitrary since a newborn is not independently viable, it needs its mother. Do we abandon our old people or the severely disabled because they are not independently viable? I suspect that there are other considerations here to do with the feelings of the medical staff who see a baby in a bucket destined for the incinerator. Here we see a key aspect of the abortion debate. While the logic against abortion is compelling, it is the feeling that really counts.

When early abortions are carried out, no one sees the foetus, and this is especially true of medical terminations. Even though we may pride ourselves on our rationality, it is our feelings that carry us along. When Bill Clinton, in 1992, introduced a hopeful description of abortion as being "safe, legal and rare" he extricated himself from wedge politics that demanded that he be either pro-choice or pro-life. Now, there is an attempt by Democrats to walk away from the phrase because "rare" suggests a stigma. We want women who have had abortions to be guilt free. Ethics has become dominated by emotivism. Its main and only focus is the emotional state of the isolated individual. Our ability to abort a child is made possible by our inability to imagine it as a child and hence feel for it.

The pro-choice position is dependent upon Enlightenment philosophy that frames the human person as an autonomous rational being who is imbued with rights. This person is free to act as she chooses as long has those acts do not impinge on the rights of others. Since the foetus is not an "other" she is free to terminate its life. My body, my choice, except the foetus is not a part of her body, it is an emergent human being and a temporary resident of a woman's body. As an identifiable person one would think that it would also be endowed with rights.

The Church, in most of its forms, has opposed abortion and many also oppose Voluntary Assisted Dying (VAD). The grounds for this opposition are similar and are based on the view that each person is created in the image of God. Each of us has an integral dignity that cannot be erased even during a painful death.

As Psalm 8 tells us:


...what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.

This attitude to the human person persists in secular thought in the mode of human rights cut free and distorted from its Christian origins. The language of human rights has become dominant because they may be applied irrespective of religious affiliation; they are universal. This is why the United Nations is so enamoured with them. However, the idea of human rights has not generally been included in legal argument. The traditional arguments of jurisprudence are carried out without regard to them. Human rights may argue for the dignity of every person, but that dignity has no foundation other than its own assertion. Christianity anchors that dignity in the creative act of God, an argument that is neutralised by the common consensus that God does not exist.

The arguments around VAD are like those around abortion. Both end a life, and both are justified by the assertion of human rights, the rights of the mother in one case and the rights of the dying in the other. Both are complicit with death. Both are predicated on the idea of the autonomous individual who has the right to choose. In theological terms, abortion ends a life at the beginning of its journey into God and VAD ends a life before it completes that journey. Christians believe that all life, even in extreme suffering, is open to the grace of God and to purposively shorten that life is an act against God. There is no such thing as a life that is not worth living or a person who is not deserving of life. There is also no such thing as choice in such matters since life is a gift and we cannot, like Ivan Karamazov "hand in our ticket". The fetishization of "choice" leads supporters of VAD to a naïve position. How do we know when a choice is free? The very presence of the VAD option is enough to sway a dying person to ask for it to relieve the burden on their loved ones. Anything but a free choice. There are no safeguards against this, as there is no final access to the human mind.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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