In some medieval accounts, the Holy Grail was the platter, and in others, the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. The term therefore has suggestions of the most profound religious significance. In the Arthurian legends, only a knight who was pure in heart could attain to a vision of the Grail; sometimes this knight was Parisfal, sometimes Galahad.
A journal called The Grail is published by St. Jerome’s, a nominally Catholic college. Without worrying very much about purity of heart or intention, it deals with current religious issues in a broadly ecumenical spirit. It is so ecumenical, in fact, that it does not identify the priests and nuns among its editorial consultants as persons in religion at all. Since it declares that the opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the editorial board, it obviously welcomes a very wide range of attitudes, and many articles which appear in it would not be entirely pleasing to a Parsifal or a Galahad, should such a person exist in the twentieth century.
For Interim purposes, two articles and a book review in the issue of March 1986 deserve examination, since they deal with the topic of abortion. Writing on what the female philosophers say on the subject. Mary Kenny produces a very interesting survey; it is edited version of a chapter in a forthcoming book by her, Goodbye Baby? The nine women with whom she deals approach abortion from a variety of perspectives, but most of them consider that females philosophize about it in a different way from males; they are bound to be less abstract and theoretical and more emotional and personal. All of them do feel, however, that abortion involves serious ethical questions, and the lady with whom Mary Kenny concludes warns that abortion must be seen as a last resort: if we wish to retain ethical standards, it must continue to be seen in this light.
This article is followed y one by Russell D. Legge, immediate past president of the Canadian Council of Churches, entitled “Abortion, An Ecumenical Perspective.” This discussion also contains a useful survey of attitudes, but still it may arouse more despondency than the previous one. Yet some of the denominations referred to by Legge defend the life of the unborn in a straightforward way. It has been the position of the Orthodox Church for centuries, we are told, that the taking of unborn life is morally wrong. Similarly the Baptist Church declares that “the right to life is the paramount and most fundamental right of a person;” yet it permits an exception: “The only instance where an unborn person should be deprived of life is in the case where an abortion would prevent the death of the mother.” Presbyterians and the Salvation Army widen the grounds still further, the former saying that “only a danger to the mother’s health indicating the likelihood of permanent or prolonged mental of physical impairment be regarded as grounds for abortion.” And the latter – in spite of its well known opposition to allowing abortion in its hospitals – stating in a booklet on social concerns that abortion may be procured “to save the life of the mother or to prevent serious injury to her physical or mental well-being.”
The Anglican view, as expressed by the Primate’s Task Force, goes still farther and raises special problems. Termination of pregnancy, according to the group’s report, should be considered only if the well-being of the mother can be secured in no other way. How is well-being to be determined? The circumstances of the pregnant mother’s life and health resources of her family and community, and the alternative solutions to the problems posed by her pregnancy, must be conscientiously considered.” In other words, she or someone else may to make a “conscientious” decision in terms, of the likely effects of having or not having an abortion.
No one denies that circumstances may affect the seriousness of a sin or crime, but still it looks very much as if this statement is designed to set moral absolutes aside. In fact, Legge writes that here we see an attempt to recognize the complexity of each particular decision for or against abortion – which I would again interpret as an attempt to set aside general principles. When he raises the question of who should estimate the relative weight of the various factors involved, we see that his is a morality of measurement or calculation. In fact, he quotes with approval a Lutheran document on sex, marriage and the family which say that the foetus is valuable only “in potential,” though “As part of God’s creation, the foetus deserves the most careful consideration when its future is being decided.” Still that consideration does not seem to be based on the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.”
Nevertheless, a qualitative distinction must be made between its claims and the claims of a responsible human being endowed with all the human rights that are grounded in the image of God. This means that in decisions about abortion, in the light of God’s purpose of life-together-in-love, attention must be given, not only to the goodness of germinating life, but to the mother’s rights to life and health, her responsibilities towards other children and the father, the economic and psychological stability of the home, the laws of the land, and the consequences for society as a whole.
So the criterion for right choice is the outcome of the choice, “the consequences for society as a whole.” This is not Christian ethics: it is not even good pagan morality. As John Finnis points out in his Fundamentals of Ethics, this type of reasoning makes nonsense of Socrates’ principle “It is better to suffer wrong than to do it.” In Plato’s Apology, it is related that the Thirty Commissioners in Athens ordered Socrates and four others to fetch Leon Salamis from his home for liquidation. “When we came out of the Round Chamber,” Socrates said, “the other four went off to Salamis and arrested Leon, and I went home.” Was this a prudent decision in view of the likely outcome? Had the tyranny of the Thirty Commissioners not ended soon afterward, Socrates’ refusal would have eared him the same sort of wrong as that done to Leon: death at the hands of political gangsters. But he insisted that such a choice is better than the choice to do wrong.
What has Socrates to do with the twentieth century? A great deal. Consider what Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Nobel Prize speech:
“There is one simple step a simple courageous man can take – not to take part in the lie, not to give his support to false actions. Let this principle [i.e., the lie that masks the method of violence] enter the world and even dominate the world – but not through me.”
Similarly, in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Second Vatican Council said that such offences against the human person as murder, abortion, deliberate suicide, and slave trading “degrade those who so act more than those who suffer the wrong.” Leading Protestant theologians of recent times have said much the same thing. Karl Barth wrote, “The unborn child is from the very first a child. It is still developing and has no independent life. But is a man, and not a thing, nor a mere part of the mother’s body…He who destroys germinating life kills a man…The fact that a definite NO must be the presupposition of all further discussion cannot be contested, least of all today.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, in his Ethics, “The simple fact is that God intended to create a human being and that this human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder.” The Lutheran statement therefore, in the opinion of this distinguished Lutheran clergyman, would be nothing but an attempt to find a rationalization for murder.
In John Finnis’ view, it is wrong to set aside the fundamental implications of the ideas of justice and of right and wrong, and to make decisions on the basis of a speculative assessment of consequences of results. He uses the term proportionalism for the doctrine that the morally right choice is the one which will bring about a better proportion of benefits than harms: we can detect its presence whenever someone says, “Surely the good of a child not yet born cannot take priority over the welfare of an adult woman.” The logically necessary implication of this high-sounding doctrine is to abolish care for the weak and the innocent: the child or the grandmother will lose every time. Proportionalism means the collapse of any principled moral concern for anything: it means, among other things, deliberately destroying unborn children in order to avoid the inconveniences they may bring to their parents and their community.
The lesser evil?
As Legge continues his ecumenical survey, both his own reasoning and the reasoning of those he discusses become more and more unsatisfactory. The United Church, for example, regards abortion as always a moral issue and permissible only as the lesser of two evils. What two evils of which this is the lesser? Is it ever evil to bring to term a child which God has given you? The relevant documents states that “abortion is acceptable only in certain medical, social and economic situations,.” but that statement of course leaves things very wide open. Like some other denominations, the United Church expresses dissatisfaction with the Canadian system of abortion committees and views abortion as a personal matter to be decided by a woman and her doctor. But who is to speak for the child? And what has a doctor to do with the decision? It, as the Baptists state, there are very rarely medical indications for an abortion, the decision is almost never a medical one. What particular expertise has a doctor, or a committee or doctors, on the moral and religious questions involved?
Near the end of his article, Legge quotes a part of the Lutheran statement which, he says, also expresses the sentiments of the United Church: “It is essential to remember that every child has a right to be a wanted child…” As has often been pointed out, this is a disingenuous attempt to get around a difficulty: it implies that an unwanted child has the right, the fundamental right, to be killed. How did the idea of an unwanted child become the one moral absolute governing discussion of this complicated topic? Moreover, one of Mary Kenny’s philosophers contends that in most cases the child is actually wanted by one or other parent. It is not possible that a child initially not wanted may be very much wanted later on, and have a full and happy life? Again, it is the rightness or wrongness of abortion which ought to be under consideration by Christians, not guesses about the psychological impact of a child’s being born on him and on his parents.
In his concluding paragraph, Legge makes the by now very tiresome statement that “We must accept it as given that no woman really wants to go through an abortion. Those who seek them do so because they perceive themselves to be in a desperate situation.” Abortions are done because of what the neighbours will think, because completion of pregnancy will hinder-schooling, and for many others reasons, many of them trivial: Bill Jean King had an abortion because she wanted to sin still another tennis tournament. As long as people are encouraged to think along the lines which Legge considers reasonable, abortion will occur and doublethink will continue to justify them.
Attack on pro-life
Reviewing Anne Collins’ gook on abortion in Canada, Kathleen Tudor declares o=that on this issue, as on many, there is only one extreme side, “its opposition being composed on the whole of rational, thoughtful people.” The powerful and fanatic groups who turn a non-issue into a matter of controversy are those on the pro-life side: Professor Tudor links them with the creationists and presumably also with the Flat Earth Society. She resents having to read details of the author’s meeting with Joe Borowski: “Morgentaler’s description of him as a ‘simple fanatic’ is accurate and the man seems to be distinguished from thousands of others in this land of ours by unusual energy which transforms ignorance, narrow-mindedness and dogmatism into fanaticism.”
Miss Tudor is a professor of English at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, as a professor of English at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, I claim equal competence to judge of a person’s intellectual quality. I can assure readers of the Interim that at the Human Life Conference in Montreal, Borowski spoke intelligently, to a roomful of other intelligent people, about the politics of abortion in Canada: he answered questions well, and he won the respect and applause of his audience. It is surprising that in contrast she finds in Morgentaler “a mind that thinks for itself,” since the latter has never been able to give a rational defence of abortion: his thinking is made up chiefly of clichés.
With equal obtuseness, Kathleen Tudor declares that a moment of enlightenment occurred to her when Professor Roger Hutchinson, a member of the Religious Studies Department at Victoria College, University of Toronto, said that “the right to choose is part of a woman’s morality, a right to test her own conscience and take responsibility for her action – an adult right that the state should not interfere with.” Presumably, then, the state should not interfere with a woman’s right to kill her mother or her newborn baby. Then statement is of equal silliness with Hutchinson’s declaration during the Morgentaler hearing in Toronto that the Catholic Church was not seriously opposed to abortion at all, because it did not automatically excommunicate all who had abortions.
But Hutchinson’s statement fits right in with Kathleen Tudor’s preconceptions. “I refuse to address myself to the issue of the killing of potential lives through abortion,” she writes. “The abortion fight is not about saving human lives – it’s another chapter in the fight of women to gain full adulthood, hence equality.” As Dr. Lejeune and a parade of other witnesses at the Borowski trial in Regina testified, biologists do not talk about potential life; the life of a child in the womb is real life. Moreover, the female philosophers discussed by Mary Kenny all see ethical problems where she sees none, apparently. Given her feminist blinkers, she cannot discuss the topic with the intelligence one would expect of a professor in the humanities.
Worse than this, in her references to Borowski she slanders him in a vile way:
About the only revealing information gleaned from Borowski’s biography was the fact that, in spite of his early marriage (he and his wife were both nineteen), they had only three “lovely girls.” It seems possible that they might have had ten or twelve children. It would appear that Borowski has denied life to as many human beings as any woman he is apt to meet as he pickets abortion clinics.
What an invasion of the privacy of Joe Borowski and his wife this constitutes! I hope they sue.