I still find the topic of abortion to be difficult to understand, partly because there doesn’t seem to be a typical case by which all others could be evaluated. Each situation is as particular as to the individual(s) involved. In discussing this recently I went back to an article I wrote for New Catholic Times in 2008, to see where I was then and perhaps to consider what I have since learned on this topic.
Abortion: still complex
Phil Little describes his troubling odyssey in the abortion wars
Months ago I started to think about writing this “open apology” to Dr. Henry Morgentaler, but the usual and unusual demands of our daily lives somehow just kept pushing this to the back burner. Then on July 1 the issues popped onto the front pages of our daily press when the Governor General announced that Dr. Morgentaler was among the persons named to the prestigious Order of Canada.
The very mention of his name is cause for immediate intense comment anywhere in Canada. He is reviled by the religious right but at the same time Dr. Morgentaler is nearly canonized by the “pro-choice” proponents who see this issue in the broader context of women’s rights and the emancipation of women from male domination.
I was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1974 and worked as a missionary in Peru. In that phase of my growth I accepted the party line on abortion – it was immoral and unforgivable (except by a bishop). How could anyone kill a baby? Now I don’t remember this actually ever being discussed in my theology classes, nor was the issue ever formally examined. It was just assumed – like so much of our formation – and as a priest one need not really think about it but just accept it and make sure that the official line goes out to the faithful.
When I left South America I returned to Canada and married, settling down in Toronto. My first job was with the public school board working with adults returning to high school looking for upgrading skills to enable them to make different choices in their lives. I worked in a classroom and also as a guidance counsellor. For the first time in my life I actually had to face the issue of abortion as some of my students informed me that they would be away for a few days to have an abortion. They were not seeking advice nor support, and were certainly not asking me for my opinion. They were simply telling me that they would be missing a few classes but would catch up when they could.
No bad or evil women; no easy decisions
Many of the women students came from situations of deprivation and abuse. Some were prostitutes trying to get off the streets. Some were in relationships that were clearly not healthy, where they had minimal power to make decisions. Pregnancy was clearly for them just another disaster in their lives. As I came to know these students I realized that they were not “bad” or “evil” women, but in fact were women with tragic life stories for whom another pregnancy was just another bad break.
In 1983 Dr. Morgentaler opened the Harbord St. clinic in Toronto. There was an appeal by Archbishop Carter for Catholics to demonstrate outside the abortion clinic. I thought that I had an obligation to protest so along I went only to be greeted by the police who were on hand to separate the different sides of the debate. I was there to protest against the clinic but I found myself walking with some of the strangest “Christians” I had ever encountered. There were a few clergy but most were just common folk fired up in anger and hatred, almost frothing at the mouth in rage as they paraded their assortment of plastic foetus dolls and crucifixes with dripping blood as we walked in a circle in front of the clinic. I was truly embarrassed to be walking with this group but I found a somewhat different sub-group with placards identifying them as “S.A.N.E.” which I later learned to mean “Socialists Against Nihilist Ethics“.
Some years later I participated in a forum on the topic of abortion and I was one of three speakers who spoke to different aspects of the debate. I spoke from the “pro-life” side of the debate basing my argument on a “continuum of life” theory from the moment when the zygote is formed through life to a natural death. Near the end of the forum a very distinguished looking woman, perhaps in her 50’s, commended all the speakers for their eloquent thoughts and then she related her life story about how she had a choice to abort what was suspected to be a problem pregnancy but didn’t. She gave birth to a child with multiple physical and mental handicaps and with her husband and family devoted more than 20 years to the care of this very needy individual. She concluded that the cost on her health, and that of her entire family over the 20 year period had been too great and that in hindsight she should have chosen abortion. All the theory of our presentations crashed to the floor with this compassionate story coming out of the loving experience of a mother.
Over the next 22 years when I worked in the separate school system of Toronto I had occasional incidents where the issue of abortion came to the front. In one school a young teacher brought her infant child to school and after plunking the crying infant on the desk yelled at the students and told them that if they aborted “this is what you are going to kill“. A Jesuit priest who was an anti-abortion crusader was allowed to visit schools to deliver his message by comparing women’s wombs to army tanks with soldiers inside, that outsiders were trying to kill. At the same time I learned of single women teachers who felt compelled to get abortions rather than lose their jobs in the “catholic” system.
Pro-choice within the pro-life spectrum?
Living in Toronto our family participated in a number of human rights demonstrations and there we would see persons such as Judy Rebick who was a past president of the NAC on the Status of Women in the early 1990’s and who was clearly a defender of Dr. Morgentaler and the pro-choice movement. It was a puzzle to me how these people could be so clearly “pro-life” on most other issues. Only over a long period of reflection could I come to understand that the “pro-choice” option was within the wide “pro-life” spectrum, whereas the group that called itself “pro-life” was violently opposed to real life issues on many causes from teaching birth control to capital punishment. (Canadians can think of the Stephen Harper government which waves the pro-life flag but on most social issues it is anything but “pro-life” – it supports the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, it continues to dismantle the medicare system, it seeks to privatize education and other social services, it limits the refugee quota and favors immigrants who provide economic benefit, and it has withdrawn protection for Canadian manufacturing and jobs. But I digress …)
I really cannot withdraw from history the fact that I did protest against the Harbord St. clinic, only once mind you! Since then, with the help of many patient women who have educated me about my patriarchal and chauvinistic ways of thinking, I have come to recognize Dr. Morgentaler as a pioneer and a hero for women, not just in matters of fertility and reproduction, but in the freedom that he offered to help women make better choices in their lives. I don’t think this is something I would have ever understood as a clergy-MAN living in the comfort of the privileged culture of the churches ruling elite.
I don’t think an apology would make any difference to Dr. Morgentaler now – I did what I did because of who I was at that time coming out of a non-critical obedient culture that was not rooted into the fleshy grind of daily life. Dr. Morgentaler is described as a “difficult hero” – he is one I would like to meet and maybe he would “forgive” me for trespassing against him that one evening on Harbord St. and maybe he would just wonder at how complex this still is for all of us.
Phil Little ruminates on complex issues from Saltair, B.C.