Theologian and professor of Catholic Studies at Roehampton University, Tina Beattie, has signed a letter to the Polish Bishops’ Conference supporting “early, safe and legal” abortion.
Although the letter begins, “We uphold the sanctity of all human life, including the right to life of women and their unborn children”, it goes on to say, “we also acknowledge that sometimes women and girls face agonising decisions about whether or not to continue with a pregnancy that is the consequence of an act of sexual violence; that poses a serious threat to their own health, or that would result in the birth of a profoundly disabled or terminally ill child.”
The letter follows proposals by the Polish government to make abortion illegal in the country. Along with her academic duties Prof Beattie also volunteers for CAFOD’s Theological Reference Group.
The letter has been signed by fellow academics, lay people and theologians of varying nationalities, with signatories describing themselves as “concerned Catholics”.
“While we respect those who decide to continue with such a pregnancy, we do not believe that this decision can be imposed upon them through moral coercion, and far less through the force of law,” the letter states.
“In our view, the latter constitutes a violation of a woman’s freedom of conscience and personal dignity, and it runs counter to the Catholic tradition’s distinction between morality and legality. The law should not be used to control a person’s moral life, except when that person’s behaviour poses a threat to society.”
They go on to criticise Poland’s current abortion law and argue that it discourages Polish doctors from allowing pre-natal testing for foetal abnormalities because of the fear of prosecution: “We understand that Poland already has laws restricting abortion to situations when a woman’s life or health would be endangered by the continuation of a pregnancy, when the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act such as rape or incest, or when the foetus is seriously malformed or terminally ill.
“We are aware that under existing Polish law it is medical assistants who perform illegal abortions and not the women who have the abortions who are subject to legal penalties. We are concerned that even under existing law, fear of prosecution might prevent doctors from agreeing to perform legal abortions, or might inhibit their willingness to undertake prenatal tests which could diagnose serious foetal conditions – some of which can be treated in the womb, but some of which might under current law permit abortion.
“However, despite this reservation, we accept that the present law goes some way towards addressing the concerns we express above with regard to balancing potential conflicts between freedom of conscience and the common good.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear that “the moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law,” and says that “the inalienable rights of the person must be recognised and respected by civil society and the political authority.
“These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2273)
The signatories of the letter also say that Mary’s choice to “conceive a child” was a free one and write: “When God chose Mary to become the mother of His Son, He did so not by force or compulsion but by invitation and request. Mary was free in deciding whether or not to conceive a child. Many women and girls do not enjoy such freedom.”
The letter continues: “We also believe that our Catholic faith calls us to be attentive to suffering in all its forms, and to respond with trust in the mercy, forgiveness and compassion of God when faced with with profound moral dilemmas that offer no clear solution.
“In situations where abortion is deemed necessary – such as those currently permitted under Polish law – we believe that access to early, safe and legal abortion is essential. Making abortion illegal does not save the lives of unborn children. It kills women who would rather risk death than carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
“Finally, there is a body of evidence to show that the best way to prevent abortion is to respect women’s human dignity and freedom of conscience with regard to reproductive decisions, by guaranteeing access to reliable methods of birth control. To deny such access and to criminalise abortion as well seems to instrumentalise women as reproductive bodies rather than as full and equal human beings made in the image of God.”
Prof Beattie is the director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing and of Catherine of Siena College and both are based at the University of Roehampton.