Whose Justice?

Christians on the Left executive member Heather Staff explores issues around justice, love and compassion in the abortion debate.

‘Love is something you do, and it’s bringing justice to other people. You can’t say “I love you” if you don’t work for justice on that person’s behalf. ‘Tony Campolo, 2013

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Empathy and compassion, pressure and decision making, these words are often left out of highly charged procedural arguments on abortion, particularly around justice. It is perhaps why I have generally avoided writing about the so called Christian political moral issues, where an often badly tempered debate around abortion can forget the human faces - reducing people to simply the enemy. Are you with me or against me? Whose justice are you fighting for? No room for the ability to say ‘I would prefer this’, but we live in an imperfect world and that often means imperfect solutions.

Iraqi film director Mohamed Al-Daradji said, ‘the war is not just on the battlefield but it’s played out more in our minds, our heart our soul.’  As a woman who has spent time with women in crisis, women who have been abused, raped, or feel shame I have constantly felt conflicted around this issue. Whose justice am I fighting for?

Of course, not all women who have had an abortion have suffered sexual abuse, for some it may be a personal choice, others economic pressure, perhaps a matter of the best medical choice to keep the mother alive, perhaps a partner or family against having the child. Choice and life, I use the words so casually as do many of us, yet perhaps it’s time to redefine and work out exactly what we are talking about.

The Department of Health abortion statistics for 2016 show that in England and Wales:

All abortions: There were 190,406 abortions carried out in England and Wales in 2016, slightly lower than in 2015 (191,014).

For women resident in England and Wales, 2016:  The total number of abortions was 185,596 in 2016, slightly lower than in 2015 (185,824) and 4.2% lower than in 2006 (193,737). The total number of abortions per year has remained relatively constant at around 185,000 since 2012.

Age: The abortion rate was highest for women at the age of 22 (at 27.9 per 1,000). The highest rate in 2015 was for women at the age of 21 (at 28.7 per 1,000). · The under-16 abortion rate was 1.7 per 1,000 women and the under-18 rate was 8.9 per 1,000 women. Both lower than in 2015 (2.0 and 9.9 per 1,000 women respectively) and in the year 2006 (3.9 and 18.2 per 1,000 women respectively).

Gestation: Ninety-two per cent of abortions were carried out at under 13 weeks gestation and 81% were carried out at under 10 weeks, which is slightly higher than in 2015 at 80%, and considerably higher than 2006 at 68%.

Statistics can often reduce the human cost to numbers of increase or reduction, leaving out the stories, decisions and the questions.

It would be simple to say that in England and Wales to have an abortion you need the consent of 2 registered medical practitioners and meet the legal grounds for having one, that you can have one before 24 weeks and only after in the case of grave risk to life.  Yet really in breaking it down to just this, the pressure, the story or the cost can be so often lost.

The recent amendments around giving Northern Irish women the right to access abortion free of charge on the UK mainland has driven many to again question what is right and ethical. Are we fighting for a justice that suggests if you are a UK citizen, no matter where you live in the isles, you should be entitled to a service provided on the NHS, paid for by the equalities committee? Or is it perhaps about something else? Are the questions ones that are simply exploring what women in the UK can access or is it a deeper question. One that says what do we believe about life and rights?

The arguments around abortion so often can forget the bigger picture, for instance the pressure that is carried on the shoulders of those deciding to have an abortion or deciding not to. The Council of Europe PACE produced resolution 2167 which includes a focus on the pressure surrounding women to have an abortion or not to, something that so often is forgotten or downplayed. The Standing Committee has called on member States to guarantee the social protection and labour rights of domestic workers. This report also calls to protect pregnant women and their unborn child and the pressure on women to terminate their pregnancies.

Article 4.3. and that in no circumstances pregnant working women are put under pressure by their employers to terminate their pregnancy"

In the report, there is a case about a young woman who was pressed to have an abortion by her employers and when she refused they tried to push her into having one. We forget that there are many cases of where young pregnant women can be put under extreme pressure.

So often political and ethical arguments swing on the pendulum of extreme positions rather than looking for the best possible welfare of the woman. In this case it is welcomed that a discussion around pressure and welfare was debated and adopted into a resolution.

Tony Campolo says, “My question is: how can we as evangelicals call ourselves pro-life if all we are anxious to do is to make abortion illegal? If we are not dealing with the economic forces that are driving people to have abortions?”

Organisations like ECPM (European Christian Political movement) have often focused on (and it’s something I happen to agree with) giving the woman real choice, making sure she has all the support she needs. That includes counselling, financial support to keep the baby, peer help, adoption recommendation if necessary and a spelling out of what having an abortion may mean physically and emotionally.

It also means investing in better sex education which includes teaching on sexual abuse, consent and also teaching around contraception. We may want to pretend that people don’t have sex, but the reality is people will. Teaching teenagers abstinence hardly ever works; teach it but as Thomas Hobbes in ‘Leviathan’ said, ‘man is greedy he takes what he wants, so we must be pragmatic’.

Pragmaticism and an understanding of whose justice they were fighting for is partly why my parents started coaching about HIV/AIDS, why they, to my embarrassment, handed out condoms in the 80s/90s on World Aids Day despite their Christian faith.

It’s also why when certain parts of the Church told them they were not exactly doing what congregation members should be doing (life is sacred, and certainly don’t encourage sex), they still worked with people with AIDS and HIV. They also helped to set up the first needle exchanges in Suffolk because they knew that clean needles lowered the HIV/AIDS/hepatitis rate. Now did they want to encourage people to use drugs? No! Did they want people sleeping around? No, but they did understand the human condition. 

They believed that it is better to keep people alive than to condemn them for their wrong doing and watch them die.  They were fighting for justice but in a very pragmatic understanding way. In the long run with falling rates of HIV they were also proved correct.

It can feel like the calm pragmatic voice on this subject is often ignored and I know that I myself can often be drawn into hearing the loudest voices on social media. Those that appear to want to punish women for having sex rather than acknowledging the excellent work done by many crisis pregnancy organisations. Those organisations often challenge the tightening rules on social housing, and reducing welfare support due to the impact on young women. As a friend said to me to be truly pro-life means being pro-life after birth, as well as being pro-life before.

Life is sacred, and time and time again I must ask if we truly believe that we must extend our concerns into how we seek justice in taxation, health care and education. We need to understand the pressures and choices that, in some cases (not all), drives a woman to seek a back-street clinic.

“And you know the consequences of driving abortions underground. The evangelical community should have a guilty conscience if, in fact, it makes abortion illegal and doesn’t deal with the economic forces that are driving people to have abortions. I’m pro-life, but pro-life in a full sense, in the sense of Cardinal Bernadin: you can’t just pass a law against abortion. You have to, in fact, deal with the forces that make many women feel that abortion is a necessity for them.” Tony Campolo

Although statistics around how many women who have suffered rape and have an abortion are not easy to find (not surprising since rape and sexual abuse statistics are very hit and miss and complex in their reporting) I would always allow choice in the case of rape. It deeply disturbs me to hear that there may be a ruling in Arkansas (Provision in the House Bill 1566) to force a woman to tell the rapist that she wants an abortion and his decision is counted more than hers if she is below a certain age.  Potential rulings like these give women like myself flashes of Margret Attwood’s ‘The Handmaids Tale’, where women are the property of a man, forcibly impregnated and have no agency over their body.

In the case of abortion and rape, who am I to say what a woman can cope with? To say the child could redeem the situation is to not understand sexual violence or trauma to a woman’s body and mind. For myself, I would say that adoption is always a better choice if keeping a child cannot happen, but as a woman I would never presume to know what another woman could or could not do in that situation.

In politics, legislation should be designed to serve, and as someone recently said to me love provides boundaries. However, it is important to acknowledge in these debates it is often women who are being held responsible, women who are shamed and made guilty, women who face danger, women who pay and women who face pressure. It is why I personally would prefer to see the man involved in sharing the burden of responsibility. Not in the dystopian Handmaids Tale way, or legislation that forces the telling of a decision to an abuser, but from the start an understanding that responsibility is on all parties.

My parents came at their personal moral questions from all sides. They concluded that expressing love for people, no matter what they thought of their behaviour or lifestyle, was more important than inflexible moral dogma.  Frequently the arguments around abortion polarise around one or other perspective, which inevitably results in an absence of love for all sides.  Before we can make conclusions about what we believe around this issue, it is vital that we try to understand all the implications of those beliefs.

As a Christian, I personally believe that abortion should be the last resort but we live in a society full of differences and opinions, the challenge then is to legislate as fairly and as justly as we can. In addition, we must look at all factors, including social, economic and political. To serve our society means protecting and creating; it also means an acknowledgement of pressure and a sensitivity to the issue including balancing the rights and needs of everyone concerned: the unborn child, the mother, the father and in some cultures the whole family.

My hope and plea is that we can find a way of listening to one another, finding a common ground to provide the best care possible and work out whose justice we are fighting for.

by Heather Staff


The issue of abortion and crisis pregnancy more generally has been back in the news in the last few weeks. In the midst of the inflammatory language and virtue signalling from both sides of the debate it is sometimes difficult to have an adult conversation about the issue. This means for many of us, our understanding of such a complex subject is fairly superficial. Christians on the Left is curating the thoughts of some of our members and referencing some hopefully helpful background reading:

Whose Justice? by Heather Staff

Pro-Life for All of Life? by Rachel Burgin

Abortion and Devolution by Heather Wilson

The BMA and Decriminalisation of Abortion by Dr Rachael Pickering

Some detail from the medical profession: Reflections on the BMA Vote by Dr Peter Saunders [external link to Christian Medical Fellowship]

A theological article about the presumptions of both pro-life and pro-choice positions: Abortion and Our Attitude to the Foetus by Lee Gatiss [external link to The Theologian]

Here are also three articles from 2016 on the subject, following Professor Cathy Warwick and the Royal College of Midwives decision to back a decriminalisation campaign.

Surely We Can Agree on Some Things? by Jennie Pollock

Abortion is not Social Justice: A Northern Irish Perspective by Heather Wilson

We Must Speak Up for the Voiceless by Sunny Mandich

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