The abortion debate has gone beyond slogans
Most people agree that we, as a society, want to decrease the number of abortions.
Like any grand statement, the means to getting to this end will be the judge of our seriousness and principles.
Tory Shepherd is right to point out our goals cannot be achieved through “guilt, hate and fear mongering”.
She is also right to point out the paucity of our sexual education. However, we should be careful in this debate about labels, over-generalisations and the construction of the “other side” as enemy.
The means to achieving reduced numbers of abortions are not simple. To complicate matters, myths and prejudices cloud the debate. Arguments like “more sex education and contraception will lessen abortions” play into these myths.
Furthermore, the argument itself is questionable and neglects the underlying issues that are the real grounds for the abortion debate.
Firstly, there does not seem to be substantial evidence that contraception decreases abortion. In fact, abortion can just be an extension of contraception where contraception fails or is not used.
Secondly, sex education does not automatically make us more responsible because it will depend on what is taught, particularly what principles and values (and supporting cultural norms) are passed on and in the background.
But these points are not as important as the underlying issues and mentality that are driving the abortion and contraception debates.
Views and arguments about certain kinds of sex education and contraception have underlying views about sex, pregnancy and relationships that are their foundation.
One type of popular argument (that supports the line that contraception and sexual education are the answer to decreasing abortion) usually has the aim to avoid “unplanned” or “unwanted” pregnancies, until the person or couple are ready for a child. In the meantime, sex is seen as a positive activity in which to engage for itself – often for intimacy, but usually for pleasure.
Relationships are peripheral to this view of sex and pregnancy. An intimate relationship may be important, but not necessary for sex. In other words, sex becomes (in contradiction to itself) an almost individual activity – meant for me to use when I wish under certain conditions of “responsibility” that avoids the heavier consequences of a family.
Further, this attitude assumes that pregnancies need to be, in general, “wanted” or willed by an individual to be legitimate.
This is not only an empirically questionable attitude, but it also relies on classical “liberal” individualism, in which the individual determines him (or her-)self with reference primarily to what he or she “wants” in complete autonomy and without reference to others.
In this view, sex is an individual choice (without reference to the meaning of the act), and similarly, abortion is about the decision of the woman alone with primary reference to her feelings and desires (which are often in great upheaval).
There are those (like the Catholic Church) that object to the above argument, particularly as it gives us an unrealistic view of ourselves that can lead to detrimental consequences. In contrast to some caricatures and popular perceptions, the Catholic Church (and others opposed to abortion and contraception) does not have a negative view of sex.
On the contrary, the Church so highly regards sex as a human activity that it says it should be highly valued (and not entered into lightly) because it is such a deep expression of ourselves and our relational capacity.
Because we are relational creatures who find our purpose and fulfilment in love, sex is integral to who we are; and so, we should be careful to guard its health, particularly in a culture that often emphasises that sex is about me (not about an on-going loving relationship).
As one of my former teachers said, there is a sense in which the Church wants us to have the best sex! The individualistic view of the human person neglects much of the relational nature of who we are.
In a relational view, sex is important for two primary reasons: it is the expression of the intimacy, pleasure and unity of a loving relationship; and, out of this love, there is a natural creativity and fruitfulness, usually beautifully expressed in procreation and family life.
In this way, sexual education is vital: not only to convey physical information about the human body; but also to convey the essential values by which we can fruitfully engage in sex and relationships.
Thus, the debate about abortion (and sex) is centred on our view of ourselves. It calls for a deeper examination of our fundamental views about what it means to be human, particularly as humans who desire and find fulfilment in relationships.
It is here where we need to do the most thinking and dialoguing in order to build common ground for a healthy society, not to engage in weary and superficial diatribes that don’t go to the heart of matters.
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