The vote in the Republic of Ireland for abortion if you want it - at least during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy - will come as a profound relief for many. The marvel is that it took until 2018 for that country to put the matter to the test in a referendum. I can only imagine that the forces of religious conservatism were so strong and entrenched that no politician could face this issue without visions of career suicide (or even, deep down, divine wrath) getting in the way. But no longer.
Where do I stand? Well, I'm a lifelong pro-abortionist. I was never outspoken on the matter, but in 1982 I found it in my heart to play a key role in getting a young woman to, and from, a well-known London abortion clinic. She was an unmarried Catholic girl, and feared her parents' reaction if the pregnancy progressed. It was a friend of a friend, and I did not know the girl all that well. Her boyfriend, by the way, hadn't stepped in. Somebody else had to get her secretly to the clinic, and then back home again. I was asked, and I agreed. I put her up overnight, and drove her to the clinic early next day, then picked her up later on.
I have no idea what the fallout was for her personally - I never saw her again. I'd expect her to feel immediate relief at a crisis averted; but on the other hand, mixed feelings in the time ahead. Partly because her body had been geared up for a birth, but now had to go into reverse, with many physical and emotional consequences. Partly because her boyfriend had helped to 'make' the baby, and yet had played no role that I knew of in extracting her from that situation. And partly because she had deceived her parents, and might never be able to tell them what had happened: big lies must have been told, and a dark secret would have to be hidden for a long time to come, perhaps forever.
I had thought about these things before I actually helped her. I thought about them afterwards too. It seemed to me best that a young woman should be rescued from a situation that she wasn't yet ready for. I thought she and her boyfriend might well have been silly and reckless, and I hated all the dishonesty and deceit, but those were small things compared to the badness of an unwanted child being born. Yes, it could have been adopted; but then that meant this young girl would have to go full-term, and then see her baby taken away - another bad thing to happen.
In 1982 I was thirty, and although still not yet a parent, I was quite old enough to stand back and take a reasonable view of the situation, and imagine the most obvious consequences of helping - or not.
I helped. She could have a baby another time, when she had grown up a bit more. A child she really wanted to bring into the world, and care for, and bring up with all the tribulations that involved, and then see through a lifetime of ups and downs. The human race was in no danger of extinction if she delayed all that until ready for it, or indeed never conceived again. For me at least, the only 'rules' broken here were those relating to being open and honest.
I admit my contribution to that unborn child's death was important and inescapable. But I have lived with it, and would do the same again if a similar situation arose, although in these more accepting times I would push for more openness and less subterfuge. But help should never be denied simply because somebody else's feelings might be hurt, or because helping might involve keeping a secret, or because a cherished belief or principle might be offended. I have no sympathy with hard-line 'Right to Life' believers, whether their objections are philosophical, religious, or based on other ideas.
In any case, I don't think there can be an absolute 'right to life'. Nature itself doesn't respect or support that notion. Nature casually kills all living things in its way, whether by wind, wave, fire, flood, solar radiation, meteor strike, or hungry animal. Human society sets up rules here and there to protect the vulnerable, and that is a good and civilised thing to do. But those rules are no more than statements of intent. No law can prevent anyone's death in a natural disaster. That's what I mean by there being no absolute right to a life. Rights have to be enforceable to mean anything, and nothing can be enforced against the chance onslaught of nature.
Rights can be enforced only between people. And there are man-made laws against various types of killing. These vary between different societies and different eras. They reflect contemporary local attitudes. There have been - still are - examples of 'rights' depending on accidents of status. In Anglo-Saxon times you could kill somebody without being charged with murder, provided you paid the wer-gild, the man-gold: what it cost to kill that class of person. Obviously, not much for a slave or bondman, and a great deal for a lord. It was one kind of system to enforce law and order in a world without policemen. Clearly in those times there was no such thing as 'the sanctity of human life'. It merely had a value, small or large.
Is abortion child murder? I can't quite see it. It seems more akin to the cancellation of a very important event. The foetus, though definitely alive and a potential human being - possibly with a name and planned future awaiting it - hasn't yet entered the world, hasn't yet expressed itself as a distinct personality, and isn't yet a person anyone can truly relate to, murder included. Stopping its further development can perhaps be compared to calling off a wedding, or an important international meeting between heads of state. Whatever might have resulted from the baby being born, or the lifelong joining of two lives, or the happy reconciliation of two hostile countries, won't now happen. But another, similar, event can still take place in the future, when circumstances are right. The way is still clear for it, which might not be true if the unwanted child is left to develop.
I may seem to be suggesting that one embryo is as good as another. If not this one, then the next will be just as good. The point is a deep one, but I am content to think it is true.
I cannot now ask my Mum if she had any miscarriages before I was born (she died in 2009). I suspect that she did. Six years went by between Mum and Dad getting married in 1946 and my arrival in 1952. I can't believe they didn't try for a child before me, with at least one non-viable embryo as the result.
Setting aside Mum's anguish at any of these events, how do I feel about the possible historic loss of an elder brother or sister? (Gosh, the sister I never had!) And how do I feel about possibly being the outcome of the second, third or even fourth shake of the dice - and not the first?
And if these hypothetical brothers and sisters had been snatched away through abortions, and not just ordinary miscarriages? What then? What about the additional awful point that an abortion in the 1940s and 1950s had to be a desperate, secret backstreet affair because it was illegal - criminally so? Was my Mum a criminal, so that I should be ashamed of her?
To be honest, I can't ache for someone who never was, whom I never knew. My emotion is all for the younger brother I did know, and who was suddenly not there any more after that road accident in 1995.
And I would hate to find out that Mum was forced to have me, against her will, or that in any sense I was unwanted and unplanned. Or that my birth affected Mum's health and wellbeing for the worse.
If Mum ever did have an illegal abortion, then I think her brave and admirable for it, given the dire consequences of it being found out or the procedure going wrong. It would have been entirely consistent with her forthright character to seek one, if that was the best course: she saw things clearly, and would act and not dither. Nor flinch from what needed to be done. I certainly adopted that way of thinking, and must have displayed a little of her staunch character in my own life decisions, which some others have characterised as ruthless and selfish.
I certainly don't feel - whether it may have happened through natural miscarriage, or through abortion - that an essential elder sibling was snatched away, leaving me bereft and with grounds for lifelong complaint. And if the genetic mix would have been the same, so that a person like me (whom I would presently recognise as 'myself') could have been born earlier and not in 1952? Again, I don't care.
It does however matter hugely to me that when I was born, Mum was ready for me, was proud to have me, and was geared up to look after me properly.
The mother has to carry the growing child, and then give birth to it, and face all the physical risks of that. She will inevitably be the most hands-on parent. It is she whose life will be permanently changed by the experience - she who will most likely shoulder the ongoing hard work and responsibilty. Given all that, she should have all the say. As simple as that. What she is happy with must trump whatever the man wants, or the doctors want, or what anyone else thinks is right. If she is unwilling and wants an abortion, then she should get one. And I'm with her all the way on that.