Feminism, Catholicism, and Abortion: What Connects Them?

We spoke to the Feminist Catholic Network (FCN) to understand the ethics of consent, and abortion from a religious perspective. In addition to their general statement (parts of which are reproduced below), we have also included a series of questions and answers we had with one of the Network members.

This discusses life vs potential life, consent, mercy, and autonomy.  The Network notes that there have been over a hundred thousand illegal abortions in the late nineties, based on estimates conducted during that time period.

“A study undertaken in the late 1990s estimated that 125,000 to 175,000 induced abortions, mostly illegal are performed annually in Sri Lanka. A subsequent study estimated a much higher figure of 658 induced abortions per day, giving an abortion ratio of 741 per 1000 live births. The latest study estimates that in 2007, 8.7 abortions took place per 100 women4. In the year 2013, the percentage contribution from abortion to maternal mortality was around 10%, making it the third most common cause of maternal death. Furthermore, the Police Department showed that in 2015, 80% of all rape victims were girls under the age of 16.

In light of this information and as Catholics driven by love and empathy for those in difficult situations, we object to any barrier that would stop women from making a conscientious choice of their own free will to seek safe, legal medical care.

We also emphasize that the ‘official’ position put forward by a few clergymen of the Catholic hierarchy makes a false representation of the opinion of ordinary Catholics. We strongly object to the campaign they have led against this Bill and find its position antithetical to the call for radical justice and mercy that is found in the Gospels. Instead, we follow Catholic teaching and theology in supporting this Bill for the following reasons.

We support the social conscience of decriminalizing abortion. As Article 6 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, Catholics “not only may but must follow the dictates of conscience rather than the teachings of the Church.” Catholics are obliged to know and thoughtfully consider Catholic teaching, but in the end, a well-formed conscience reigns.

We support the autonomy of women to make conscience-based decisions. We find that the most powerful backing for the autonomy of women itself comes from the many women detailed throughout Scripture, not least Mother Mary. As O’Neill, amongst others, note, “Mary’s consent to carrying, birthing and raising Jesus provides a powerful corrective to rape culture. Mary’s consent is the most important “yes” in salvation history because with that yes Mary bore the child of and participated in bringing to fulfilment God’s plan to redeem the world. God did not send the Holy Spirit to conceive Jesus without Mary’s consent; Mary’s full verbal consent was required and obtained before Jesus was conceived. God waited for consent; and it was not “implied” or “presumed” consent.” Mary’s fiat is a conscious and considered acceptance of what has been offered.

We maintain that life is precious. To this end, we support efforts to address the root causes of abortion-seeking, so we can create a world where every pregnancy is wanted. We support: frank and timely sex education; gender-sensitive, compassionate, non-judgmental support networks for people seeking guidance; psychosocial support in reproductive healthcare; and the Church’s support in addressing national concerns such as gender-based violence in its physical and psychological form.

We reinforce the Catholic principle of mercy. We are against the condemnation of any rape victim to being twice powerless to choose what happens to her body. We are against the psychological torture of women with non-viable pregnancies through denial of safe abortion access. We stand with Article 11 of the Sri Lankan constitution that guarantees that ‘No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’.”

Based on an email interview with YANSL, the FCN elaborated more on the moral conflicts surrounding abortions. While many of us agree about women’s autonomy and control over their bodies, we were told that the difficulty is because of how unusual the relationship between a fetus and pregnant woman is; it is literally unlike any other relationship out there.

Its unusualness makes it difficult because we are accustomed to settling particular moral disputes by appealing to general moral principles, a procedure that presupposes a substantial degree of similarity between the question we wish to answer and other questions we feel we have, at least tentatively, resolved.

Current legal position

  1. Abortion is illegal in Sri Lanka except to save the life of the mother.
  2. A limited amendment to permit it in the cases of rape, incest, serious deformities was proposed but this was opposed by religious leaders lead by the Catholic cardinal.  Not all Catholics agree with this position and we seek to petition the cardinal that the church should not oppose changes to the law.

The big questions:

There are two big questions:

  1. Is abortion morally wrong?
  2. Should it be illegal?

To understand the distinction, just consider this example. Driving on the wrong side of the road is illegal but not immoral. Adultery is immoral, but not illegal.

What are we (the FCN is) trying to do:

Abortion involves a conflict between two entities, the woman and the foetus.

How are we to balance the interests and rights of the woman seeking an abortion with those of the fetus who, while not a person and therefore not in possession of moral rights or interests, is nevertheless a living entity worthy of some moral consideration, and whose existence would end?

  1. Clear cases: women’s life is in danger, the moral consideration is in favour of the woman.
    1. What about cases where the well-being of the woman is seriously compromised or threatened? By pregnancy, birth, adoption (medical/psychological risks) even adoption is far from psychologically easy. What of her autonomy and liberty.

Meanwhile, what is life?
…and is abortion the taking of life?

It is undeniable that we don’t value all life equally, especially as animal and plant lives aren’t considered as important as human life. The view that human life is special isn’t a factual judgment: it’s a moral judgment.

What makes human life different from other forms of life?

When people talk about ‘human life’ they may mean a member of the biological human species – having the human genetic code.

But they may also mean something very different; namely, a being that possesses certain human characteristics in addition to the human genetic code – characteristics often suggested might be the ability to think, to imagine, and to communicate.

According to philosopher Mary Warren, the list of characteristics (not an argument) of human life are as follows: 

  1.  Consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;
  2.  Reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);
  3.  Self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of genetic or direct external control).
  4.  The capacity to communicate, messages of with an indefinite number of possible contents on indefinitely many possible topics.
  5.  The presence of self-concepts and self-awareness.

 Warren claims that: 

  any being who does not possess most of 1-5 is not a human being in the moral sense.

 the more like a person a being is, the stronger is the case for regarding it as having a right to life, and the stronger its right to life is.

   there is no stage of fetal development at which a fetus resembles a person enough to have a significant right to life. 

  a fetus’s potential for being a person does not provide a basis for the claim that it has a significant right to life.  Even if a potential person has some right to life, that right could not outweigh the right of a woman to obtain an abortion, since “the rights of any actual person invariably outweigh those of any potential person”

Identifying Life vs Potential life

Extend the status of personhood to human fetuses and infants. A moral status on the possession of potential rather than actual, full-fledged personhood. In short, we don’t treat what we perceive as potential life, the same way we would treat life itself. Two examples are as follows:

  1. We treat them differently uprooting a jack seed is not the same as curring down a full grown jack tree. Plunging an egg into boiling water not the same as putting a live chicken in boiling water.
  2. Can interests and possible rights of merely potential persons outweigh the rights of actual full-fledged persons? Future interests and rights v present interests and rights of actual persons? Fully-fledged persons, with their actual interests and rights, ought always to be accorded greater moral significance than merely potential persons and non-persons.

According to FCN member views, the early part of pregnancy what we have is only potential life, not life. The simplest test is viability – at what age will a premature baby survive?  In Britain this is 24 weeks – around 80% survive – but with significant risks (Sri Lanka penal code defines viability as 28 weeks) Sri Lanka College of Paediatricians says mortality about 50-100%.


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