Whatever your view on abortion, you couldn’t fail to be moved by Sally Phillips’ recent documentary about her son Olly, and the implications of a new non-invasive test for Down’s Syndrome. With searing honesty, she sought to find an answer to the question ‘Who gets to live?’
It’s a question close to home, because there are people in my family who could have been aborted for their ‘disabilities’ and I can’t imagine the world without them. I also have a cousin who was advised to ‘terminate’ her first pregnancy as the ‘foetus’ had spina bifida and faced a life of severe handicap. They refused to abort their longed-for baby: she’s perfectly healthy and currently works as a consultant psychiatrist.
It touches me personally, too. I’m a lifelong asthmatic who has now developed a potentially crippling auto-immune disease which almost certainly means that I will become a burden. I’m the outcome of a defective genetic inheritance. By extension, that must make me a defective person – in the eyes of some anyway. But, hey, I made it into the world before the days of genetic screening made existence capricious, so I got to live.
The argument for abortion has many faces. There’s the economic argument – I refused any testing when I was expecting my first child and was soundly lectured by my GP about the irresponsible attitude (ie, mine) of bringing disabled children into the world to be a drain on society in general and the NHS in particular. Then there’s the eugenics argument – we want to fill the world with perfect people.
And if those don’t work, there’s the emotionally seductive argument about not wanting your child to suffer. I’m a Mum. I don’t want my children to suffer. But the point is, they do. Even if they’re healthy, they still suffer in a myriad of unforeseen ways – from physical or emotional illness, from bullying, from failure or through broken relationships, to name just a few. Pain, suffering and distress are part of life. The key is to teach our children to deal with what life throws at us, not to remove them from it. The only way we can spare our children suffering is to not have them.
The issue came into sharp focus this week when I read about Alex Hovden, a physics student at Southampton University. He has just been elected SU President. He’s a world class competitive sailor. He also has cerebral palsy and he has been a lifelong wheelchair user. We celebrated the success of our Paralympians in the Manchester parade this week, too. Is their value less because they’re disabled? Do people who live such rich lives and who give so much to society have less right to live than able-bodied couch potatoes?
The Abortion Bill appears to say they are and that they don’t get equal rights unless they get to live. This week, the Lords will debate the Abortion (Disability Equality) Bill a private members’ bill brought by disabled peer Lord Shinkwin. It seeks to give disabled children the same rights as able bodied children in the case of abortion. In case you thought that abortion was illegal beyond 24 weeks, that only applies if you’re able bodied. Disabled children can be aborted up to the point of birth and it happens in around 2,700 pregnancies each year. The reason can be as minor as a cleft lip.
As a society, we claim a right to exert power over life and death, all in the cause of economic prosperity and physical perfection. Then we have to create and police equality laws giving disabled people access to the artificial hierarchies that we have built – as if they don’t have equal rights simply by being human and being alive. But God has no place for hierarchies. Quite simply, He knows each of us before we are born and endows us with worth and dignity simply because we are created in the image of a holy God:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb … My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body’ (Psalm 139:13—16 NIV).
We are known by God from the point of conception and our developing bodies aren’t rejected by Him if they are less than perfect, or if we’re the wrong gender, or happen to be conceived at an inconvenient time. God loves each of us. Just because.
The prophet Samuel was told by God to visit Jesse, in order to anoint one of his sons to succeed Saul as King of Israel. Samuel automatically assumed that the eldest son, who was a tall, strong soldier, would be God’s choice. But it wasn’t. God chose David, who was so small and insignificant that Jesse had left him in the fields looking after the sheep while the older, more impressive sons were offered for inspection. God’s yardstick? ‘The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7 NIV).
How different would our society be if we did the same?