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Bishops, abortion and celibacy

The ongoing campaign launched by the Spanish synod against lynxes and women who choose to abort throws into relief the pathetic state of intellectual training in the Church. Priests have never been known for scientific genius, but at least they used to be able to distinguish between the concepts of potentiality and actuality, first introduced by Aristotle. What happened to medieval scholastic theology? What happened to the subtle disquisitions of the Renaissance cardinals? The unseemly hypocrisy and sick anti-sex obsession of today’s Catholic officialdom offends against science and reason; what is more, though, it finds no support at all in the teachings that the Gospels ascribe to Jesus.

The bishops’ campaign hinges on the crude sophistry of equating an embryo – or even a stem cell – with a human. To have an abortion, they protest, is to kill a human, to commit murder. Yet abortion is permitted on liberal terms in the United States, France, Italy, Portugal, Japan, India, China, and many other countries where murder is rigorously outlawed. Can it really be that all these nations are mired in the contradiction of, at one and the same time, forbidding murder and permitting it, as our religious agitators claim? Or, rather, could it be that abortion has nothing to do with the murder? In fact, the only reason to prohibit abortion is religious fundamentalism. The interdict on abortion rests on no other ground, be it moral, medical, philosophical or demanded by the policy. Wherever the Catholic Church – or Islam – is not an overwhelming and dominant force, abortion is allowed, at least in the early weeks of pregnancy (fourteen, on average).

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An acorn is not an oak tree. The Iberian hogs of Jabugo feed on acorns, not trees. And a trough of acorns is not an oak forest. Oak is a tree, while an acorn is not: it’s just a seed. That’s why a ban on felling oak trees does not imply a ban on picking acorns. From the original zygote to the acorn and the oak, there holds a genetic continuity at the cellular level: the acorn and the oak are formed by a series of cell divisions by mitosis starting from a single zygote. The zygote, the acorn, and the oak are each a distinct stage of a single organism. Aristotle put it as follows: the acorn is not a realized oak, an oak in actuality, but only a potential oak – it is a thing that, though not an oak now, might come to be one in future. A caterpillar is not a butterfly. A caterpillar crawls on the ground, eats leaves, has no wings, bears no resemblance to a butterfly, and lacks the characteristic properties of butterflies. In fact, some people who love butterflies find caterpillars repulsive. But a caterpillar is a potential butterfly all the same.

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When a man’s spermatozoon fertilizes a woman’s mature ovum, the haploid nuclei of the two gametes fuse into a new diploid nucleus: the result is a zygote, which, provided circumstances are favorable, may be the start of a human cellular lineage, an organism that must go through its various stages – morula, blastula, embryo, fetus, and, finally, an actual man or woman. Although both are stages of serial organic development, a zygote is not a blastula, and an embryo is not a person. An embryo is a cluster of cells the size and weight of a tadpole or an acorn. It lives in a liquid medium, and is incapable in itself of ingesting food, breathing or excreting – let alone feeling or thinking – and so survives only as a parasite within the mother: it feeds, breathes and excretes via her blood system. This parasite holds the potential to develop, over several months, into a human. The change is miraculous, and the woman in whom the process plays itself out can rightly feel satisfied and self-realized. But it is of course her choice whether it’s time for a miracle to take place inside her.

A child has the potential to become an old man, but a child is not entitled to retirement benefits. A living man has the potential to become a corpse, but it is not the same thing to bury a corpse as it is to bury a living man. Vegetarians who observe a prohibition on meat are allowed to eat eggs, because eggs aren’t chickens, even if they may eventually become them. An embryo is not a human, so eliminating an embryo is not to kill a human. Abortion is not homicide. Neither is the use of stem cells for research.

Another fallacious argument takes the following form: if Beethoven’s mother had had an abortion, there would have been no Fifth Symphony. If your mother had decided to terminate the embryo that was to become you, you would not exist. And yet if Beethoven’s mother or your mother had been celibate, there would have been no Fifth Symphony, either, nor would you be here reading this. So, if this is a valid reason to ban abortion, it’s also a valid reason to ban celibacy. However, I imagine such a spate of prohibitions would be too much even for the Catholic Church. One of its many contradictions is that it would impose a wildly pro-natal practice on the rest of us, while its own priests and nuns are bound to absolute abstinence.

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Contraception is of course much to be preferred to abortion, but the church forbids us that, too (in both cases, the doctrine followed is that of the former Manichaean Augustine of Hippo, not the teachings of Jesus). The former Pope Wojtyla and the present Pope Ratzinger alike traveled to Africa and Latin Americaranting against condoms and abortion, which is tantamount to promoting AIDS and poverty. Contraception is in any event not infallible. An Ogino calculation may miss the mark, contraceptives may be faulty, one might get the date wrong or simply forget to take precautions. An unplanned pregnancy can be a wonderful surprise. But sometimes following a pregnancy through to term can split a woman’s life in two, ruin her career, or bring to the world a severely retarded invalid or a mindless “vegetable.” The weighing in the balance of these serious considerations falls to the woman concerned, and to no one else: not to the arrogant cabal of prelates, judges, physicians and bureaucrats intent on making the choice for her. Abortion is traumatic. No woman enters upon it gladly or lightly. But procreation and motherhood are too important to leave at the mercy of a momentary lapse, or an act of rape. Like divorce and fire brigades, abortion was invented for when things go wrong.

Many couples yearn to have children; many women want to get pregnant, and, when they do, await their child’s birth in hope and wonderment. A wanted child is well-fed and educated, tended to with love and constant stimuli. So – unless afflicted by a rare genetic defect – its brain develops properly. Sadly, however, the world is full of mothers who were raped or forced; it is full of unwanted children who are left to beg and steal their way through life, their brains misshapen by hunger, nutritional deficiencies and neglect. Children like these are cannon fodder for war-bands and cruel exploiters. Yet the ecclesiastical leadership seeks to punish those unfortunate women. The Nicaraguan Cardinal Obando y Bravo opposed a medically mandated abortion on a nine-year-old girl who had been raped and whose pregnancy was life-endangering. A couple of years ago, the Church ended up offering its political support to the dictator Daniel Ortega in exchange for his passing a ban on medical abortion, which had so far been legal in Nicaragua. A few weeks ago, Archbishop Cardoso in Brazil excommunicated the mother of another nine-year-old girl, who had been raped by her stepfather and whose twin pregnancy was similarly life-endangering. The doctors who carried out the abortion were excommunicated as well. In 2007, we had the famous case of Ms. D, an Irish seventeen-year-old who was pregnant with an anencephalous fetus. With no brain and missing part of its cranium, it was doomed to become a vegetable – blind, deaf, irretrievably unconscious, incapable of perception, thought, emotion or feeling, incapable even of pain. But the authorities barred Ms. D from flying to England for an abortion (the prohibition was later quashed by the courts). Catholic fanatics continue to lobby for a ban on Irish women going to England for an abortion. This stance flies in the face of European Community law, which assures freedom of movement within the European Union.

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Last year in Spain, a woman pregnant with a fetus suffering holoprosencephaly – it would either die at birth or survive as a vegetable – was left with no choice but to have an abortion in France. The right of abortion is for many women more important even than the right to vote, and those who personally would never make the decision to abort must nonetheless recognize others’ right to do so. In 1985, the Spanish Penal Code was reformed, albeit in a timid and unsatisfactory way, to fulfill the Socialist party’s manifesto promise to decriminalize abortion in certain circumstances. Since then, the past governments of Felipe Gonzalez and the present Zapatero administration have┬ádithered, claiming the time’s not ripe: let’s wait till the bishops stop hollering, they say. But the bishops never will. After twenty-four years of excuses, I hope the socialists finally decide to remove the restrictions on abortionin the early weeks of pregnancy. You do not even need to be much of a liberal. This was a step that Margaret Thatcher found perfectly acceptable thirty years ago.

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