Conversations: Abortion

Mother Teresa is a perfect example of the way in which an generally good person, moved to help others, can have her moral intuitions deranged by religious faith. Christopher Hitchens put it with characteristic bluntness:

“[Mother Teresa] was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”

While I am in substantial agreement with Hitchens on this point, there is no denying that Mother Teresa was a great force for compassion. Clearly, she was moved by the suffering of her fellow human beings, and she did much to awaken others to the reality of that suffering. 

The problem, however, was that her compassion was channelled within the rather steep walls of her religious dogmatism. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she said:

“The greatest destroyer of peace is abortion […]. Many people are very, very concerned with the children in India, with the children in Africa where quite a number die, maybe of malnutrition, of hunger and so on, but millions are dying deliberately by the will of the mother. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today. Because if a mother can kill her own child—what is left for me to kill you and you kill me—there is nothing between.”

As a diagnosis of the world’s problems, these remarks are astonishingly misguided. As a statement of morality they are no better. Mother Teresa’s compassion was very badly calibrated if the killing of first-trimester foetuses disturbed her more than all the other suffering she witnessed on this earth.

However, it should be said that abortion is an ugly reality.

Indeed it is, and we should all hope for breakthroughs in contraception that reduce the need for it. Even though one can reasonably wonder whether most aborted foetuses suffer their destruction on any level, one cannot reasonably wonder this about the millions of men, women, and children who must endure the torments of war, famine, political torture, or mental illness.

Quite so. At this very moment, millions of sentient people are suffering unimaginable physical and mental afflictions, in circumstances where the compassion of God is nowhere to be seen, and the compassion of human beings is often hobbled by preposterous ideas about sin and salvation.

Would it be fair to say that if you are worried about human suffering, abortion should rank very low on your list of concerns?

I think so. And even though abortion remains a ludicrously divisive issue in the United States, the so-called moral position of the Church on this matter is now fully and horribly incarnated in the country of El Salvador. In El Salvador, abortion is now illegal under all circumstances.

That’s true. There are no exceptions for rape or incest. The moment a woman shows up at a hospital with a perforated uterus, indicating that she has had a back-alley abortion, she is shackled to her hospital bed and her body is treated as a crime scene. Forensic doctors soon arrive to examine her womb and cervix. There are women now serving prison sentences thirty years long for terminating their pregnancies.

Imagine this, in a country that also stigmatizes the use of contraception as a sin against God. And yet this is precisely the sort of policy one would adopt if one agreed with Mother Teresa’s assessment of world suffering. Indeed, the Archbishop of San Salvador actively campaigned for it. His efforts were assisted by Pope John Paul II, who declared, on a visit to Mexico City in 1999, that “the church must proclaim the Gospel of life and speak out with prophetic force against the culture of death. May the continent of hope also be the continent of life!”

Of course, the Church’s position on abortion takes no more notice of the details of biology than it does of the reality of human suffering. It has been estimated that 50 percent of all human conceptions end in spontaneous abortion, usually without a woman even realizing that she was pregnant. In fact, 20 percent of all recognized pregnancies end in miscarriage. There is an obvious truth here that cries out for acknowledgement: if God exists, He is the most prolific abortionist of all.

Indeed, one could argue that if someone wants to know about abortion on a grand scale, one need only go to the Bible’s description of the conquest of the Levant, where the God of the Old Testament ordered babies to be ripped from their mother’s bellies and slaughtered.

(Based on: Harris. S. 2006. Letter To A Christian Nation p. 13-14)

See other: Conversations


2 thoughts on “Conversations: Abortion

  1. It is equally bigoted to say that her views, based on the sanctity of individual souls, were deranged. More deranged are the practices and attitudes that lead to taking that option, and it can be argued that the availability of it is responsible not only for the extent, but for a large number of the actions giving rise to the need.
    Whether all her religious beliefs were deranged, or whether the lack of any found in atheists is deranged, depends purely on the non-proven attitude of the judge.

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