7th Sunday of Easter year C
Sex, life and responsibility
Over the past week there have been a number of unsettling news reports. The security breach at the House of Commons; new revelations about abuse of prisoners in Iraq. But an item of a rather different nature which featured prominently for two or three days concerned a girl of fourteen who had had an abortion. The particular cause of controversy was that her mother hadn’t been told until after the event. The mother took her case to the newspapers, saying that this was shocking. Against the mother’s outrage the point was made that girls in situations like this had a right to confidentiality. The girl would have no doubt been strongly urged to tell her mother in advance, but the health professionals had no power to make her do so.
The case aroused strong feelings on both sides. There was indignation that a girl as young as fourteen should be responsible for matters as important as whether or not to have an abortion. On the other hand, it was said that if the mother had a right to know about the girl’s situation, the girl may not have made a rational or safe decision. But what does the Church have to say on the matter? On one level, I believe the answer is quite simple. Children do of course grow up earlier and earlier today: but over matters as fundamental as pregnancy and abortion, you can not expect a fourteen year old girl to be able to make a balanced choice alone. Even if parents may not be doing their job as parents particularly well, they have a legal responsibility for the well-being of their child until the age of 18. The minimum age for getting married is sixteen, after all – and to get married at age 16 or 17 requires the consent of the parents.
But much more profound and sobering questions are also raised by this episode. For it shows, sadly, just how far society has moved – in some quarters – from the Christian way. There are three aspects to this which I want to mention: (i) sex and marriage; (ii) respect for life; (iii) taking responsibility for one’s actions.
(i) Sex and marriage. Very few people in the debate about whether or not the girl’s mother should have been told before she had an abortion questioned whether she should have been sexually active at fourteen. We are told that this is now increasingly common, and there is intense discussion about whether sex education encourages or discourages sexual activity among teenage children. But the implicit assumption in much of the press discussion is that you mustn’t judge teenagers for doing what they feel like doing. You can point out the risks – but the choices they make are up to them. As a result, the UK apparently has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe. There is also a prevailing assumption on the part of many commentators that marriage is an outdated and unnecessary institution; it cramps your spontaneity, it restricts your freedom, and prevents the excitement of a succession of relationships. Marriage is seen as a prison rather than a responsibility and a commitment.
So it is refreshing when the Church does speak out to promote stability in relationships, and the fundamental importance of marriage as the correct place for sex and as the best way of bringing up children. We need to rediscover the traditional assumptions that the best things in life are worth waiting for; that self-restraint brings far more blessings, in the long run, than following whatever impulse makes you feel good at the time. It is good to see that new Christian movements promoting marriage and celibacy outside marriage are springing up, such as the ‘Silver Ring’ and ‘True love waits’ movements.
(ii) Respect for life . In the debate over the fourteen year old girl who had an abortion, there was little discussion about the contentious nature of abortion itself. I recently heard a woman interviewed on the radio who had had twelve abortions. The liberalisation of abortion has undoubtedly made some people see abortion as something relatively trivial – little more than a form of contraception. The language of ‘termination’ contributes to this, as well as the stress on the so-called ‘right to choose’ – as if this was more important than whether a life should be brought to an end. It was very impressive, however, to see a curate recently challenging the legality of an abortion which had been carried out because the foetus had a cleft palate. The fact that an abortion could be even considered on such grounds, let alone permission granted, shows just how far some people have gone towards seeing the foetus as disposable. It is also a reminder of the dangers of seeing only those foetuses who are medically perfect as being worthy of being brought to birth, and the increasing tendency of some people not to be prepared for the consequences of caring for any baby or child who has serious medical problems or disability.
But how far society in this country has gone from the values held by the Italian mother recently made a saint, because she put the life of her unborn child before her own. The assumption here is that if the life of your unborn child puts your life at risk, you don’t take that risk, and you sacrifice the child.
(iii) Taking responsibility for the consequences of one’s actions. The fourteen year old girl who had the abortion probably thought that she was not ready to have a baby. I don’t know much of the background; but it has certainly been argued by some that girls who have babies at that age find their lives and their education severely limited. (It is interesting that scholars believe that Mary would have given birth to Jesus at about the same age – because in Jewish society at that time this was the age at which girls were often married.) But today we are increasingly losing sight of the link between what we do and the consequences of those actions. We have technology which gives us far more choices than ever before; but it is therefore easy to forget that sometimes we should not opt for the easy choice, but the more difficult route. Sometimes – even if we make a mistake - we have to live with and make the best of the consequences of that mistake. And as Christians we surely believe that God can work even through our mistakes; that if we try our best to keep to Christian standards of what is right and wrong, even if we sometimes fail, God can bring good out of evil, and help us to learn from our mistakes.
This sermon could be seen as being judgemental and uncharitable. It is not intended to make a judgement about one particular girl who has no doubt suffered enormously, especially now as a result of being in the national press. It is, rather, an attempt to step back and look at the factors which have brought us to this sad state of affairs. For it is only by being determined to tackle the underlying disease that the outward symptoms will be cured.