My would-be waiter

I had lunch with a church member in Belfast recently, taking time to chat together over a bite of lunch. The cafe is a brightly lit jewel at the heart of the City Hall, with an airy and relaxed feel. Our waiter was courteous, attentive, and good at his job. He also had Down Syndrome. This last fact stood out for me, not because there was anything markedly different about how he worked, but owing to the context in which I’ve been listening, thinking, reading, and privately weeping of late.

BBC Radio 4 recently ran a programme entitled 19 Weeks. It was a dramatisation of the experiences of the writer Emily Steel, who on discovering at 17 weeks that her unborn child had Down Syndrome decided to undergo an abortion. The narrative of the afternoon play is from the first person perspective and is intimately and movingly acted by Eve Myles. The listener is plunged into the centrifugal emotions which are felt by Emily on hearing the news, on considering her options, and on undergoing the abortion at 19 weeks. The currency of the programme is pathos, making the main protagonist’s perspective and decision not only acceptable, but in some way commendable.

Emily’s motives for abortion are almost entirely centred on her self. She is not just a vehicle for another person, she couldn’t handle the health complications which such a child might experience, she can’t face their care needs and lowered IQ being her burden until she is in her old age, she is a professional writer, she loves her work, she needs to live her life, she is living in Australia with her partner and son and doesn’t have a good support network, and so the list of reasons goes on. Behind all of this, like an incessant heartbeat, is the fact that this drama will end in a child being killed.

Two images from the programme reduced me to tears. One is of Emily’s discomfort at the baby kicking while she is making the decision to have it aborted. In frustration, fear, panic (and guilt?) she lashes out hammering her own abdomen with her fists in the wish that the kicking would stop. Equally chilling is her description of the unborn infant as her ‘would-be’ child. A would-be child, a potential individual, a nascent human being – these are the terms deployed to depersonalise personhood, to strip this vulnerable, kicking, growing child who will soon be done away with of any care or credence.

I understand that there are tremendous human and pastoral sensitivities surrounding this issue, and if the church simply communicates a polarised and censorious attitude to those who, for whatever reason, have gone through with abortion then we have lost much of the medium of mercy through which we might share the gospel of grace and give godly counsel. With all of that in mind, though, much remains that must be said.

At the moment the Republic of Ireland is in the grip of preparing to vote on the 8th amendment. The Irish Times is awash with stories, with claims, with theories about what is at stake, and how individuals will decide and what the ramifications are. In yesterday’s paper an academic debated the status of the unborn on the basis of whether human rights are a fundamental entity – that is, are human rights inalienable? The conclusion, couched in theoretical theatrics, was no – well not when it’s a developing child that we are discussing. ‘The opponents of repeal…have unhesitatingly assumed there is such a thing as a human right floating about in the atmosphere, as it were, like a Platonic Idea, independent of the decision of any society to establish it in law,and their opponents have not challenged this assumption sufficiently, if at all’, John Dillon opines. This is where we have got to, this is the academic fist poised to pummel the resistant kick of an unborn baby, or the goad of conscience. In a world where rights carry freight, were they are increasingly being enshrined in law and installed in the collective conscience, it seems that life developing in the womb remains at the whim of whether the world wants to say they have rights or not.

There was nothing ‘would-be’ about my waiter today, there is nothing ‘might-be’ about life in the womb. I fear living in a world of a uniform chromosome count, and where worth is worked out by the folded bills in a ballot box. I believe that we, all of us, are made in the image of God, that the children of friends, and brothers and sisters in Christ, who have syndromes or special needs bring something unique and challenging and glorious to our world and to the church in which I serve. I believe that history will look back on our clamouring concern to justify abortion as the blinkered vision of people set on destroying the vulnerable, the different, the wonderful.

How I need to pray, how we need to pray in these fearful times, that the dignity which being made in God’s image necessarily entails in value and in law, and the deliverance from bondage to the malignant spirit of the age that the gospel represents, might be experientially known by our world once again.

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