I am a Catholic, the mother of four young children, and a woman who used to believe that abortion was wrong.
It was easy for me to buy the pro-life position: for me, achieving pregnancy was very difficult. So by the time I was pregnant with my first child, I was so desperately grateful I could not understand how anyone could refuse the call to motherhood.
If you are a Catholic woman, to be a mother is perhaps the highest role to which one can aspire. The church glorifies motherhood but nothing prepared me for the real experience of pregnancy.
To be pregnant is not to withdraw into feminine serenity and perfect maternal wisdom. It is be at once fearfully vulnerable and wonderfully powerful. As a pregnant woman I did not feel like the church's version of Mary. I felt like God: as powerful and as fragile as the Australian bush. Every woman is, with God and a little help from fathers - the co-creator of the life that will be. I realised that I wasn’t just co-creating my child's body, I was also co-creating her spirit. Believers of all faiths have a conviction that we are more than matter. Spirit “animates” plain matter and matter gives spirit form. Human beings are both, and with God, we imbue developing life with both body and spirit.
But spirit can not be coerced. Spirit like love itself may only be given freely. I began to think about women who found themselves called to motherhood in dis-spiriting circumstances. Women who, unlike me, had not been in secure relationships, or were in bad or abusive relationships. Women too financially stretched; women abused; women whose spirits are weakened by circumstances.
If a woman finds herself unable to offer her potential child the gift of spirit then logically, the child will be formed in the womb with a spirit that is diminished. Without the joyful and unequivocal commitment of his mother, a child's spirit saddens, withers and becomes poisonous to itself and to others.
When my first baby, a beautiful, perfect girl, was born I returned to my studies to complete a course in Ethics. Our tutor was a very well known ethicist and a marvellously skilled teacher. I hung on his every word as he brilliantly demonstrated the arguments in favour of “family values”.
At a mid morning break, I proudly showed photographs of my miraculous, wonder-filled child. “Look,” I said, “Look at my new baby”. Our lecturer did not even feign interest: as a celibate man the reality of motherhood and babies merely got in the way of Christian Ethics 101. “Oh, yes,” he uttered, though not unkindly, before attacking the coffee urn. I was dismayed. A couple of fellow students, older nurses and midwives, looked on. They'd seen it before. I silently asked my question. "Don't worry, it's all theory for them," they said.
This wonderful priest hadn't the faintest idea of what motherhood means to a woman, or how it changes her. He was simply revealing the church's two card trick: motherhood is your highest goal, but once you are a mother you are nothing. What you produced is nothing.
This was my first inkling that the pro life position was about more than protecting the unborn. For my lecturer, the not-yet-born are primarily important as a proposition to be defended, an argument in favour of of an ethical position, a precedent to be protected. The priest's disinterest in my flesh and blood baby therefore becomes understandable, if sort of indefensible.
This attitude is writ large in the anti choice movement. For them, the unborn - because they represent an Ultimate Principle - must have even more human rights than the already-born. Their persistent refrain is “every abortion kills a human life”. But when do you hear the pro-life activist protesting against the murder of little Iraqi children by Australian bombs? When do you see them agitating for increased resources to avoid the scandalously high mortality rates amongst Aboriginal infants? When do you hear them agitating for greater economic equity for poorer families, for whom the endless, dis-spiriting financial struggle is the direct cause of a significant number of abortions? You do not hear any of this from the anti choice camp: because their real object is not the protection of the innocent unborn, but the control of powerful, vulnerable women - with whom God has shared divine power.
Women's special dignity is that they have been invited by God to become co-creators of new lives. We are not simply humidicribs on legs. Our spirits matter as much as our bodies: to be mothers of children, we must be able to freely give the Spirit to our could-be children, now and forever, so that they may be free and whole.
As my first girl grows into a young woman so wonderful and surprising only God could have imagined her, I know in my heart she is as she is because I wanted her so much. She is smart, and loving. She has Spirit. I trust her to know when and in what circumstances she is ready to pass on that Spirit to a child of her own.
And if, God forbid, she were to find herself pregnant in circumstances where she could not offer her unequivocal “yes” to motherhood, would I want her to have an abortion?
Sorrowfully, reluctantly, ambivalently - yes. I would.