After fifty years of legalised abortion, few in our countries have not had some experience of abortion. This is something that makes it a difficult topic to discuss in a public arena, particularly for a man, as the articulation of an objective ethical view is all to easily read by members of an audience as an individually directed comment on their personal choices in a situation whose complexity may be unknown to the writer/speaker. It is also the case that legalised abortion has impacted on the lives of Catholics, again, in a variety of ways.
The provision of Canon Law (Canon 1398) for a latae sententiae excommunication of the person who actually procures an abortion is intended to teach how seriously the Catholic Church views the offence of abortion. The joint statement of bishops describes every abortion as a "tragedy"; the Second Vatican Council, taking place at a time before abortion was legally available in many of the western democracies, described abortion as an "unspeakable crime" (Gaudium et Spes n.51). This teaching is balanced by the provisions of charity towards those who have experienced abortion. The absolution from the penalty of excommunication can now be offered by any priest and is no longer reserved to the bishop (earlier special provisions for the Year of Mercy and for participants in World Youth days are now permanent); and the bishops statement indicates a similar approach of mercy:
When abortion is the choice made by a woman, the unfailing mercy of God and the promise of forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation are always available. There is always a way home to a deeper relationship with God and the Church, as recent Popes have emphasised, which can heal and bring peace.A particular challenge of conscience that faces a Catholic is that of how, given the prevalence of abortion in the culture and practice of life in our countries, we indicate our own "no" to abortion and thereby avoid feeling that, however distantly, we are complicit in the culture of abortion. One way of doing this is to join with those initiatives that seek to help women facing a choice for abortion. Peaceful prayer vigils at abortion clinics are one way of doing this, and the work of one such vigil in Ealing has been in the news recently. Coverage can be seen here, here, here and here. Radio 4's World at One has an interesting clip here of an interview with a lady which indicates a value for the practical help offered by these vigils (you might need to register at the site to hear the clip).
From time to time I am stunned by the "economy with the truth" that I encounter on the subject of abortion. British law, for example, does not recognise in any way that access to abortion is a human right. On the contrary, it is framed to establish exemption from prosecution under other legislative provisions if certain conditions are met; and it is difficult to reconcile the availability of abortion in our countries with the right of life of Article 3 of the UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights. And an interview on the World at One with a woman who had travelled from Northern Ireland to Manchester for an abortion describes the woman waiting for her return flight in pain and with bleeding .... and yet she had been discharged from the abortion clinic, something that did not cause comment. (I can't trace the clip, but I am quite confident of my memory). The allegations of "harassment" at abortion clinic vigils, including the one at Ealing, are utterly unfounded as I have good reason to know.
UPDATE: The BBC News website is carrying this report of three women's experience of abortion. The reactions of boyfriends that occur in two of these stories appears to me very striking, with implications not only for the education of men in terms of understanding and taking responsibility for their sexual activity but also for the authenticity/character of their love for the girlfriends involved. Two phrases stand out to me: "I felt pressured into having an abortion" and "I didn't have much choice". So much for "choice" in the real experience of abortion.