Saint-Martin d'Ainay Basilica. Stained glass window. The Nativity of Jesus. Lyon. France. (Photo by: Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Should the Virgin Mary have had an abortion?

Given modern society’s strident pro-abortion stance and irreligious view of Christmas, it’s a wonder this question hasn’t already been raised

Artillery Row

Going off most liberal pro-abortion contentions, the nature of the Virgin Mary’s pregnancy surely makes it a prime contender for the sisterhood recommending abortion. Historical analysis suggests Mary was likely a teenager, most probably in the first half of her teenage years rather than the latter half, when she became pregnant with Jesus. She also had little choice in the matter, with the full weight of the celestial patriarchy coming down on her, starting with the archangel Gabriel suddenly dictating to Mary that she would conceive a child out of wedlock.

Her willing acceptance of that fate has been in constant evidence during the past weeks hiking the Camino pilgrimage from Spain into Portugal toward Fatima, where the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared in 1917 to three peasant children, and passing all the overt signs of a Christian Christmas—primarily the Christ Child in a crib at the centre of Nativity scenes set up outside churches, where you might expect them, but also in town parks and even in shop windows next to mannequins wearing racy red and black lingerie—that, in contrast, appear so contentious in modern Britain.

A striking Nativity scene in the window of a lingerie shop in the pretty Portuguese town of Oliveira de Azeméis on the Camino Portuguese (photo credit: James Jeffrey)

Perhaps it is a result of too much discombobulating and introspective time as a dirty pilgrim, but I have found myself reflecting on how these festive contrasts sit alongside the current forces embracing abortion in the likes of the UK and US, in the latter of which a wild toddler with a small afro and an impish grin running naked across a bedroom floor and through my heart shortly after my tour in Afghanistan, gave me pause regarding the right course of action for young women who unexpectedly fall pregnant like the Virgin Mary.

The absurdity of the possibility proposed by the far-fetched title reflects the absurd nature of the abortion debate as it currently stands, whereby there is no debate and you are deemed anti-female for daring to dispute any tenets proposed by the pro-abortion lobby—and it is a lobby, a large and powerful one that in terms of its drive, blinkered insistence and nihilistic convictions could give those lobbying for arms manufacturers and the military-industrial complex a run for their money.

“There is fierce resistance, especially although not only on the Left, to having second thoughts on any aspect of the sexual revolution and its fallout,” Mary Eberstadt, a senior fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and author of Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics, says in an episode of The Spectator’sAmericano podcast. “We see this absolutism, this conviction that there can’t be anything worth criticising here—this is why American feminists defend abortion up until the moment before birth, because they are absolutist.”

Perhaps this absolutism that increasingly saturates modern Western societies and what goes for public discourse these days goes some way to explaining our schizophrenic relationship with Christmas. The Christian dimension to Christmas has been in trouble for a long time, but the secularisation of Christmas appears to have gone into overdrive this year as everyone scrambles to try and make up for a terrible year through a sort of large-scale version of “working for the weekend”—that modern habit of enduring five days of a terrible job for the promise of two days of abandon—by indulging in a hyped-up festive season.

Both sides in the abortion non-debate could do with taking a long look at themselves

This is an understandable reaction given what everyone has endured with Covid-19 upending 2020, yet the increasing cognitive dissonance involved in forgetting—or even erasing references to—the particular Christian origins of Christmas mirrors the increasing cognitive dissonance that hampers the abortion debate. We have got to the point whereby in 2016 the chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives spoke out in support of abortion up to birth. It’s not mansplaining or patriarchal to find such a stance connected with midwifery—and those responsible for the safety of mother and her new-born during childbirth—especially sad (my mother was a midwife before giving up her career when I came along) and an indictment of where we have got to (with even worse likely to come at the rate we are going).

One choice example of the dissonance that attends the pro-abortion movement and its rationale, especially given the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, is that in New York State the majority of abortions in recent years have been carried out on African American women. It’s a telling fact that disingenuously gets far too little coverage during discussions of racism in America, and which, on a personal level, gives me massive pause. Shortly after I resigned my officer’s commission and left the British Army, moving to America to attend journalism graduate school, I fell in love with someone from a very different background to my middle-class British upbringing and public-school education at one of the UK’s most prestigious Catholic boarding schools: a young American woman of African American and Cuban descent who had just had a baby girl after falling pregnant while only 19 years old.

Initially, during the first year we knew each other, my girlfriend was reluctant about me meeting her daughter. But I was very much aware of her existence. In the university library I would sometimes bump into her mother with a breast pump in hand, heading to a quiet room to prepare for a later feed. Eventually I was permitted to meet the baby girl. As with her mother, it was love at first sight. Her mother told me she found out she was pregnant shortly after breaking up with her previous boyfriend. She had been taking the contraceptive pill, and her daughter was the result of its small failure rate.

She told me that continuing the pregnancy had always been the only option. How could I be anything but impressed with such courage on the part of a 19-year-old, especially after having seen in Afghanistan the hollowness of so much of what goes for the proclaimed military courage held up by society?

Her declaration made me think of a passage from Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, which came my way in Afghanistan through a parcel sent by an old friend who I had served with in Iraq. Near the end of the last book, the main character Guy Crouchback is faced with the dilemma of whether to care for a deceased lover’s illegitimate child by another man. He considers advice from his father: “Quantitative judgments don’t apply. If only one soul was saved, that is full compensation for any amount of ‘loss of face’.”

Even if you aren’t religious, there’s still an incredibly powerful point there, and it’s bugged me ever since. Around the time I was reading Waugh, there was a Close Air Support bomb drop during a fire fight with the Taliban that took out their compound, in which, unbeknownst to us, civilians had also been sheltering. An Afghan man turned up at our camp with a cart containing human remains that included his three sons, two daughters, a nephew, and the nephew’s two wives, recovered from the ruins. Couched in the disgrace of that wheelbarrow’s burden, the existence of my girlfriend’s little girl, which might also have been so easily obliterated, took on a new glory.

I was in awe of how the universe had been changed by the existence of this minute entity, who once she had progressed from crawling to being upright, had a habit of sprinting naked around the house out of sheer lust for life. The scale of her personality at such a young age was stunning. Everything about the mother and daughter stood in stark contrast to what the writer Ursula K. Le Guin described as “man’s world of institutionalized competition, aggression, violence, authority and power,” that realm which had so appalled me in Afghanistan and the likes of which I wanted to have nothing to do with afterwards, as I sort refuge in the civilian world. In 2010, I was well ahead of the #MeToo movement in having had enough of powerful white men for my own reasons.

Accusing a woman of murdering a baby through abortion is indicative of the lack of compassion that pervades much of this debate

But now we are starting to see more of what happens when it is an institutionalised female world. In the podcast, Eberstadt references Lionel Tiger’s 1999 book The Decline of Males: The First Look at an Unexpected New World for Men and Women, in which the biological anthropologist parses the shift toward giving reproduction control to women exclusively. “Making women solely responsible for reproduction decisions,” Eberstadt says, has proven “one of the most important consequences of the sexual revolution.” An estimated 60 million abortions in the US since 1973’s Roe v. Wade should resonate at some level, no matter your opinion on abortion. But it’s rare that society does pause or that mainstream media offers a narrative other than abortion is simply a woman’s right—increasingly it is presented as some sort of wonderfully empowering and joyful adventure in selfhood and liberation.

How often do you read about men who have been affected by a partner having an abortion? I hadn’t heard anything about it until I wrote about it for the BBC News website’s US and Canada section during the pre-Covid-19 good old days, after noticing in a church newsletter an organization offering counselling services for men affected by abortion. During my reporting, numerous men told me harrowing stories and of the years of anguish that they lived through after a partner had an abortion—often after refusing the man’s desperate pleas—and even if the male partner initially agreed with the choice.

“Men are meant to be protectors, so there is a sense of failure—failing to protect the mother and the unborn child, failing to be responsible,” I was told by 61-year-old Chuck Raymond, whose 18-year-old girlfriend back in the late ’70s had an abortion when they decided that continuing the pregnancy and having a child was too much for them to bear too soon. “There is incredible guilt and shame about having not done that.”

Research on men’s reactions to the abortions of potential children is scant. What data there is for men comes from post-abortive support groups, making it difficult to draw broader observations overall. But the commonalities among these men’s accounts—such as the anger, guilt, shame, and deep sadness on anniversary dates—surely still warrant attention. In coming to terms with what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was struck by the fact that symptoms of post-abortive trauma have similarities with PTSD and so-called moral injuries from combat.

I am not suggesting that a woman getting an abortion equates to a child being killed in war as collateral damage. Accusing a woman of murdering a baby through an abortion is indicative of the serious lack of compassion that pervades much of this debate. Women who choose to get abortions are often themselves victims of a type of collateral damage that stems from the likes of men who won’t support them or families they fear won’t understand. Far too much of the abortion debate focuses on women and not enough on how society functions to make pregnancy and starting a family so terrifying and appear so impossible.

Both sides in the abortion non-debate could do with taking a long look at themselves, and at the wider context within which they mount their soapboxes with megaphones in hand (sometimes literally).

After facing the destructive force unleashed in Iraq and Afghanistan, I will forever be bewildered by society’s dissonant cognitive tendances that culminate in liberals being vehemently pro-abortion but anti-war (and the loss of life it involves) and conservatives being vehemently anti-abortion but pro-war/military intervention (in spite of the inevitable loss of life involved).

Despite this, though, and the apparent chasm between those arguing for and against abortion, in my journalistic dealings I’ve noticed that they actually often agree on one key thing: society’s discourse about abortion is too polarized, lacks nuance and empathy, and is ultimately unhelpful. In this, again, we come back to that absolutism and the bloodless lips of the Grand Inquisitor that we are warned about in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov.

As I pass yet another Portuguese Nativity scene, ranging from the stylish and elegant to the somewhat odd, even bizarre—one was made entirely out of painted tires in which the baby Jesus looked like an enormous egg—I can’t help wondering if it is simply a coincidence that the liberal secularism which embraces abortion so readily has so much trouble with a religion that started with a baby born to a woman giving herself over to sacrifice and self-abasement rather than living her so-called best life.

Might that baby in a manger be too suggestive of a potentially dreadful truth for many liberals and feminists?

Might that baby in a manger—and the radical world view of forgiveness and humility offered by the man that baby became (heaven forbid the abortion debate ever opens up to any discussion of the potentiality latent in a mere foetus; wasn’t every person reading this, or arguing over abortion, once an irrelevant foetus?)—be just too suggestive of a potentially dreadful truth for many liberals and feminists? That they are on far shakier ground than the certainty they proclaim regarding abortion and so many other apparently “empowering” stances; and hence they double down, sparing no quarter; their absolutism taking us toward later term abortions, euthanasia—the legalising of abortion in Ireland in 2018 after a landmark referendum has been quickly followed by an increasing push for legislation or a referendum to make assisted dying legal (Saint Patrick must be weeping by now)—a brave new world led by a Matriarchy that apparently can do no wrong while granting unfettered freedoms, especially from tedious religious and moral constraints.

Standing in front of a particularly ornate and detailed Nativity scene in a Portuguese church, I was struck by how much of the scene’s power comes from the incongruity of it all—this huddle of adults gathered in veneration around a new-born babe, from Joseph standing with his hand on his heart to the shepherds removing their hats out of respect to the three kings on bended knee. It’s a scene of absurd supplication. Their behaviour is largely explained by them all believing that before them lies the son of God, but at the same time surely part of that reverence stems from each of them recognising how in that baby, as with every baby, all our earthly hopes and more noble desires are manifested.

A less racy setting for a Nativity scene in the centre of the pretty Portuguese town of Oliveira de Azeméis on the Camino Portuguese (photo credit: James Jeffrey)

Walking the Camino trail for endless hours each day often sees you clinging to favoured songs of yesteryear to help push you on, especially when the rain and mist and even the shingles viral infection sets in. One song that recently has been foremost in this repertoire is Sonnet by the English rock band The Verve, in which Richard Ashcroft does an admirable job of rendering those demanding questions of the heart. Obviously, I can’t be sure what Ashcroft means by the lyrics, but it sounds like he is trying to remind us that love is not just a noun but also a verb—and a taxing one at that—which strikes me as significantly relevant for anyone dealing with the shock of an unexpected pregnancy, and for those who are meant to offer counsel and support.

“Yes, there’s love if you want it, don’t sound like a sonnet, my lord,” Ashcroft sings. “Why can’t you see / That nature has its way of warning me / Eyes open wide / Looking at the heavens with a tear in my eye.”

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