Friday, 15 June 2001

The limit of the law

THE HOLY Synod of the Church of Greece made the following statement on June 7: "The Orthodox Church is absolutely opposed to the idea that Woman has the right to decide unilaterally whether, when and how many children she will bear."

"'Whether'," the church statement explains, "refers directly to abortion." It could also refer to contraception. Greek Orthodoxy, to its credit, does not join Catholicism in explicitly banning contraception. It recognises the need for defence against the spread of Aids and other venereal diseases. But a woman's rights over her womb are what spearhead the church's position, and there it almost aligns itself with the Vatican.

The Synod explained it was reacting to a proposed ruling by the European Parliament's Committee for Women's rights and Equal Opportunities, which reads: "The European Parliament... condemns any control over women's fertility in the name of religion, race, culture or ethnicity; it considers that women have the right to decide when or whether they shall bear children, and how many."

According to a report by the Aristoteleion University of Thessaloniki, Greek women undergo an estimated 200,000 abortions a year ­ twice the annual number of live births. Some researchers put the figure even higher, at 300,000. At these phenomenal levels, abortion is effectively being used in lieu of contraception.
Gynaecologist and professor Vasilis Tarladzis, who helped draft the report, says that Greek women are mistrustful of contraceptive pills. Although they are inexpensive and ubiquitous in Greece, the view has gained wide currency among young women that the pills may cause uterine cancer (in fact they help prevent it), make them gain weight and lower their libido. Some women may also fear damage to their reputation if they become regular buyers of contraceptive pills. A pharmacist might talk carelessly, especially in a small town.

Many Greek women see abortion, legalised in 1986, as a relatively safe and easy safety net, and one that will not damage their reputation. (The vast majority of abortions are discreetly disguised as "minor surgery" in private and public hospital reports, hence the health ministry's ridiculously low abortion statistics ­ 3,848 for 1997, the last year for which figures are available).

The strongest arguments against abortion are religious. The religious, and generally spiritual, debate about whether abortion constitutes murder is based on when one believes a soul to enter a body. The Catholic Church's emphatic stand against abortion dates back only to 1869, when Pope Pius IX declared that ensoulment occurs at the moment of conception. The Greek Orthodox Church agrees.

The trouble is that the churches stretch tenuous Biblical evidence to support their view that God opposes abortion. "Thou shalt not kill, " often cited to attack abortion, presupposes that the embryo is a human being, hence the need to declare ensoulment at conception. God's instruction to Adam and Eve in Genesis, "Be fruitful and multiply", was good advice back then, but not with humanity passing the 6-billion mark.

Classical literary and archaeological evidence indicate that before Christianity, abortion was neither a religious issue nor, until Roman times, a legal one. But we do know that abortion was widely practised.

The most popular abortifacient ever recorded in antiquity came from the sap of a plant called silphion, (photo), a distant relative of the sunflower, which grew around the Greek colony of Kyrenaica in north Africa. Balls of silphion resin became Kyrenaica's champion export, especially to Rome. Overharvesting drove silphion to extinction (it resisted any attempts at transplanting) some time in the first century AD.

The open discussion of abortion methods in mainstream medical journals also suggests that the practice was not secret or stigmatised. The Greek doctors Hippocrates, Galen and Soranos all propose methods of abortion, including vigorous exercise after conception, violent jumping and riding a cart over a rocky road to dislodge the foetus from the uterus. They propose spicy and pungent foods, rubbing the body with olive oil, and a variety of suppositories.

This does not mean that the ancients were more liberal than we are. Most Greek societies and early Roman society were extremely patriarchal. Athenian fathers typically had no contact with their children for the first few years of their lives, perhaps to defer paternal recognition until the child's facial features became distinct. The liberal playwright Euripides makes Jason tell Medea: "If men could find a way to bear children, we would have no need of you at all."

But the ancients displayed wisdom in keeping abortion outside the legal code, perhaps in recognition of the facts of nature. The knowledge of conception is a woman's exclusive province until she chooses to share it with a man. If a woman does decide to share the knowledge with a husband or lover, this is at her own discretion. Nature thus gave woman the first veto in childbirth. This is not a political or religious reality. It is an unalterable fact of natural design.

Nor is abortion an unnatural thing. Long before the first induced-abortion methods, nature empowered the female body to prevent conception or trigger miscarriages effectively abortions ­ if conditions are not ideal for childbearing. Stress, undernourishment, exposure to the elements, even emotional distress, have all been shown to prevent or end pregnancy.

But the natural design also carries a terrible burden: along with exclusive knowledge and the veto, nature gave women exclusive responsibility. A man can walk away from a pregnant woman. Society can turn its back on her. Women are likely to want the support of a family and society, and usually make consensual decisions with their partner.

To involve the law, religious or secular, in such a personal decision is to destroy the family and replace it with the church or the state. Such intrusion is, simply, an attempt to control society too closely. The law should not determine whether a child is brought into this world loved or unloved. That should be the decision of those whose responsibility it will be to rear the child ­ unless we adopt a social model like Plato's Republic, where children are reared by special instructors and the family is dissolved.

The law should not determine whether a man becomes a father or a woman a mother, for that is to place a fertilised egg above the status of full-fledged adults, effectively turning the man into a slave and the woman into a child-bearing unit with no autonomy over her body.

Europe should look at the US, where the abortion issue has become a tug-of-war between over-reaching secular law and a self-righteous brand of puritanism. The result is divisiveness, fanaticism, intimidation of women and the murder of doctors and nurses in fertility clinics. This is a disaster we do not need in Europe, and it comes from trying to over-regulate society.

It should be clear that abortion does not admit of legislation. It may not be regulated or ruled upon. Society's only contribution can be to allow it but not encourage it. Greece does indeed have a rate of abortion that is far too high. The problem should be addressed through education, not the law, and the decisions left to individuals.

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