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Of love, life and the living

Talk of "life" is often hijacked by those who seem to care little for the living. Photo: Shutterstock

Talk of "life" is often hijacked by those who seem to care little for the living. Photo: Shutterstock

While it is relatively easy to make generalist platitudes over the environment, corruption, and civil rights, it is far more difficult to take a stand when it comes to arguments that are decisively more compelling — such as a woman’s rights on her own body and fertility.

So it is no surprise that as soon as a group of women sensibly decided to contest the ban on the Morning After Pill in Malta, the usual patriarchal platitudes and the expected so-called “pro-life” brigade came out on the rampage, filling every corner of the social media with the expected argument against “abortive” pills and the lot.

In the midst we also have those professionals, mostly medics and some politicians who seem to be overtaken by some mysterious fervour whenever such a debate comes up — citing arguments where a scientific description of facts is planted in a moral framework, and where in turn the same “facts” are imposed on everyone as they increasingly become moralizing.

A typical case is that of the medic who premises everything on a concept of “life” which remains generic and absolutist in that it is equated with a moral notion of “conception” that is reduced to one moment, after which, they tell us, nothing else could be done as that would be considered as abortive.

The catch is that no one dares to argue that this is not a scientific description but a moral one and it should be declared and defended as such. Far from a scientific argument this is an elusive notion of “life” that in itself is scientifically misleading because it has nothing to do with “conception”.

More damagingly in a place as sensitive as Malta this generic notion of “life” stops all arguments in their tracks, because a discussion about fertility is often confusing morality with science.

No wonder that Ivan Illic, the well known philosopher and Monsignor, once told a group of theologians: “To hell with Life!” Illich was protesting to how “life” has become a social construct and how many seem to think that they have an ownership on “life”, even making it their own battle cry in a war against others whom they regard as being sinners or even murderers.

In a place as sensitive as Malta this generic notion of “life” stops all arguments in their tracks

We often forget that the benign notion of life is being hijacked by political and moralizing agendas that seem to be all too caring for “life” while not caring much for the living. “Doctors now feel responsible for a life, from sperm to worm, or from fertilization to organ harvest, rather than for the suffering person,” says Illich.

Far from being some “pro-choice” advocate, Illich was aiming at a discourse that goes beyond the convenient dualism that distracts us with its pro-life vs pro-choice bickering. Here I will quote him at some length because I cannot be as eloquent and precise as he was:

“’Life’ has become a way of speaking about what were once respectfully called person,” says Illich. “Doctors were in charge of persons whose sufferings had to be relieved. Now they have become managers in charge of lives ‘from sperm to worm’ (…). By including life in an ethical discourse, you inevitably give the semblance of ethics to an unethical context. Life, as the term is used in this context, has nothing to do with ethics. The term is now used (…) principally by those hospital commissions for bioethics, which are a refuge for doctors and unfrocked clergy with degrees in theology or philosophy, to justify the most distasteful and impudent manipulations by their medical staffs”.

If readers want to read Illich’s argument in its entirety including his discussion of fertility, I would suggest they start with David Cayley’s Ivan Illich in Conversation (Anansi 1992).

I am citing Illich not because I want to make some case for abortion or for more intervention in women’s bodies. Rather, I want to highlight how the argument about “life” is totally messed up. It is unfortunate that many feel the need to pit the notion of life against women and their living body.

I cannot speak for women, because I am a male. But if the Anglican Bishop John Spong is right, I can speak through the eyes of the women I love in my life and say that I am pretty sure that no woman would want to have an abortion if that could be avoided. But then again I cannot accept those who in their claim to be defenders of “life” condemn at the drop of a hat any woman who finds herself having to do one.

If we all want to avoid abortions, then we have to start thinking clearly about things and have a civilized debate. We can’t implore “life” to stop our young men and women from learning how to use proper contraception. We cannot avoid abortions if we do not teach the ethics of love-making. We cannot remain hung over premarital sex and keep condoning and accepting a patriarchal and male dominated attitude towards sexuality.

We cannot ignore violence on women and then deny that patriarchy is ingrained in our moralizing attitude towards sex. We cannot avoid abortion if we stop discussing women’s rights, their ownership of their body and the freedom necessary by which women can make decisions about their body.

Battle cries against “abortive” measures like the Morning After Pill actually create more space for abortion — be it legal or illegal. That is why I think Illich was so right when he got fed up with the misuse of the word “life” and told his fellow churchmen: “To Hell with life!” For anyone to appreciate and really understand life, he or she must begin with the living. Otherwise, abortions — willed or not — will proliferate and ignorance will continue to grow amongst more prejudice.

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