I recently listened to a challenging talk by Rev Tim Costello who pointed out that the world has been rightly devastated by the horrible deaths of 3000 people in the United States on September 11, 200l. He pointed out, however, that on the same day 5000 children around the world had died of preventable diseases. The same thing happened the next day and the following day and still continues. Is life of any less value when it belongs to a poor person in an obscure country without the focus of the media on its misery?
During the lead- up to the invasion of Iraq, I repeatedly asked the question: Is an Iraqi life of any less value than an American, a British or an Australian life? It seems so, if we are able to be given exact figures of the unfortunate loss of life among foreigners in Iraq but no accurate statistics for the loss of life among Iraqi citizens.
Somehow or other, we have conveniently adopted a “them and us” mentality with regard to the importance of human life. If you belong to a group which is strong, rich, influential, vocal, and powerful, there is a good chance your rights and your life will be safeguarded. But if you are poor, defenceless and without a voice, it is a different matter.
Once a society decides that it can pick and choose and say that one life is of more value than another, that not every person is of inestimable value, that “out of sight is out of mind”, then that society becomes diminished.
The current abortion debate focuses on unborn human life which must be seen in the context of a “whole of life” understanding. Is an unborn child of less value because it hasn’t yet seen the light of day, because it cannot speak for itself or because many people are unwilling to speak up for it for fear of offending various groups of other people?
Every Australian should be alarmed at the fact there are 100,000 abortions annually in this country. We pride ourselves in being a civilized nation. Yet every day we allow countless innocent, defenceless lives to be snuffed out before birth. History will surely judge Australia and the world harshly for our neglect of such basic human rights.
Invariably, protagonists of abortion defend their position by pointing to the “hard cases” such as pregnancy following rape and the danger to the life of the mother. But how many of the 100,000 annual Australian abortions arise out of such circumstances?
I understand that pre-natal screening is becoming more commonplace, leading to the aborting of babies who are possibly less than perfect. No doubt, a great deal is asked of parents whose children suffer severe defects, but how often their heroism greatly enhances such a family. Jean Vanier and members of L’Arche communities remind us of how much we have to learn from people suffering disabilities. Our recent history has shown the world how pernicious it is to eliminate people judged to be defective or different.
How many abortions come about for social or economic reasons? How many unwanted pregnancies are caused by failed contraception or through casual sexual liaisons that take little or no account of the consequences of their actions?
It saddens me to see how promotion of abortion has become a “badge” of feminism. Over the years, women (and many men!) have advocated strongly and justifiably for the rights of women. It is ironic that one such right is to deny the right to life to some children at the sole discretion of their mothers.
Of course, it is not enough to condemn abortion. It is the responsibility of governments, communities, the medical profession, church and welfare groups, families and individuals to give support to women experiencing difficult pregnancies. Is it too much to strive for a world where no one would feel forced to seek an abortion? Surely, even the strongest “pro-choice” advocate would desire a climate in which there would be no need for abortion.
I appeal to the women of Australia to speak out for the protection of unborn human life. So often I hear from women, some of whom have had abortions themselves, expressing distress over the path Australia has gone down in the “abortion explosion”. In the current debate, it is being said that this is just another example of men seeking to dominate women, often putting them on a guilt trip as well. Women who hold strong “pro-life” views should not be intimidated from defending the rights of the unborn against those pretending that no such rights exist.
Defending the right to life means doing everything possible to counteract suicide, especially among the young, reducing Australia’s road toll and giving much more attention to deaths (and other injustices) in custody.
Equally, our respect for life should cause us to grieve for those people who have died through illicit drug use. Each year many of them are remembered and named by their families and friends at a moving ceremony at Weston Park in the ACT. Nobody can be happy until these tragic and senseless deaths are eliminated. Again there are responsibilities right across our society to prevent such deaths.
The fact that Aboriginal people have a life-span of twenty years less than the rest of Australians is a national shame and disgrace. Better health care, educational and employment opportunities and positive discrimination towards Aboriginal people will go some way towards restoring the value and dignity of the lives of our indigenous people and righting many of the injustices they have experienced over 200 years and more.
Australia’s attitude to refugees, to poverty at a national and global level and to people at the edge of society hardly rated a mention during the recent federal election campaign. As a nation we need to “lift our game”, to demonstrate at every level, that we value every life – in Australia and beyond – and that we have a special heart for those lives most at risk.

(Bishop) Pat Power
9 November 2004

- published in The Canberra Times 11 November 2004