The upper house of the NSW Parliament meet today to discuss the
Reproductive Health Care Reform Abortion Bill 2019 which passed the lower house less than two weeks ago.
On the final day of debate a number of amendments were proposed and defeated. Towards the end of that long discussion there was a particularly striking contribution (timestamp 22:16) by Ms Jenny Aitchison, the member for Maitland.
Aitchison opens by telling the house about a genetic disorder that she suffers from that has, it is quite clear, caused her much pain and distress. It is something that she only discovered as an adult and she struggles with the fact that her own children have not yet discovered if they have inherited the illness:
I am the mother of two children who may or may not have that disorder and will not find out until after they turn 18, when they can decide to investigate. I am the daughter of a man who has lived with a genetic make‑up of which he was unaware.
Aitchison’s tears as she speaks are testament to how difficult this has all been for her; not just her personal suffering but the anguish over whether her children will also suffer. But then what she says next is simply shocking:
I did not know I had the genetic disorder; I can tell the House that I wish I had. I love my daughter and my son so much. But if I knew when I was pregnant that there was a chance that I would be putting them through the past 10 years of my life I would have had an abortion straightaway—because I love them and I know the pain that I have dealt with.
We need to hear her clearly here. She would have aborted both children if there was a chance they would suffer in the same way. Not if she was sure but simply if there was a chance. I’m not sure how any parent can look their children in the eye and say “I love you, so I would kill you”. Nevertheless, Aitchison provides an explanation for this incredible statement:
I have woken up some days thinking, “What is the point of my life?” because I could be dead soon. That is the reality when you have a genetic condition that you know could kill you. That is the reality for people who have haemophilia or who carry that gene, who have fragile eggs, who have the breast cancer gene, who have any of the number of genes that our fantastic medical researchers can now find and say, “This pain in your body that you have lived with, you do not have to pass it on to the next generation.”
Its powerfully emotive. Why would I pass this sickness on? The underlying, but not fully-expressed, assumption is therefore that the life of pain and suffering is not worth living; that there cannot be a positive life when such pain may happen. In fact Aitchison goes so far as to argue that even the small risk of such pain means that death is a better option for her children than even the slightest possibility of the suffering she has gone through – how could such a life be worth living? Surely better to just snuff it out at the start. How great must her despair be that she would even suggest such a thing? It’s hard not to feel great compassion as she weeps.
And yet, surely I’m not the only one who thinks that there is a tragic contradiction at the heart of Aitchison’s argument – even (dare I say it) a shocking hypocrisy?
Never mind that I can’t imagine how her children will respond to their mother saying that she should have killed them. There is a fundamental flaw in what she seeks to persuade us of.
Her life, burdened by the tragedy that she has suffered, is quite clearly not unproductive, let alone one not worth living. The truth of my claim is seen in the simple fact that she stands, an elected representative, speaking in the State Parliament. She is contributing to our democracy, the heart of the governance of New South Wales. I assume that, like every other MP I have met, she is diligent in working for the good of her constituents; putting in the countless unseen hours on their behalf whether they voted for her or not.
Aitchison argues that the genetic disorder she struggles with renders a life not worth living; to be expunged even if there is only a risk that it may happen. But the very act of standing at the despatch box and making that argument undermines it to its very core. I am sure that the very many people that Aitchison has helped in her role as MP would argue the same with me. Some might even point out that her suffering has the potential to make her a better advocate for others.
Aitchison’s world view is so very different from that of the Bible, seen most clearly in Jesus himself. The Biblical world view is that suffering is not something that ought to be absolutely avoided at any cost, even though it is a terrible thing. Suffering, instead, can so often lie at the heart of human maturity and wholeness.
We are most human, most who we are meant to be, when we give of ourselves for the good of others. This is seen most clearly in the sacrificial death of Jesus where he chooses to embrace suffering not because he is a masochist but because he has the interests of others first and foremost in his mind (Luke 22:42). More than that, he fulfils his purpose in that suffering (Heb. 2:10). Of course the reason we can confidently follow Jesus’ pattern in all this is that his death is followed by a resurrection. There is an end to suffering available for us personally and for the whole creation (Rom. 8:18-21).
To know the reality of this truth brings an entirely different perspective to that of the world, reflected in Aitchison’s words. Her view of suffering is essentially one of fear. So afraid of it she is prepared, with no sense of the irony, to inflict the ultimate harm upon her children rather than have to potentially suffer herself as she watches them suffer. With that view of the world, where suffering is the great enemy that cannot be vanquished, abortion is the unavoidable phyrric victory. Yes, it deals with the problem but the carnage is absolute.
The death and resurrection of Jesus means that no such sacrifice needs to be made. He has done everything for us already. Jesus’ suffering and resurrection means that our suffering will always have an end. He demonstrates that suffering may very well be the path that leads to wonderful outcomes.
He brings hope in the face of Aitchison’s great despair. And not just for her children.