Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 71(4) November 2021

Faith in Medicine

Letting Go and Letting God. Our right to life

Dr Catherine Manghan

Catherine ManghamIt seems that the world can agree that life begins at conception. There seems little debate about this, even among scientists. “The Zygote, formed by the union of an ovum and a sperm, represents the beginning of a human being.” Before we are Born: Essentials of Embryology Moore, Keith 1993.

The next point that we can all agree on is that after a baby is born, their life is then protected in law. Sadly there is no consensus about the relative rights of the unborn child v the rest of society between those two points. Medical advances are continually pushing back the dates at which a premature baby can survive outside the womb, currently hovering around the 23rd week mark. So recent efforts to make abortion legal until birth in certain cases are particularly chilling. At the same time as we are seeing people with genetic differ­ences, such as Down’s syndrome, increasingly involved in normal life - education, employment and the performing arts - the means to detect their presence in the womb and the right to destroy them, right to the point of delivery at 40 weeks are being debated and pushed through parliaments. It seems not to be solely a Christian horror that is expressed at this contradictory state of affairs, thank God. We still have at least some common ground with people in secular society, but we need to perhaps clarify what our motives are for supporting the most vulnerable in society.

The confusion about why we care about some of these issues today, was brought home to me while listening to a Radio 4 programme a few weeks ago. The female host was interviewing a medical researcher working on the causes of miscarriage and interuterine death. He was bemoaning the fact that his research was hampered by the 21 day limit allowed for “working on” embryos, before being forced to destroy them by law. If only, he said, he could be allowed to work on them for longer, he could find out so much more about this terribly distressing problem and so potentially be able to treat or prevent the causes of miscarriage.

The irony of what he was saying seemed to be completely lost on both of them.

The tone of compassion and concern for the parents of those desperately wanted babies, was nauseous. How could they not realise the moral contradictions of what they were suggesting? The emphasis on the desperation of the parents, seemed to be the justification behind what they were proposing – to use and abuse and then kill any old embryo in order to save those who were really wanted. Their obvious compassion for parents having difficulties conceiving, seemed to them to justify the means. It hinted that any disagreement with this position would reveal the dissenter to be lacking in compassion and empathy – “not a nice person!”

They are proposing, however, in the gentlest and most sympathetic tones, a society which values people only in so far as other people value them. I suppose populism and social media “influencing” could have indicated as much, but it was a shock for me, to realise that we are no longer, in effect, a culture or a legal system which supports the intrinsic value of each human being. Popularity alongside prosperity seem to be the determinants of our moral code. Perhaps it was ever thus. Perhaps I am as guilty as the next person in living in an echo bubble which told us that we are good people working towards a just society.

It has taken us a while to realise the full implica­tions of both the Abortion Act of 1967, and the acceleration of the juggernaut of fertility medicine, but we cannot even pretend to be oblivious to it now. But it is only one manifestation of this loss of respect for human life, and we cannot only care about unborn children, while remaining silent about those vulnerable people across the world and under our noses whose right to life is being denied every day, in increasingly shocking ways – slavery, sexual exploitation and child labour and prostitution, and the least protected working con­ditions in the UK since before WW2.

What can we do, though? We can start perhaps by letting go and letting God. By taking a good look at ourselves; rooting out the seeds of self-righteous self-determination in our own hearts. When did we start to believe that we had a right to complete self-actualision, regardless of what life we might destroy on the way up? When did the rules of healthy competition suddenly get so distorted, even as we were believing ourselves to be a just society? Perhaps it was when women gave up their role of counterbalancing the competition with nurturing and caring for the common good. We triumphantly rolled up our sleeves and joined in the fray, encouraged by the lie that we could have our cake and eat it, and armed with contraception, abortion and the changes in the divorce and sexual harassment laws. At the moment, we are beating the men at their own game, and even if we are aware that the law currently gives us an unfair advantage, we take this as our due for centuries of oppression by men. But, sisters, where on earth will this end? We are already beginning to realise that it is a very tall order to be good at being professionally successful, a good mother, a good wife and still have a few friends and a hobby or two. I know that there are some women out there who do manage all this, and I honour the diplomacy, gen­erous love and energy that this must take. But for most of us mortals, we might manage to do one or even two of these things well in our own eyes but how do our loved ones feel about it? And what do we think God thinks about it all? Have we ever stopped to ask him?

The responsibility is ours, ladies. We are in a strong position to redress the balance. We need to choose the possibility of life, not the certainty of death and the illusion of control. How courageous can we be? We need to provide the spiri­tual balance not just for our immediate families but for the whole of society. We need to be the change we want to see. We have to choose and we have to lead in this because we have fought for this power and now that we have it, we are responsible for the choices that we make. Perhaps we need to sacrifice our right to the fullness of life in this life for the fullness of life in heaven. Perhaps by doing this, we will come to realise that this gift of our life is exactly what may bring us the fullness of life for which we have always been searching, right here and now, God willing.

Dr Catherine Mangham is GP in Shropshire.