Faith Matters

Fr Dominic McGrattan appeals for a feminism that is pro-life

On this International Women's Day and ahead of the Republic's referendum on abortion, Dominic McGrattan - inspired by his mother and sister - appeals for a feminism that is pro-life

Catherine and Mary Katrina McGrattan. Picture by Aidan McEvoy of Peninsula Gallery, Kircubbin
Dominic McGrattan

ON New Year's Day 1972, our family changed forever. My sister was born.

After nine months of carrying her, hoping for another girl after four boys in a row, a healthy, beautiful baby girl was placed in my mum's arms. All of the knitting and crocheting in pink hadn't been in vain.

For the other children, the arrival of a sister was met with jubilation, not least by the eldest child, a girl, who had feared she was destined to grow in a family dominated by men. Her dresses and dolls were to have a new lease of life.

From the instant mum looked into her eyes, she knew my sister was no ordinary baby. She was different, special. She had Down's syndrome.

It was five days before doctors met with mum and dad to discuss with them how special their little girl really was.

In the meantime, and amidst a tumult of emotions, they decided on a name.

Throughout the Bible, we learn the significance of naming something. To name something calls it out of the abyss of nothingness to give it its place in the created order.

To name a human being is to acknowledge that they are not something, but rather someone. Not a foetus, but a person. It marks them as unique and special in the eyes of God. It speaks of their unfathomable sacredness as created and loved by the God of life.

Unlike the rest of her children, mum insisted that my sister have two names, that of our beloved grandmother Mary, and Katrina, after her own name Catherine.

It was as if she knew, by dint of her maternal instinct, that one name could never capture the mystery of Mary Katrina's being. Only two names would do.

From the moment she breathed her first, Mary Katrina turned our family's world upside down, or perhaps better, she put it the right way up.

Like the gift of every child, she has brought us love and laughter, tears and drama. She's given us insights on the world no ordinary person could. She's made demands of us to go beyond ourselves in ways we never imagined possible.

From the moment she breathed her first, Mary Katrina turned our family's world upside down, or perhaps better, she put it the right way up

Unlike my other siblings - even mum and dad - who knew of a world before Mary Katrina, I came along after. Mary Katrina has always been in my life and I cannot conceive of a world without her.

Imagine my horror, then, when I learned that as many as nine out of 10 babies diagnosed with Down's syndrome in the UK do not survive beyond their mother's womb. Nine out of 10 special babies are not given the chance to live because a choice is made to end their lives before they breathe their first.

That statistic makes me sad. Sad that we live in a world where a baby, like my sister once was, may not have the chance to live and grow into the kind of beautiful, gifted and unique woman my sister has become.

Sad that our society values less the authentic, pro-life choices of brave and courageous women like my mum.

And sad too that a group of children once marginalised and hidden away have been ushered closer to full participation in ordinary human life, only to be ushered out again.

Iceland boasts that it has eradicated Down's syndrome. It is a hollow boast. Because of a combination of pre-natal screening and aggressive 'genetic counselling', babies with a Down's diagnosis are almost always aborted.

Denmark, France and the United States don't fare much better when it comes to making women like my mum and sister welcome.

Back in 2004, comedian and actress Sally Phillips gave birth to a baby boy, Olly. It came as a shock when doctors informed her that Olly had Down's. Screening hadn't picked up the condition.

Last year, in a moving documentary for the BBC, Phillips shared her story. Mindful of the trend to abort babies like Olly, she speculated what it would be like to live in a world without Down's.

Trudeau's feminism, like that of most liberals, is pro-abortion. It looks like one extended apology for the wrongs of men. Its bounds are drawn narrowly so as to exclude women like my mum and sister

The roll-out of screening to women whose babies are at high risk of Down's means there's a distinct possibility that, in the near future, the only children born with the condition are those whose parents have explicitly chosen that fate.

"And that has ethical implications," says Phillips, "as to whether the government supports the costs of raising a person with Down's or not because it's kind of: 'it's your bed, lie in it.'"

She was shocked to find that not everyone she encountered believed people were born equal: "We are working out the value, the cost of a person... Is there a point where we become too expensive to look after?"

The tragedy is that people are no longer interested in the things people with Down's syndrome can do, and do better.

A child with Down's may not hope to go to Oxford or Cambridge, but this is not the only metric of achievement.

In other ways, they far outstrip the rest of us. They relate to people, they're funny, they're comfortable in their own bodies.

Because they are thoroughly uninhibited, they break the ice between families and neighbours, bringing communities closer together. Their unique way of seeing the world upends convention and challenges prejudice.

On any reckoning, people with Down's are not problems to be solved, but vital contributors.

In a few weeks, the people of the Irish Republic, whose founding document vows to cherish all its children, will go to the polls over the Eighth Amendment.

Will they vote to remove the constitutional protection of unborn babies and open the way for abortion on demand, pitting mother against child? Will Ireland go the way of other 'civilised' nations like Iceland, Denmark and the UK and become a cold house for women like my mum and sister?

Or will it recommit itself to policies that responsibly protect and advance the interests of mothers and children, both before and after birth?

It remains to be seen.

As it happens, today is International Women's Day. In this centenary year of the suffragette movement, feminists across the world are redoubling their efforts in the cause of gender equality.

Canada's charismatic prime minister, Justin Trudeau, urges us to challenge the culture of sexism by raising our boys as feminists.

I agree. Boys and men should be feminists. I too am a feminist. Though I suspect my kind of feminism is rather different.

Trudeau's feminism, like that of most liberals, is pro-abortion. It looks like one extended apology for the wrongs of men. Its bounds are drawn narrowly so as to exclude women like my mum and sister. It is misogyny by another name.

And it has become so absolutist as to impose thought control, requiring teenagers seeking summer jobs to take a pro-abortion oath because "at the core of Canada's domestic and foreign policy is sexual and reproductive rights". How liberal...

As many as nine out of 10 babies diagnosed with Down's syndrome in the UK do not survive beyond their mother's womb. That statistic makes me sad. Sad that our society values less the authentic, pro-life choices of brave and courageous women like my mum

My brand of feminism is unapologetically and consistently pro-life. For me, much like my Church, there is a continuity in championing the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed and protecting unborn human life.

It is a feminism inspired by women like the Virgin Mary, Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day and Eunice Kennedy. And countless women like my mum and sister.

They have transcended the bounds placed on them by men - and feminists - to do more than most to change the world for the better.

They have earned the right to disagree about what true feminism requires.

  • Dominic McGrattan is a priest of the Diocese of Down and Connor. He is a former curate at St Patrick's Church in Belfast and chaplain to the Mater Hospital in the city. He is pursuing post-graduate studies at the Catholic University of Leuven in Flanders, Belgium.

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