Debates don’t get more polarised than abortion and can often scare off youth and children’s workers from addressing the issue. But the chances are the children and young people at your church, whether they know it or not, are affected by the issue of abortion in some way.

Don’t believe that? Here are some statistics that bring it home: in 2015, over 191,000 abortions took place in England and Wales. Although this was a decrease from the previous year, the overall trend since abortion was legalised in the 1970s has been a slow and steady increase. The rate of abortion for under-16s in 2015 was two per 1,000 women and the under-18 rate was just under ten per 1,000 women. With half of all secondary schools in the UK having over 1,000 pupils, there’s a real chance that your local girls’ school has ten pupils who have already had an abortion.

Unsurprisingly, how these statistics affect you will depend on your context. Economic poverty and other indicators of deprivation invariably bring with them an increase in abortion numbers, but is the prevalence of abortions necessarily a bad thing? Although very few people think that abortion is a good thing, many believe it is a necessary evil. So why there such division between the pro-choice and pro-life camps? What the arguments all boil down to is the question of when does life begin?

The beginning of life

Those who support a pro-life position nearly always argue that life begins at conception: that moment where a sperm and egg meet and a unique zygote is formed. More recent Church of England documents have pointed towards a belief that life begins when the zygote attaches to the uterine wall. Although this can affect a position on some contraception (such as IUDs and the pill) and the storage of fertilised eggs, the official position of the Church of England is pro-life.

The arguments for attributing the beginning of life to these early stages are said to be predominantly based in science. The key scientific evidence given is that from the moment of conception the foetus contains a unique combination of human DNA - there will never be a foetus quite like this one. Those who are pro-life would argue that this points towards the unique personhood of the foetus. The foetus is human and therefore has a right to life.

The advantage of using conception as the moment where life begins is that it is an easily attributable point an egg is either fertilised or not. But other people do not think that conception is where life begins. There are a range of opinions, such as the time when brain activity is detected. Electrical signals can be detected at twelve weeks but brain waves, which indicate thought, are not detected until 24 weeks. Another date used is when the foetus is ‘viable’ and would likely be able to survive outside of the womb. With today’s technology and medical advances, this is around the 23 week mark, though the weight of the foetus is the key contributing factor.

Some who hold a pro-choice view would argue that the question of when life begins is a distraction. The world is full of life but some life holds priority over others. That’s why we shoot an ape if they pose a threat to a human: there is an order of priority. For those who are pro-choice rather than discussing when life begins, the more important question is who takes priority: the mother or the foetus?

A question of priority

A pro-life position nearly always states that both lives are equal in value. The mother and foetus have the same priority of care. Hypothetical questions of priority will often appear during discussions about abortion: “What about if the mother has cancer and without chemotherapy, which will damage the baby, she will certainly die?” It’s worth noting that, according to the 2015 statistics for England and Wales, abortions to protect the health of the mother accounted for only 1.7 per cent of abortions that year.

But it’s examples of these heart-wrenching cases that are raised during debates, understandably so as there’s no clear answer. Few pro-choice campaigners would criticise a woman for choosing to carry her child to term knowing that there may be fatal repercussions for her own health. But they take issue when this choice is legislated and a woman is obligated to follow a course that will likely lead to her own premature death. It is a monumental decision, and not one that should be forced upon a woman.

Those who are pro-life are sympathetic to the complexity of these sorts of cases but believe that they are far rarer than the proportion of time they take up in the abortion debate. Some would argue that our society naturally expects adults to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their children. In a fire, for example, it would be frowned upon for a parent to not attempt to rescue their child even if it was at great risk to themselves. In such situations, a child’s life is seen as more valuable than their parents’.

Despite what some pro-life campaigners portray, not all abortions are because a woman finds a pregnancy inconvenient

A more hard-line pro-choice position would state that a foetus has no right to life until it is born - the mother’s right to autonomy over her body supersedes any rights of the unborn child. However increased medical technology has brought the viable gestation date of a foetus closer to the abortion limit of 24 weeks than was previously possible. This results in the lawful requirement for medical staff to resuscitate a baby if it is born alive after a failed abortion. This is also the reason that babies born at 20 weeks are cared for in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) down the corridor from foetuses at the same gestation who are being aborted. The stretched health service in the UK means that most pre and post-natal care occurs within the same section of the hospital because of the common expertise required. This has significant pastoral implications as women who have miscarried or have premature children are forced to share wards with those who have just undergone abortions.

Achieving gender equality

One main argument for a pro-choice position is that the availability of abortion is a significant step towards achieving gender equality. Access to abortions ensures that women are free to have children only when they want to, like men they aren’t forced to interrupt their education or careers because of an unplanned pregnancy. Also, in cases of rape, which is predominantly an act of male violence against women, it enables a woman to not have to live with the consequences of the crime committed against her. In developing countries where child brides are common, the availability of abortion is seen as a positive step. It allows young girls to not have to endure the trauma of carrying a pregnancy to term when their bodies are underdeveloped.

Pro-life campaigners find common ground with this position as they also believe that rape and the custom of child brides are wrong. However, they would argue that abortion hides these crimes by removing the visible consequences. Some would go as far as arguing that abortion protects the male perpetrators. Instead they’d campaign for more to be done to reduce these violent acts and support women through their experiences. The act of abortion is seen as continuing the violence already committed. Instead of punishing the perpetrator, the punishment is taken out on an innocent life.

When confronted with women having terminations because of failed contraception, rather than a pregnancy being forced upon them, the pro-life response is to open up a discussion around the meaning and purpose of sex. While few would argue that sex is solely for procreation, many would see children as a natural consequence which adds to the value of the act. Obscuring this possibility makes sex a less meaningful act.

The greater good

Despite what some pro-life campaigners portray, not all abortions are because a woman finds a pregnancy inconvenient. When receiving news of the high risk of chromosomal conditions such as Down’s syndrome, or medical conditions that would make a child’s life short and painful from birth, many women make a difficult decision to terminate. In fact, with an increase in technology, over 90 per cent of foetuses found to have Down’s syndrome are terminated. This has led to groups such as Don’t Screen Us Out, which campaigns against such screening, arguing that life with Down’s syndrome is worth living and parents are scared by unbalanced advice from medical professionals.

But pro-choice campaigners would ask: “Why would you bring a child into the world when they’ll only live a few, painful hours?” The loving thing to do would be to prevent the inevitable suffering they will experience. In fact, to do the opposite verges on sadism - life for life’s sake. It is commonly thought by scientists that before 24 weeks a foetus doesn’t have the capacity to experience pain. This brings an additional edge to this argument as any abortion before this time won’t inflict pain on the foetus.

 Bearing in mind there is no legal requirement for parental consent for terminations, would you accompany a young person to an abortion clinic?

The implications

All of this can seem like a hopefully avoidable topic for those working with children and young people but it is worth considering your position and limitations before a pastoral situation arises. Bearing in mind there is no legal requirement for parental consent for terminations, would you accompany a young person to an abortion clinic? Do your young people know whether you would inform their parents? Young people are more likely to include you in their decision if they don’t have to second-guess your response.

With difficult topics, guest speakers can be helpful. Could you invite a Christian medic to come and explain the ethics around different contraception available? When discussing sex, every youth group’s favourite topic, how do you talk about the chance of pregnancy that comes with each sexual encounter? Do your young people feel empowered and supported by you or undermined and judged?

Unfortunately, there’s no escape for children’s workers. Although you will hopefully not have to deal with the issue of abortion directly, there are some themes to consider. When working with children, how do you refer to a baby in utero? Is this language based in your church’s theological understanding of when life begins? And, in a not altogether different situation, what pastoral support can you offer children whose parent has miscarried or lost a baby soon after birth?

You won’t always get it right but careful language and a whole heap of love can go a long way when tackling difficult subjects.

Common ground

The difficulty with the abortion debate is that both sides believe they are acting in both the mother and the foetus’ best interest. Often there is common ground around campaigning for increased social care provisions for mothers or for universities and employers to be supportive and flexible if a woman wants to continue work after having a child. But despite this common ground, the abortion debate can be a polarised one, where the differences primarily lie in identifying the point where life begins and deciding which life, mother or foetus, takes priority.