The pro-life world is currently in uproar about remarks made by Chelsea Clinton at a recent fundraiser for her mother, Hilary, in which she claimed to have left the Baptist Church at the age of 6, thanks to its stance on abortion.
I was raised in a Methodist church and I left the Baptist church before my dad did, because I didn’t know why they were talking to me about abortion when I was 6 in Sunday school.
Going on to defend her faith and that of mother’s which she believes is wholly compatible with a pro-choice viewpoint, she said “I recognized that there were many expressions of faith that I don’t agree with and feel [are] quite antithetical to how I read the Bible…But I find it really challenging when people who are self-professed liberals kind of look askance at my family’s history.”
The subtext is clear – support of abortion is compatible with Christianity as evidenced by her family’s own religious faith. Many people would take issue with how far the Clinton family exemplify Christian values, but let’s be charitable and accept her belief that her family are all God-fearing Christians. It still doesn’t mean that their interpretation of the Bible when it comes to abortion is the correct one, and billions of Christians around the world, would vehemently disagree as to whether a Christian can sanction the killing of the unborn. But I can accept that this is a genuinely held, if theologically flawed, point of view.
Where I do take issue, is the idea that voters are being asked to uncritically accept the idea that the six year-old Chelsea had such a prodigious intellect that she was able to criticise the appropriateness of abortion as a topic in Sunday school and make a conscious decision to reject the Baptist church thanks to a theological difference of opinion. It stretches credulity to say the least.
A far more likely explanation is that upon being asked about what they learnt about in Sunday school that week, little Chelsea piped up something about abortion and Hilary whipped her out sharpish and promptly attempted to unpick any pro-life sentiment or ideas which may have taken root in the impressionable six year old’s brain.
How many, even precocious, six year-olds would really object to being given a pro-life point of view in Sunday school, believing that abortion was a vital necessity and one which could be supported by a certain interpretation of Scripture?
Either Chelsea’s recollection of events is distorted, or she is telling blatant untruths, but either way it displays an unhealthy narcissism. Does she genuinely expect voters to believe that hers is such a brilliant mind that she was able to critically engage with theology and the thorny issue of abortion as a six-year old? In effect she is saying, ‘I was so wise and wonderful, that I knew, even at the age of tender age of six, that abortion was a great, wonderful and necessary tool for women’s empowerment. I am descended from the great tribe of political and academic heavyweights, listen and look upon my mighty intellect, ye proles, and take heed’.
Where pro-lifers are wrong however, is to assume that if she is telling the truth, that this is evidence of abusive or bad parenting, on the basis that no six year-old ought to know about abortion. If that is the case, then the Baptist Church which was mentioning such things to six year olds, deserves criticism. Although pro-choicers like Chelsea, ought to be honest with themselves as to why? If abortion is simply more than a removal of unwanted tissue or cells, and not a real human being, then what is the problem with telling children about it, in similar terms to describing a tonsilectomy or other similar minor procedure?
I remember losing a glut of Facebook and Twitter followers, who were all ironically pro-choicers, who were appalled when I mentioned that I’d had to discuss abortion with my eldest child, who was about seven at the time. It was felt that children wouldn’t be old enough to fully understand abortion and therefore shouldn’t be told. Which is in itself an admission that there’s something more moral and fundamental at stake that just putting a stop to a pregnancy. There’s also the feeling from both pro-lifers and pro-choicers that the role of parents is to protect their children from life’s horrors, until they are able to contextualise them. Again, an implicit understanding that abortion is not a ‘nice’ thing or a suitable topic for children.
I was forced to broach the issue, albeit in very gentle terms, with my daughter when she was in Year two or three, simply because she could read. She saw a leaflet from a pro-life organisation that was kicking about the house and asked what the word meant. She also overhead an answerphone message from a media outlet inviting me on a show to discuss abortion.The final nail in the coffin was having to drive past large displays of graphic images outside Brighton’s abortion clinic. She could see for herself what they were. I don’t believe in lying to children, or treating them as though they are stupid, but answering their questions in age-appropriate ways. Ours is a household in which lots of things are discussed calmly and sensibly, without ever once inviting scorn or hatred upon people. My daughter’s school was taken over by the notoriously progressive Brighton College – therefore we found ourselves forced to broach certain difficult and taboo topics, living as we did in a hub of LGBT activism with a disproportionate amount of the population who reject heteronormatism. It’s ironic that many of those who are campaigning for children to be taught sex-education including the topics of homosexuality and transgenderism in schools from the age of 5, are recoiling at the notion that children could be told about abortion.
It was perhaps inevitable that a child in my household would become exposed to the concept of abortion, although interestingly it hasn’t yet cropped up with my younger children, the oldest of whom is now also six. So I don’t blame Hilary Clinton for Chelsea’s exposure to pro-choice views from an early age, because to some extent this was inevitable, although I would question anyone, on either side of the debate, who decided to sit down and explain the concept of abortion with a young child. I don’t have a problem with taking young children to pro-life events, or even with them joining in with prayer vigils outside clinics – it can very simply be explained without having to go into the specifics of abortion.
Most children, when they learn about abortion, are naturally horrified. They know instinctively that it’s an abhorrent and upsetting thing, which is why caution needs to be exercised and the topic needs to be discussed sensitively.
The horror and disgust levelled at Hilary Clinton is because, if Chelsea is to be believed, then she must have put in quite a bit of work to overcome a young child’s natural revulsion and convince her that abortion is a perfectly acceptable act. Children instinctively look to their mothers to protect them, they understand that their mothers have carried them in their tummies and the thought that a mother might decide to kill or get rid of a baby in her tummy is the stuff of childish nightmares and anxieties, especially if they believe that it’s something that their own mother might do at some point.
Heaven knows, I have some terrible explaining of my own to do at some point, which is why I was so distressed to be so publicly outed and betrayed by a former friend about my own abortion, a few years ago.
But where we do need to be careful, is in our condemnation of Hilary for her supposed indoctrination of Chelsea. No matter how heinous her views, as a parent, she has every right to pass them down to her children, and tragically this seems to have been the case. Chelsea obviously feels immensely proud and privileged to have been the recipient of such an upbringing and that her mother did the right thing in imparting her views.
The rights of parents as primary educators of their children is integral to Catholic teaching and therefore it is hypocritical of us to attempt to abuse or denigrate others for exercising those very same rights that we lay claim to when it comes to our own children. We don’t have to tolerate the ideas which others are passing on to their children, but we must respect others’ rights to educate their children into their own value system, with the proviso that these views do not encourage, condone or coerce vulnerable youngsters into acts of violent terrorism.
The same accusation of harm or abuse, that we could level at militant atheists or devoted pro-choicers, could and often is, similarly and far more frequently lobbied at those of us with religious and socially conservative views.
As a 35 year old mother, Chelsea Clinton has had ample opportunity to reflect upon the values instilled in her as a child and either accept or reject them. But her experience bears out what both Catholics and left-leaning socialists accept. The family remains the most powerful source of political and religious evangelism there is and a family who not only expresses, but also positively lives out their convictions or views without hypocrisy are infinitely more likely to pass them down to future generations.