UPDATED 3rd June, 2012
My friend went to jail last month. He is not someone we would usually consider a common criminal. My friend is Graham Preston, the father of seven, whose arrest for non-payment of fines relating to his non-violent protests at abortion clinics has seen him sentenced to the longest jail term of any anti-abortion campaigner in Australia.
I first met Graham when he became the illustrator of the children's book I write (www.carparkparables.com). We slowly got to know each other and I became aware of his activism for protect-life.info. We talked and corresponded on the issue, including when he went to jail previously. I don't agree with everything Graham believes or does, but I respect his integrity and conviction, and I am challenged by them.
"If nothing else, it highlights that our Australian society is quite ready to accept a faith that is seen to add value to and respects the current culture, but can be highly acidic to a faith that challenges the current culture. This has always been the case."
There is a huge irony between Graham and myself. Essentially we share pretty much the same ideals and beliefs. Yet while I was winning community service awards for the application of my faith, Graham was going to jail for acting on the same faith. How can Christianity out-lived, lead to such different outcomes? Am I just playing safe with my faith; purposefully ignoring the unpalatable bits and highlighting the nice bits? Is my faith an anaemic version of the real thing? Or is Graham misguided and misdirected; another one of those fanatics we can dismiss?
Graham has precedence on his side. The early Christians were constantly locked up for their faith, while we modern Christians struggle to welcome ex-cons into our ranks. In the early church it was an unavoidable outcome of declaring that 'Jesus is Lord' in a world where Caesar declared himself lord.
So many of the heroes of the faith spent time in prison to highlight the injustices of the world - but not too many of them were heroes until hindsight had kicked in.
If nothing else, it highlights that our Australian society is quite ready to accept a faith that is seen to add value to and respects the current culture, but can be highly acidic to a faith that challenges the current culture. This has always been the case.
While I am uncomfortable with Graham's action in quietly confronting women at abortion clinics why aren't I more uncomfortable with the abortion of an estimated 75,000 possible people every year?
I don't see how anyone can be proud of these numbers, on either side of the debate. These are not numbers the government readily advertises to show how sophisticated and advanced we are. These are numbers that should make us all stop and take stock.
The fact that we recognize the trauma of those facing an abortion, and want to shield then from more, tells me that if we can do anything to help avoid people from arriving at this situation, that will be a good thing.
When we also realize that we have third world teen pregnancy rates in many areas of Australia, epidemic levels of a number of STDs, chronic relationship breakdown and sexual abuse, we should realize that abortion isn't the real issue at all - it is where society's delinquent attitudes to sex and relationships comes to a head.
Sex has very significant consequences - wonderful and woeful. Yet we have reduced sex to an advertising technique that is as inconsequential as eating a sandwich - and reduced relationships to a soap opera plot device.
I for one do not think changing the law is the answer to any of this. In fact that law in Qld still states that abortion is illegal except in exceptional circumstances. I can imagine times when abortion is a sad but appropriate course of action to take due to the complexities of life. This isn't a problem of the law, but the heart.
When the early church noticed the common Roman practice of leaving unwanted babies in the gutter to die, they didn't petition Rome to change the law, they took the babies home and brought them up. They built orphanages to care for these unwanted children believing they too were valued, and they too deserved a chance to live. They changed the way society thought of these children such that it is now unthinkable to us, the descendants of this culture, to leave a baby in the gutter to die.
When Wilberforce waxed lyrical in the British parliament to abolish slavery, he quickly came to realise that changing the law came second – firstly he had to change human hearts. It is a mistake to think this issue can be fixed by a changing of the law by either side.
"When Wilberforce waxed lyrical in the British parliament to abolish slavery, he quickly came to realise that changing the law came second – firstly he had to change human hearts. It is a mistake to think this issue can be fixed by a changing of the law by either side."
Usually we choose our side in this debate based on when the foetus becomes human. The polar extremes of basing our response on such an arbitrary point shows how ludicrous this proposition is. If there is no consensus among renown ethicists and biologists on when this point is, how can we use this to determine our response? Especially when taking one side posits Graham as an annoyance on the way to day surgery, but the other sees him as a hero fighting a silent holocaust. If the biology is grey and cautious, surely our response should be more considered and less polarised.
One thing is for certain. The 'mass of cells' is the closest thing there is to a human in the biological world. It shares our DNA, and is more human than the gorillas we protect, whales that we strive to save, and cattle we ensure receive a humane death. Surely our unborn relatives deserve as much media attention and action as our bovine cousins.
There are a few things you need to know about Graham. He isn't a red-neck, fundamentalist. He doesn't see the issues as strictly black and white. He isn't ignorant. He has thought more and read more widely on this issue than 99 per cent of the population - reading both sides and some of the greatest ethicists and theologians on this issue.
He acts for the voiceless, the forgotten, with deep compassion. He acts with great conviction in a world where we bemoan the lack of conviction in our politicians (you can see why our pollies lack conviction, if this is where it gets you). He also takes on the problem most personally, opening his home to mothers who would otherwise abort, starting a home for females so they don't have to. I think it is out of shear frustration at the inaction of church and state to do anything to reduce abortion in other ways, that he turns to what the rest of us call 'extreme' action. If chaining yourself to old growth forest is considered heroic by many today, why isn't action to save young growth humans so heroic?
Each year Graham writes to hundreds of churches in Brisbane about the problem and what his group are doing, seeking support, feedback, anything! In response, virtually nothing. Most of us don't know how to respond beyond some rhetoric, because the issue is so polarized, personal and crosses a number of ethical boundaries like individual freedom, woman's rights and questions of where life begins. But for Graham, I believe, it simply comes down to this reality – ‘if someone came to take the life of my neighbour's child, would I have the courage to do anything to stop that?’
We may say he should mind his own business, but in a society of rampant individualism don’t we need some people to stop and take seriously the call to be our brother's keeper?
Will Graham's predicament wake the sleeping giant, the church (not to do the easy thing), and demand legal change, but to work towards reducing the number of mothers who feel this is their only choice in their difficult situation? To work with Governments to reduce the number of abortions, teen pregnancies, STDs, and abusive relationships through education, choice and opportunity, just as they have with smoking. This seems to me a more positive, proactive, action to this taboo topic. One that more of us would be supportive of.
If we don't then we will continue to have this war or rhetoric followed by inaction - except by the few whose convictions are too strong to see them say it's all too hard.