The Catholic Church is not taking action against those who voted pro-abortion, but Jennifer Ferguson could face expulsion for failing to toe the party line, reports Gaye Davis
THE Catholic Church will not be taking action against members of the faith who, as African National Congress MPs, voted in favour of the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Bill. But MP Jennifer Ferguson, who, while not a Catholic, abstained from voting on the Bill, could face expulsion from the ANC and the loss of her seat for breaching party discipline.
ANC whip Geoff Doidge said Ferguson’s action would be considered by the ANC’s National Executive Committee. She might escape with a reprimand but could face expulsion, he said. “In other Parliaments the chief whip would simply suspend an MP who did this, without even consulting the party leadership.”
Doidge himself is a Catholic. He said this week: “I’ve been taught that abortion is wrong. But I am in Parliament as an ANC MP. People voted in 1994 for the ANC, not for Geoff Doidge. I’m not there as a Catholic MP, but as an ANC MP. In terms of that I must follow party discipline.”
By abstaining, Ferguson defied a two-line whip. This allowed MPs who felt unable to toe the party line on the issue to be absent during the vote - but this had to be with leave of the chief whip, Doidge said. ANC MP Father Smangaliso Mkatshwa, a Catholic priest, was among about 11 ANC MPs who took advantage of this option.
Another ANC MP, Sister Bernard Ncube, who is a Catholic nun, did not.
But the Catholic Church will not be excommunicating any MPs, notwithstanding a carefully worded statement issued by Archbishop Wilfrid Napier on the eve of the vote. Napier said that under canon law, “all Catholics involved in a deliberate and successful attempt to bring about an abortion are automatically excommunicated” for a crime against human life.
His statement linked the canonical diktat to the responsibility which “likewise” fell on legislators who promoted and approved abortion laws.
“A lot of people outside Parliament didn’t realise the dilemma some MPs found themselves in,” Doidge said. “It was a very difficult time, wrestling with one’s conscience and party loyalty. You opened the paper in the morning and saw you were threatened with excommunication.”
His own position was made doubly difficult by his being a whip. “My job is to ensure that MPs vote in favour of legislation tabled by the organisation.”
“Those who voted for the Bill will not incur excommunication,” Father Emil Blaser, associate secretary general of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said this week.
“Canonical law must be interpreted strictly. It states that anyone involved in procuring an abortion will be excommunicated - the person undergoing an abortion, the doctor performing it, the friend who assists. It says nothing about those in Parliament who helped pass a law that makes abortions possible.”
However, the church would see the yes-votes of Catholic MPs - it estimates there are about 78 - as sinful in that they had gone against the teachings of the church. This would mean their seeking forgiveness through confession, Blaser said.
Ferguson, the mother of two children, said that she had acted in terms of “the dictates of my heart”. She had obtained a backstreet abortion aged 21 and felt “at peace” with this decision. While not opposed to abortion on request per se, she believed it should not be allowed beyond 12 weeks.
Her statements prompted a rebuke from fellow ANC MP Pregs Govender in an open letter published in The Cape Times.
“You are a woman of power,” Govender wrote. “You have found your voice and it is heard by many people ... there are millions in this country who are not as fortunate.
“You were voted into Parliament by many who believed you would protect and defend their right to make their own choices (as you had done in choosing an abortion at 21 years ...).
“What is your responsibility as an MP voted into a position of power and privilege in relation to the rights of women who put you there?”
Govender noted the “real courage” of Sister Ncube, who voted for the Bill “because she saw the pain and suffering caused by the lack of access to services [under present abortion law].
“Her faith, conviction and compassion go beyond herself. It encompasses the need to save the lives of women and young girls who die in their hundreds every year.
“Her compassion gives her the courage to face the pain and ostracism that voting for this Bill will inevitably bring from the Catholic Church that she has served as a nun for so long and so faithfully. That takes real courage,” Govender wrote.
In a response soon to be published, Ferguson says: “The Bill has been given to the women of South Africa as a step towards our empowerment. If we, however, see abortion only as an issue of women’s liberation, we have planted a seed of another cycle of oppression - one which neglects to hear that most silent voice of all, the voice of the unborn child.”
She said there was evidence that in India most abortions were of female foetuses. “Is this liberation of women? Is this what we are fighting for?”
As an MP, she had felt “unable to reduce the complexity of the issue into a mere choice of two buttons.
“I was searching for the third way, the one that could compassionately embrace both mother and child. I know many of my colleagues were in a similar dilemma. A neighbourly comrade held my hand and said, `Press the yes-button, my darling, then go home and pray to God’.
“I was unable to vote without conscience. I abstained.”