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Mandela failed the unborn – but we should understand why before we condemn him

For whatever reason, unlike Alison Davis, he never got to appreciate the sacredness of life

By on Monday, 16 December 2013

Nelson Mandela (AP)

Nelson Mandela (AP)

Last Friday I drove over 100 miles to get to the funeral of Alison Davis, whose obituary has been in the Telegraph of 12 December and also in the Herald. As those who read these obituaries will know, Alison was an extraordinary person. She was a courageous champion of the unborn, and especially those in danger of being aborted because of a disability. Alison herself had been born with spina bifida, a detectable condition that, alongside Down’s syndrome, is the reason for many so-called “therapeutic” abortions. So when she spoke up in the defence of vulnerable babies, she spoke with the personal authority of someone who was glad to have been given life, despite her handicaps.

But again, as those who know Alison’s life story would agree, Alison was not born a saint. When she was young and without religious belief she was a keen feminist and supported a woman’s right to abortion. This only changed gradually; first when she heard of a baby girl starved and dehydrated to death because she had spina bifida; then, under the guidance of SPUC, when she slowly came to see that such deadly “treatment” for the disabled newborn was a consequence of killing the unborn. It was not an overnight conversion.

Despite her defence of the unborn, Alison struggled with despair for many years because of personal circumstances. Even after she became a Catholic it took a pilgrimage to Lourdes for her to come to realise that disabled people are loved by God in their suffering; and then a second pilgrimage for her to understand that this suffering is not wasted but can be offered up on behalf of others. The holiness that others would testify on her behalf now that she is dead was the result of a lifelong struggle – with many setbacks – to come closer to God.

Fr Ray Blake’s blog for Friday 13th, the day of Alison’s funeral, refers to the deep spiritual life she came to experience, when he refers to the “infused teaching” that she received from Our Lady during her later years. This included writing down the Salve Regina in Latin before she knew what it meant. One is reminded of St Bernadette telling the parish priest in Lourdes that “the Lady” whom she saw in her apparitions, was the “Immaculate Conception” – without having any idea what the title signified.

I mention all this because as I drove down to Dorchester for Alison’s funeral I listened on the car radio to the final episode of Nelson Mandela’s autobiography: Long Walk to Freedom. He wrote of only gradually becoming aware that his own people were not free in the country of their birth because of the colour of their skin. It took him a long time to move from this realisation to the greater understanding that the freedom he desired for black South Africans had to be inclusive rather than exclusive; it had to be embraced on behalf of all South Africans, white as well as black.

There have been critical posts about Mandela since his death, because of his strong support for abortion when he became the South African President. Of course he was entirely wrong about this. Unlike Alison Davis, his hard-won vision of human dignity did not include the right to life of the unborn, even though he gained painful insight into other forms of injustice. My point here is that while people are rightly critical of his large failings, they should also remember that, but for the grace of God, they too might have shared his limited understanding of the dignity of persons. Alison Davis was given the grace to come to an ever deeper understanding of the sacredness of human life from the moment of conception; Mandela, for whatever reason, was not. He needs our prayers for the repose of his soul in his own journey to God.