Finnish interior minister causes stir over faith-based abortion views

(Photo: REUTERS /Roni Rekomaa / Lehtikuva)Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja arrives at a news conference in Helsinki May 9, 2013. Tuomioja announced the release of two Finnish hostages who were abducted with an Austrian national last December in Yemen, and said the former hostages are currently receiving medical checks at a hospital in Vienna. REUTERS/Roni Rekomaa/Lehtikuva

Finland's Interior Minister has created a stir by attacking on the basis of her Christian beliefs theNordic country's liberal abortion laws.

Päivi Räsänen, chair of Finland's Christian Democratic Party which is part of the nation's governing coalition, told attendees at a Lutheran Church missions conference on July 6 that animals have more protection than unborn babies.

"Animal protection law grants better protection to animals than the law on abortion gives to unborn children.

"Animals may not be slaughtered in a painful manner, but it's not permitted to even discuss the painfulness of abortion," Räsänen said in a speech in the town of Kankaanpää.

"An abortion-age child is not a numb piece of tissue, rather an individual that can feel pain," she stated, according the Finnish national broadcast company YLE.

Räsänen, 53, whose responsibilities also include religious affairs, cited a story from the Bible's book of Acts in her speech.

In the passage, the apostles of Jesus tell Jewish religious leaders who rebuked them for preaching in his name, "We must obey God rather than men.

"We have to consider whether we have the courage to act in the face of general public opinion or norms, peer pressure, and sometimes even the law, if these contradict the word of God," Räsänen said.

In an age when much of the debate on abortion centers on the point in time in a pregnancy at which it can ethically be terminated, her view is conservative. Räsänen's personal conviction is that the procedure is not acceptable at any time during a pregnancy, YLE reported.

She decried the lack of legislation in Finland to protect health care workers if they refused to assist in abortion procedures on the grounds of conscience.

The minister noted that Finland and Sweden are the only countries in Europe which do not have such protections.

A physician, Räsänen proposed in April that health care workers be given the right to refuse to carry out abortions. This sparked a heated debate in the Finnish parliament.

July is normally a relaxed and festive time in Finland, located between Sweden and Russia. Finland has a short summer, so many people head to summer cottages and spend time on the country's numerous lakes.

However, Räsänen's remarks have caused a political, religious and public firestorm.

She told YLE that "the fuss was a surprise" and suggested that because of the summer lull her remarks gained more attention than they might have.

Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, a Social Democrat, wrote on his blog that civil disobedience could be appropriate in some cases, but not when it is based on belief in a higher power.

"The conviction leading to this [kind of action] can only be based on universal ethical human norms, not on directives handed from above, as in the case of the Bible, Koran, or Mein Kampf," Tuomioja said.

YLE noted that Tuomioja is an atheist and has objected to using public money to fund theological training.

After the public outcry concerning her statements, some politicians called for her resignation. In addition, Räsänen's home was attacked and two formal complaints filed with the Justice Chancellery, according to Life News.

The pro-life news agency reported that leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the official State church of Finland, distanced themselves from Räsänen's comments.

Archbishop Kari Mäkinen tweeted, "One may agree with her or be of a different opinion, but her views should not be confused with the church's position. No more than the opinion of any other church member you might meet on the street."

Bishop Björn Vikström criticized Räsänen for her statement that people should obey God rather than the law.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church has seen a spike in people leaving the state church since Räsänen's speech at the church event. Last week 3,500 people resigned from the church in two days, YLE reported.

However, this increase is not a reason for concern, according to a comparative religion professor at the University of Helsinki.

René Gothóni told YLE, "People's commitment to the Church is generally weaker, and religion does not have such a great significance in everyday life anymore."

He attributed the phenomenon to urbanization and individualism.

"The main thing in the Lutheran service is the sermon, and if that isn't to your taste then the church is easy to leave," he said.

Life News said that Räsänen clarified her remarks on the issue of civil disobedience in a letter to a Finnish newspaper on July 12.

"In my own case, as a doctor, I have had to consider the relationship between abortion law and my own convictions. However, one can avoid performing an abortion, and, with this the closure of a small human life, by resigning from his post," she wrote.

"Nor have I called for breaking the law, but instead sought to bring about a change in the law which would allow a conscience protection for health care professionals so that they would not be forced to abort a pregnancy."

Although she has been highly criticized, Räsänen does have her supporters. The minister said that she has received thousands of Emails in favor of her remarks.

She said that the messages expressed concern that devoted Christians who feel that there is not total freedom to practice religion in Finland can be open about their views.

Life News reported the Facebook post of Lutheran Pastor Halvar Sandell which supported Räsänen.

He wrote, "These persons felt they must quit the church, but many were members only because of social custom and had never actually encountered the Christian Gospel."

"If someone comes with the actual Christian creed," wrote Sandell, "hysteria results in some quarters. Many people put no value on clergy and church workers; but they are happy that there are so many liberal priests who think as they themselves do."

Rev. Timo Keskitalo, the pastor of the interdenominational International Evangelical Church in Helsinki, told Ecumenical News, "It upsets the other politicians and the media that there is a government minister, who is an evangelical believer."

He said Räsänen has years of experience practicing medicine and was defending the rights of Christian doctors in not performing abortions.

Now she has said publicly that a Christian cannot obey the law.

"If the law goes against the values of a Christian. She has not asked for any privileges - just stated a fact."

Keskitalo suggested that there was hypocrisy involved in the debate, noting, "The Green party has officially stated as a party line, that one cannot always obey the law."

"Now when a Christian politician states the same principle, it is found to be unacceptable."

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