July 28, 2018
Considerations about United States Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh are again generating heated pro-life/pro-choice/abortion debates.
This week, some personal thoughts about about being pro-life. Friends and associates have encouraged me to write-down my own current understandings and concerns….
The big abortion debate in the United States was launched by Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court decision issued on January 22, 1973, on the constitutionality of laws that criminalized or restricted access to abortions. The Court ruled 7–2 that a right to privacy, under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion. The Court therefore deemed abortion a fundamental right under the United States Constitution. Frantic polarization set in back then. I remember it well. I was a high school religion teacher in a Catholic school!
That Supreme Court decision opened a heated national debate; and the debate is just as heated today. A key element in that debate has been clarifying the role of religious and moral views in the political sphere. Who controls morality? Is that an appropriate role for politicians? Should the church control political decision-making and governmental legislation?
I will not pretend to resolve the issue; but I do have some carefully thought-out positions in the pro-life/pro-choice debate. Twelve reflections. I list them in no particular hierarchical order. As always, people are free to disagree; but then the conversation has to be respectful and civil. My thoughts:
(1) One must make a distinction between morality and civil law. Morality and law are not identical. Civil law is ordered to promote the common good and should not legislate all ethical acts; but only those that affect the common good. Civil law is aimed at making it possible for people to live together in community: in justice, peace, and freedom.
(2) A proper understanding of civil law recognizes that respecting the freedom of the individual person is essential; but that does not necessarily mean that one must support everything that a person does with his or her freedom. In a multicultural civil society, everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, subject only to those limitations necessary for public safety, public order, or protection of the rights and freedoms of others. A couple examples: I disagree with the racist xenophobia of an acquaintance; but he has a right to hold and express his opinion — as long as he doesn’t start shooting people at the grocery store. Same-sex marriage is now legal in all fifty US states. A person does not have to agree with it. According to civil law, however, one must respect the rights of same-sex couples to marry and not hinder them.
(3) As theologian Charles Curran once said: “We are pilgrim people living in a pluralistic and imperfect society — and in an imperfect church! In this context, considerations of the freedom of the person, the feasibility of legislation, and the reality of compromise cannot be denied.”
(4) We need to have reasoned and mutually respectful ongoing discussion about appropriate civil laws that promote the common good. We cannot, however, allow ourselves or our country to fall into the trap of having the government legislate moral behavior. That would lead to tyranny, the loss of human freedom, and the threat of inhumane demagoguery. As we see developing in Turkey and other countries today, like fundamentalist Catholic Poland. Again, separation of church (institutional religion) and state is terribly important. Everywhere.
(5) What I miss in just about all anti-abortion debates, is an informed and reasoned conversation about what abortion procedures really do. Is all abortion murder: the taking of a human life? I have known several obstetricians over the years (and some very conservative ones) who strongly say that not all abortion is murder. Some time ago, in an earnest and friendly way, I asked an archbishop, whom I know rather well, if we could discuss this. He got angry, suddenly, and yelled at me: “No! There is no discussion about that!”…. Far too often today people would rather condemn than question and seek to understand. There is so much absolute certainty based on pre-determined ideas and conformity to how the group feels.
(6) I am strongly pro-life. I generally oppose direct abortion. That being said, I can understand indirect abortion, for a proportionate reason, like saving the life of the mother. There will always be situations in which one must give the benefit of the doubt, and respect the pregnant woman’s freedom of conscience. Civil legislation must always respect and support freedom of conscience.
(7) I am strongly pro-life. Not just pro fetal life. I am amazed how many pro-life advocates and demonstrators forget about caring for people AFTER they are born. Pro-life is pro-people, regardless whether they are foreign, black, or white. Regardless whether they are refugees or stalwart citizens. Regardless whether they are gay or straight, Muslim or Christian, rich or poor, men or women. Pro-life is pro-everybody who has dignity, self-worth, and the right to life and liberty. Pro-life is much more than anti-abortion. Our current US president strongly asserts that he is anti-abortion. Many people voted him into office for that very reason. Is he in fact pro-life? So far, under the current president’s US-Mexico border “zero-tolerance” policy, 914 children have been deemed “ineligible” for reunification and 463 children’s parents deported. That makes 1377 displaced children. Lost forever? Not a question of abortion, but a major “pro-life” issue for sure.
(8) Seriously, I am not anti-Catholic; but I have long feared, especially in my Catholic tradition, that a “pro-life” emphasis, that is really just an “anti-abortion” emphasis, gives the church only a single-issue voice and ignores or downplays many other moral issues involving peace, social justice, and opposition to contemporary violence-wielding racist movements and organizations.
(9) One cannot build a genuinely pro-life ethical house if one builds only on ani-abortion sand. One must deal with ALL threats to human life and dignity: racism and discrimination, the death penalty, unjust wars, torture, poverty, health care, and immigration. All of these issues involve serious moral challenges.
(10) Some people, especially in my religious tradition, argue that since abortion is an “intrinsic moral evil,” it differs from all other issues like immigration, the death penalty, human rights, or use of nuclear weapons. Curiously, masturbation, homosexual acts, and contraceptive heterosexual acts are all, according to traditional Catholic moral teaching, intrinsic moral evils. Needless to say, there are Catholic moralists who disagree with this tradition. For today, however, “intrinsic moral evil” involves a discussion we have neither time nor space to get into…. I would suggest however that if one really wants to start making a list of “intrinsic moral evils,” clerical sexual abuse of children and teenagers belongs on top.
(11) One can be anti-abortion; but what about having some compassion, understanding, and support for women who do have abortions? That too is pastoral ministry. The teenager who got pregnant. The woman who was raped? Many other kinds of situations….Traumatic life experiences often bring women to the abortion clinic. Just as I support counseling, psychological, and physical help for women contemplating an abortion, I would also like to see counseling, psychological, and physical help for women after an abortion. I strongly disagree with the president who has said that women should be punished for having an abortion. In April 2018 a lieutenant governor candidate in Idaho even said that, once abortion were declared illegal, women who get an abortion should be punished and that the punishment should include the death penalty. Well, in that case what about the men who impregnated them?
(12) Finally but primary in importance, it is absolutely essential that people have good birth control information, good education and formation about human sexuality, and access to contraceptives. Every study indicates that abortion rates greatly diminish where birth control information and contraceptives are readily available. I find it offensive and inhumane that some governmental and ecclesiastical authorities limit the availability of condoms as protection against AIDS, because they consider birth control intrinsically immoral.