Posts Tagged abortion
Recently one of my daughters has become very enamored of a particular story in one of her books. She asks me to read it several times in a row, several times a day, ad nauseam, to the point where I just want to throw the book out the window. But I’m glad she asks me to read it so often, because on one of these endless repetitions I saw something in this little bedtime story that made me think of the times in which we live.
The story is called “The Bell of Justice,” based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It tells the tale of a village in whose square “old King John” ordered a great bell erected. Any townsperson who was wronged in any way could ring the bell to ask that justice be done, and the judge would see to it.
But, the story goes on, after many years the people of the town stopped caring about the Bell of Justice. The bell went so unused that it pull-rope rotted away. The town’s judge, who remembered and valued the bell, told a citizen to tie a forest vine to the stub that remained of the bell’s rope so that, when need arose, the bell could still be rung, even though no one had touched it or thought about it for years.
Meanwhile, the town’s knight, who was now old and gray, had stopped caring for his favorite horse, who had accompanied the knight on his adventures but was now also old. The knight saw no need to feed or care for this horse, since he no longer used the animal on a regular basis. Only on holidays or when he had occasion to go into town did the knight see a reason to feed and care for his horse.
So the horse went in search of food elsewhere and ended up wandering into the center of the town. When the horse saw the vine hanging from the Bell of Justice, he made for it right away, and as he pulled on the vine trying to detach it from the bell’s rope, the bell began to ring.
The townspeople, unused to hearing the bell, ran to the square to see what was causing it to ring. The judge, of course, also came. All were treated to the sight of a thin, sickly horse munching on the vine that had become the bell’s pull-rope.
The judge, recognizing the horse, immediately ordered that the knight care for the animal’s old age, since the horse had served him so faithfully many years ago. After this, the townspeople always remembered the Bell of Justice.
Seems like a fun little bedtime story, one that has a “surprise factor” of a horse having no idea what he’s really doing by pulling on that vine, seeking justice for himself while being unaware of the real implications of his actions. But there’s more to it.
In 2008, 64 year-old Barbara Wagner, a woman living in Oregon (the state to which Brittany Maynard moved in order to be able to legally end her life due to a diagnosis of brain cancer) experienced a recurrence of cancer, and was told that certain medications would ease her pain and help her to live with a decent quality of life until death came to her on its own. But when she tried to fill the prescription for these palliative medications, she was told that her insurance company would not cover their cost.
The company would, however, cover physician-assisted suicide.
Mrs. Wagner didn’t take that option. She died about a year later, in 2009.
A similar case arose in 2008 with an Oregonian and cancer victim named Randy Stroup. In his case, the Oregon state health plan did end up paying for his palliative care.
While the increasing acceptance of physician-assisted suicide – I refuse to call it “euthanasia,” a word that means “good death” – may appear to be a sign of increasing tolerance, compassion, and worship of choice, it is a sign of the increasing devaluing of human life. It tells us that human life has value only as far as it is serviceable.
Overnight, we as a society have accepted blindly the concept that human beings possess a utilitarian dignity – a dignity that comes not from a person’s nature as a human being, but from their usefulness, their ability to produce. Barbara Wagner, an aging, dying, retired school-bus driver, had according to this view nothing more to contribute. She was no longer needed. Why shell out cash to prolong the life of a person who can no longer produce? Barbara Wagner’s life was accordingly reduced to its value in money and efficiency.
Barbara Wagner’s plain, wrinkled face and age-weighted body escaped the notice of most. More recently, Brittany Maynard, twenty-nine, married, and stunning, captured the attention and compassion of the world when she teamed with Compassion and Choices (formerly The Hemlock Society) to advocate for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide in every state. Maynard was diagnosed with a hideous, aggressive brain cancer that would have eventually subjected her to excruciating physical agony and robbed her of her personality, her sanity, and her very life. She determined to end her life before those symptoms began to arise, and to become the spokesperson for the social and legal normalization of physician-assisted suicide.
There is no question that Maynard’s position was a bleak one. I’m just sad that she thought suicide was her only option.
We have arrived at a point, as a society, where we cannot see any value in suffering. We have lost the ability to see that age, illness, and horrible circumstances can indeed possess purpose.
Where do we draw the line? When do we cross over from saying that it’s okay for a person to end his life for physical terminal illness but not for depression? When does the creep begin from suicide for cancer to suicide for a bad marriage, or job loss, or any other emotional or mental anguish that makes life too hard to bear?
Why bother telling our young people to seek help for suicidal thoughts, tendencies, or attempts because their lives have value and meaning? Why bother telling people who suffer from anxiety and depression to seek counseling and medication? Why seek options for the homeless?
Indeed, why not terminate disabled children in the womb – or beyond?
Yes, Brittany Maynard had her entire life ahead of her – but the time would soon come when she would no longer be able to produce. Her usefulness to the society would be gone. I wonder if, deep down, that was the reason for the overwhelming acceptance of her choice: the tragic inevitability of her loss of usefulness. And so the outlook that defines human value as an ability to contribute to the GNP agrees that she should be able to end her life in order to allow the wheels of production to continue churning through the sewage of utility.
Like the horse in that simple bedtime story, the aged, the terminally ill, the disabled are being shunted away for their lack of utility. Like the knight, we have come to see no reason to care for anyone or anything that can no longer serve our needs or wants. Like the knight, who could not see the value of the horse as a creature simply because it was a creature, simply because it possessed the sacred breath of life, we have lost the ability to cherish life for its own sake. Like the knight, who remembered and appreciated the service his horse had rendered him in years past but has ceased to care for the animal because the animal can no longer provide that service, we honor the past contributions of human beings but define their dignity by those contributions, ceasing to assign that dignity when those contributions have come to an end – when a person becomes an inconvenience.
A major part of this tragedy is that those who suffer terminal illnesses themselves believe the lie that their lives’ value has ended when their suffering begins. They have come to accept that their usefulness has come to an end because of their suffering, and that the right choice is to end their lives. They have come to believe what our culture has begun to tell them – that they are mere things instruments, tools of utility.
Where is the judge in that bedtime story – the one who will make us see the value and dignity in that old, broken-down, sickly, precious life?
 In Jennifer Boudart et. al., Bedtime Stories: Lights & Music Treasury (Lincolnwood, IL: Publications International, 2009), 34-47.
 See the following: Susan Harding et. al., “Health Plan Covers Assisted Suicide but Not New Cancer Treatment.” KVAL.com (7/31/2008, updated 10/30/2013), http://www.kval.com/news/26140519.html (accessed 11/30/2014); Susan Donaldson James et. al., “Death Drugs Cause Uproar in Oregon.” ABCNews (8/6/2008), http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=5517492&page=1 (accessed 11/30/2014); Dr. Mark Mostert, “Barbara Wagner Faces Official Darkness in Oregon.” Disability Matters (7/8/2008), http://disabilitymatters.blogspot.com/2008/07/barbara-wagner-faces-official-darkness.html (accessed 11/30/2014); Kenneth R. Stevens, Jr., M.D., “Oregon Rationing Cancer Treatment but Offering Assisted Suicide to Cancer Patients: Paying to Die but not to Live.” Physicians for Compassionate Care (6/6/2008), http://www.pccef.org/articles/art67.htm (accessed 11/30/2014).
 See e.g. Dan Springer, “Oregon Offers Terminal Patients Doctor-Assisted Suicide Instead of Medical Care.” FOX News (7/28/2008), http://www.foxnews.com/story/2008/07/28/oregon-offers-terminal-patients-doctor-assisted-suicide-instead-medical-care/ (accessed 11/30/2014).
You had to know it was coming: a backlash against the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby that effectively protected the right of employers to live according to their conscience beyond the walls of their chosen place of worship. Recently, congressional Democrats have introduced a bill that would, if passed into law (and it probably will be, by the executive fiat of President Obama’s weighty pen), inaugurate a law separating business practices from personal convictions. Dubbed the “Not My Boss’s Business!” Act, the bill S-2575 was defeated in the Senate on July 16.
Essentially, the proposed bill aimed to create separate spaces for public life and free exercise of religion – the exact thing our nation’s Bill of Rights was intended to prevent.
But let’s take a look at the logic (or lack thereof) of the proposed “Not My Boss’s Business!” Act (henceforth NMBBA). In the first place, its very creation was a waste of time that could be better spent dealing with other major issues our nation is currently facing. (By the way, there’s a big problem at our southern border at this very moment. Maybe someone should go and check it out.) The highest court in the land has just ruled in favor of free exercise by determining that it is unconstitutional to force anyone – business owner or not – to act in a manner contrary to his or her deeply held moral convictions. The same court would strike down the NMBBA on this precedent the instant a suit was brought against it.
So I can’t help but think that the very effort to introduce this kind of legislation is nothing more than a massive temper tantrum pitched by sore losers who refuse to pack up their toys and go home.
Secondly, the concept lacks basic rational thought. (How naïve of me to expect rational thought from our nation’s leaders.) When a person’s employer facilitates the employee’s lifestyle – directly or indirectly – by providing, or consenting to provide, products and services that make it possible for the employee to engage in that lifestyle, it becomes the employer’s business. The employee is demanding that the employer get involved in his or her business.
Essentially, the employee is saying this: “I want you, my boss, to make these products/services accessible because it’s none of your business.”
It’s as if a friend were to say to me: “I want you to lend me the big shovel you keep in your shed.”
I ask “Why? What are you going to use it for?”
“None of your business,” my friend replies.
Oh yes it is. It’s my shovel and my friend is asking to make use of my property. It most certainly is my business.
Then my hypothetical friend asks, “Well, can you at least direct me to a store where I can buy one?”
“Not unless you tell me what you want it for,” I respond.
Then my friend will haul me into court for denying his right to make of my property whatever use he chooses, and for refusing to provide him with alternative means when I have no idea what the end result will be.
A similar argument has been heard in recent years regarding locker inspection in public schools. Opponents of locker inspections, random or otherwise, argue that the school/state has no right to invade students’ property. But it’s not the students’ property at all – it’s the property of the school/state, which is providing the use of the lockers to the students on loan. The school/state therefore has the right to inspect its own property whenever it wants, to ensure that appropriate use is being made of that property.
Now, the counter-argument in favor of NMBBA might run something like this: “If we’re going to talk property rights, then my body is my own property and my employer has no right to interfere with anything I choose to do with it. My body and my life are not the property of my boss.”
Fair enough. Let’s talk about that.
Catholics and evangelical Christians believe that the human body was created by God – we did not create ourselves. Accordingly, men and women owe a return to their Creator for their lives. Essentially, Catholic doctrine holds that we must live in a manner consistent with the designer’s will, which can be discerned through our created nature. Anything that works in opposition to that created nature must not be embraced or encouraged.
A student in one of the high-school ethics courses I taught once asked why the church cares about gay marriage. “Seriously,” she said through her laughter, “why do they care?” She wanted to know why the Catholic Church in particular would take a public stand against something non-Catholics might do. Implicit in her question was a genuine confusion as to why the church wouldn’t just enforce certain behaviors among its own members. Why try to force atheists or Buddhists or pagans or whoever to play by your rules?
Great question. The answer has to do with concepts of human dignity and community. The church has always held that no action is truly private – every decision a person makes affects someone else, perhaps many others. The reason why my private behaviors don’t solely affect me is because I am not an island unto myself – I am a member of the human race living in community. If my private behaviors cause a mental, emotional, or spiritual cancer within myself, then because I am a member of a body, that cancer can’t help but spread. The church has long used the body metaphor, expressed so marvelously by the apostle Paul, to illustrate not only the church as body of Christ but humanity as body, with all members symbiotically connected to one another. If my hand is injured and I can’t use it for a while, it alters the behaviors of my whole body. If I have a headache, my feet can’t just decide to go off on their own and do whatever they please. They’re going to be flat on the sofa because the condition of my head demands it.
Whenever a single person makes a decision to use his or her body for self-oriented gratification, without concern for the ramifications of anyone else’s well-being, the whole body of the human race suffers. This is where our rampant, unbridled individualism is leading us – down a blissful garden path of destruction.
The body image applies to the whole human race because we are all made according to the same nature, the same design. Regardless of religious belief, or the lack thereof, the same rules apply across the board because of that shared nature and the laws of creation according to which the great Designer made us.
So according to church doctrine, it is my business when two men decide to marry each other, or when a woman decides to end the life in her womb, or when my employee wants me to ensure that she is provided with the means to contravene the natural law. It’s everyone’s business – even if not a single one of these people is Catholic or evangelical.
Not my boss’s business? Of course it is. It’s his or her business if you’re asking him or her to facilitate your lifestyle. It’s the business of the whole human race if you’re acting contrary to the natural law.
But then we arrive at Counter-argument #2: “Even if you are allowed to exercise your faith publicly, you are not allowed to discriminate against anyone.” As a Facebook friend of mine put it: “Your rights end where my freedom begins.”
There is so much to say about this, it’s tough to decide where to begin. Firstly, this attitude displays the current cultural definition of freedom: “I’m free to do whatever I want.” Catholic doctrine, however, argues that freedom includes behaving responsibly, both according to our created natures (obligation towards God) and according to the effect our actions will have on others (obligation towards the community of which each individual forms a part). Are we free to commit lawlessness, or are we free to live an authentically human life?
So many people are convinced that living an authentically human life means doing whatever they want. But if we are free to act, we are also free to refrain. St. Paul writes that we must willingly limit our freedom – and our rights – in order to serve the body.
For example: I go out to dinner with a group of friends. I want to order a glass of wine with my dinner. One of my friends in the group is a recovering alcoholic.
Do I have the right to order and consume that glass of wine? Sure. Am I free to do so? Of course. But a choice lies before me: Do I say to myself “I’m free to do whatever I want,” or do I refrain from ordering the wine – essentially surrendering my right and freedom to do so – so that I will not cause distress (and temptation) to my friend?
Secondly, we should define “discrimination.” If I’m an employer who refuses to sign on to an insurance plan that covers contraception and abortifacient drugs, am I discriminating against my employee?
Two examples will illustrate the answer. Say for instance that I own a small business and you, as one of my employees, come to me and say that you need an operation for a brain tumor. Is it covered?
“Yes,” I respond.
“I also broke my leg. Is that covered too?”
“What about overnight observation for chest pain?”
Now, I’ve clearly not discriminated against you, as a person, in the past. I have provided insurance coverage for essential medical services. It was only when you arrived at a service/product with which my informed conscience genuinely takes issue that I refused. Therefore, it’s clearly the service/product against which I discriminate, not you.
And while we’re at it, we may as well have a serious discussion about whether it is “essential” for you to engage in a lifestyle that includes such products/services. Is it necessary for your continued health of mind and body that you engage in this lifestyle?
If you are a heavy smoker, would it be essential for me to provide all or a portion of your tobacco expenses? While initially this may look like an “apples/oranges” argument, it’s a valid comparison for people of certain faith convictions. A sexually promiscuous lifestyle is defined as equally dangerous – to both body and spirit – by many faith traditions.
Another example: Say for instance that “Bob,” a devout Catholic, is a florist and “Mike,” a gay man, comes into Bob’s shop to buy flowers for a graduation. Bob knows that Mike is gay.
“Sure,” says Bob.
The following week, Mike comes in to purchase a bouquet for a hospitalized friend or loved one. Again, Bob says “Sure.”
Mike then wishes to order a birthday arrangement. “Of course,” Bob says.
Mike then comes in to buy an arrangement for his wedding to his male partner, and at that point Bob refuses.
It would be difficult to argue that Bob is discriminating against Mike as a gay person. If that were the case, Bob would have refused to serve Mike when the latter first entered the shop. But that is not the case. Bob has done business with Mike the entire time, ceasing to do so only when Mike requested that Bob facilitate an event that Bob does not wish to support because said event is contrary to his conscience.
The scary thing about all of this is that this conversation is not even allowed in the public square without accusations that those who dissent from the prevailing cultural paradigm are “haters” and should accordingly be automatically dismissed, if not altogether silenced by punitive measures such as hate-speech legislation. When we begin to characterize opposing views as hate speech, debate and discourse come to an end before they even have a chance to begin.
 I’m not the only one who’s noticed this contradiction. See e.g. http://michellemalkin.com/2014/03/25/contradict-a-palooza-not-my-bosss-business-goal-to-make-it-every-bosss-business/ (accessed 7/17/14).
 E.g. Romans 14:1-15; Galatians 5:13; 1 Corinthians 12-13.
“Get Involved: Not My Boss’s Business!” NARAL Pro-Choice America, 2014. http://www.prochoiceamerica.org/get-involved/actions/325-rally-banner.html?autologin=true (accessed 7/17/14).
“Dems Strike Back on Hobby Lobby Case with ‘Not My Boss’s Business’ Act.” ABC News, 7/9/2014, http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/politics/2014/07/dems-strike-back-on-hobby-lobby-case-with-not-my-bosss-business-act/ (accessed 7/17/14).
“‘More Respect for Religious Freedom’ Needed After Failed Senate Vote to Curtail It.” U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, 7/16/2014. http://www.usccb.org/news/2014/14-124.cfm (accessed 7/17/14).
Paul Singer and Valerie Dekimpe, “Senate GOP blocks bill to overturn Hobby Lobby ruling.” USA Today, 7/16/14. http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2014/07/16/senate-hobby-lobby-contraception-ruling/12738193/ (accessed 7/17/14).
Among the many arguments on both sides of the abortion debate in our culture today are positions based on religious belief. There are both pro-abortion and pro-life arguments from people of faith, each side claiming support for its respective argument from the standpoint of its own convictions.
I’m sure some of you are already wondering why I chose the phrase “pro-abortion” instead of the words preferred by those who support abortion rights: “pro-choice.” This will (I hope) become clear by the end of this post.
Folks of a religious persuasion who argue in favor of “a woman’s right to choose” abortion (the scare quotes here are not intended as sarcasm; I am quoting a phrase used by abortion rights supporters themselves) typically stand on an ideal of love. For these well-intentioned people of faith, compassion demands that a woman who finds herself in a circumstance she does not want, or who has been victimized through the crimes of rape or incest, must be allowed to terminate her pregnancy in order to also terminate the effects of an undesired situation. For Christians, the attitude is usually this (or something similar): “Jesus told us to love everyone. In order to love a woman who is pregnant and doesn’t want to be, we must support her in having an abortion.” Frequently, this reasoning will also be applied to the child in question: “The child is going to suffer/be abused/live in poverty/have a disease, so we love the child by not allowing it to come into such a dreadful existence.”
The last argument raises some troubling questions. All of us suffer, to a greater or lesser degree. I’ve gone through some truly dreadful personal emotional suffering in my life, and I’d still rather be here than not. If future suffering were a legitimate reason for ending life, not a single human being on the planet would exist. Might as well just wipe out the whole human race right now. As my Irish mother always says, “No one has a crystal ball” – it’s not up to me to decide that another person shouldn’t live because they might or will suffer. Who decides what kind, or how much, justifies death? Who has the powers of foresight to determine whether suffering might fashion someone’s character into just the kind of person the world needs? Go through the list of great achievements in medicine and civil rights, pore over the great literature and theatre of the ages, look at the lives of the great composers, and you’ll find that most of these people and the causes they championed were shaped by suffering.
So I’m not convinced by the “children who will suffer should be aborted” argument. Are we called to alleviate suffering? Yes – the motivation we experience to do something about suffering when we witness it speaks to an innate drive towards caring for the weak, “programmed” into human nature by the natural law. But it’s worth asking why we choose to alleviate the actual suffering of children and adults by giving them medical care while we choose to alleviate the potential suffering of children still in the womb by ending their lives.
The very word “choice” speaks to another concern of well-intentioned abortion supporters: the concern to safeguard human and civil rights. The legal and ethical right to abortion has become the litmus test for democracy in the western world.
Among Christians there is also another argument: “The Bible doesn’t say anything about abortion. Where scripture is silent, we have freedom.” This idea has been highly visible in the recent controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood’s pastoral letter stating that the Bible says nothing about abortion.
First, I would like to recall St. Paul’s words regarding freedom: “For you were called for freedom…But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh [“flesh” here referring to the capacity of human nature to commit sin]; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Gal. 5:13). Freedom has its limits, Paul tells us: freedom is limited by love – not love of self, but love of the other.
This brings us back to the compassion argument. “Yes indeed,” pro-abortion Christians might argue: “we are serving women through love by making it possible for them to abort unwanted pregnancies, so they don’t have to live a life they don’t want. We are loving children by preventing them from coming into abusive/impoverished/unhealthy situations.”
So how are we to define love? By ending the lives of others in an effort to “get rid of the problem” (and the defining of a human being as a “problem” leads into an entirely different argument), or by giving our own lives to the service of women considering abortion and to their children, by actively meeting them in their suffering and trying to work towards solutions that can assist them in leading meaningful lives according to their state in life and the capabilities they possess?
But what about the Bible argument? Is scripture really silent on abortion?
Frequently, the commandment “You are not to commit murder” (Ex. 20:13; Dt. 5:17) is cited by pro-life Christians; but this only adds yet another spiral to the circle of argument: whether or not abortion is actual murder. But there is another passage that, while not directly and explicitly mentioning the abortion procedure, speaks to the personhood of life in the womb. That passage is found in Luke 1:39-43.
The passage reads as follows:
“During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, ‘Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
The background is this: Both women are pregnant, Elizabeth about six months and Mary approximately one week. Prior to this scene, in Lk. 1:26-38, the angel Gabriel had informed Mary that she would become the mother of the Messiah, whom she would name Jesus. When Mary inquired how this was to take place, seeing that she was a virgin, Gabriel told her that nothing would be impossible for God, and gave her the sign that her relative Elizabeth, who was childless and had long been beyond childbearing age, was in fact six months into her own pregnancy. Elizabeth’s child will grow up to become John the Baptist, the prophet who announces the coming of the Messiah and prepares the faithful for his arrival by practicing “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 1:57-80; 3:1-22). Later, as a grown man, John also baptizes Jesus himself (Lk. 3:21-22).
As an expression of her trust in Gabriel’s words, Mary travels from Nazareth to Elizabeth’s home in Judea, presumably anticipating that her kinswoman will need help when her boy is born. When Mary calls out “Shalom!” to Elizabeth, the six-month-old fetus in Elizabeth’s womb hears Mary’s voice and “leaps for joy” because the pre-born John the Baptist recognizes Mary as bearing the presence of the One whose way he is to prepare. While John has been growing in utero for six months, Jesus is only an embryo not even two weeks into development. So the question arises: How could John recognize the presence of Jesus if there is no “Jesus” as such – if “Jesus” would only begin to exist as a human person at birth, or at earliest, at five or six months of development?
Assuming that Mary made the trip from Nazareth to Judea in a caravan – the most likely scenario, since the company of others would have provided a measure of safety when traversing long distances on dangerous roads – it would have taken her about a week, give or take a couple of days, to make the journey. If she left Nazareth the day after Gabriel’s appearance and her agreement to become the mother of the Messiah – which marked the moment of Jesus’ conception – then by the time Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s house the embryonic Jesus would have just entered the embryo stage of development, and at this point looking more like some bizarre alien than a human baby – a “bundle of tissue” so quickly dismissed in certain ideologies as non-human (or pre-human) and acceptable for discarding through being unwanted or as material for scientific manipulation. The developing embryo in Mary’s womb would not even have had a heartbeat when John the Baptist recognized his presence as the person who was Jesus the Messiah. Yet in the presence of this still-dividing mass of human cells, John leaped in his mother’s womb.
John’s mother Elizabeth also testifies to the personhood of Jesus when she asks why she is so honored to be visited by “the mother of my Lord.” Taking her cue from the child within her, and “filled with the holy Spirit,” Elizabeth understands that the week-old life form in Mary’s womb is her Lord.
So while this passage in Luke doesn’t refer to the specifics of abortion, it certainly suggests that not only life, not only humanity, but personal identity exists as early as a week after conception.
Is scripture silent on abortion? Do Christians have the freedom, based on scripture’s silence, to support arguments that embryos are not human persons? Not according to the Gospel of Luke. Not according to the Second Joyful Mystery of the Rosary upon which Catholics pray and meditate.
I used to be in favor of abortion rights. When I was in college, I was fiercely “pro-choice.” My position was that anyone in their right mind was in favor of abortion rights. At one point during this time, I was contemplating whether I should remain in the Catholic Church or “cross the Thames” and become an Episcopalian. As part of that discernment, I approached a Catholic priest and shared my misgivings about Catholic doctrine.
“I just have some serious problems with the Catholic Church,” I told him.
“Like what?” he asked.
“Well,” said I as I mounted my soapbox. “Like the abortion issue, for example. I just think that a woman has the right to do whatever she wants with her own body.”
“You’re right,” the priest said.
I don’t think there are many times in a person’s life when he or she can truly say that a single statement literally changed his or her entire life; but that is exactly what happened to me when the good father continued with this sentence:
“But in the case of abortion, it’s not the woman’s body that’s in question. It’s an entirely different body altogether.”
My world was rocked. I needed no further arguments or evidence, because what he said made such perfect sense. I became pro-life in that very moment and I’ve been pro-life ever since, with no interruptions. I walked away from that little chapel in Boston seeing clearly, for the first time, that an abortion was not equivalent to a nose job, or breast implants, or Botox treatments. There are two lives involved, I now knew – and both had to be cared for. Loving the mother, I came to realize, was not exclusive of terminating the child.
What about cases of rape and incest? Many pro-life folks believe that while “abortion on demand” is unconscionable, an exception should be made in such cases. The teaching of the Catholic Church, though, clearly holds that even when pregnancy results from such horrible moral crimes, the life of the child in utero should not be terminated.
This sounds like cruel and unusual punishment, doesn’t it? To force a woman to live with the constant reminder of horrific violations appears tantamount to emotional and mental torture (and indeed, the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture recently called the Catholic pro-life doctrine exactly that). How can the Catholic Church subject a victimized woman to such prolonged suffering?
The Church’s argument runs along these lines:
1. Rape and incest are grave moral evils.
2. When a pregnancy occurs as the result of the grave moral evils of rape or incest, the life of the child must be protected.
3. The life of the child must be protected because it is innocent of the crimes inflicted upon its mother.
4. To end the life of an innocent as the result of another individual’s crime is also a grave moral evil. Therefore, abortion after rape or incest adds evil upon evil.
Essentially, the termination of embryonic or fetal life for the reason that the life was the result of rape or incest only adds to the initial evil of the rape or incest. You can’t erase one evil by committing another evil. Terminating a pregnancy that results from rape or incest does not make the violation go away. It does not erase the memory of the violation. It only piles death upon death.
Perhaps a visual aid will help:
|Rape/Incest||Terminating the pregnancy||Allowing the child to be born|
|Spiritual death||Woman’s body becomes a grave||Woman’s body brings forth something good in place of the evil she suffered|
|Shame/guilt||Shame/guilt||Resurrection, life in place of death|
|Loss of control over one’s own person; a feeling that personhood is erased||Void, no opportunity for anything new; erasure of the child’s personhood||New beginning/new opportunity to regain integrity of personhood for both mother and child|
|Injustice against the innocent woman||Injustice: death sentence on an innocent human life for someone else’s crime||Justice in allowing the innocent child to reach his or her full human potential|
|Does not make the crime go away||Possibility of healing and hope|
If we block off the right hand column, “Allowing the child to be born,” all that remains are the left-most and middle columns. Terminating a pregnancy that results from rape or incest leaves only death, with no opportunity to turn darkness to light, no chance to take control and fashion life from death. Only death and injustice remain.
People of faith who maintain that a woman must endure nine months of a rape- or incest-induced pregnancy believe, in a sense of genuine compassion for the victim of such a vile crime against her person, that refusing access to abortion condemns the woman to prolonged emotional and mental torment. But I’m not so sure that cutting off any possibility of bringing life out of death wouldn’t be a greater torment in the end.
I think the bottom line is that we need to care for both mother and child – the victim of rape or incest must be treated with extra-special attentiveness to her situation. She must be counseled regularly and given every help necessary to understand that the child is innocent of the crime perpetrated against her, and therefore to condemn the child to death would be a grave injustice against an innocent life. Just as evil does not erase evil, one injustice does not erase another injustice.
All of this is based on the concept that human embryos and fetuses possess personhood and thereby possess human dignity. For a Christian who wonders whether the Bible has anything to say on the subject, the human identity and dignity of the child in utero can be found in Luke 1:39-43.
For Further Reading:
Bauer, Patricia E. “The Abortion Debate No One Wants to Have.” The Washington Post, 10/18/05. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/10/17/AR2005101701311.html (accessed 629/14).
Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011, paragraphs 2270-2275 and 2318-2323. Available online at http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/epub/index.cfm (accessed 6/29/14).
Myers, Juda. “Conceived in Rape Silent No More.” Choices 4Life.org, 11/15/2013. http://choices4life.org/conceived-in-rape-silent-no-more/ (accessed 6/29/14).
“Silent No More Awareness.” http://silentnomoreawareness.org/ (accessed 6/29/14).
 See e.g. “NARAL: Pro-Choice America,” naral.org (accessed 6/29/14).
 See e.g. Dias, Elizabeth, “Christian Right Attacks Planned Parenthood for Praying.” Time, 6/9/2014, http://time.com/2849281/planned-parenthood-christian-right-tony-perkins/ (accessed 6/29/14). Planned Parenthood has since removed the Bible reference from the internet, perhaps due to the backlash the organization’s pastoral letter caused.
 This and all following Bible quotations are taken from the New American Bible.
 I’ve read various estimates of how long this first-century journey would have taken; most are in agreement on a range between eight and ten days. One factor is whether Mary’s group would have chosen to take the short route through Samaria, as Galileans traveling to Judea (and Judeans traveling to Galilee) would not have been caught dead setting foot on Samaritan soil, due to an ages-old hostility between the two peoples. Accordingly, travelers would have journeyed around Samaria instead of through it. This of course would have made the trip longer by a few days. Still, even if Mary had taken the long route around Samaria, Jesus would still have been an early embryo when Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s home in Judea.
 See e.g. NYer, “Vatican Blasts UN After It Calls Catholic Church’s Pro-Life Teachings ‘Promoting Torture’,” http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/3153390/posts, 5/7/14 (accessed 6/29/14).