By Paula Ruddy
It is past time for the U. S. Catholic Bishops to imagine better strategies in their efforts against abortion. First, cease the “non-negotiable” language. No one is negotiating. Rather, we could be trying to reason together compassionately as humans are capable of doing.
I am “against” abortion. Aren’t we all “against” it just as we are against war and poverty and all extinction of human life and dignity? It is more complicated than being “for” or “against.” The question of whether or not to have an abortion, like all moral questions, presents in the context of human suffering. The pregnant woman perceives herself to be in a problematic situation. She is deciding how to solve the problem.
It is hard for me to imagine circumstances in which having an abortion is a good moral solution to the problem. The potential in that infinitesimal joining of genetic material called conception is undeniable. The science about fetal material and all the logical distinctions that can be made do not seem to have persuaded a large number of people. The embryo is, or will become, a human being. What other moral goods justify extinguishing that potential?
I am not saying there aren’t any overriding goods; I am only saying it is a life and death choice, a serious one. In our society, we presume that adults are free to make a choice about any particular act, according to their own consciences, unless the people have specified a law against it. For abortion, this freedom of choice holds good for the first trimester. Some states have laws restricting the freedom at varying stages of pregnancy.
Some women presumably have made moral choices to abort. At the same time, is there any doubt that the 45 million decisions to abort by U.S. women between 1973 and 2005 (that is the statistic I read on the Guttmacher Institute website) were not all well-considered moral decisions? We are a society of people in a stage of cultural evolution that is not the highest on a scale of moral reasoning, compassion, or know-how in the equitable distribution of the world’s resources, natural or human made. The question of abortion is tied to poverty and a lack of a sense of self-worth and life-management skills. Our social institutional arrangements for the well-being and human development of all are not working well. Everyone reading this knows this.
Isn’t this the place for the U.S. Catholic Bishops, with all of us in support of them, to get to work? We have to develop our own capacities for moral reasoning and compassion in the process of communicating with our culture. The bishops, if they wanted to, could concentrate on this. Preaching and pastoral letters don’t work. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, management experts, mothers and fathers in families know how individual and cultural growth happens. The key is communication. Learning that might be the first step for the bishops. This is one enormous area for conversation.
I want to float an idea for why the legal system is not the way to deal with the problem of abortion. It is a cultural and moral problem for which the legal system is not adequate.
In criminal law, the state takes up the cause of an injured citizen to prosecute the perpetrator of the injury. The people of the society have said through their representative law-makers that some injuries affect the common good in such a way that the state should step in and protect the physical safety and property of its citizens. It is the state protecting one citizen from the intrusion of another citizen on his or her well-being.
Let’s say that we acknowledged the rights of personhood and citizenship to a fetus. The state is now faced with the obligation to protect the rights of both the woman and the fetus. When one citizen is inside the other, totally dependent for life sustenance on the other, and the other is unwilling to bear that burden, which citizen should the state side with? Can the state protect the rights of one of the citizens without violating the rights of the other?
Or because she conceived, does the woman forfeit her right to protection from the state on this issue? In that view she can be forced by law to bear the child because the child is innocent and the woman was negligent in conceiving. The only guarantee for not conceiving is for women of child-bearing age and capacity who do not want to become pregnant to stop having sex. There is such a thing as criminal negligence recognized by states. To defend against criminal negligence, the woman might have to prove she used anti-conception methods. If she can’t, she will be forced to bear the unwanted child. Is that a social arrangement for the well-being and human development of all?
Short of working for re-criminalization of abortion, the U.S. Catholic bishops are concentrating on convincing lawmakers to make abortion difficult and expensive to obtain. That might cut down on the number of abortions among low income women, but is it a strategy to develop the capacity for moral reasoning and compassion in our society? Does it demonstrate moral reasoning and compassion on the part of the bishops?
I suggest we take a lesson from King Solomon. There are some human situations that the law is inadequate to solve. We have to develop a new strategy to tackle the problem from another angle. We have to start reasoning compassionately together about moral issues and we have to call upon the bishops to lead the way.
Can we talk about this? Let us know what you think by commenting below.