Tuesday, December 8, 2009

More on Abortion: A Plea for Conversation

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.


  1. Paula, it might be in the best interests of women to reframe the debate. Choices to abort are not made based on the nine months of pregnancy but on the years post birth. A mothers' real job begins at birth not conception.

    As long as we allow the conversation to ignore the post birth years we allow men to ignore their own place in the abortion equation. It's much cheaper for a man to help pay for an abortion than it is to help raise a child and that might be the big elephant in the room.

  2. Thanks for commenting. Let's see if I understand your point: Are you saying that the moral question includes the willingness of both the mother and the father to be responsible for the care of the child until he/she becomes an adult? If they do not want that responsibility, there are other options besides abortion. Do you think that a woman or a man who recognize their own inability to be mother or father to a child can make the moral choice to place the child for adoption? I'd like to know if I understood you.

  3. Adoption would be one answer, but my main point is that the social safety net which pro lifers tend to disparage is the only option that deals with the facts of the child after birth.

    I don't think one can ethically separate the fetus from the child when one talks about abortion, because the real challenge comes after birth. The abortion debate as it's currently constituted,makes the fetus more important, in a moral sense, than the born child.

    I'm saying that as long as the moral question revovles around the nine months of pregancy it's easier to focus on the woman than the man. The current framing of the debate also seems to imply that all women are fit mothers, which is a fallacy almost as big as leaving the male out of the equation.

    Criminalizing abortion addresses none of the issues which face parents after birth when raising that child ceases to be a potential and becomes a reality. Is it really moral for society to force life on a fetus if society won't or can't guarantee it's parents can feed, clothe, or shelter that child?

    As far as Catholic morality, I would be far more inclined to buy the pro life position except for the fact it also teaches birth control is an almost equivalent evil. This effectively leaves abstinence as the only moral choice. Abstinence may be moral, but it is also counter cultural in too many cultlures in which males have socially engrained sexual rights.

    Reproductive choice for women can not be subsumed by the reproductive rights of men because in the end it's the child who pays the price. I believe birth control is another legitimate alternative to abortion.

  4. Paula,
    Thank you for the post. I believe you do make some good points, and it is always helpful for one to re-examine an approach, so as to find the most effective one. If there is one comment that I may offer to your essay, it is this:
    Yes, the state can protect the rights of one of the citizens without violating the rights of the other. I say yes, because a citizen's rights go only so far as they do not violate the rights of another. There are many examples to support this, which I would be happy to elaborate on if you wish.
    Now, if I may, I would like to comment on "colkoch's" earliest comment. Among the many other misgivings that are presented in the comment, I would like to focus on one: "Criminalizing abortion addresses none of the issues which face parents after birth when raising that child ceases to be a potential and becomes a reality."
    The reason why the pro-life movement focuses on the child before it is born, is because the child has the same rights you and I do, after it is born. You are absolutely correct in sensing the inconsistency that once a fetus is born, it is now a human with rights. There is no difference in matter or spirit from a moment before birth to a moment after, other than it now presumably can sustain its own life (with the assistance of the parents of course).
    Child endangerment laws and other similar laws are in place for every baby as soon as it is born. Until that moment, however, the right to live is willed to the discretion of the mother. This is indeed inconsistent. That is why we must fight so hard to protect unborn children from this danger.
    You are absolutely correct, moreover, that the father should be taking a stronger role in protecting and caring for the unborn child. This fact is a sad reflection of the degeneration of fatherhood that our culture is experiencing. Perhaps society should take a stronger role in ensuring the welfare of the child once it is born, so that it does not become neglected.
    Thank you.

  5. Thanks, Tom. Your answer to the question: Can the state protect the rights of one citizen without violating the rights of the other when one is inside the other? "I say yes, because a citizen's rights go only so far as they do not violate the rights of another."
    Which of the citizens, the mother or the fetus, is violating the rights of the other? Couldn't this argument work either way?

  6. I see your point Paula, but only in the circumstance that the life of the child impinges upon the life of the mother. Remember, the right to life is the first and most basic right. If we are not allowed to live, there is no point in talking about rights at all. We cannot compare the right to live (of the child) against the rights to pursue happiness (of the mother).
    Now, in an occasion such as a certian form of cancer, the birth of a child could result in the death of the mother. Here, it could be argued that the rights of the baby is violating the rights of the mother, and thus seems like a plausible case for the abortion of the baby. However, it must also be remembered that one must never intentionally will or carry out the murder of an innocent human being. True, the life of the child may be threatening the life of the mother, but that is certainly not intended. As soon as the mother makes the decision to terminite the life of the child for protection of her own life, we are faced with a completely different moral choice. A hard one, to be certain, and one filled with many factors.

  7. Thanks, Tom. Are you saying that the law should recognize a right to life in a fetus? I was trying to say that legal "rights" categories do not work in the situation of an unwanted pregnancy. If it were recognized, in the scenario you describe you say the embryo's right to life trumps the mother's right to happiness. But is it meaningful to speak of an embryo's "right to life" when it is entirely dependent on the body of the mother to keep it alive, healthy, and developing its human capacities? There is a human good involved, to be sure, and a moral agent will be responding to the human good involved, but should the law recognize a "right" to life in such a dependent being? When a child is born and has life independent of the mother's body, then the state is in a position to protect the rights of both. In what other situations does the law recognize a "right" to a good that is entirely dependent on an unwilling person to sustain?

  8. I appreciate your ongoing discussion, Paula, and thank you for the insightful questions.
    At this point, it seems we both have established that the fetus does in fact have a right to live. Why should the state (nation) recognize this as law? You point out that perhaps it should not, because there is a possibility that the mother is an unwilling person in sustaining the completely depended human life. Thus, the question becomes, does such a degree of dependency mitigate the right to life?
    To answer this, we have to look at what is constitutes an "undue burden" upon the depended.
    I don't think that one could establish that a baby is an undue burden upon the mother in almost all cases of pregnancy, because the woman made a choice to have sex. Yes, perhaps she didn't intend to get pregnant, but we cannot hold a child liable for her good intentions not to get pregnant, even in cases of contraception. The act of sex is both unitive and procreative; these are essential dimensions to the act.
    Now, a case could be made that a baby would be "undue" in the unfortunate circumstance of rape. In such a sad case, however, we must remember that God has created life through this heinous act, and that we must never intentionally destroy life, that is, God's creation.
    If I may change the subject a bit, I think we can find similar aspects in cases such as end of life issues. Recently we saw in the news how a man survived a very long ordeal in which doctors thought he was in a vegetative state. He was not able to respond, but he was very much alive. Should the state recognize his right to life, even if he is dependent upon life support machines? What if his wife was unwilling to sustain him? I know this is not a perfect parallel case, but I think it illustrates some of the principles we are talking about.

  9. Hi, Tom. I may not have expressed myself well if you think we agree that a fetus has a "right" to live. I think the word "right" is problematic. In one sense rights are granted by law. You have the rights the social system in which you live recognizes. Recognition of a right by law means that the state is willing to enforce it. You only have the right if the state is willing to enforce it. In another sense, it is possible also to speak of moral rights--inalienable rights, human rights, rights that law ought to recognize but does not, and, I am saying, rights that law is not adequate to protect. If a fetus has a right, it is of this latter kind in our society. I am saying that EVEN If, it has this moral right, the law is not the place to look for having it honored. Humans--male and female--have to become much more morally sensitive to the life they create, and that is where the bishops should put their attention.

    But you did get down to the basis of your view: the woman's having had sex, voluntary or not, makes her responsible for the developing life of the fetus. That is the basis on which you want the law to hold her criminally liable if she aborts? In the Catholic view a woman cannot do anything to guarantee prevention of conception, not even as a married woman, refuse to have sex. Isn't there something wrong with this?

    If the law recognizes a right to life in the man in the vegetative state, no one if forced to take care of him. People are paid to do it and they do it voluntarily.

  10. Paula, thank you for your clarification. I see you point much better now. You are correct that there are certain distinctions that must be made when talking about rights. Some rights, which are granted by laws, are defensible so long as the infrastructure exists. Other rights, are inalienable human rights which precede legal systems and which should be defended by each and every human person on the basis of the other being a part of the human race. Although I am not entirely clear how a law is not adequate to protect the right to life (an inalienable human right), I do agree with you (alongside "colkoch") that couples should be "morally sensitive" (aka, responsible) to the life they create.
    Onto the other point: While I did not say the woman was responsible for the unborn baby, you are not off base for assuming this. The point I wanted to make was that the mother does not have the right to intentionally will the death of her unborn baby. So, yes, she does have the responsibility to carry it to term. Does this mean there are implicit responsibilities regarding the treatment of her body during pregnancy? As you might assume, the answer is yes, but this is a tangential discussion.
    Back to the issue: I do not see anything wrong with abstinence. Actions have consequences. Can you have sex when you want with a consenting partner? Of course you can. But you must accept the possibility that choosing this action could lead to the creation of life. This is a responsibility that both the man and woman must accept.

    So yes, there is something wrong with a pro-life view that leaves the man out the discussion. It takes two to tango, and a man is just as responsible for the life of the unborn child as the woman is. Moreover, it becomes increasingly difficult if the expecting couple is not married (an increasing problem in our culture). This is why the Catholic Church is so tough on sex being proper only within the sacrament of marriage. A term often used to push the idea that both man and woman should be more aware of their potentially procreative activities (sex) is "responsible parenthood". This is more than a moral issue, it is also a social issue.