Beyond the Stalemate

Forty Years after ‘Roe’

In January we were amply reminded by marches, protests, editorials, op-ed screeds, and TV sound bites that it has been forty years since Roe v. Wade. Americans who were fifteen and barely beginning to register the personal and moral implications of this sweeping change in the law are now fifty-five. At least two generations have now lived out their choices about sex and parenthood entirely under the post-Roe regime. And yet the matter remains unsettled. Are the appalling practices revealed at the trial of Dr. Kermit B. Gosnell in Philadelphia the work of a rogue abortion provider—or a window into the dehumanizing logic governing all abortion? Are newly passed laws in Arkansas and North Dakota that prohibit abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected only the oddities of outlier states—or cracks in the public perception of Roe’s rationale? It would be insufficient to say that Americans are deeply divided among themselves over abortion. Rather, they are deeply divided within themselves.

Poll data about abortion are notoriously slippery; much depends on the wording of the questions, the margin of error, the choice of comparisons over time. The latest findings show a strong majority of Americans, between 60 and 70 percent, opposed to overturning Roe, while hefty pluralities consider abortion morally wrong (47 percent) and would significantly restrict legal access (35 percent). Nonetheless, the most notable finding remains how little public opinion has changed. Those hailing this or that change of a few percentage points as a definitive prolife or prochoice “trend” are very likely to be disappointed.

For American Catholics, the abortion issue has been even more stubbornly divisive. Clear majorities judge abortion to be morally wrong and simultaneously reject overturning Roe. Abortion has created new rifts in the church—and widened and politicized some that had been opening since Vatican II and Humanae vitae.

Division is not necessarily a bad thing; witness the current commemoration of the once profoundly divisive Emancipation Proclamation and abolition of slavery. That Americans and American Catholics remain divided over abortion is, in important ways, to our credit. But some divisions are more necessary, compelling, or expedient than others. Some are well considered and executed, others are not. Some are paralyzing and self-destructive, others point toward fruitful resolution. Forty years after Roe, it is incumbent on Catholics to reexamine their stance toward abortion and its legalization.

There is natural resistance to any such reexamination. This is a topic associated with too much pain—and often hidden pain—along with too much hypocrisy, illusion, and male betrayal. Many Catholics who are angry at church leaders or prolife activists for their harsh rhetoric, political absolutism, moral righteousness, or general attitudes toward women and sexuality simply refuse to think about the topic further. Prolife leaders, on the other hand, boost morale by seizing on any uptick in public opinion, any success in a state legislature, and every fresh summons from religious authorities as confirmation that their present course, no matter how inadequate or counterproductive, is unassailable. Some of them found fresh evidence in a January 14 Time cover story announcing that although abortion-rights activists won a great victory with Roe, “they’ve been losing ever since.” Emphasizing recent legal roadblocks to obtaining abortions in conservative (and mostly less populated) states, the article was essentially a conventional call to arms for a younger, fresher, more communications-savvy prochoice movement. If this was proof of right-to-life success, so are the alarmist fundraising letters regularly sent out by Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood has recently even abandoned the term “prochoice” in favor of a “no labels” public-relations effort when it comes to abortion rights.

 

MY OWN REEXAMINATION OF the Catholic stance on abortion begins with two simple statements and then attempts to determine what conclusions and practical proposals might flow from them.

First statement: From the very earliest stages of its life, the unborn offspring of human beings constitutes an individual member of the human species deserving the same protections from harm and destruction owed to born humans.

Second statement: This conviction, taught by the Catholic Church and shared by many people, religious and non-religious, is nowhere near as obvious as many of us who hold it suppose.

Let me say just a word about how the first of those two convictions relates to my religious faith.

Fertilization, a remarkable process involving the union of twenty-three chromosomes from each parent, creates a new, unique, individual member of the human species, a physically dependent but genetically distinct and self-directing organism. That is a scientific fact, not one dependent on faith or religious teaching. However, to say that such an individual human life, from the completion of fertilization or at any later stage, including adolescence, deserves the full protection afforded individual humans generally is a moral claim, one informed by science but not dictated by it.

That moral claim is made by the moral tradition and community to which I belong, the Catholic Church. Since my Catholicism has been a matter of lifelong commitment, critical reflection, spiritual experience, and regular practice, its teaching is obviously important to me. By no means, however, is that the single basis on which I affirm that claim about unborn life. Like any other historically aware Catholic, I know that there are issues about which my moral tradition and community, in a history of many centuries, right up to the last, have been seriously, even shockingly, in error. Furthermore, growing up Catholic I did not hear priests rail against abortion. To the contrary, given the reticence, perhaps I should say prudery, of that environment, the subject was seldom mentioned. On the rare occasions when it was mentioned, abortion was certainly assumed to be a grave wrong. So were many other things mentioned far more often. One of them, for example, was contraception, about which I later concluded that the hierarchy’s continuing condemnation was a tragic and self-destructive error.

In regard to abortion, what my Catholicism perhaps gave me more than anything else was the felt obligation to think philosophically—that is, to reason about moral choices in light of underlying principles that could be examined for validity and applied consistently. So it was largely to philosophical reasoning that I turned in the years before and after Roe, when the moral and legal status of abortion began to be extensively debated in the United States—and when people my age, including friends and family members, began to confront the question in personal terms. As a Catholic I approached this body of reasoning with the predisposition that, objectively speaking, abortion was a grave evil for both mother and unborn child. Vatican II, a council I warmly welcomed, was notable for not focusing on condemnations. But abortion was condemned in no uncertain terms, along with genocide, slavery, euthanasia, terrorism, and indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations.

On the other hand, the conclusion that the church’s position on abortion, however well-meaning, is seriously flawed (as I had concluded its position on contraception is) could not be dismissed out of hand; and, in fact, that possibility might have removed many tensions from my personal relationships, political affiliations, and professional undertakings.

I need not rehearse here my exploration of those philosophical arguments. From time to time I attempt it anew to see if anything has changed. I can only say that, despite whatever convenience the prochoice arguments might have afforded me, I have found them unpersuasive. A number of those most ballyhooed at that earlier time involved analogies like being abducted and connected for nine months to a world-famous violinist with your circulatory system maintaining his failing kidneys. These raised fewer questions in my mind about abortion than about contemporary styles in philosophical reasoning. I have learned from the insights of ethicists like Margaret Little and those recounted by Bernard G. Prusak in his excellent Commonweal article last November on Catholic discourse about abortion (“A Riskier Discourse,” November 23). I have read the book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, with a great deal of agreement, and the book The Church and Abortion: A Catholic Dissent, by my admired friend George Dennis O’Brien, with a great deal of disappointment.

But if this periodic exploration, along with much personal discussion and reflection, did not alter my fundamental conviction about unborn lives and our moral obligation to preserve them, it did do something else. It led to my second point: The conviction that the unborn human being, from the earliest stages of life, deserves the full protections afforded born individuals is nowhere near as obvious as many who hold it, including myself, generally suppose.

In the years preceding Roe, campaigns to loosen legal restrictions on abortion at the state level had simmered and occasionally flared. But that decision, as we all know, did not only modify but swept aside laws in fifty states. It sent shock waves through a large portion of the population, Catholics in particular, who held abortion to be an unjustified taking of a human life. A genuine grassroots antiabortion movement arose, which church leaders, already active in those state-level battles, quickly reinforced but never controlled. Stunned by Justice Blackmun’s dismissal of any need to “resolve the difficult question of when life begins,” the antiabortion movement focused on that as the crux of the matter. When a few prominent ethicists followed their defenses of abortion to the conclusion that indeed infanticide, too, might well fall into the realm of the permissible, the antiabortion movement found further grounds for insisting on the “moment of conception” as the single factual firewall against a thoroughgoing collapse of the right to life.

Lost in this reaction was any sense that this position—which I myself hold, though with reservations about the literal understanding of “moment”—was far less clear, far more ambiguous than its proponents recognized. There are of course the many philosophical arguments pointing to one or another transition in early human development as the critical point for recognizing that the unborn individual, or even the born individual, possesses the characteristics making him or her deserving of the protections from lethal harm owed humans generally: implantation, embryonic development beyond the possibility of twinning, the emergence of heartbeat, primitive nervous system, brain waves, quickening, viability, developed nervous system and brain, sentience and vulnerability to pain, passage through the birth canal, consciousness, social recognition or maternal bonding, and so on.

Biologically and philosophically, each of these markers, examined one by one, makes less sense to me than the position I hold—and of course each conflicts as well with all the others. Taken cumulatively, however, they signal the many doubts that confront convictions like mine regarding the value and rights of embryonic and fetal lives. But intricate philosophical arguments, many of them articulated by academics in the wake of Roe to defend legal abortion, are probably less to the point here than more intuitive perceptions. To mention them may raise the hackles of the philosophically minded. I am not, however, addressing the argument that the moral status of the unborn is equivalent “from conception” to that of the infant or child. I am merely trying to make understandable why that argument lacks the force that many of us expect it to possess.

 

CONSIDER ONE LOOMING case: the position on abortion of Orthodox Judaism. This of course is subject to some limited debate within the Orthodox community; all the more reason for me not to pretend to expertise. Still, its general stance seems relevant, given that rabbinical Judaism is, if not the parent, then the elder sibling of Christianity. The Orthodox community is God-fearing. It resists modifying its understanding of divine commands to accommodate the larger society or culture. It values the life of the unborn. It is generally opposed to abortion. It is in fact much more pro-natal than Christianity.

And yet in the case of a potentially lethal conflict between mother and fetus Orthodox Judaism does not recognize the unborn individual as owed the same protection from killing as born humans, at least not until a substantial part of the newborn or the newborn’s head has emerged from the mother’s body. This position builds on a long tradition of reasoning and debate that took into consideration what was known or assumed at the time not only about fetal development but also about the needs and condition of the mother. In case of a conflict between the life of the unborn and the life of the mother, killing the unborn is not merely permissible, it may be mandatory.

Now I may think that aspects of this teaching suffer from premodern understandings or even fundamentalism, but I cannot deny—and I wish a church that is belatedly sensitive to its closeness with Judaism would recognize—that this position is held by a devout, thoughtful, morally precise, and culturally unaccommodating community.

Let me offer another, less imposing illustration. Glen Tinder is a political philosopher whose books reflect a strong Augustinian cast of mind. He states, for example, that his book Liberty: Rethinking an Imperiled Ideal is written “from a Christian point of view.” Christianity, he argues “contains truths—for example, about human nature—that everyone, regardless of religious or irreligious orientation, should seriously consider.”

About abortion, however, Tinder is torn. “It can be argued that fetuses are persons” and “abortion in most circumstances is akin to murder,” he writes, and “yet to feel that it ought to be allowed, at least within limits.” He elaborates: “To compel a woman to have a severely malformed child or to die in childbirth is compelling an act of heroism that should surely be left to personal choice.” Even in the case of normal pregnancies, Tinder shies away from a legal ban. “Perhaps abortions in many circumstances should be allowed simply in order that not having an abortion can remain a moral act.”

This is not an extended argument. If it were, Tinder would have to confront a lot of objections, certainly from me. Still, even as simply an observation, a perception, it comes from a classically conservative Christian thinker not at all hesitant to avow and apply his faith or to challenge the cultural status quo. Instances of similar thinkers and similar conclusions could be multiplied many times over.

I am not backtracking on my original position about fetal life. I continue to think that compared to the alternatives it is more in keeping with biological facts, with sound moral principles, and with what we want morality and law to do by way of protecting human life and well-being. But that position does have to take account of the ambiguity surrounding the question. Many, probably most, abortion opponents assume that this ambiguity exists only in the minds of their prochoice adversaries. I am arguing that it also exists in the very situation itself. There is a universal and yet sui generis aspect of pregnancy: one dependent but distinct human being develops within the very body of another. This fact strains the analogies to which we resort in trying to analyze when or why protection is or is not extended to human lives.

Consider also the simple matter of size. In its earliest stages of cell division, growth, and movement, the embryo, having begun as “a tiny speck,” remains no larger than the period you find at the end of this sentence. Even four weeks after conception, when, I like to point out to prochoice interlocutors, the embryo has begun to have a heartbeat, it is no more than the length of this parenthesis (—-–). It is counterintuitive, it challenges much of our everyday sense, to insist that anything so small can be the bearer of rights that would outweigh the drastic impact that its continued existence might have on the life of its mother or her family.

Again, it is another common intuition that abortion at a later stage of development is not only, like a later miscarriage, more traumatic physically and psychologically, but graver morally. That intuition, too, challenges my position and the church’s that a fetus possesses the same right to protection regardless of its state of development.

These are, as I said, intuitions. Of course we have come to accept many aspects of reality that once were or even remain challenges to our intuitions and what passes for common sense. That includes the fact that the pages you are reading, like our bodies and everything around us, are constituted by force fields of whirling infinitesimal particles of energy and matter rather than the solids we perceive—or the even more dazzling and bewildering notions that are grist for the weekly Science section in the New York Times. Antimatter, anyone? Dark energy? Higgs boson? On behalf of the counterintuitively tiny, one is tempted to drag in the refrain of Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who: “A person’s a person no matter how small.” Still, the tiny endangered creatures Horton, the prolife elephant, saves are miniscule versions, or at least Dr. Seuss versions, of ourselves, not pencil points of dynamically developing cells. In the case of embryonic life, sheer size plus sheer invisibility plus incipient development explain why all the analogies to obviously human victims of the Holocaust or of slavery fall short—and even appear deeply offensive.

 

IF WE AFFIRM THE church’s teaching but also recognize the counterintuitive and problematic elements inherent in it—inherent in it, and not just springing from the ignorance or dogmatism or self-interest or hard-heartedness of its opponents—where do these two points leave us? First, the stakes remain high. This is a high-stakes issue for the destinies of women and families—pregnant teenagers, women with unintended pregnancies that threaten health, family welfare, and on rare occasions life itself. The stakes are as high as stakes can be for the unborn at risk for destruction. They are high for those of us who cannot evade the conviction that abortion involves the direct killing of an individual member of our human community. But second, we must admit that this latter perception is surrounded by a degree of ambiguity and by conflicting moral traditions and intuitions that makes any clear-cut consensus about it highly unlikely for the foreseeable future. That fact is what poses seemingly intractable problems for law and policy.

Our constitutional democracy, which I support as the system most likely to protect life and foster human flourishing, seems at an impasse. As already noted, most Americans are opposed to any across-the-board recriminalization of abortion. Most of them would tolerate, probably even welcome, some restrictions on access to abortion, whether by geography or stated reasons or method or degree of fetal development. A reconfiguration of the Supreme Court or a far greater grassroots anti-abortion movement than now seems at all in the offing could presumably produce some such restrictions. But overturning Roe and returning the question to the states will at most do the same. Faced with proposals that would ban virtually all abortions, or establish the legal personhood of embryos, voters in even the nation’s most anti-abortion states have balked. And the sharp division over abortion within the nation’s leading political and culture-shaping elites, to say nothing of the actions of desperate women seeking abortions, would render any substantial restrictions, to say nothing of nearly total prohibition, highly vulnerable to protest, mobilization, reaction, and backlash. Recall that no sooner had Mitt Romney, the prolife candidate in 2012, been nominated than his sister, despite her belief that “life is sacred,” dismissed the possibility that he would be “touching any of that.” Abortion should be safe and legal, she said. “Every woman needs to be left to make her own choice.” A Romney administration would recognize that the ban endorsed in the GOP platform “is never going to happen,” she said. “Women would take to the streets. Women fought for our choice, we’re not going to go back.”

The church and its prolife allies are at an impasse as well. In my estimation, they have had one enormous success. I will return to that. But they also owe themselves and their cause a hard look at some of their missteps.

First, the imbalance between legal action and cultural persuasion. This imbalance was understandable. The anti-abortion movement was galvanized into existence by a sudden and sweeping change in the law. Naturally it set out to change the law back. But for many Catholics in the early 1970s, this strategy was all too reminiscent of the church’s unsuccessful rear-guard actions opposing the legal sale of contraceptives. Moreover, it came at a time when Humanae vitae had dismayed many Catholics and diminished the bishops’ chances of rallying them behind anything at all to do with matters sexual. With all the twenty-twenty vision afforded by hindsight, I would say the movement made a serious strategic error in throwing its organizational energy into legal, not cultural, mobilization. Yes, we know that law, too, is culture-forming and culture-constitutive. Yet in this case, the law’s potential to form a culture protective of early life appears undermined by the burdens of enforcement and punishment that statutes inevitably trigger.

Second, the tendency to concentrate on scientific findings about embryonic life as though these rendered unnecessary the examination and defense of moral premises. Prolife activists often assumed that if they could demonstrate the biological character of the fetus—as biologically unique, for example, constitutionally programmed to develop, and genetically distinct from both parents—then its moral claim to protection was ipso facto settled. This prolife turn to science was a natural response to blatantly unscientific prochoice sloganeering, like that declaring the fetus a part of the mother’s body. Right-to-lifers could only feel the same way as evolutionists feel about creationists—except that in this case, the phenomenon could not be explained by lack of education. It could be explained only by moral blindness or outright deviousness, and that justifiable reaction nevertheless made it all the more difficult for prolifers to engage seriously with more plausible justifications of abortion. 

Third, the tendency to use rhetoric and images that do similar injustice to biological facts. By dwelling on images of late-term fetuses and terms like babies, infants, and children, prolife activists have unwittingly exaggerated the degree of fetal development at the stages when the vast number of abortions occur. This too has made it difficult to grasp imaginatively the moral and mental framework of those who are prochoice.

Fourth, acquiescing in Operation Rescue’s becoming the movement’s public face in the 1980s, along with other aggressively evangelical and sometimes antifeminist militants. This was a major turning point. Operation Rescue was to prolife what the Black Panthers were to civil rights. No major social struggle is without zealotry. Prolonged conflict produces radicals, and radicals challenge existing leadership. The Catholic Church had infused the right-to-life movement with a tradition of philosophical, universalist, and civic reasoning. Perhaps out of frustration, growing militancy, and solidarity with purported allies, Catholic prolifers failed to distance themselves from a very different style—confrontational, fundamentalist, authoritarian, and even misogynist. As a result, news media had their prochoice biases confirmed. Here, in dramatic images of angy people blocking clinics and shouting at women, the movement was revealing its true self. Polls soon showed that opposition to abortion was far outdistanced by opposition to abortion’s opponents. Years later, it was mind-boggling that Operation Rescue’s founder, Randall Terry, who has done incalculable harm to the prolife cause, should emerge as a key player in the opposition to President Obama’s 2009 commencement appearance at Notre Dame. And nothing did more harm to the prolife cause in the 2012 election cycles than notions and language about abortion and rape that have long floated around anti-abortion circles but when voiced by conservative GOP candidates rightly appalled the public.

Fifth, the thoroughgoing integration of the prolife cause into the culture-wars agenda and the hard-nosed politics of the Religious Right and its conservative allies in the Republican Party. To a great extent this unhappy development was simply an equal and opposite reaction to the dogmatism and partisanship of prochoice forces. But was it necessary for the National Right to Life Committee to make Karl Rove its July 4 keynote speaker in the midst of the 2008 presidential election? Was it necessary to target and decimate prolife Democrats in 2010 for not toeing the right-to-life (and the bishops’) line on Obama’s health-care reform? Those bishops who hewed to Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life” as a bulwark against embroiling the church in this political and cultural polarization have been sharply reduced in numbers and influence. Their place has been taken by bishops who increasingly reinterpret church teaching about prudential judgments in politics and ignore their own distinction between advocacy for the unborn and directly taking sides in electoral contests.

Sixth, and possibly most important, hostility to the women’s movement. It is true that 1960s feminism marched under a banner of abortion on demand. It is true, although too much can be made of this, that in the post-Roe period prochoice and prolife allegiances frequently reflected attitudes toward traditional gender roles. Those facts blinded many prolifers to a larger reality: The movement for women’s equality, with its rejection of traditional gender discrimination and demand for opportunities to exercise a full range of talents in public roles, is not an epiphenomenon of the ’60s or of a decadent West. It is a global world-historical development, a change destined to affect everything from political institutions and family structures to religious systems and moral perceptions. At the moment, defenders of abortion have nearly given up any moral argument about the moral status of the unborn. They simply collapse that question into the larger one of this incontestable demand for women’s equality and dignity and the whole panoply of related issues, from birth control and health services to anti-rape protection and economic security.

The prolife movement sincerely and I think correctly believes that promoting the rights of women and the rights of their offspring, born and unborn, are ultimately the same task. But the lack of highly visible solidarity with women’s struggles for equality has not made this belief very persuasive. The Catholic Church, with its closed all-male clerical leadership, is also not well positioned in either image or substance to deal with this world-historical development. How can its anti-abortion teaching not be seen as linked to male bias? It will take deliberately dramatic and creative actions to change that impression. Currently, church leaders seem to be reinforcing it.

We should not ignore the obstacles, some self-imposed, that now hamper anti-abortion advocacy. Despite all these stumbling blocks, however, the same moral forces have achieved something remarkable. Four decades after Roe, abortion remains a serious moral issue despite a concerted effort to have it accepted as a routine medical procedure. That might sound like a purely negative achievement. But consider. Millions upon millions of women, many encouraged or supported or pressured by men, have undergone abortions over those decades. They have a deep psychological investment, whether troubled or not, in their actions. To view abortion as routine therapy obviously minimizes internal conflict. Meanwhile, the effort to render abortion a routine procedure, perhaps unhappy or even tragic like many other medical procedures but morally neutral nonetheless, has been unrelenting. The forces behind this effort are morally committed, ideologically single-minded, well organized, well funded, and well placed in the nation’s cultural and socio-economic elites. In their view, abortion is almost always unpleasant, often psychologically painful, and not infrequently accompanied by a bitter sense of personal failure or male abandonment; but nothing that could be considered morally burdensome or possibly stigmatizing should stand in the way of those contemplating abortion. If against these odds abortion remains something apart from other medical procedures, something morally charged, something demanding a totally different level of self-scrutiny or conscientious struggle, Catholic teaching and the Catholic bishops deserve a great deal of the credit.

I believe that this remains the front line in our society’s struggle over abortion. Will abortion be “mainstreamed” as just another medical procedure, however regrettable, or will it remain morally fraught? I do not deny that the legal battles have played a part in keeping abortion apart from other “reproductive” issues. I think that the battle over federal funding of abortion has been essentially about this very important distinction, far more than about actually facilitating or limiting abortions—and the bishops essentially won this all-important symbolic point before deciding to oppose the Affordable Care Act. But legal opposition can only go so far, in fact it can easily go too far. By itself, it can make abortion stand apart not as morally fraught but only as politically fraught. Legal opposition needs to be served with equal doses of argument and witness.

As far into the future as I can see, the residual uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding the beginnings and early stages of human development mean that the gap will not disappear between, on the one hand, what a community like the Catholic people teaches as morally demanded, and therefore what individual Catholics should urge with family and friends regarding their own actions, and, on the other hand, what can be legally established in a diverse, pluralist society. So when it comes to the law, Catholics or anyone concerned about the rights and protection due early fetal lives may need to focus less on the one most logical marker (conception) and argue instead for a consensus around a converging or cumulating set of markers. They should continue to insist that unborn lives deserve protection from their beginnings. Perhaps someday a combination of philosophical argument, moral credibility gained on other issues, and communal behavior that proclaims the sanctity of human life at every stage will convince the majority of Americans of that position. Meanwhile, Catholics and other opposed to abortion should strive for the legal protection of unborn life not from conception but from that point where not one but a whole constellation of converging arguments and intuitions can be brought to bear.

Where might that point be? Many years ago, I proposed eight weeks of development—when the embryo is now recognized as a fetus, all organs are present that will later be developed fully, the heart has been pumping for a month, electrical activity in its brain is discernible, it has a distinctly human appearance, responds to stimulation of its nose or mouth, and is over an inch in size. This is not a “magic moment” when “human life begins.” This is simply a moment—and others may nominate a different one—when an accumulation of evidence should compel a majority even in a pluralist society, and despite whatever obscurities about early life remain to be debated, to agree that the unborn individual deserves legal protection. Beyond that, only extreme circumstances should allow exceptions.

Of course, the church should not stop there. It can and in my opinion should continue to oppose government funding of elective abortion precisely to resist that “mainstreaming” of it as a standard medical procedure. But otherwise to narrow the gap between what it believes is morally right and what the society will legally require, the church will have to focus its energies primarily on changing the culture rather than the law. Here Catholicism has some major resources, prime among them a heritage of philosophical reasoning that has continued to frame many of the issues in medical ethics. It was precisely the potential of this tradition for making an impact among culture-forming elites that was set back when Catholic philosophical leadership was overtaken by Operation Rescue and similar sectarian groups.

Obviously the church should insist on its more stringent moral, even if not necessarily legal, position within its own ranks. It should maintain a bright-line opposition to anything that would make its own institutions directly participate in providing abortions. It should be open to thoughtful questioning of its moral teaching, whether from Catholics or non-Catholics, but it should not hesitate to charitably correct anyone who misrepresents that teaching, whether deliberately or from ignorance. That certainly includes public Catholics, although church leaders should distinguish clearly here between differences on moral fundamentals and differences on prudential political judgments or legal positions.

 

BUT THE CHURCH SHOULD not stop there either. Yes, it must be a community of teaching and argument. But it must also be a community of witness. Again, it already has another great resource: its often little-noted initiatives and its still greater potential to provide care and support for women with troubled pregnancies, to provide adoptive families, and to work on behalf of families and children in difficult circumstances. When it comes to recognizing the humanity of the unborn, alongside the humanity of their mothers, actions, as always, speak louder than words.

And again the church should not stop there. So much more could be said about the church as witness. How can we really be a “church of life”? Why are we so widely seen as anything but a church of life? A church of energy and vitality? Of growth? Of risk? Of wonder and joy and surprise? That question is not for this essay.

Let me only add this, because it pertains to the question of abortion and the culture. I do not challenge the idea that abortion is “foundational” in a hierarchy of moral issues. But in the order of witness what is foundational may be something much smaller, much clearer, much more tangible, much less obscured with controversy. That the universe, against a great many appearances, is created and sustained by Love is certainly foundational. But witnessing to that cosmic and ultimate reality is less likely to begin with metaphysical argument than with a compassionate word, a shared crust of bread, a warm embrace.

To summarize: The church should acknowledge the inherently difficult boundary-line obstacles to perceiving the moral status of unborn human life in its earliest stages. The church should work for the legal protection of unborn lives from a point where there is much greater likelihood of achieving a moral consensus, even as it continues to argue, especially among its own members, for the moral obligation of protecting unborn lives from the earliest stages of development. The church should make this argument credible by how it responds to the needs of women and the challenge of life-disrupting pregnancies. The church should also make all its beliefs credible by its compassionate concern for the poor, the weak, the alien, and the outcast, and by its celebration of ancient truths and openness to new wisdom. The church will not effectively testify to the ultimate or the foundational unless it begins with the immediate and the tangible. Not as a logical exercise in ethical analysis but as an expression of practical witness, this garment really is seamless.

Published in the June 14, 2013 issue: 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

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