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Pro-What?

Reading the coverage of today's March for Life in DC reminded me of some writing I did ten years ago on my now-closed blog Sursum Corda. That year was the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. I wrote a week of daily reflections on the subject. You can read the originals here if you are interested.The following piece was probably the post that generated the most reader commentary, both positive and negative. I read it again today. The advantage of writing regularly is that it allows you to look back and see where your head has been. I'm not sure I'd write it exactly the same way today, but all in all I don't think my views have changed that much. I offer it as one more contribution to the dialogue.-------On a random Saturday morning in the Spring of 1989, you could often find me in front of an abortion clinic. My colleagues and I would get up before sunrise, gather in a parking lot, and wait to receive a call telling us where we would be heading. The word would come, we would load up, drive to the clinic, and fan out to begin our work.But I was not there to stop abortions. I was there to prevent others from stopping them.In the Spring of 1989, trying to stop Operation Rescue from shutting down abortion clinics was just one of many ways that I was involved in the abortion rights movement. I was among a small group of people who founded a coalition of abortion rights organizations in a large East Coast city. I served on the steering committee of that coalition, and edited its newsletter. Over a two-year period, prior to my returning to graduate school, I attended more demonstrations then I can remember, many of which involved heated exchanges with demonstrators on the other side.Those of you who have been reading along for the past week might be a little surprised by this history. I recount it primarily to prove a point: people can change their minds on this issue. Ive probably changed my mind too much for some, and not enough for others, but its hard to denyalthough I did for several yearsthat there hasnt been some serious movement.So what happened? Did my deepening religious faith play a role? Sure it did. But it wasnt one of those deals where I woke up one morning and said Im a Catholic, I need to be pro-life. In truth, Ive found that Protestant theologians like Stanley Hauerwas and Richard Hays have been more helpful to me in thinking through this issue than any Catholic writers Ive read.But my faith did force me to think about abortion, and once I started to think about it, I found that it was difficult to stop. I read everything I could get my hands on about embryology and fetal development. The more I learned, the more the boundaries that the abortion debate had imposed on fetal developmentbirth, viability, trimesters, etc.seemed highly artificial.It was the birth of my son in 1998 that probably pushed me over the edge. It wasnt the ultrasound, although that was a piece of the puzzle. It was seeing how completely helpless and dependent he was after birth. In many important ways, he was still as much potential life as when he was in the womb. If you could justify abortion then, could you justify infanticide now? It was something to think about.

The more time I spent thinking, the more some of the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement started to drive me crazy. The problem, we were told, was that pro-life politicians didnt trust women to make choices. But the issue wasnt about choice in principle, it was about the moral content of a very particular choice. Do laws against child abuse suggest that politicians dont trust parents to raise their children?One of the things I came to realize that my work outside the clinics in 1989 had essentially been a lie. It was a lie because while I believed I was there to protect choice, the only choice I was offering was abortion. I was willing to walk with a woman for the two minutes it took her to walk from the car to the clinic door. But I wasnt offering to walk with her if she changed her mind, to walk with her for months, or years if necessary. Rather than enabling her freedom, I was merely one more link in a chain, one more wall in a maze.Im still not convinced that bringing back the pre-Roe abortion laws is the answer. Maybe its a lack of nerve, a refusal to follow my logic to its inevitable conclusion. I have some serious doubts about whether those laws could be effectively and equitably enforced, particularly in the face of determined opposition (and believe me, my erstwhile comrades are quite determined). I am attracted to the way that a number of European countries have approached the problem, with abortion regulated but available early in pregnancy, and progressively more difficult to obtain as the pregnancy progresses. Those countries have abortion rates that are much lower than the United States. Its not a perfect solution, but it may be a workable one.But in some way, my hesitation has a lot to do with those women I remember from the clinics, the look on their faces as they ran the gauntlet of screaming protesters from both sides. Having failed them once, the idea that I would now run to the police and the courts to remedy my failure seems cowardly. Its hard to extend a hand to someone when you are holding a club behind your back.So does that make me pro-life? Pro-choice? All-pro? Frankly I dont really care at this point. When people ask me what I think about abortion these days I tell them my views are complicated and they dont fit on a bumper sticker.To be truthful, watching the pro-life and pro-choice movements engage each other in the political realm tends to drive me nuts. I particularly detest the insistence of activists on both sides in using unflattering names to describe the other side. Pro-choice activists insist on calling pro-life people anti-choice or antis, while pro-life activists tend to favor pro-aborts to describe their counterparts. I find this behavior infantile, particularly considering the gravity of the issues at stake. Sometimes I think that if I hear one more pro-life reference to the Holocaust, or one more pro-choice reference to the Taliban, I will explode.My heart, if I have one, belongs to initiatives like Project Gabriel, local pregnancy centers, and groups like Feminists for Life who are trying to provide real, concrete assistance to women with crisis pregnancies. That work dovetails well with my own understanding of the demands of Christian discipleship. As Christians, I dont think we are called so much to legislate the alternative as to be the alternative. I dont think we are called so much to block clinic doors as to open other doors, to help people find strength within themselves that they dont know is there. I think we are called to be the kind of community where the act of choosing life becomes not merely possible, but joyful.

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Peter, thanks for this. I didn't know your history. May God continue to bless you, your journey, and your witness.

" I dont think we are called so much to block clinic doors as to open other doors, to help people find strength within themselves that they dont know is there." Thank you.Peter, you may want to add Democrats for Life to your list of initiatives. (Among its founders was Eunice Kennedy Shriver.) The politicization of the abortion issue is troubling to me. The Democrats are no more pro-abortion than the Republicans are pro-life. Also, I have observed that the issue has become for some a "We win, you lose" battle.

Yes, thanks for this. Project Rachel is another worthy avenue for anyone feeling that running to the police and the courts to remedy my failure seems cowardly. I wish for every protester at the abortion clinic when the mother was entering, two were ready to help the woman as she leftIm sure thats when she could really use the support.

Without wishing to comment on the abortion discussion, I might offer that while Project Rachel and Retrouvaille (for couples considering divorce) seem to be very good programs, they are offered only a few times per year in our diocese, and those who are in crises are urged to seek more immediate counseling.Moreover, the weekend retreat format of both programs as they are set up in our diocese poses economic, travel, and logistical problems for some of those who wish to participate.Local parishes might consider using money from their outreach ministry budgets to help local folks who want to participate or to offer overnight child care and to periodically announce that assistance is available when those programs are offered.Parishes may also want to consider advertising whatever assistance they can to the community, since both programs are open to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Thanks for explaining the evolution of your thoughts on the issue. I'm pretty conflicted about it too, even though I usually comment for pro-choice. The only answer I can seem to come up with is trying to stop the problem before it starts - sex education and contraception. One of the main failings, I think, of the religious movements is that they wait until people are already pregnant before addressing the issue.

A true, healing and creative approach. This thread will not go the usual 100 posts because few will take up your challenge to be a positive force for those who face such troubling conflicts. This is a caring approach which will not get much mileage because it demands loving work and action not loud mouths.

Thank you. Like many. struggling.I' ve asked before... is there any good model ofa law out there? Can anyone propose one that would gain the support of the majority of states? of Americans? I know that there change of heart and culture are key, but I'm assuming that law would reflect or reinforce or establish a grounds for that metanoia, but the practices I've heard thus far and the former attempts at Human Life Amendment seem far off the mark.

"Sometimes I think that if I hear one more pro-life reference to the Holocaust, or one more pro-choice reference to the Taliban, I will explode."Don't forget the comparisons of abortion to slavery. To which I always want to ask: what, then, do you propose to do about abortion--start another Civil War? The first one caused 600,000 deaths and its aftereffects linger to this day. Besides, there was a clear division between slave states and free states, and ending slavery was simply a matter of subjugating the slave states militarily. There's no comparison to abortion, which on paper is legal in all 50 states, even if it's increasingly difficult to procure in some. The political will for a Human Life Amendment does not exist and I don't believe it ever will. Priests, bishops and the Pope have the right and duty to preach to Catholics that abortion is murder. But a majority of non-Catholic Americans want abortion to stay legal, and many of them are not evil people. Nor do they believe that clergy who abetted child sexual abuse have any moral authority to dictate to them.

Angela: I suspect that a very large number of Catholic Americans also want abortion to stay legal, and many of them are no evil people, either.