Can We Talk about Abortion?

An Exchange

Dennis O’Brien

In February, I received an invitation to speak about abortion to a Catholic student group at a prestigious law school. The student who contacted me had read my recent book criticizing the position of the U.S. bishops on this vexing issue and thought that the students would be interested in my argument. I readily agreed. And then it almost didn’t happen. There were multiple angry objections to the invitation and members of the Catholic students board resigned in protest. My contact then polled a hundred students via e-mail about my possible appearance. The invitation won 3-1. I went, and the conversation was serious, polite, and concerned. Just what any speaker would want. Still, it was a discussion that almost did not happen. At all too many Catholic venues, it is a discussion that doesn’t happen. Can we still talk about abortion?

To put the controversy over my appearance into perspective for the law-school students, I brought to the talk a copy of Germain Grisez’s The Way of the Lord Jesus that he had given me while visiting me and my wife in Vermont. Gerry is an old friend from graduate school at the University of Chicago. He is one of the most influential of the “new natural law” theorists who have influenced conservative Catholic thinkers like John Finnis and Robert George. Gerry and I did not always agree when we were in grad school, and I am certain that he would find my current views on Catholic moral teaching quite wrong. Given that, I quoted from remarks he gave at a workshop for bishops back in 1990: “You [bishops] must face up to the disagreement.... The modernist controversy should have taught the church one thing: Questions must be faced up to and answered. They won’t go away.” Gerry was right: disagreements about abortion must be faced—within the church, and between Catholics and other Christian churches as well as the secular world.

Not the least of the problems with abortion is deciding just what to talk about. The late theologian Richard A. McCormick, SJ, in his massive Notes on Moral Theology, starts his discussion of abortion with the following topic sentence:

Abortion is a matter that is morally problematic, pastorally delicate, legislatively thorny, constitutionally insecure, ecumenically divisive, medically normless, humanly anguishing, racially provocative, journalistically abused, personally biased, and widely performed.

That seems about right! What is surprising, given the complexity of the issue, is that so many of the combatants, prolife and prochoice, think that the answer is simple. Abortion is killing babies. Abortion is a woman’s right.

The two items in McCormick’s list that I want to focus on are “legislatively thorny” and “morally problematic.” 

There is a fixed principle of the practical life: One who wills the end must also will the means. I would very much like to play the piano above the second-grade level I achieved with Sr. Cecilia back at St. Philip Neri grammar school. Unhappily, I do not will the means. I do not practice. My aim to play the piano is a relatively harmless fancy. In contrast, willing the ends and not willing the means in the political arena can be catastrophic. It is no good proclaiming a desire to end the deficit and not saying how one proposes to accomplish that end. The Catholic bishops want to end the practice of abortion. What means do they propose for accomplishing that goal? At least one prominent route—and certainly the most contentious—has been by legal means, starting with the reversal of Roe v. Wade.

Reversing Roe will, of course, not lead to the legal prohibition of abortion. The effect of Roe was to severely restrict the several states from jurisdiction over abortion by sheltering the choice for abortion under the presumed constitutional “right to privacy.” Were Roe to be reversed, jurisdiction would return to the states and criminal law, where it was before Roe.

If there is to be a criminal law prohibiting abortion, what law? Not answering that question is, as they say, a “cop-out.” It is as much a cop-out as Catholic politicians saying that they agree with the Catholic condemnation of abortion but, in a pluralistic democracy, they can’t force their religious views on everyone. That won’t do. Nineteenth-century legislators who wanted to abolish slavery faced a bitterly divided country but pressed ahead because slavery was a compelling moral fault that could be abolished in law. If prohibiting abortion has the same moral urgency and legal possibility as abolishing slavery, a politician cannot avoid the issue.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that abortion is the killing of innocent human life; Gaudium et spes says “abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.” What laws and penalties would be appropriate for these stringent condemnations? In older legal codes, such as the British Offenses against the Person Act of 1861, both the abortionist and the woman were subject to a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. That would seem to be a proper penalty for an “abominable crime.”

What do church officials in fact recommend as appropriate criminal law? A bishop friend told me that the bishops were not in favor of holding the woman criminally accountable. When I talked to Richard Doerflinger at the Pro-Life Office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he said he thought that was the position of the bishops. As far as I am aware, there has never been an official statement to that effect.

There is, however, some public evidence of how the bishops might stand. In 2006, the South Dakota legislature passed a bill prohibiting abortion in all cases except those “to prevent the death of a pregnant mother.” HB 1215 was strongly supported by the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls in a pamphlet distributed to all the parishes. What was the position of HB 1215 on a penalty for the woman? Section 4 reads: “Nothing in this Act may be construed to subject the pregnant mother upon whom any abortion is performed or attempted to any criminal conviction and penalty.” Only the abortion provider is subject to criminal law. The provider can be charged with “a Class 5 felony.” In South Dakota, a Class 5 felony can be penalized by up to five years’ imprisonment and a possible fine of $10,000.

Gaudium et spes equates abortion with infanticide. The Catechism talks about “killing” an “innocent person.” It does not seem wholly off-base to say, then, as some Catholic spokespersons do, that abortion is murder or—escalating that condemnation because of the number of abortions—a form of “genocide.” If abortion is “murder,” “genocide,” and an “abominable crime,” that claim does not, to my mind, fit the specifics of HB 1215. Murder is a Class 1 felony. When I asked Richard Doerflinger about the discrepancy, he suggested that endorsement of HB 1215 was an accommodation to what was possible. The aim was to reduce the number of abortions.

I am all for reducing the number of abortions, but I don’t fully understand Doerflinger’s argument. If you want to reduce murder, you could consider expanding the police force and maybe that would lower the number of murders. Still, when a murder was committed, it would be an abominable crime subject to the full penalty of the law.

My point is simple: The moral rhetoric used by many bishops to condemn abortion does not seem to fit the criminal penalties that they apparently accept. Further, I find it hard to believe that the bishops would support severe criminal laws commensurate with the moral rhetoric of abortion as an “abominable crime.” When there is a serious disconnect between the gravity of moral condemnation and legal penalty, one or the other should give. Either the rhetoric is too severe or the law is too lenient. Or, a third possibility: Grave as the moral fault may be, it is not something that can fall under legal restraint. I do not believe that the moral rhetoric of “murder” can be legislated, because any law proposed under that notion would be too severe and would not be enforced—as was the case in the British Offenses against the Person Act. Women were seldom prosecuted.

Is the moral rhetoric really too severe? Is abortion, as McCormick states, morally problematic?

The Catholic position on abortion seems unassailable. From embryo on through birth, there is in existence a being with specific human DNA. This human being has a right to life commensurate with that of any human being. There is no direct way around this claim. It certainly cannot be that the woman has a simple “right to choose.” You have a simple right to choose when the issue at hand is indifferent. “Vanilla or chocolate, it’s your choice.” That cannot cover abortion. To accept that position one has to deny any moral status to the fetus. Putting down the family dog cannot be done as a matter of indifference, much less ending nascent human life.

The moral picture here seems heavily in favor of the Catholic position, yet I think there is something missing. What gets left out is the reality of pregnancy. In offering an alternate picture, I am drawing on the work of Margaret Olivia Little, the director of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University. She insists that pregnancy is a unique human condition. Gestation is a factual situation for which our ordinary moral and legal categories of fully independent beings are ill-suited. As she says, the mainstream theory depends on “the very notion of a person [as] something physically separate from others.” Given the facts of gestation, this picture of separate beings seems mistaken. “The fetus, the gestating woman, and their relationship do not fit ready-made categories.” As feminist author Catharine MacKinnon says, “We really don’t have an adequate legal designation for fetal life.”

What Little emphasizes is that only in pregnancy is there a factual condition in which one human body is living inside another human body. Pregnancy presents a situation of “intimacy” between the woman and her fetus—an intimacy that is, for better or for worse, more intimate than any other connection we can have with an independent other: friend, lover, parent, or child. In his extensive defense of the prolife position, the Catholic philosopher Francis J. Beckwith argues that there can be no moral difference between persons based on “geographical” location. The human being in the womb cannot have any different worth from that of the newborn out of the womb. Feminist scholar Drucilla Cornell calls that the “container” view of pregnancy. Little’s argument undercuts the container view. The pregnant woman’s womb is not just a geographic location for an independent entity that would be the same if it were located someplace else. The fetus is not just in her body, it is of her body: flesh of her flesh, bone of her bone.

If one casts the abortion issue under the category of intimacy, shifts occur in the moral landscape. Many laws prohibiting abortion make exceptions for pregnancy following rape. This exception is included in the Hyde Amendment—over the objection, one should note, of the Catholic bishops. Their objection follows logically from the Catholic position: the fetus’s right to life is not compromised by the circumstance of its conception. What if one looks at rape in the dimension of intimacy?

As Little suggests, we don’t usually think enough about the moral problems of intimacy. Consider just two moral questions about intimacy: the decision to enter an intimate relation, the decision to terminate an intimate relation already entered into. If a woman turns down a date, she need have no more excuse than that she just doesn’t fancy it. If she decides to break off an intimate relation already entered into, she should have justification commensurate with the length and intensity of the relation.

If one looks at pregnancy through the issue of intimacy, a woman may certainly refuse to enter into that intimacy. If the woman accepts the intimacy of pregnancy, continuing that intimacy may be presumed but—so Little argues, and I agree—there may be some strong justifications for not continuing the relation, the most obvious being a serious threat to her health. This is a justification accepted in most laws prohibiting abortion. What about pregnancy after rape? Here the pregnancy is a “forced intimacy”: she must look forward to having another body growing in her body. I assume that the reason an exception is often made for pregnancy after rape is the judgment that forcing the intimacy of pregnancy is a very stringent if not dubious moral demand and, if legally enforced, could be construed as a violation of the woman’s liberty.

Once the issue of abortion is cast in terms of the intimate character of pregnancy, moral issues arise that can be obscured by the standard view of two fully independent entities. The moral worth of the fetus is not simply abandoned; the fetus is not a nothing—so terminating the intimacy of pregnancy is not like brushing off a blind date. However, there may well be strong moral justifications for terminating an already established intimacy of pregnancy. Just what those might be is not easy to assess, but they should be discussed.

There is a further complexity that McCormick does not mention that impacts moral assessment. Let me call it a theological dimension—it is certainly part of Christian faith.

Return to pregnancy after rape. I believe that Little’s intimacy analysis catches an appropriate intuition about moral and legal obligation. What it does not capture is going beyond obligation, beyond moral duty and law. A woman may have no moral or legal obligation to carry a child conceived by rape—but she may decide to do so. She has no obligation in justice to continue the pregnancy, but she may act from benevolence. Depending on circumstances, benevolence moves into the realm of moral heroism—in Christian terms, into saintliness. As Christians we are all called to saintliness, but saintliness is not a direct moral demand and it certainly is not enforceable by law.

And there are limits even to saintliness. Even at our most heroic and saintly we necessarily come short, we never do all, never do enough. We stand under the judgment of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus is repeatedly asked: “What is the Kingdom of God?” He tells the parable of the vineyard where the workers are hired in the morning, at noon, and late in the day. At the close of work all receive the same wage. That is not fair, that is not just, but in God’s Kingdom all are loved equally. A woman in very difficult circumstances with an unwanted pregnancy may desire deep in her heart that she could love and cherish the nascent life within and meet her other obligations in intimacy, but she decides that this is not possible. Her choice may be legal and morally defensible but, if she is a Christian, she will be haunted by the Kingdom of God where all are loved equally, all can be loved equally.

Richard McCormick was correct: abortion is a very complex issue. It deserves careful and compassionate discussion well beyond the slogans and banners of political confrontation—not least among thoughtful Catholics.

Dennis O’Brien is the author, most recently, of The Church and Abortion: A Catholic Dissent (Rowman and Littlefield).


Photo: Brochureman

Peter Steinfels

Abortion, Dennis O’Brien writes, “deserves careful and compassionate discussion well beyond the slogans and banners of political confrontation—not least among thoughtful Catholics.”

I could not agree more.

That is why I was sorely disappointed in The Church and Abortion: A Catholic Dissent, the book that occasioned Dennis’s talk to a group of Catholic law students. Because I consider Dennis a friend, because I greatly admire his mind and many things he has written, I read his book not once, not twice, but three times, and ran through it a fourth taking notes on my underlinings.

Thank God, Dennis is a good writer.

The problem with the book, and to some extent with this essay as well, is that it is not really about abortion. It is about bishops. It is compassionate, but it is not careful. And in fact it has everything to do with political confrontation.

Dennis is incensed, as I am, by the extreme rhetoric and political overreach of some bishops—denunciations of the Democrats as the “party of death”; rejection of health-care reform because of worst-case scenarios for federal funding of abortion; inflated claims of episcopal authority regarding highly arguable political and legal judgments. These are not necessarily representative of the hierarchy but of the most militant, outspoken, and as Dennis has written “flamboyantly condemnatory” prelates, who have managed, unfortunately, to dominate the church’s public posture regarding abortion and public policy.

“Posture” was in fact the word Dennis used in a 2005 article in America complaining that the bishops had not thought through the unlikelihood of reversing Roe v. Wade or of actually banning abortion if reversal somehow occurred.

Dennis is hardly alone in any of this criticism of episcopal politics. I share it. I know bishops who share it. It has been the burden of any number of Commonweal editorials. It has created a backlash against the prolife position, of which Dennis’s book and to some extent his essay here are expressions. If, for example, the prolife position during the next presidential election season resembles the tack previously taken by Archbishop Charles Chaput, newly elevated from Denver to Philadelphia, this backlash, I fear, will only grow.

In his America article, however, Dennis went beyond issues of law and public policy, dwelling on the disjunction between the bishops’ characterization of abortion as a grave moral evil and their failure to advocate harsh penalties for women who obtain abortions. He is clearly enamored of this observation. He repeats it here as he does in his book and has elsewhere. It is a loose thread that he yanks not only to unwind the logic of the bishops’ legal argument but ultimately to conclude that the choice for an abortion can be “a choice for life.”

I am far less impressed with this if-you-will-the-end-you-must-will-the-means syllogism. What strikes Dennis as stark illogic strikes me as perhaps a sign of the very common sense, recognition of complexity, and compassion that Dennis finds missing among the bishops—and perhaps of a more comprehensive view of the function of law than he evinces here.

I have more sympathy for the bishops. They have been operating in an arena where the other side’s tactics and rhetoric have often been demagogic, manipulative, and strongly supported by the cultural establishment. In intermittent complaints about the prochoice movement, Dennis insists that abortion is a morally serious matter. If that seriousness is still alive in our culture, credit must go in good measure to the church and the bishops.

Still, there is no doubt that major parts of the prolife movement have indulged in wild (and self-deceiving) rhetoric about murdering babies and committing genocide, and that a number of bishops have joined them. That is an unhappy tendency of crusading grassroots movements (Michael Harrington, whose left-wing credentials were impeccable as our last champion of socialism, once shocked a Planned Parenthood meeting by pointing out that the right-to-life movement was the one genuine grassroots movement of the 1970s). Surely Dennis remembers, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” and the many rhetorical (and self-deceiving) excesses about genocide, revolution, drugs, sex, etc., emerging from the frustrations of the antiwar, civil-rights, Black Power, and counterculture movement.

To make his case Dennis has to highlight the most charged rhetoric, coming mainly from the anti–Democratic Party prelates who are the true object of his ire. Type in the word “abortion” into the search box of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Web site and you will get about 4,000 entries. Add the word “murder” and you will get about 180 entries or, depending on the search box you use, 360. Adding the word “genocide” will get you about 70 entries.

Not a few of the “murder” references turn out to be, yes, episcopal condemnations—but of antiabortion extremists who have murdered abortion providers. Others endorse proposed laws that would make lethal assaults on pregnant women “double murders,” although specifically exempting abortion. Many are mere repetitions. Many simply contain mention of both murder and abortion in the same document without any connection. And a great number of these entries, for both murder and genocide, simply quote the passage from Vatican II’s Gaudium et spes (27) that include “murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, and willful suicide” as offenses against “life itself” in an inventory of modern crimes. To say that the bishops (and Gaudium et spes!) are therefore calling abortion “genocide” is as accurate as saying that they are calling euthanasia or suicide “genocide.”

It is true that in Evangelium vitae John Paul II wrote of abortion as murder (in the paragraph before one acknowledging the tragic reasons for which women seek abortions). Typical episcopal rhetoric in the United States, however, refers to “taking a human life” or “killing the unborn person.” No matter. Isn’t any description that approximates abortion with the killing of a born person bound to entangle the church in the legal and political measures that Dennis laments? Therefore, although stating in his book that “the legal realities should be sufficient to dampen anti-abortion rhetoric,” Dennis feels compelled to forge ahead and challenge that Catholic teaching at the root. He does so always civilly but much more definitively and confidently in his book than in this present appeal simply for more discussion of a complex matter.

Dennis mounts his challenge on three legs. First, what he here calls the seemingly “unassailable” Catholic position on the moral status of the fetus is in his view actually assailable on a number of points. One by one, he exposes weaknesses in the moral case against abortion, although without necessarily bringing his own argument to closure and at crucial turns turning back to the case against a legal ban. Second, Catholic thinking about abortion has marginalized the profound meaning of pregnancy in a woman’s life, treating her instead as a passive “container.” Third, the hierarchy’s current claim that combating abortion is “foundational” actually distorts what is truly foundational about the biblical story of creation, redemption, and the reign of God. All three legs are alluded to in his essay here, although it is the second that is emphasized.

On all three counts, Dennis has valuable insights that deserve incorporation into the abortion debate—on matters like tragic choices, moral deliberation as analogical to artistic judgment, and intimacy and pregnancy. But exactly how much work, as philosophers like to say, can these insights do?

It is hard to tell, because Dennis seldom illustrates his argument with concrete examples, except of course the classic “hard cases” like rape or (in his book) incest and concentration-camp pregnancies. He refers to “tragic choices” but doesn’t indicate what, among the many known reasons for which women seek abortions, might not be a tragic choice. In a rare though politically correct instance, he firmly judges abortion for sex selection so seriously immoral that it might even be legally forbidden. But it takes little imagination to conceive scenarios where refusing a patriarchal husband’s demand to abort a wrongly sexed fetus could have a tragic outcome for a woman’s marriage, family, and well-being. Can he be so sure that his own moral categories clearly rule out abortion for sex selection?

Unlike other writers on abortion, both pro and con, Dennis does not test his ideas about “thin” personhood by exploring their implications for our convictions about newborns, the severely mentally disabled, the comatose, demented, or dying. Surely there are similarities between moral deliberation and artistic judgment, but can we live with a morality that resembles the cacophony of movie reviews or the arbitrariness of the art market? Surely the special intimacy and interdependence of pregnancy deserve underscoring, but are they so categorically different from the decades of intimacy and interdependence of parenting a tragically limited child? Why is destroying the new life thinkable in the one case but not permissible, following the arguments of Peter Singer and other eminent philosophers, in both cases?

The fetus, Dennis affirms, has a moral status that increases in the course of pregnancy without being equal to that of a newborn. He never explains the basis of this status, or what makes it greater, or how much greater, over time. Nor does Margaret Little, the respected moral philosopher to whom Dennis passes the baton but whose writings are probably not widely known among Commonweal readers and whose long-announced book reframing the abortion issue in terms of intimacy and the “ethics of gestation” is still not published.

To tell us, as Dennis does, that the moral status of the fetus is “not nothing” or at least as great as that of the family dog—or that abortion “is not like brushing off a blind date”—does not really tell us much. Is Margaret Little, who generally avoids referring to the fetus’s moral status in favor of saying that it deserves “respect,” really more helpful? To rebut the idea that “any reason to abort is a good one,” she offers the example of someone ending a pregnancy “because she wanted to fit into a party dress.”

A number of women I know, having found themselves pregnant in difficult circumstances, have confronted the question of abortion. Some made choices only hinted at; some, acting in the teeth of social convention, gave birth to individuals whose fortunes as youngsters and adults I now follow.

None of them made me privy to their decision making at the time. Yet I can pretty safely say, with due respect to the bishops, that neither the Catholics nor non-Catholics who were faced with these decisions gave a tinker’s damn about episcopal rhetoric, one way or another, in working through the moral issue. Nor did they have to be told that pregnancy would drastically change themselves and imperil or transform their life plans. Being reasonably well informed, they simply knew that there was a distinct human life within them, even if not a “fully” independent one, and that it possessed a beating heart, an individual blood type, a rapidly forming and active brain, and a genetic make-up that, being different from either parent’s, would make it a unique he or she in the world.

In trying to understand the moral status of this tiny but dynamic human entity and to weigh its destruction against the impact of pregnancy and motherhood on their own future, they would get precious little help from Dennis or Professor Little. At most, they would get the assurance, as Dennis writes in his book, that their own “life experience of pregnancy is determinative in assessing the moral situation.”

“Can we talk about abortion?” I wish the answer were yes. In my experience it is no. Not in the newsroom or on the editorial page of the New York Times, not in the ranks of the left-wing organizations I’ve been party to, not among the liberal Democratic politicians who for many years vied for my vote at primary season by trying to outdo one another in prochoice advocacy, not among the liberal lobbies who have made abortion rights a litmus test for Democratic leaders, not with academic colleagues whose prochoice sentiments dominate faculty opinion at major universities including, perhaps outside of the philosophy and theology departments, Catholic ones.

The overwrought rhetoric and antiliberal politics of anti-abortion crusaders have contributed mightily to this unwillingness to talk—or to listen. It would be nice to think that Dennis’s call for discussion would change that. I fear that his equation of Catholic views with its most vociferous exponents and his too-easy minimization of the moral status of unborn but developing human lives will only reinforce the refusal of discussion.

Peter Steinfels, author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, is codirector of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture.

Photo: Rachel Troyer

Cathleen Kaveny

In the spring of 2009, the University of Notre Dame was under siege. The university had just announced that President Barack Obama, who is a strong defender of abortion rights, would be the commencement speaker. Many prolifers on campus and beyond were outraged. Some activists mounted an aggressive and relentless protest for weeks before graduation. As we got ready for exams, a prop plane flew in a tight, low circle over the university’s central buildings for hours each day, trailing an enormous picture of an aborted fetus. A large truck, plastered with explicit images of bloody, dismembered infant body parts, the face of Jesus, and dire warnings of the coming apocalypse, regularly parked at a busy intersection on the edge of campus; other trucks, with similar signs drove tirelessly through South Bend neighborhoods and shopping centers.

As the protest wore on, many members of the Notre Dame community felt beleaguered or on edge—and just a touch paranoid, if truth be told. Walking across campus, I would hear the drone of the plane’s engine and look up apprehensively. There was a palpable sense of menace.

Dennis O’Brien rightly asks, “Can we still talk about abortion?” I think the salient question is even more radical: who wants to talk about abortion, if it means talking to people like the prolife protesters at Notre Dame—or to their equally vehement prochoice opponents, for that matter? Why not walk away from the whole debate?

But we can’t walk away. The moral and legal questions are too important. I agree with O’Brien that some prolife rhetoric is extreme and unhelpful. In fact, some of it is downright hateful, and hate is no way to win converts to a religious or moral cause. It is important, however, to step back and try to understand what prompted this kind of rhetoric in the first place: Roe v. Wade. That Supreme Court decision has been on the books for nearly forty years, so it’s hard to appreciate just how radical it was, both in what it did and what it taught. I think we need to remind ourselves.

In one fell swoop, Roe struck down laws restricting abortion in all fifty states, establishing stringent criteria that any future restrictions must meet in order to pass constitutional muster. Most nonlawyers think in dichotomous terms: something is either legal or it is illegal. In actuality, the spectrum of options is far broader. For example, abortion could be (1) constitutionally prohibited, (2) criminally prohibited by statute, (3) prohibited with some exceptions (like other forms of intentional homicide), (4) illegal but tolerated, (5) entirely ignored by the law, (6) legal but discouraged and regulated, (7) actively protected by statute, and (8) celebrated as a constitutional right. Roe didn’t just legalize abortion; it took most states from (2) to (8) with the stroke of a pen. It was, as sociologist Kristin Luker said, a “bolt from the blue” that shook to the core the not insubstantial number of Americans who assumed that everyone thought the unborn were “babies”—including most Catholics.

What did the Roe regime do? For the next fifteen years or so (until Webster v. Reproductive Health Services), the Court rebuffed most efforts to place any restrictions on abortion, particularly in the first trimester of pregnancy. It struck down spousal-consent, parental-consent, and informed-consent requirements, along with waiting periods. In the meantime, the number of abortions performed began to climb, and kept doing so for nearly two decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control, roughly 616,000 abortions were performed in 1973; that number reached a high of 1,492,000 in 1990 before beginning to fall again. Since 1973, there have been approximately 50 million abortions in the United States. That number is staggering.

All law has a pedagogical function; it is a moral teacher. What do Roe and its progeny teach about the value of unborn life? Prolifers excoriate Roe’s decree that the unborn are not equally protected persons under the Constitution. The line that I have always found most chilling however, was penned by Justice William Brennan, who stated in more than one opinion that “abortion and childbirth, when stripped of the sensitive moral arguments surrounding the abortion controversy, are simply two alternative medical methods of dealing with pregnancy.”

No. They’re not.

Because Roe purported to interpret the Constitution, those who opposed it had very few options. They could try to push through a constitutional amendment undoing it, or they could try to remake the Supreme Court to overrule it. Neither approach was easy, quick, or certain—as the past forty years attests. Yet the question—who counts as an equally protectable member of our society—became increasingly urgent as the abortion rate climbed. To make their point, prolifers understandably appropriated a time-honored form of American political rhetoric: the jeremiad. In American history the form goes back to the Puritans, and it has been appropriated by every major moral reform movement since, most notably the abolitionists. The jeremiad is of course modeled on the scathing denunciations of violations of divine law by the Hebrew prophets, and has been used effectively by political liberals as well as conservatives.

The jeremiad’s expressive function is clear and powerful. We all know what Archbishop Charles Chaput thinks about abortion. Ironically, however, its persuasive function is far more questionable. Most self-proclaimed Jeremiahs give you two options: agree with them completely or be consigned to everlasting damnation. A discerning, nuanced conversation about a complicated issue is not an option.

O’Brien expresses his anger and exasperation at the “culture war” bishops. I sympathize with him. Moreover, I think their rhetoric is counterproductive. It leads many Americans to disengage from the public discussion of abortion, thus leaving the status quo intact. The status quo is remarkably stable. Although most Americans have moral reservations about abortion, they do not want to prohibit it legally. One out of three American women will have an abortion during her lifetime. The latest polls show there is not much reason to think that those now in their twenties and thirties are more conservative than their parents on the question. And indeed, we are beginning to see rhetoric from Chaput and others that looks less like a jeremiad and more like a lamentation—the predictable next rhetorical step of a disheartened Jeremiah.

Prophets tend toward dichotomous thinking. Either the unborn is a person, and terminating a pregnancy is therefore, and without exception, to be treated as first-degree murder, or its value is completely dependent on the wishes of the woman who carries it, and terminating a pregnancy is always within her discretion. O’Brien rightly rejects the first pole; I worry that he comes too close to the second. Despite his calls for nuance, he hasn’t entirely escaped the dichotomous thinking that he protests.

Unlike prophecy, the Anglo-American legal tradition has significant resources to resist all-or-nothing dichotomies. In order to do justice to the complexities of a moral dilemma like abortion, the law takes into account not only the status of the victim, but also the circumstances of the perpetrator, as well as other factors such as practical workability. As O’Brien notes, before Roe, abortion was a distinct class of offense. If Roe is ever overturned, and even if the law then acknowledges the full personhood of the fetus, there would still be good jurisprudential reasons to be extremely sparing in the use of the criminal law to punish those involved in abortions. Some studies show, for example, that the abortion rate in societies where the procedure is illegal is not lower than in societies where it is permitted. Notoriously, the death rate among women who procure abortions is much higher when the procedure is illegal.

Nonetheless, O’Brien is mistaken in claiming that it would be hypocritical to punish abortion providers but not the women involved. Many prolifers consider women to be abortion’s second victims. They want the law to protect them too, not to punish them. We do not, after all, arrest minors for conspiracy to commit statutory rape, even if they consented to the sexual act in question. Moreover, the law has room to recognize cases where the line between victims and perpetrators is hazy. A society can rightly decide to punish drug dealers but not drug users, or to criminalize procurement but not prostitution. Even in the case of homicide, motive and circumstances matter.

Echoing Roe’s right to privacy, O’Brien locates the moral and legal core of the abortion question in the “intimacy”—or lack thereof—between the mother and unborn life she is carrying. Yet his way of framing the decision strikes me as too isolating and isolated, both empirically and normatively.

The evidence suggests that a woman’s decision to have an abortion is far more influenced by her relationship to her family and friends, and especially to the father of her child, as well as her social and economic circumstances than to her level of intimacy with the growing life inside her. In fact, most decisions to abort are made before the baby’s presence is made known by anything more relational than a plus sign on a pregnancy test. It is the level of connection and intimacy with the baby’s father that matters most. Studies show that unmarried women, very young women, and women without financial resources are far more likely to seek abortion as a solution to an unwanted pregnancy.

Normatively, abortion is a heart-wrenching and difficult problem because the most vulnerable class of human beings—the unborn—are totally dependent on human beings who are themselves very vulnerable—women facing crisis pregnancies. As Pope John Paul II recognized in Evangelium vitae, isolating the woman and the child together in their vulnerability is not the right response. Building a “culture of life” can’t be reduced to the negative goal of prohibiting abortion—even if it were legally and politically possible do so. Nothing in Evangelium vitae suggests that we must work on outlawing abortion before implementing realistic social policies that encourage pregnant women to carry their children to term.

The best book on abortion policy I have read is Mary Ann Glendon’s Abortion and Divorce in Western Law. Glendon writes that “what is important is that the totality of abortion regulations—that is, all criminal, public health, and social welfare laws relating to abortion—be in proportion to the importance of the legal value of life, and that, as a whole, they work for the continuation of the pregnancy.”

Glendon’s approach gives us moral pedagogy about the value of unborn life without the hard edge of prophecy. It situates both the pregnant woman and the unborn child within a supportive society rather than consigning them to an all too isolating intimacy. It builds a culture of life, rather than merely castigating a culture of death

Dennis O’Brien wants us to talk about abortion. I think Glendon’s approach can help us all move toward a more enlightening conversation.

Cathleen Kaveny teaches law and theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Related: Letters to the editor about this article (and O'Brien's respose)
Daniel Sulmasy's review of O'Brien's The Church and Abortion (and O'Brien's response)

About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.



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This is most thorough and rational discussion and presentation of the complexities surrounding the abortion issue that I have seen on the Internet. This issue is tearing the Church in the U.S. apart. The politicization of the issue, which leads to demonization of some politicians and voters, is very disturbing.


In terms of an indepth and up to date discussion of the ethics of the issue, I would like to suggest my book The Ethics of Abortion:  Women's Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice (Routledge 2011).  Although I do not deal with political or legal issues, in terms of the moral discussion, from a non-religious perspective, this may be helpful for people, especially in dealing with objections raised by defenders of abortion.

One perspective on abortion is that it can be the ultimate sexism. That is, if you as an educated woman wishes to be part of the whate male sstem, you do not have the option to become pregnant.


I just cannot resign myself to the fact of a child beginning from a thoughtless biological act instead of a thoughtful process. Having a child should be the most important decision of one's life. There should never be an unwanted child...for any reason. 

Abortion is a "very complex issue"? Ugh.

No, it isn't. Abortion ends the life of an innocent, defenseless human being. Period. That's not very complex. 

O'Brien's post-modern gobbledegook is nothing new. In fact, it is exactly the kind of thinking that bloomed 40 years ago. It has led to nearly 50 million abortions and a culture of broken families, addiction, asininity, and confusion - not to mention a Catholic laity that is woefully ignorant of its faith.

What if Catholics actually had been FAITHFUL to Humanae Vitae? Think about it.

O'Brien exemplifies an academic with too much education and not enough common sense. And, quite sadly, his side has already been quite victorious.


To Susan: The homeless are "unwanted," too. Should we exterminate them? In addition, a baby is indeed wanted by somebody. There is no shortage of people looking to adopt.

Thank-you for having this conversation.  Although I do not agree with any of the writer’s view on abortion I do appreciate the willingness to leave ideological positions aside for the sake of discussions and listening to the other.


In spirit of openness I wish to disclose, upfront, that I am Catholic and pro-life.  Some may consider me militant because I pray outside clinics; but I hope and believe this crowd do not.  I believe the foetus is human being worthy of full legal recognition as person autonomous from the mother.  I am not a scholar so appreciate erudition and knowledge of all the authors.  I apologize in advance for my poor writing skills and lack of overall intellect.


Before I begin my questions I just want to say I appreciated the recognition by Ms. Kaveny that many in the pro-life movement are pro-women and reasoned understanding that the legal response to abortion can be graduated, taking into account motive and the circumstances.  I also appreciated the recognition of the relationship between abortion and marriage.  I know it took courage to make this argument and may cost Ms. Kaveny some flack among her peers.  So I applaud her willingness to admit countercultural causes of increased abortions.


Now that my position has made clear I want to share my concerns about abortion, and what I fail to understand about the pro-choice perspective. (I apologize if I offend anyone but my questions have the implicit assumption that the unborn are worth saving, but I still ask you to listen to them and reply to them.)


Compassion for the pregnant woman


    1. I do not understand how our government and our legal system can expect a woman, who is usually in the direst of circumstances, to make such an irreversible decision.  I realize that I must sound like Grandma right now, but this imposition by our government is something that does not make sense to me.  It seems to me to lack compassion for the pregnant woman.  Can someone provide a similar situation where we expect someone to make a life changing decision for themselves, without help?  Isn’t it prudent advice to tell a person in distress to refrain from making an irreversible decision until she is in a better position? 


    1. Isn’t the government forcing the woman to make a choice it is not willing to make?  


    1. Why is the government funding abortion?  Does the funding of abortion encourage young woman to exhibit less responsibility for her sexual activity?  If I were a bit more cynical I may argue that it seems our government wants the poor to have fewer children because it is too costly to support a mother in raising them.


Compassion for the foetus or the unborn child


a.          Why is adoption not advocated by women in general and the pro-choice movement in particular?  Why is abortion the preferred choice for these women to make?  I don’t know the statistics about the difficulties of giving birth but my common sense (assuming I have any) tells my heart that the success of most pregnancies is quite high and that the non-complicated pregnancy is the norm by a vast percentage.  To rephrase the question: if pregnancy is not a risk to the mother’s health generally speaking than why is adoption not more heavily advocated, especially now that many states have time off for maternal mothers and job security legisilation for pregnant women?


b.          Would those in the pro-choice movement feel comfortable having an abortion themselves or for one of their children to have an abortion?  I ask this same questions of people who advocate war.  I am not comparing to abortion to war but simply saying that I think those who advocate abortion should be willing to abort their own children if they wish to be intellectually honest with themselves.  Similarly I would like our political leaders be the first to set their feet on the battle field.


c.          Should those human beings who have not a had child be allowed to voice their position on this issue?  I know this question sounds extreme, but from a strictly legal perspective do they have any reason to be involved in this debate?  They cannot argue that they were once unborn children without contradicting their position that the unborn have less value they grown human beings?  (It is just an accident of time that they are now old enough to have value.)


d.          Lastly, I would like to understand how abortion is not a form of ageism (see above)?  If we cannot agree when an unborn child becomes a person for legal purposes shouldn’t we, in good conscience, choose the earliest possible date for legal recognition of the person in order to be on the side of caution?


Let us protect all women, whether they are in the womb or not (My short jeremiad – sorry I couldn’t resist.)

I re-read my post and I apologize for the missing words, the missing indefinite and definite articles, the missing coordinating conjunctions, and starange typography. 

We often talk of abortion as a choice.  I just want to ask whether in today's society abortion is still needed?  As a society is it possible for us to create a system that can help pregnant mother's carry their babies to term?  Can we create sufficient goodwill among the public that abortion is no longer desired by moms-to-be as an option?

Are there other better ways to help pregnant women in need?

The comment boxes probably are not a sutiable medium for my full reaction, but 2 quick thoughts...

First, I compliment Prof. Keveny's explanation that while the prophetic/divisive rhetoric coming from pro-life side may make us wince and may not seem terribly convincing to those on the other side, it should not be unexpected given the size and the gravity of the injustice of the current regime, and does not represent a valid reason for us to fail to champion the cause of the unborn.


Second, I would invite Prof. O'Brien and those who are moved by his discussion of the intimate relationship of pregnancy to think through it some more.  Yes, we have license to terminate some intimate relationships for cause.  But some we are not, either socially or legally.  Parents (particularly fathers) are bound to at least financially support their children, and they cannot unilaterally terminate this responsibility.  Further, terminating an intimate relationship between adults does not directly bring about end of the life for the other person in the relationship.  One need not fetishize unborn life to see that this introduces a complication that is absent from terminating a long-term dating relationship or even a marriage.

Indeed, I think the uniquenss and intimacy of pregnancy casts into light the damage abortion does in severing the cultural recognition of it.  Rather than providing a license for terminatiing the relationship (even under limited circumstances), it underscores what a break from the natural order abortion represents.

Excellent thinking and writing, IMHO, by Peter Steinfels and Cathleen Kaveny about a divisive issue. Building a comprehensive secular culture of life is the near- and long-term response to Roe, which likely isn't going to be overturned any time soon. And I second Prof. Kaveny's mention of Mary Ann Glendon's "Abortion and Divorce in Western Law" as an excellent resource for helping to formulate solutions to the abortion issue.  

Excellent and needed discussion. I'm Catholic and pro-life and pro-choice.  Either position by itself tends to be inhumane.  Both together tend toward being humane.  Or so I think; I was taken with the intimacy argument.  A woman with unborn within is as one as can be.  Pro-lifers focusing mainly or exclusively on the fetus overlook the obvious oneness.  Pro-choicers focusing mainly or exclusively on the woman overlook the obvious oneness.  We need some focusing on the oneness. 

Pro-life attempts to reduce abortion have been unsuccessful, markedly so if you factor in welfare cuts for women.  The group now with the highest abortion rate is poor women who would formerly have received AFDC benefits.  Limiting and terminating these benefits have led a marked increase in abortions among these women.  Those who are for welfare cuts and opposed to any tax increases for the wealthy are in effect saying: better to cut government spending than to support poor women in having babies. 

Pro-choice is not the problem.  The choice to abort is the problem.  And it is not a hopeless cause to create a culture where more women choose birth over abortion.  This is a task we Catholics (and everyone else) can work toward, whether we call ourselves or others pro-life or pro-choice.  As a longtime clinical social worker, I know that many pregnant woman are in almost impossible situations.  They are one with the nascent, gradually individuating life within, but they may not have the freedom, the space and comfort to fully realize or appreciate this.  We can help them attain sufficient freedom, space and comfort to be able to make the Yes choice Mary made.           

Recently I came across a question that, I think, somehow seems to get at the root of all my other questions.  If a pro-choice person would take the time to answer this question as honestly and completely as possible that would be appreciated and I think the answer could go a long way in unifying our North American society on this issue:

Why do women want this choice?  Similarly, why do they want to be able to abort?  

If there is more than one reason please feel free to list them.  The issue is too serious to remain silent.

I guess one thing that troubles me, and I suspect many pro-lifers abortion discussions on the Catholic left is the insistence that pro-lifers must focus on the reasons why someone would pursue an abortion.

I acknowledge that it is likely that a good number of abortions are motivated by what seem to be desperate circumstances.  And, as Christians, we indeed have a duty to address them.  But are they so very different than the circumstances that lead people to commit other crimes -- murder, robbery, drug dealing, prostitution, etc.?  

Yet, these crimes are not nearly as widespread or enjoy the same cultural acceptance as abortion.  And why is this?  In part, because, as Prof. Kaveny notes, the law serves as a teacher.  There is not a constitutional right to robbery.  It is true that criminal laws have not eliminated these vices from society (just as criminalization would not eliminate abortion), but it has reduced them to lower levels than they would otherwise be, making them unthinkable options for many people.

I support efforts at addressing the underlying causes of abortion, and my conscience tugs at me to do more.  I acknowledge that some individuals may be called to focus on these things more than on addressing the injustice that is the legal status of the unborn.

But I think it must be "both-and" rather than "either-or."  That the unborn as a class of people can be arbitrarily killed is an injustice that must be addressed. To say otherwise is to say that what happens in abortion is something less a crime than other things the law recognizes as such, and that is not a concession I am willing to make. 

Jim Lein may be correct that the prevalence of the pro-choice position is not the problem, but it definitely is a problem.  

John McG

It appears that very few people on this website care about this issue.  It is truly sad that a sight that purports to be Catholic site does not attract enough people who are willing to put aside their secular ideology in order to see if they might be able to help the life of the very young in addition to helping the life of the mother - a tragic sign of the times.

God bless everyone, and everyone who visits this site should thank the Lord that they are no longer inside their mother's womb.

Just a like a child who knows that they are getting away with something wrong remains quiet this web crowd has remained quiet.



I suppose Prof. O'Brien's discussion of the unique intimacy of pregnancy is one possible answer to my question -- that the relationship between a woman and the child in her womb is unique, such that thinking about it in a similar way to how we think about relationships between people who do not have this connection is a grave mistake.

IMO, this answers Prof. Stenfles question about what "work" the insights into this relationships are indended to to in the abortion discussion.  That the relationshop between a pregnant woman and unborn child is something that is beyond the understanding of outsiders, especially men, more espectially celibate men, most especially celibate men who are as far removed from the realities of pregnancy and child-raising as we imagine bishops to be.  For these, the only reasonable stance toward a woman's actions within the context of such a relationship is a respectful silence.

I reject this.  There are all sorts of contexts that most citizens never put themselves into, but we still must judge people's actions within them.  Most of us have never been deployed in a war zone, and do not have an intimate idea of what it's like to live in such an environement, but that doesn't mean that we step back from prosecuting war crimes.  Most of us have not been police officers, have never had to walk up to a car in the middle of the night not knowing if the people inside mean to do me harm.  Yet we still prosecute police officers who go over the line.

It is true that there will be elements of the relationship between a pregnant woman and the child in her womb that will remain a mystery for those outside of it.  But I think we need to enter into that mystery and do our best to understand what we can rather than simply throw our hands up in the air at it.

The relationship between a woman and the child-to-be in her womb is unique.  We need to let this fact sink in, meditate on it.  Before we call abortion murder and see women who have abortions as criminals.  Abortion could more correctly be called partial suicide. 

Part of the choice issue is the choice to have or not have a child.  If women had more choice earlier on, there would be less of an urgent choice after a woman is pregnant.  The church's stance on birth control makes this urgent choice more likely.  

Our culture is less and less pro life, more and more pro-business.  This morning's Mass reading was from I Timothy, about the love of money being the root of all evil.  Our society is infected with this love.  And it leaves less room for life. Career women have considerable pressure to put work ahead of childbearing and rearing.  Jobless women have even more pressure to have fewer or no children, especially without a financial support system. 

Women particularly are in a tough spot in our society.  They need our help and our prayers, especially the first Joyful Mystery, if they are to follow Mary's Yes.  

This exhaustive and rational exchange overcomplicates the issue. If something is important enough that the Church has to take a stand on it, the Savior's specific words should bear on it directly. They do. 

The simple fact is that the single biggest cause of abortion is poverty. When the Savior advised tending to the needs of the poor and fatherless, he gave us the solution to this crisis as much as any other. We have known for 10 years that making certain that children grow up appreciated and having their physical and emotional needs met decreases antisocial tendencies of the rising generation more than policing and prisons put together (Donohue & Levitt, 2001). If we maintain that the cirumstances of conception cannot justify the choice to abort, neither can the circumstances of conception dictate our willingness to support a poor mother and family.

Yet given this, as Catholic voters we refuse to allow moderation of any abortion rights positions in those candidates most likely to help the poor. Instead we tend to throw our significant weight behind candidates willing to oppress the poor just because those candidates expediently declare anti-abortion positions. We do this even though positions they take regarding war and capital punishment prove inflexibly anti-life. We allow the manipulation of our votes without compromise, even as a South Dakota bishop compromises to support declaring abortion about as criminal as a felony DUI, or a bit more serious than killing a police dog.

According to Dennis O'Brien, the bishop justifies this compromise as reducing the number of abortions. That same reasoning justifies voting for candidates most willing to apply federal funds toward making certain that pregnant mothers are taken care of, and that children are cared for well into their development, that fathers have jobs -- in short, candidates concerneing themselves more with the needs of the poor than with the desires of the rich. 

This will prevent more abortions than any futile claims of opposition when public opinion has reached a stalemate. With voters polarized on the issue, making it easier for more women to choose to keep children will do more toward preventing abortions, and toward tipping the scales on opinions about it, than all the currently futile voices opposing a woman's right to choose.



Donohue III, J., & Levitt, S. (2001). The impact of legalized abortion on crime. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 116(2), 379-420. doi:10.1162/00335530151144050


This exhaustive and rational exchange overcomplicates the issue. If something is important enough that the Church has to take a stand on it, the Savior's specific words should bear on it directly. They do.

The simple fact is that the single biggest cause of abortion is poverty. When the Savior advised tending to the needs of the poor and fatherless, he gave us the solution to this crisis as much as any other. We have known for 10 years that making certain that children grow up appreciated and having their physical and emotional needs met decreases antisocial tendencies of the rising generation more than policing and prisons put together (Donohue & Levitt, 2001).

Yet given this, as Catholic voters we refuse to concede any moderation on abortion rights positions in those candidates most likely to help the poor. Instead we tend to throw our significant weight behind candidates willing to oppress the poor just because those candidates expediently declare anti-abortion positions. We do this even though positions they take regarding war and capital punishment prove inflexibly anti-life. We allow the manipulation of our votes without compromise, even as a South Dakota bishop compromises to support that abortion is about as criminal as a felony DUI, or a bit more serious than killing a police dog.

According to Dennis O'Brien, the bishop justifies this compromise as reducing the number of abortions. That same reasoning justifies voting for candidates most willing to apply federal funds toward making certain that pregnant mothers are taken care of, and that children are cared for well into their development, that fathers have jobs -- in short, candidates concerneing themselves more with the needs of the poor than with the desires of the rich.

This will prevent more abortions than any futile claims of opposition when public opinion has reached a stalemate. With voters nearly evenly divided on the issue, making it easier for more women to choose to keep children will do more toward preventing abortions, and toward tipping the scales on opinions about it, than all the currently futile voices opposing a woman's right to choose.



Donohue III, J., & Levitt, S. (2001). The impact of legalized abortion on crime. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 116(2), 379-420. doi:10.1162/00335530151144050


Amen to what Peter John said.  That's what I was trying to say with my two comments.  Cathleen Kaveny did mention in her exchange: "Building a 'culture of life' can't be reduced to the negative goal of prohibiting abortion -- even if it were legally and politically possible to do so.  Nothing in Evangelium vitae suggests that we must work on outlawing abortion before implementing realistic policies that encourage women to carry their children to term." Again, Amen.            

One last quote, from the Mass reading for last Friday (I Timothy):

"Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is the root of all evils..."




Acknsowledging that we all have a a lor of work to do in the vineyard to make ours a more just society that is more welcoming to children, are we really to believe that 2012 America stands out in history as such a hostile place to raise a child that an abortion rate nearing seven digits is an inevitable result, regardless of the legal and cultural accaptance of it?

Jesus also said that we will always have the poor with us.  We can and should act to reduce poverty, and to ameliorate its harms, but it we will never eliminate it.  Does this mean we must always have abortion with us as well?

And I guess I don't see withholding support for candidates who start their campaigns pledging their support for the leading provider of abortions as such a rigid inflexibility.  It's true that we won't build a Culture of Life by ignoring the needs of the poor, but we won't build it by turning a blind eye to the injustice of abortion, either.

Generally speaking, it appears Democrats are just Conservatives in waiting.  Indeed, it now appears that for certain institutions, such as Planned Parenthood, Democrats have become Conservative.  Democrats wish to conserve the institution of Planned Parenthood.   Once the inversion of Christian morality is completed the Democrats and Conservatives will have to change their names!!

As a pro-life person, I feel that the discussion around Abortion lacks one pivotal discussion: the worth of the fetus.  People who are in favor of Choice are rarely willing to discuss this issue in any meaningful way, and very few are willing to grant any legal status to the fetus.  It is easier to defend freedom of choice in the abstract than it is to defend it concretely. I would like those in favor of Choice to examine what it means to abort a fetus and to not only examine what it means to be able to choose.   If the people in favor of choice could only concede that there are several consequences involved in every choice to abort then a very fruitful discussion could take place.

However, sadly it appears the position of the Choice side has become very polarized.  It appears the pro-choice side is much more pro-abortion than pro-choice.  The fact that a young women can wear a shirt that says "I love Abortion" means the general public have become desentised to the issues surrounding abortion, and the pro-choice position is just a cover for an anti-life position.  


For anyone who is interested, I've written a crique of O'Brien's article, here:

The only thing I read hear in the comments as well is in the three original statemetns is people's attempt to score debate points. Cardinal Bernardin's pleas to search for common ground before starting to argue differences seems still to be totally lost in all the hubbub. You can't talk about something until you can agree not to talk past one another. 

I think the Catholic pew peoples walk-away from the abortion issue mirrors the entire society's walk-away from many other issues that were once criminalized. There is no consensus now to prosecute adultery, fornication, homosexual acts. drug abuse, drunkenness, prostitution, suicide etc. these and almost all personalized behavior now seem off-limits for law. Maybe the pro-life argument should de- emphasize the personal behavior argument and emphasize the social consequences of abortion behavior. Isn't the social behavior consequences argument against sex selection abortion  having much more traction? The young girls tee shirt say 'I love abortion' is not even close to acceptance.. Also the vast majority of doctors do not /will not perform abortions.



I don't see much establishment of common ground in Deacon Killoren's post.

Less pithily, I think in my posts I have repeatedlly acknowledged that descisions come to abort often come from desperate circumstances that we as Catholics have a duty to address, before arguing that the injustice that the unborn are not protected by the law.

I agree that talking past each other is a problem.  This also applies to meta-commentary.

I would also add that Prof. O'Brien's article acknowledged the worth of the unborn life, and Prof. Stenfel's and Prof. Kaveny's responses both acknowledged the excesses of the pro-life movement.

To summarize, I think this common ground has been established:

1. The unborn life deserves more respect than is currently found in the current US cultural and legal environment.

2. The pro-life movement, including some bishops, occasionally indulge in excessively strong rhetoric that may be doing more harm than good to the cause of the unborn.

3. There are a number of circumstances other than the criminal law that make abortion an attractive option that Catholics have a duty to work to address.


That being established, I think these are the points of disagreement:

1. How should the rest of us respond to the excessive rhetoric of the pro-life movement?  Is it a good reason to withhold one's support from pro-life efforts, or is it to be expected as part of any movement confronting an injustice as widespread and grave as the current abortion regime.

2. The common debate about the prudence of criminalizing abortion, and how that should be prioritized with efforts to address the circumstances that lead women to adopt for abortion.


I don't think we've gotten to all that bad a place here, and I say that as one who has been very critical of Commonweal's writings on the abortion issue.

Re: Can We Talk About Abortion

In the articles I didn’t see any reference to question of when personhood begins.  Looking at the history of terminating a pregnancy I think that certain points should be made.  The Church did not always oppose abortion as murder and with a penalty of excommunication.  For grave reasons a pregnancy could be terminated before the soul was joined to the body which was a human body but not a person 1. The teaching that there is an immortal soul created by God and joined to the human body by God is not found in the Bible. 2. Borrowing ideas from Platonism St. Augustine taught that an immortal soul was created by God and joined to the human body in the womb. 3.   A Council of the Church made this  widely accepted idea a dogma. 4. St. Augustine said that the immortal soul created by God was joined to the human body in the womb only when the body had read a stage of development that made it capable of receiving the soul. Augustine said after 40 days for boys and 80 days for females since they are inferior and needed more time to develop. 5. The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas following Aristotelian philosophy also taught that the soul (the substantial form) could only be united to the body (the prime matter) only when it reached the stage of development which would make it capable of receiving the soul – also with the same time frames. The great 18th century moralist St. Alphonsus Liguori echoed St. Thomas although noting that such views were uncertain. Although the Church always respected and valued the human life of the body beginning in the womb, it allowed for the termination of pregnancy for grave reasons up to 80 days. 6. This teaching for over 1500 years was overturned by a pope who listened to a physician who said the soul was joined to the body at conception. Pius IX in1869 dropped the idea of the soul infused at a later stage of the fetus’ development and began the prevailing opinion that the soul is united at the moment of conception. Despite subsequent non-infallible papal teachings, the words of St. Augustine should be heeded: “When a thing obscure in itself defeats our capacity, and nothing in Scripture comes to our aid, it is not safe for humans to presume they can pronounce on it.” It was only in the revised Code of Canon Law in 1917 that an abortion at any time brought about automatic excommunication.  Karl Rahner, S.J., the most important Catholic theologian of the 20th Century, held that the soul joined the fetus after conception at a later but unspecified time. Until then, termination of a pregnancy before 80 days was not considered murder or the killing of a human person because the soul was not yet present. Today with in vitro fertilization who can say that the fertilized ovum in a petrie dish is a human person? Would every fertilized ovum in the womb be a human person who is flushed down the toilet when it fails to properly attach to the womb?  Why would preventing the fertilized ovum being attached to the womb a day after impregnation be immoral?


These are a few issues that I think need more attention in the abortion debate:

*  The reason why society views women as so incapable of preventing unwanted pregnancies - except in the case of some sort assault or abuse - there is a choice prior to the choice.

*  The value that the society places on the right to have sex with no consequences.

*  The reality that so many institutions and people share responsibility for the abortion culture the US- women are often not fully free to choose.

* The reality that abortion allows people to destroy beings who are unwanted (i.e. as opposed to the mom whose desired unborn child is injured in a car accident) and the implications of this for ethics in general.

The only way to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S. is to ensure that women and young children have universal access to healthcare before and after birth, as well as nutrition, daycare, and early education for children and families after birth.  Without these supports, making abortion illegal will not reduce the number of babies killed, it will only change who is killing them and how they are killed.

We all agree that we want to end abortion.  Why can't we all agree to provide the universal healthcare and early childhood family support needed to make this dream a reality?

Abortion is a very complex issue—for all.  It is especially complex for women.  What I see in all of this is men discussing women’s bodies over and over again!  Again the obvious exclusion of enough women's voices—one woman’s take on this IS NOT ENOUGH!!  This is what gets me hopping mad and boils my blood!!  Am I emotional about this, yes, and all women should be. In fact, I am crafting a response to all three of these writers’ conversation, including my own.  I have had three abortions, yes, one out of being too young and immature to even think about being a mother, a second because I careless, and a third because I was still not ready for motherhood as I needed to be able to care for myself first and have the money to support a child as I could not depend on the men I had as partners to be able to do that—no I was not in love with them, so creating a family was out of the question.  We need to look broader that just in front of our political noses here, we also need to be informed by other religious traditions and other countries traditions that have dealt with this issue for a lot longer than we have. Black and white legislation will never solve this issue.  Education will help, but it will not go away, so societal polarization is not the answer either.  We need to find a middle ground that can achieve a reconciliation on both sides, to this end I feel we need to turn to Buddhism.  I will stop there.  This is too important to only blog about!!

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