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Still uncomfortable, 40 years after 'Roe'

Gail Collins is my favorite New York Times columnist (in, yes, a not-very-crowded field). She's funny and she's smart; she does the "writing lightly about serious matters" thing so well it makes me wonder all the more that the same paper should publish someone as bad at that very thing as Maureen Dowd. (She's also good at politely telling David Brooks why he's full of it.) When I read Collins carefully I can see the impressive amount of work that has gone into a seemingly breezy 800 words, but the result is never effortful. She's a master.The only time my fondness for Collins takes a hit is when she writes about abortion, and not only because we disagree. On that subject I find she writes, like so many other progressives, as though there are no difficult questions left, and support for unrestricted access to abortion is the only decent position a right-thinking, non-woman-hating person can hold. Obviously I'm a bit insulted by that approach. But I'm also disappointed whenever I encounter it. It doesn't sound like an earnest attempt to grapple with a tough issue; it sounds to me like an attempt to convince oneself that there is no more thinking to be done. Coming from either side, self-satisfied absolutism is a dead end.A couple weeks ago, ahead of today's Roe v. Wade anniversary, Collins published a column with the headline "The Woes of Roe." Somewhat ironically, Collins put her finger on an aspect of what I just described:

Americans are permanently uncomfortable with the abortion issue, and they respond most positively to questions that suggest it isnt up to them to decide anything.

But Collins did not acknowledge any of the reasons I can think of that people might still, all these years after Roe, be "uncomfortable" with abortion. Instead she catalogued the "crazy new rules" that are plaguing the nation's abortion clinics:

In Texas, the Legislature is considering a law that would require that all abortions be performed in ambulatory surgical centers. When the state passed that requirement for pregnancies beyond 16 weeks in 2004, every single clinic doing that procedure was forced to shut down. Only a handful managed to reopen in a state that encompasses more than 261,000 square miles.

It so happens that I read that column shortly after my own sixteenth week of pregnancy.

I had an ultrasound at sixteen weeks, and my husband came along we got a sitter for our older child because we knew from experience that it would be worth it. At sixteen weeks, we could see our new baby's face, start the predictions about whom he or she will look like. (We still don't know the sex, but only because we asked the technician not to tell us. At sixteen weeks we could have found that out, too.) We saw a spine, curling and uncurling; kicking legs; perfectly formed fingers and toes. "This baby is going to be a hand model!" the technician laughed, because every time she tried a new angle our baby flashed us a wave. We heard the heartbeat, stronger and louder than it was the first time I heard it, ten weeks earlier. We counted the chambers of the heart and studied the developing brain. Everything is as it should be, we were told. Our baby is healthy. And they gave us pictures to bring home, to hang on the fridge and show our family.With those images in my mind, I read that paragraph from Collins and thought, "It should be difficult to get an abortion after sixteen weeks." Sixteen weeks is a long time to be pregnant; a long time for a baby to grow. Within a day of that ultrasound I could feel my baby kicking. Is it any wonder that people remain uncomfortable with the idea that aborting a baby that far along should be a routine procedure? I can imagine situations in which a woman might feel compelled to end the life within her for example, if she received awful news about her child's health instead of the good news I was lucky enough to get. It's not a choice I would or could ever make, but I can understand it. But I can't see why making such a choice shouldn't require a lot of effort, at the very least. "Over the last 40 years," Collins complains, "women seeking abortions have been put through a lot of unnecessary trauma" like long trips to clinics, or being forced to have ultrasounds before aborting their babies. I guess I'm supposed to be thinking, "Those poor women," and if I were convinced that abortion had no moral dimension I suppose I would be able to see it that way. And I'm not ready to speak up in favor of any particular regulation, not without knowing the specifics. But in general, I found myself thinking again, "It should be hard."Collins, like a lot of prochoicers, has a gloomy sense that the abortion-rights movement is struggling more than it should be at this point in history. I'm not out to give advice to abortion advocates, but it does seem to me that the "abortion, to a right-thinking person, is no big deal" approach is never going to win the day. Too many people have had ultrasounds and not experienced them as trauma. Too many people are not ready to be told that their discomfort with abortion is just a matter of their not thinking about it the right way. It's true, as Collins writes, that even in a conservative state, voters will eventually object to "politicians messing with a womans private business." But I suspect it's also true that widespread discomfort about abortion is, as Collins herself says, permanent, and it seems to me that "the nervous, ambivalent, uncomfortable public" is going to stay that way so long as they find no room on either side of the abortion debate for the full range of things that they are nervous about.


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Ah yes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the guy who conspired to murder. Oh, but wait, the person he wanted to kill wasn't "innocent" so that's ok then.I think what makes some pro-choice people over-react to any restrictions on abortion is fear, a fear that's represented by examples like the pregnant nine year old Brazilian girl who was raped by her stepfather. The docs told her she would probably die without an abortion. This from TIME ...** The Church excommunicated the doctors who performed the procedure as well. "God's laws," said the archbishop, dictate that abortion is a sin and that transgressors are no longer welcome in the Roman Catholic Church. "They took the life of an innocent," Sobrinho told TIME in a telephone interview. "Abortion is much more serious than killing an adult. An adult may or may not be an innocent, but an unborn child is most definitely innocent. Taking that life cannot be ignored." **I hate this distinction made between the lives of people who are innocent and not - this isn't Christian, it's Thomist.

"both sides claiming that the other is using a person as a means rather than an end)"" ... odd parallel between the pro-lifers wanting to absolutize the fetus from conception and the pro-choicers wanting also to see only cells, to de-absolutize the fetus from beginning to birth."Lisa --I think the argument that the principle that people should not be used as mere means is generlly a fine one, but, like the "never do evil to attain good" needs revisions. As to abortion == no, make that as to pregnancy == yes, the mother is in a senses used to produce a child's life. But the mother also used her own mother in order to live. Doesn't a woman's place in the continuation of the species count for something morally? Complexity, complexity.Your second sentence above is a fine capsulation of the bare basics. It needs endless repeating.

"I hate this distinction made between the lives of people who are innocent and not this isnt Christian, its Thomist."Crystal =-Aw, c'mon. it's Thomas at his worst. And who knows, had he been presented with tha real, stunning, tmost extreme case he might have rethought some things. Also, it is my understanding that for Thomas abortion in the pre-hominizaiton period is not murder, though it is a venial sin.

Ms Watson: You wrote: I hate this distinction made between the lives of people who are innocent and not this isnt Christian, its Thomist.Isn't it biblical? Claire: You wrote: "One might think that Catholics, who can look at a consecrated piece of bread and see Christ beyond the appearance of bread, may have a greater propensity to look at a just-fertilized egg or at a bizarre creature and see a person."I think you've hit on something here. Catholic belief in the Real Presence relies, not on appearances, but on Christ's word. Think of the words of the "Adoro te devote": Visus, tactus, gustus in te fallitur / Sed auditu solo tuto creditur. / Credo quidquid dixit Dei Filius; / Nil hoc verbo verittis verius." (When the other senses fail, we may rely solely on hearing, because we believe whatever the Son of God has said: Nothing is more true than the word of Truth.)Whether or not the fetus deserves to be treated as a person is not something that can be settled by appearances, but by intelligence and reason taking into account all that ought to be taken into account. They will have to do in the absence of a clear word from Truth himself. But we can at least agree, perhaps, that appearances don't suffice in this matter or any other.

It may be biblical but it isn't Christian. There's a lot that's biblical that Christians eschew .... this example seems even more important than avoiding shellfish. Either all life is sacred without exception or it isn't. And if it isn't then you have to look elsewhere than the gospels for backup. I guess then you're for the death penalty?

The traditional argument of the Churchs teaching is that there is never any justification for abortion; direct killing of the innocent is always and everywhere a sin. During the Second World War, the American, British and German air forces deliberately bombed cities with the intention of killing civilians. There was no pretense that these deaths were the consequence of the victims living close to military targets. The use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki also had the intention of killing civilians. Even if it were argued that the civilian populations contained war workers who were not innocent in the context of war, their deaths would not justify the killing of the children and fetuses in these populations. The main purpose of bombing whole cities was not to kill workers but to break civilian morale, and/or to bring the war to an early close. To the best of my knowledge (but I am prepared to be corrected on this), neither the Catholic hierarchies in the countries concerned, nor the Pope, condemned these bombings. And no Catholic participating in them was excommunicated. Before someone says, but, but, but .. let me quote from this publication from the past: (Nor can) the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki be justified on the score that what was being done was to end the war and the deaths of the inhabitants were side effects. Double effect can be invoked only when the act is in itself morally legitimate, even though in the particular circumstances it will have foreseeable evil side effects. Nothing can be a side effect if it is the means by which the objective of the act is realized.Michael Dummett, February 11, 2011, Indefensible: Moral teaching after Humanae Vitae

Ms. Watson: I indicated that the distinction is biblical to counteract the unfounded statement that it was Thomist. It's rather older than that. And, indeed, I'm not prepared to say that the death penalty violates biblical teaching, including that of the New Testament.

Serious question, though off topic: What does it mean that a comment is awaiting moderation? Is one supposed to submit a more moderate version of it?

Jim McCrea,Two moral theologians who supported Humane Vitae were unwavering in their condemnation of terroristic bombing. "In 1944 [John Ford, S.J.] published a forty-nine page article cogently arguing that the rights of the innocent were being violated by the obliteration bombing which the United States and the United Kingdom were even then conducting. In 1945, having mentioned in Notes on Moral Theology the atrocities committed by the Soviets, Nazis, and Japanese, Ford spoke bluntly of the greatest and most extensive single atrocity in the history of all this period, our atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.Father Ford was one of the "minority" members of Pope Paul VI's Pontifical Commission on Population, Family, and Birth-rate. He supported the Church's traditional teaching on contraception and was a defender of Humane Vitae. Germain Grisez, another moral theologian who supported Humane Vitae, also has written that the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima are morally indefensible. Moreover, he believes that maintaining a nuclear deterrent is also immoral. Sources:

But we can at least agree, perhaps, that appearances dont suffice in this matter or any other.Perhaps. But I remember, back when I was pregnant with my daughter (and eagerly expectant), having insistent and unbidden reminiscences of the life-sucking water lily in Boris Vian's "Ecume des Jours"; and, possibly after too much browsing of books with pictures of embryos, having a nightmare that a tapeworm was invading my body. I'm just not into embryos, I guess. Maybe on this topic one cannot put "intelligence and reason" to good use. There is too much personal bias.

Fr. Komonchak,I mentioned Aquinas because I had thought that until he and Augustine, Christians were pretty much behind pacifism (but maybe I'm wrong?). Ideas about death penalties and just wars were expedient but from what I've read of Jesus, I can't help but think the rating of life based on innocence would have been alien to him.

But we can at least agree, perhaps, that appearances dont suffice in this matter or any other.Coincidentally, Cdl Dolan goes in the opposite direction:,8775?content_source=&ca...I think of you as the Ultrasound Generation. You are different than any generation that came before you in that your very first baby pictures were taken not with you in your mothers arms, but you alive in her womb. [..] And you have grown up with ultrasound technology that has opened a window into the womb, allowing us to glimpse preborn babies from the earliest weeks of gestation.You have seen your little brothers and sisters before they were born in these grainy videos and photographs pinned to the fridge. Your mom or your dad has shown you those first images of yourself. Some of you have even seen your own children for the first time with newer, clearer 3- and 4-dimensional ultrasound technology. You have gasped with wonder at the sight of little arms flailing and legs kicking, heads bobbing and hearts beating, mouths sucking thumbs.You have seen, and you believe.[] right to choose. [] You are rightly skeptical. They may believe what they say, but in this matter they are wrong. Think of your first baby picture, the one on the flimsy paper with the dark background and the unmistakable image of you. You know better.You have seen, and you believe.[] others are counting on you having some sort of grand epiphany once you get older and, as she said, reality hits. But what they arent counting on is that when you saw yourself, your kid brother or sister, your own child, in that ultrasound photo, reality did hit. And it hit hard.You have seen, and you believe.Politically, I think that he may be right: that, not an appeal to "intelligence and reason", is the way to convince people that the laws ought to be more restrictive. But he's never going to get people on board all the way back to conception if he goes about it in that fashion. Now, I have to say that the fact that Cdl Dolan examines the abortion question solely by an appeal to emotions based on appearances makes me want to not go about it in that way. There's a piece of paradoxical episcopal influence!Since images and videos so easily overpower reason, might it not be better to avoid them in a discussion about abortion? Mollie laid the rule "no mention of Nazis"; how about adding the rule "no mention of appearances"? Then most of the comments above would disappear.

Claire: The problem with emphasizing images in the debate is that the argument can just as easily go in the other direction, as you suggest. I remember a fairly well-known U.S. moral theologian saying once that he had held an early embryo in his hand and he could tell by looking that it couldn't be considered a person. It's the "already out there now real" that Bernard Lonergan so criticized, that is, the notion that knowing is like taking a look and that the real is what you see when you take that look.

I agree.

There's taking a look and taking a look. How do you know that *any* individual material phenomenon is (or is very probably) a person? Usually it's by hearing the phenomenon using words rationally, but also at times seeing the object reacting to circumstances in a rational way. True, a brief look won't do it. But we only know the rational animals by their rational actions which are given by the senses. So images can be evidence.

Ann: No one denied that sense-data may provide evidence, but evidence is evidence only in reply to a question for understanding, and evidence needs to be marshalled in order to reach a reasonable judgment. And neither understanding nor judging is a matter of taking a look. So I stand by my statement: "appearances dont suffice in this matter or any other."

I think appearances matter a little bit. I don't believe destroying a 100 cell blastocyte is the moral equivalent of throwing a baby off a bridge. I'm not saying it's not wrong, but I don't think it's the same thing.

JAK --I agree that appearances alone are insufficient to settle the matter. But neither are they not part of the evidence. It also seems to me that there many different kinds of evidence needed to come to a reasonable conclusion, including biology, psychology and philosophy, and these days even physical properties might be relevant in establishing whether or not the higher cognitive parts of the brain are operating at any given point in time. Unfortunately, the whole thing is terribly complex, and that inclines us to look for simple answers.

Why such division? Contrary to sloganeering, we Catholics can be pro-life and pro-choice. There's nothing wrong with pro-choice. Some choices, of course, can be wrong or sinful. But if we were all doing what we could to provide a supportive culture for troubled pregnant women -- if we were all living the Gospel -- far fewer wrong choices would be made. But, instead, we seem bent on a divisive discussion to divert our focus from living more Christ-like lives. We are all called to be pro-life. And over 50 percent of us see, as the way to answer this call, ensuring a safety net for troubled pregnant women. This is a necessary first step toward providing that supportive culture which reduces the number of abortions. Removing this safety net will increase the number. So if some of us focus more on this and others more on law change, hey, we've got it pretty well covered. Different gifts, different approaches. Pro-life and pro-choice.

Neither side wants to recognize biological development, or admit that development might have moral meaning.Isn't that the crux of the problem? Development is gradual, but becoming a person is not; it's a discrete event, in our current understanding of it, and that's the problem. It's as though there was a need for something like a theory of mathematical continuity and calculus - the math of motion and change. What troubles me most in the public debate, I think, is when women disappear: pro-lifers show giant pictures of fetuses as though they float in the airIt's true that the link between the pregnant woman and the developing being inside her is unique, without parallel, but that they are looked at separately, centering on one or on the other, rather than as a pair. The fetus is always presented as the powerless one, but the woman is also powerless to prevent the fetus from drawing on her strength and from causing her body to change - powerless, other than by having an abortion. If abortion was out of the picture, they would be chained to one another like a pair of convicts.

Excellent piece, Mollie. It captures where many Catholicsm, including myself, actually are on the issue. Far less helpful for me are lectures by bishops and almost repellent to me was that hyper-triumphalistic "Vigil for Life" at the DC shrine on Wed (televised on Catholic TV). An ocean of male celibates all dressed up in their white silks, their representatives speaking quite cavalierly about sins they themselves cannot commit (we shall leave their actual and unrepented sins against the life of God's people aside for today). To paraphrase a journalist I read long ago here in one of the Boston papers: "If bishops could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament..."But back to Mollie: your piece, indeed, speaks for many of us who are uncomfortable and uneasy with the current state of abortion rights. Safe, legal and rare are the correct "compromise" terms, but I doubt the "rare" part will ever be a reality in the current socio-cultural climate. Thanks for your thoughtful writing.

Claire --The Donceel and Wolter articles I keep referring to give arguments which combine biology and philosophy. There are collections of articles on the matter, but they include technical philosophical stuff. (The aforementioned articles are technical too. But as you know technical does not mean irrelevant. Far from it.) And there are histories of the moral problem. Those I've seen are less satisfactory to me --- they mainly just present conclusions.So far as I can see there has been precious little real debate on the matter. I mean systematic presentations of the pros and cons. JP II on the subject is quite superficial.

Thanks Ann.