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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 isn't 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.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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I don't believe it either, but why is that? Why are they not morally equivalent? Isn't there a better reason than appearances?

Mollie,Thanks for writing this. So thoughtful, sensitive, measured and wise. You say all this far better than I could ever hope to.AA

Interesting op-ed in the NYT this morning by Kate Manning, "the author of a forthcoming novel, 'My Notorious Life,' about a 19th-century midwife."

Excellent. When will Collins and others admit that there are some circumstances where the choice for abortion is morally repellant? Most Americans sense this. Collins and the abortion for any reason crowd obviously do not.

William: I take it, then, that, in your mind, there are circumstances in which the choice for abortion is NOT morally repellant? (I happen to agree with that, but find it refreshing to find that implication printed here.)Which is/was more repellant: The Roe decision that has resulted in safer conditions for abortions, or the back alley/coat hanger abortions of the past for poor women, and jetting off to another country for women of means?

Mollie - so excruciatingly problematic. To quote Bill Clinton - it should be safe, legal, and rare. And the devil is in the details. IMO, focus needs to be on supporting folks such that the choice for abortion is way down on the list (rather than the time/effort made to recriminalize abortion and this also goes for the church).Recent stats from various research institutes state that the number one reason why women get abortions:- loneliness- economic reasons- lack of family/community supportIMO, difficult to justify abortions beyond the 1st trimester or earlier. Again, not sure reducing the number of clinics that provide women's healthcare in order to deny abortion is the best direction. Find the catholic pro-life and episcopal stances to be confused; missing the point; judgmental; condemnatory; legalistic. They are also contradictory given that birth control/contraception and abortion are entwined; that the episcopal ranks have a difficult time supporting women's health needs, etc.Always find that this simple question stops folks in their tracks - so, what happens when you recriminalize abortion for the mother, father, doctor?

According to the Pew Forum, people feel pretty much the same now about abortion as they did 40 years ago .... does criminalize abortion and the penalty for doctors is life in prison at hard labor, which perhaps leads to situations like that of the Indian woman who died there recently - doctors may tend to err on the side that keeps them safe rather than the patient.

@ Bill deHaasYou're right, abortion is the only sin for which the religious right gives women a pass. That is, they presume that anyone who commits burglary, arson, or murder of a BORN person knows exactly what he/she is doing, that it's wrong, and the perpetrator deserves whatever punishment is prescribed for the crime. But try to pin them down on why, if abortion is murder, the patient shouldn't be prosecuted, they make excuses: she didn't know what she was doing because she was brainwashed by greedy doctors, Planned Parenthood clerks, and liberal-media newspaper columnists. I've been pregnant three times and carried all three pregnancies to term, even though circumstances arose during each so that, were I not Catholic, I could easily have justified getting an abortion. So perhaps I should be relieved that the religious right would have given me a get-out-of-jail card on the grounds that I was too stupid to know I was committing murder. Instead I'm offended by their condescension. It's the same low opinion of women's intelligence that once denied them the right to vote.

People are uncomfortable about abortion and would rather change the subject because God's laws are written in our hearts. People are uncomfortable because they know at some level that they have been manipulated and brainwashed to have to say that abortion is a womans right. Even as they instinctively know that to support abortion is to support the taking of innocent human life and is therefore wrong. That someone should have the right to kill an unborn child because it is not healthy -is also an immoral position for any one to take. And that a professed christian could take it -shows the power of manipulation and propaganda. We would not say we have the right to deliberately kill innocent people for any other reason.How does the health status of an innocent already alive unborn being allow one to take their life?Is not the right to life inalienable as it is God given?How could a chrsitian believe otherwise? I don't get it except that such thinking is in fact indicitive of the power of propaganda-if enough "decent" people believe it-it must be good and true!.

We make excuses because it would disrupt the society and harm alot of people to have many women have to abandon their families to go to prison.It's not practical.That in no way means that the unborn are not alive and that it is right and just that abortion is legal.

Some people believe it is wrong to kill any person, whether they are innocent or not (death penalty) but maybe the reason someone can believe that and also not want abortion criminalized is that they haven't been convinced that an embryo or an early fetus is indeed a person.

It may not be a person[as it has no self awareness] but it is biologically a human and it is alive. That is sufficient for its' life to be protected. If being human means more then being genetically human and alive then it becomes arbitrary [what being human means]and therefore a human beings' life[the right to life] is no longer an inalienable right. And the concept "person" is also, as we see in euthansia issues, arbitrary.

Thank you, Mollie, for your thoughts on the abortion issue. You brought me back to 1982 when I was pregnant with my son. Then, ultrasounds were not that routine and usually were prescribed when there was some situation that needed to be explored. I remember being anxious yet when I saw the 2 month fetus, moving around with very obvious arms and legs, I thought: I can never be cavalier about abortion.I hope that I do not freak out anyone, but I seemed to hear the words, Dont worry, Mom, I want to be born. I did not actually hear those words but they crossed my mind. I thought: Now thats interesting. A mother is supposed to console her child and here was the child consoling his mother. Things worked out just fine and he was born seven months later. (He is journalist and writes for The Huffington Post - a shameless plug.)I do not understand how a woman can have an abortion. Yet, I cannot help thinking about the fact that I was in the committed relationship of marriage with enough resources to raise a child with no disability. So, I cannot be cavalier (I like that word.) about taking a position opposing abortion without taking into consideration the difficult choices that many other women have to make.

A person who is ill or in a vegetative state or whatever is still a person, just a person who is suffering from some impairment. An embryo or an early fetus has not yet become a person. The two cases seem different to me. People already do not have an inalienable right to life - both the present civil law and church guys like Thomas Aquinas support the killing of "non-innocent" humans.

Crystal --I have read that Aquinasthought that not only does the little creature become fully human only in stages (in fact, metaphysical it is a series of several little creatures!), he also said that that is was possible to die in stages. If this reversal is so, then the higher faculties and human soul might depart before the lower levels of life. I haven't actually read him on the subject. Wish I knew where he says this. It could have great ramifications in the debates about "end-of-life" treatment.

Rose Ellen Caminer is exactly right.

Ann,I saw this article that kind of touches on what you wrote ... Aquinas versus Locke and Descartes on the Human Person and End-of-Life Ethics ... but they seem to conclude that ... " for Aquinas, there is no such thing as a human non-person any more than there can be a red non-colored thing."I didn't really understand it very well ;)

So true: Abortion is the one issue progressives seem willing to close down both conversation and minds over. As one who's been so treated, I can tell you it seems downright weird to be shut down by a liberal. A liberal! Conservatives act this way all the time...but progressives? Why on earth do they act this way? I suppose the psycho-babblers are right, that repressed guilt may play some small part, but I suspect the real culprits are the people pro-choicers think of as The Enemy, i.e., the less-than-genius minds at work among pro-lifers. It's easy to get distracted by the sheer meanness and insensitivity of those who shout the loudest on our side of the fence.As Catholics we're used to reasoned arguments, but what most pro-choice advocates identify with the pro-life cause are the epithets and pseudo-science proclaimed by spokesmen for the Christian right. Even I, a longtime pro-lifer, get angry enough to turn more than a deaf ear on men who say women who've been "legitimately" raped can't get pregnant, not to mention bishops who claim God sends those who vote for a pro-choice President to Hell and yet leaves judgments about war and torture up to individual consciences. Only oblivious but arrogant male legislators would pass laws requiring women seeking abortions to undergo ultrasounds using transvaginal probes!Should those who oppose such foolishness look beyond all that and consider rational arguments and/or the general intuition of Americans who, 40 years after Roe v. Wade, still find abortion problematic? Of course. How to get them to do so remains the question.

Congratulations, Mollie. I've taken a vow never to discuss abortion with Catholics, including my husband, for the remainder of my life. I do follow these threads sometimes and appreciate the comments as my views evolve. v Wade at 40 Jan 22nd 2013, 15:18 by Economist.comAbortion in America since 1965(Open the article URL to see the chart and map referenced in the text)IT'S an old joke, but when a man argues against two beautiful ladies like this, they are going to have the last word. Thus began the argument of Jay Floyd before the Supreme Court in Roe v Wade. Mr Floyd duly lost, and 40 years ago today the Court delivered what has become one of its most famous judgments. As the chart below shows, the number of women dying from botched abortions had actually begun to decline before the Court recognised a woman's right to choose: a handful of states had already decriminalised abortion before 1973. Though a majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal, several states retain trigger laws that would come into force if Roe v Wade were ever overturned (see map). Leaving them in place is a cheap way for politicians to place themselves on one side of a culture war without having to accept the consequences of their position. Those who side with Jane Roe point out that states have been piling extra regulations on abortion clinics in the past two years, with the aim of reducing an abortion rate that was falling already. In 2012 states enacted 43 such provisions. In 2011 they passed 92, a record.

Jean, I also avoid commenting on threads about abortion.

Six and a half years ago, my daughter showed everyone video of our soon-to-be born granddaughter Sasha Grace. She moved around, sucked her thumb, and in general, charmed us all, to the point of tears. If someone had suggested that this unborn child be put to death, for any reason, we would have, all of us, been filled with horror at the suggestion of such an atrocity. There is a kind of spiritual hatred that exists in our universe, a cold and icy hatred, nay, a demonic malice so accurately demonstrated in Nazi Germany, and in Cambodia by Pol Pot. In the present circumstances it takes on the false mantle of kindness and concern about women's rights, but a huge percentage of American citizens senses that something about abortion is hideous, is satanic. In the end, abortion will end; the exact logistics of that finale are as yet unknown..., ,

Speaking of emotional reactions and of the power of images, most people have a different level of comfort thinking of abortion at very early stages, for example before the fourth week of gestation: of the roughly one fifth of abortions that happen beyond the transition to the fetal stage after 10-11 weeks of gestation: that point the risk of miscarriage also decreases sharply. Virtually all of the 50% of pregnancies that end in spontaneous abortion end during the embryonic stage: if one wants to take their cue from nature, nature solves embryo problems, but not fetal problems, by miscarriage. As Mollie wrote, "sixteen weeks is a long time to be pregnant". To which I would add, "and six weeks (gestation) is a short time to be pregnant" (5mm, ). Based on nature's efforts and on the emotional power of images, it should be hard, quite exceptional, to have an abortion at sixteen weeks, and it should be easy, quite straightforward, to have an abortion at six weeks. That's the natural prolongation of Mollie's reflection.

Many of these reflections are profound and helpful to me, but the "devil in the details" of legislation that is workable and the always convoluted question of "who decides" the punishment to whom for a violation/abortion (as raised above) make me hold my tongue. In an ethics class, I once developed 15 scenarios in which abortion was a consideration and this class, in a Catholic nursing college, generally "approved" 11. Many different ethical and emotional bases were given - often with inconsistency and confusion. This was disappointing and it stirred the pot in approaching the issue and teaching, but could we come up with better legislation and review?Surely most of these growing present restrictions do not do that. Does anyone have an example of a solid legislation that might meet national and legal approval that will reduce the number?

Perhaps a starting point in the abortion issue is - for the pro-choice people to refrain from calling pro-life people, anti-woman and - for the pro-life people to refrain from calling pro-choice people, pro-abortion. It only distracts from the real differences, which are that pro-choice people affirm the right of a woman to choose and the pro-life people affirm the right to life of the unborn child.It seems to me that we are dealing with apples and oranges. How can each group ever find common ground?

Today's NYT has two letters to the editor about "Leeches, Lye and Spanish Fly," yesterday's op-ed.From one of the letters:If we are sincere about reducing abortions, we have to reduce unwanted and unplanned pregnancies. That means providing sex education, birth control, fair minimum wages, equal pay for women, child care services and familial support all policies that those working to overturn Roe v. Wade are against. Go figure.

Though only 0.5 inches in size, there is an incredible amount of activity in that fetus of 6 weeks gestation. The heart started beating a week or two earlier, and it's now developed a steady rhythm that is almost audible. Brain activity can be recorded as the differentiation of complex brain structures continues. In fact, the neural tissue and brain development are so active that they account for about 1/3 the size of the fetus at this stage of its development. The eyes have formed, though for the time being they remain lidless. All of this (and much more) is the result of the self-directed and unceasing biochemical unfolding of the immensely complex genetic blueprint that was present from conception. The fetus may not yet look like us outwardly (is physical appearance a sine qua non of who counts as one of us?), but there is no doubt that a singular and unique member of the human family is under construction.

my husband came along we got a sitter for our older childNot all pregnant girls/women have husbands. WIthout "wedlock," babies are "illegitimate" (unselected by their fathers). Always interesting in the abortion threads to see how everyone ignores another obvious way of reducing abortions (along with education and contraception): hold the boys/men who impregnate girls/women financially responsible for the children they beget.With the ease of DNA analysis these days, every child can know her/his father. Why do those who seek to punish girls/women give the boys/men a pass? Why no laws to ensure support of children by their fathers? Why no picketing of the homes and offices of men who refuse to pay? Why no public praying and "counseling" on their sidewalks? Why no garnishment of their wages? A father who refuses to support his child through graduation from college should be excommunicated. Do the "pro-life" bishops insist on that?

Couldn't agree with you more, Gerelyn, that child support laws need to be much more strictly enforced. Most, if not all, states have "Deadbeat Dads" laws on the books (the vast majority of those not paying child support are men). The problem is that the laws are either not strictly enforced or they have loopholes in them that allow delinquent fathers to avoid their financial responsibilities to their children. As a result, the states end up paying out taxpayer monies for the support of the children. This seems like an area where everyone should be able to agree that stricter laws and/or better enforcement are necessary. As you say, the DNA amalysis is so precise in this day and age that perhaps the only time such testing won't meet the legal standard for establishing parentage is the rare instance when a dispute exists as to which of two identical twins is the biological father of a child.

The notion that the relatively high incidence of miscarriage early in pregnancy justifies abortion is illogical. The village in Slovakia my father's family came from saw 50% or so of children die of natural causes in the nineteenth century. Similar statistics can be found in many places and many historical epochs; indeed, there are places in the world today where such statistics may be found. It does not follow from such statistics that children should be able to be killed.

"If we are sincere about reducing abortions, we have to reduce unwanted and unplanned pregnancies. That means providing sex education, birth control, fair minimum wages, equal pay for women, child care services and familial support all policies that those working to overturn Roe v. Wade are against. Go figure."Gerelyn --Introducing balanced sex education would be a beginning. When I say "balanced" I mean presenting not just biology but ethics as well. Adolescents are not impressed very much with biology, but they are generally ethical creatures, if in an impassioned way, and given a change, many are idealistic. They need to learn the biological and social consequences of their actions, and more important their responsibility for the consequences. They need to learn to be truly independent, that is to oppose the judgment of their peers when necessary. Their literature classes could help with this by giving them images of people who accept responsibility for their own acts and who act courageously in difficult circumstances. (The Scarlet Letter is perhaps too distant in culture to impress them.) This would only begin to solve the problems, but it would help many. Come to think of it, this should be a program in the churches as well.

Safe, legal, rare? Now theres a real Clinton whopper. Too bad it is not as humorous as some of his other quips.While abortion is legal in the US, it is neither safe nor rare. A million abortions a year for 40 years nice - that statistic is enough to make a nazi blush. As for being safe; an abortion is not successful unless when the abortionist is finished, a baby is dead.Nope they will have to sell the safe-legal-rare nonsense somewhere else.

(The quotation in the Ann Olivier post is from a letter to the editor of the NYT, not something I wrote.)

Ken --When you imply that all those who think abortion is OK are Nazis you do them a huge injustice. The evidence tells us that Americans do not think that the fetus is a person until well along in the pregnancy, and if there is no person, thre is no murder. These people are, therefore, not approving murder, even though they may be mistaken about the ontological status of the fetus.Calling them Nazis is grossly unfair and is itself wicked. Unless, of course, you have some magical way to get into their consciousness and have discovered that they are in fact hypocrites. If you have discovered such a technique, do let us know how you do it. Should be interesting. We could even look into YOUR consciousness to find out if you are really sincere.

There's a huge over-population problem with pets and thousands are killed because no one wants them, so animal welfare places often neuter kittens and puppies at very young ages. I suspect that in the future, there will be a way to render people reversibly infertile before puberty, and those people will only turn fertility back on when they want to get pregnant.But in the meantime, early sex education and the support for effective contraception that isn't obviated by pilot error (IUD, shots, etc) seems like the best way to avoid abortion. Tuning the US into some kind of abortion free zone, like Malta and Ireland, will just never realistically happen.

And there will always be some women who genuinely need an abortion-to protect their health or life- so of course it needs to be legal.

See also: In the past four decades, American attitudes have changed markedly on gay marriage, smoking, bullying and a host of other cultural issues.But on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, public opinion today looks much as it did back then.When it comes to American views on the legality of abortion, the trend lines look about as flat as they can be, said Daniel Cox, research director at the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute.

Ann - Please, I did not call anyone a nazi. I simply pointed out that even a nazi would be uncomfortable with such a high number; 40 million eliminations is quite a number after all. That hardly seems an unfair or "wicked" comment.

Mercy! Can't Catholic organizations at least get their stories straight?

"The evidence tells us that Americans do not think that the fetus is a person..."Not sure what the point here could possibly be. Didn't the evidence tell us that Nazis did not think Jews were persons? At least, not worthy of life?

Crystal --Thanks for the article. I think that the first part of the article explainins some difficult Aristotle rather well in a short space. But I think it gets hung up on some language problems when it tries to apply the theory, and I didn't understand the little symbols it used. The Weinberg theory it alludes to looks like it's more amenable to end of life discussion, but the metaphysics looks rather shakey (substance as sets of properties)..

Didnt the evidence tell us that Nazis did not think Jews were persons? Mark Proska,No, I have never seen any evidence that the Nazis did not consider Jews to be persons, or that slave owners did not consider slaves to be persons, or or that the Europeans who came to the Americas did not consider the native peoples here to be persons. At least, not worthy of life?That is an utterly different matter.

Jean, thanks for the congratulations. We are excited.Perhaps I should have said this earlier, but people (as Gail Collins would say), if you cannot respond to this post without mentioning the Nazis, please refrain from responding.

First and foremost, congrats!And thanks for a thoughtful and thought-provoking reflection. It seems both sides on the abortion wars feel like they're backed up against a wall, and so they hurl slogans at each other. Choice! Life! My body! Beating heart! In fact I think most abortion decisions are far more ambivalent and conflicted, even when the woman decides, as most do, that they made the right choice (either way.) (In class I use the abortion debate as an example of a failure in deontological ethics: people endlessly flinging principles at each other, both sides claiming that the other is using a person as a means rather than an end...) 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 air like Macy's parade balloons. Magisterial teaching on the topic rarely mentions women except in a "tough luck" way, as when JPII said that threats to the mother's health don't matter. The Society of Jesus issued a press release on the Roe anniversary trumpeting its anti-abortion bona fides, but never saw fit to mention women, or the difficulties or dangers pregnancy can present. (Of course, the fact that there are no women in the Society might play a role in this "oversight.")Reciprocally, there is a tendency among pro-choice folks to downplay the fetus, to ignore the marvelous process of human development that goes on as pregnancy continues. In a way, there's an 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. Neither side wants to recognize biological development, or admit that development might have moral meaning.Otoh, public opinion shows that while most people approve of early abortion essentially on demand, people are increasingly uncomfortable with it as development proceeds. The moral "reflexes" of Americans (rightly or wrongly) see the moral significance of the fetus increasing as it develops. 16 weeks is well into the range where most Americans begin to get squeamish about termination without clear cause. It's also, to my understanding, the general pattern of current law: the state has an increasing interest in protecting the fetus as it progresses in development. But neither magisterial teaching nor the sloganeering of both sides of the debate can figure out what to make of that moral reflex and the legal stance that reflects it.So thanks for pointing us to the gray zone, the non-absolute places where the more complex truths lie.

(is physical appearance a sine qua non of who counts as one of us?)Mollie's post: At sixteen weeks, we could see our new babys face, [...]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. Helen 01/22/2013 - 5:45 pm:When I saw the 2 month fetus, moving around with very obvious arms and legs, I thought: I can never be cavalier about abortion.Bob Schwartz 01/22/2013 - 11:48 pm:My daughter showed everyone video of our soon-to-be born granddaughter Sasha Grace. She moved around, sucked her thumb, and in general, charmed us allPhysical appearance is a big part of what convinces people that this must be, or can't possibly be, a person. I'm not saying it's rational, but there it is.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. Or not.There is no doubt that a singular and unique member of the human family is under construction.No doubt about that. I take back the word "straightforward" that I used above. Even at the earliest stage, abortion always stops the construction of a future member of the human family, so it should never be a straightforward decision. But I don't think it is, for the vast majority of women undergoing abortions; most take it seriously. I've heard some women say, effectively: "Don't worry, if I get pregnant, I'll just have an abortion", but only inexperienced teenagers are so flippant about it, I think - I hope!...

The truth about abortion does not lie in "the gray zone," in the "non-absolute places."This is the truth: "direct abortion, that is, abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder, since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being. This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written Word of God, is transmitted by the Church's Tradition and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church."Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Destruction of the embryo in the mother's womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life. And that is nothing but murder."

Here is a Salon article from 1/23 entitled "So What if Abortion Ends Life." Near the end of the article, the author writes --"And I can say anecdotally that Im a mom who loved the lives she incubated from the moment she peed on those sticks, and is also now well over 40 and in an experimental drug trial. If by some random fluke I learned today I was pregnant, you bet your ass Id have an abortion. Id have the Worlds Greatest Abortion."

Abe: that seems to reduce the rape victim even further. She/it is nothing more than an evidence bag.

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.

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