Beyond the Stalemate

Forty Years after ‘Roe’

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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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Regarding the 8-week limit suggested in the article, the Supreme Court will probably be asked to rule on whether Arkansas's new limit of 12 weeks for abortions can stand.  The law was enacted in March and on May 17 a federal judge issued an injunction staying its implementation. 


Wright said the 12-week standard criminalizes some abortions before the generally accepted medical standard of viability for a fetus, which is 24 weeks.


"The Supreme Court has consistently used viability as a standard with respect to any law that regulates abortion," Wright said. "This act defines viability as something viability is not."


Wright didn't rule on the constitutionality of the new law itself, dubbed the Arkansas Human Heartbeat Protection Act 


But in a clear signal of how she was leaning, she said the 12-week standard criminalizes some abortions before the generally accepted medical standard of viability for a fetus, which is 24 to 28 weeks, while "the Supreme Court has consistently used viability as a standard with respect to any law that regulates abortion."


"This act defines viability as something viability is not," she said.

I found Peter Steinfels article on Abortion extremely interesting and his arguments persuasive.  I do have concerns, however, regarding the effort to define “viability.”  Remembering the gyrations we experienced in the past with “grave matter” and mortal sin, especially in matters of theft, the use of alcohol and pre-marital sex, I think we would be well advised to leave that legal definition to others.  Wherever the “line” is established, there will be those who assume that anything less is OK.  Rather remain with our augment on the sanctity of life, maintain that position in advising the legal experts, and accept as progress the lines that are drawn.  In particular situations, counsel with a confessor or prudent guide should be recommended.

F. Philip Johnston
Fountain Valley, CA

Once again, the only thing that matters is that from the moment of fertilization, regardless of semantics, HUMAN LIFE exists. 

There is no dispute on that matter.  From the 1st nano second, it's human life, with 100% complete and unique (save for twins),  human DNA. 

The only reasonable debate is who but (or in addditon to) God has the right to destroy or end human life?

For all the lip service this country gives to "render onto Caesar," interesting that same standard doesn't apply "and to God what is Gods'."

Human Life, at all stages, belongs to God and God alone.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is deceived.


I didn't read every word and may have missed what I'm now writing about.  The question for most Catholics is who to vote for.  The party who claims to be pro-life yet pushes for cuts to life supports for women and children, like TANF and WIC?  Or for the party that is for maintaining or increasing a safety net that has proven to reduce the number of abortions yet is for keeping abortion legal? 

During the Great Depression, years before the Roe v. Wade decision, "women had abortions on a massive scale," according to researcher Leslie Reagan.  Annual numbers may have equaled numbers today, and the population then was about 125 million, less than half of what it is today.  And the numbers of women dying from abortions was many times higher back then.

When AFDC was cut in 1996, abortions sharply increased for those formerly eligible for these pro-life services.  Now one party wants to cut TANF which is a pared down version of AFDC.  In good conscience, after carefully reading the bishops voting guidelines, I voted Democratic in 2008 and 2012.  Most Catholics voted as I did, largely because  it may very well be that the main driver in the number of abortions is not Roe v. Wade but poverty.  And legality has sharply reduced the number of women dying in abortions.

Do we need such division on the abortion issue?  One side focuses more on the unborn and tends to be for reducing the safety net.  The other side is for the safety net but also for legal abortion.  From different, limited perspectives, both approach the same goal: reducing the number of abortions.  Is it unrealistic to expect, instead of arguing, both sides appeciate the other's perspective, work together, to better reduce the number of abortions?  Probably, but maybe not. 

It is human life in potency at conception. It is not a human being. Mr. Steinfel's comparing the embryo in size to a period should tell anyone that we're not talking about a human being, How can we say that that bit of life is entitled to the respect that we give the the person "housing" that incipent life?  Only when the fetus is viable does it merit the protection demanded for people. And even then, the mother's life should take precedence over the fetus's life when hers is threatened.

Thank you Peter for this well thoughtout and researched commentary on the abortion issue.If the hardline Prolife have there way: 1) what punishment shall a woman procuring an abortion recieve. Their current stance appears to be to primarily punish the "ist" as the killer. A very bad concept of law in a just society.

2) A woman must be allowed complete control over her own person, even to the point of the sometimes necessary, or unnecessary evil of fetuscide. I hold this position fully aware that in fact a human being, in all that a human can potentially be exists at conception. The when a zygote, embryo, or fetus becomes human etc is not an issue here.

3) Obama was correct when he stated we must do all we can to alliviate the "necessity for so many abortions"

4) Then, as you state, we will have to depend on love to end abotions, the law is terribly inadequate to do so.

The Catholic church may be the only religion where a fetus (or embryo or zygote) is given more status than the pregnant woman.  In those extreme either/or medical cases, choosing the life of the fetus over the life of the mother seems peculiar to Catholic doctrine.  Other religions, including Mormans and Muslims, grant more status to the mother, who is needed to raise current and future children, than to the fetus that/who must be terminated so the valued mother may live for another day of mothering.  Catholic blindness to the woman, the mother, seems only possible in an organization run by celebate men. 

Wow!  I have no idea how to write about such a challenging set of ideas and realities so well.  For me, there is a notion in Christianity concerning the circumstances in which a human being finds itself at conception I find irreconcilable as an idea and a reality.  Original sin.  For me it is a truly odd we would find comfort or usefulness in the notion God does not provide absolution with what is for us mere mortals the ultimate expression of new beginnings, the gift of life. 

That there is evil in the world and that we humans are capable of evil is unquestionable.  In as much as we, unlike God, are not infinite, it seems reasonable enough it had a beginning.  Let's call that original sin.  However, to believe keeping that notion alive or useful requires finding its personification in the face of a newborn seems to me inexplicable.

I suppose the connection my rambling has with the issue in this piece has to do with my profound confusion with how so much of Christianity expresses its concern for life at conception and, in fact, beyond.  As for the issue of abortion, I have no idea how to cover it better than Peter had done.  As issues go it's a real toughy.


Stunned by Justice Blackmun’s dismissal of any need to “resolve the difficult question of when life begins,” the antiabortion movement focused on that as the crux of the matter.


That  might leave the impression that the court was indifferent to the question of when life begins. Somewhat as in Peter's article, Blackmun reviewed the many different views that people held on this subject,  and said that the Court was not "in a position to speculate as to the answer" and concludes that  "the unborn have never been recognized in the law as persons in the whole sense."


Texas urges that, apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer. [p160]


It should be sufficient to note briefly the wide divergence of thinking on this most sensitive and difficult question. There has always been strong support for the view that life does not begin until live' birth. This was the belief of the Stoics. [n56] It appears to be the predominant, though not the unanimous, attitude of the Jewish faith. [n57] It may be taken to represent also the position of a large segment of the Protestant community, insofar as that can be ascertained; organized groups that have taken a formal position on the abortion issue have generally regarded abortion as a matter for the conscience of the individual and her family. [n58] As we have noted, the common law found greater significance in quickening. Physician and their scientific colleagues have regarded that event with less interest and have tended to focus either upon conception, upon live birth, or upon the interim point at which the fetus becomes "viable," that is, potentially able to live outside the mother's womb, albeit with artificial aid. [n59] Viability is usually placed at about seven months (28 weeks) but may occur earlier, even at 24 weeks. [n60] The Aristotelian theory of "mediate animation," that held sway throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe, continued to be official Roman Catholic dogma until the 19th century, despite opposition to this "ensoulment" theory from those in the Church who would recognize the existence of life from [p161] the moment of conception. [n61] The latter is now, of course, the official belief of the Catholic Church. As one brief amicus discloses, this is a view strongly held by many non-Catholics as well, and by many physicians. Substantial problems for precise definition of this view are posed, however, by new embryological data that purport to indicate that conception is a "process" over time, rather than an event, and by new medical techniques such as menstrual extraction, the "morning-after" pill, implantation of embryos, artificial insemination, and even artificial wombs. [n62]


In areas other than criminal abortion, the law has been reluctant to endorse any theory that life, as we recognize it, begins before live birth, or to accord legal rights to the unborn except in narrowly defined situations and except when the rights are contingent upon live birth. For example, the traditional rule of tort law denied recovery for prenatal injuries even though the child was born alive. [n63] That rule has been changed in almost every jurisdiction. In most States, recovery is said to be permitted only if the fetus was viable, or at least quick, when the injuries were sustained, though few [p162] courts have squarely so held. [n64] In a recent development, generally opposed by the commentators, some States permit the parents of a stillborn child to maintain an action for wrongful death because of prenatal injuries. [n65] Such an action, however, would appear to be one to vindicate the parents' interest and is thus consistent with the view that the fetus, at most, represents only the potentiality of life. Similarly, unborn children have been recognized as acquiring rights or interests by way of inheritance or other devolution of property, and have been represented by guardians ad litem. [n66] Perfection of the interests involved, again, has generally been contingent upon live birth. In short, the unborn have never been recognized in the law as persons in the whole sense.

i agree with Peter's formulation "the residual uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding the beginnings and early stages of human development mean that the gap will not disappear between, on the one hand, what a community like the Catholic people teaches as morally demanded, and therefore what individual Catholics should urge with family and friends regarding their own actions, and, on the other hand, what can be legally established in a diverse, pluralist society."


A fetus is not an isolated being without context. It is a being in the womb of its mother. How then do we consider its moral status with no consideration of its context? 

Born human life forfeits its right to life in certain contexts. If a criminal cannot be prevented from harming other humans, even anti-death penalty teachings from Pope John Paul I I would allow the state to execute such a person. If a soldier is engaged in war, it is deemed moral to kill an enemy combatant. In a person nearing death, it is deemed morally permissible to employ treatments that will hasten death or to refuse others, the omission of which will similarly hasten death, as long as the motivation is not to hasten death but to alleviate pain or to eliminate treatments that are "extraordinary" in the given case.


Peter Steinfels allows no such consideration of context or motive in his moral evaluation of a decision to abort a fetus. He bases his defense of pre-born human life "on the biological character of the fetus - as biologically unique...constitutionally programmed to develop, and genetically distinct from both parents." He establishes that the fetus is a distinct human being and therefore concludes that the fetus has an absolute moral right to life beyond limitation by any context of the real question in any given case. While Mr. Steinfels mentions that "This is a high stakes issue for the destinies of women and families - pregnant teenagers, women with unintended pregnancies that threaten health, family welfare and on rare occasions, life itself," he never allows these factors to be considered in evaluating the morality of abortion. Rather than allowing residence in a womb, in a symbiotic biological relationship with a woman, to be considered in determining the morality of terminating a life, Mr. Steinfels uses that context to grant an absolute right to life to a fetus. I know of no other human person whose right to life is considered absolute.

Moral principles may rest on the definition of an entity, but concrete moral decisions must always be made in real contexts. A specific decision on any given abortion cannot bracket out the mother; we are not considering a fetus growing in an artificial womb but one person in intimate relationship with another.


“Anti-abortion advocates have done a good job of making their fellow citizens aware of the plight of the unborn. They have not done a good job of coming to terms with the concerns of women, or the complexity of abortion as a social problem. Legal reforms are necessary, but insufficient. Abortion was common enough before it was legalized, and outlawing it will not end the practice. It is a stubborn biological, legal, and moral reality that abortion is not just about the rights of the unborn. It is also about the moral autonomy, physical integrity, health and well-being of women. There is no other situation in which one human being is as dependent on another as is an unborn child on its mother. If abortion is starkly drawn as a battle of competing rights — of the rights of the unborn versus the rights of women — the unborn will always lose. We need a different approach, one that will promote the flourishing of both mother and child — an approach that recognizes that their individual well-being is inseparable.”

Paul Baumann, After Tiller: Envisioning A Compromise,, June 19, 2009 ·

Further to what Beatrice said:

“The traditional argument for the Church’s teaching 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. 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. In any case, the prime 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, neither the Catholic hierarchies in the countries concerned, nor the Pope, condemned these bombings. And no Catholic participating in them was excommunicated.”

(Letter to The Tablet, April 4, 2009)



As a Jesuit trained philosopher, now an Emeritus Professor of the Philosophy of Biology (Notre Dame), I am a little surprised at the ease with which Steinfels dismisses the extremely influential thought experiment of Judith J. Thompson (the one about the world famous violinist with a failing kidney).  

A careful examination of the classic (early Platonic) roots of Steinfels' own essentialist approach to the starting point of human life would reveal a set of assumptions no stronger than Thompson's.

After Darwin, no philosopher should assume that species membership is determinxed by unchanging "essential" characteristics.  This, at its roots, was nothing but am artifice shoring up the roots of the legel system of ancience Athens.  After Watson & Crick, no molecular emryologist should agree that the "starting point of human life" is a dateable event.  On this latter point, Steinfels argues as someone who has read page 1 of a great many embryology books.

If abortion is not undertaken for the purpose of killing the fetus, but solely to remove it from the womb of its mother, then it would seem it is not direct killing of lthe innocent.  The death of the fetus is the result of our inability to preserve its life in any other way than by leaving it in the mother's womb until, with medical assistance, it is viable.  If the act is the removal of the fetus from the womb of its mother, as in birth, but done early to preserve the life, or the health of the mother, and  the death of the fetus is the unintended, but foreseen, side effect, would that not qualify as double effect?

However, there are cases in which the intention is to end not only the pregnant state of the woman but the life of the fetus as well.  In these cases, it is not the pregnancy, but the addition of a child to her life that the woman cannot bear.  This case requires other moral analysis.

ooops!  for 'ancience Athens' read 'ancient Athens," please.

First of all, thank you Mr. Steinfels for your thoughtful and thought-provoking article about abortion.  I agreed with most of what you said and disagreed with some things.  But one thing that struck me about your article as well as the responses from most of the readers is that most people I know, Catholics included, don’t get involved in the fine points of theology, philosophy, and biology when it comes to abortion.  They either believe a union of an egg and sperm is a human being or not. 

I would like to add a perspective from practical moral theology as I learned it many years ago.

I grew up in a large, Polish-Catholic family in Chicago in the 1940’s and 1950’s.  I am one of ten kids.  My Mom was one of nine, and my Dad was one of five.  I never remember having a Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving get-together without at least 40 to 50 people crammed into a two story frame house. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins galore were together celebrating religious holidays and the importance of family. 

With so many family members of varying ages, it was not unusual that some of the women in the family from time to time would have a miscarriage.  When that occurred, the level of loss and disappointment experienced by each woman depended primarily on how long they had been carrying the baby.  A miscarriage in the first few weeks or months of a pregnancy was looked upon as pretty common and the couples generally took it in stride and tried again.  There was not an understanding that a human being had died at the early stage of pregnancy. 

If the pregnancy lasted into the fifth or sixth month, the sense of loss was greater.  In some, but not the majority of cases, the expectant mother and father thought and felt that they had lost a child, whom they might have already named.  The larger family shared in the deeper sense of loss and grief.  Sometimes, the grieving, expectant parents would think about having some type of funeral service for the unborn baby.  In my experience, the Catholic Church response at that time was that a funeral was not appropriate for an unborn baby at that stage of development. 

If the miscarriage occurred in the seventh, eighth, or ninth month, the Pastor of the parish you belonged to might conduct a service for the unborn child.  Strictly speaking, it was not a funeral Mass, which was considered inappropriate for an unborn baby.  Rather a special prayer service was conducted in the Church or at a funeral home.  On very rare occasions, the unborn baby would be placed in a coffin and buried in the family plot at the local cemetery. 

When I got married in 1966, my wife and I looked forward to having children.  It was a natural and wonderful part of life to have children and raise them to experience the love and goodness of the larger family and the wonderful world around us.  Unfortunately, during the first several years of our marriage, a couple of pregnancies ended in miscarriages after a few weeks or months.  We were disappointed.  But we truly did not think that we had lost a real human being.  That is not what we were taught or experienced in actual life as practicing and pretty informed Catholics who attended Catholic Schools from kindergarten through college.

When the Roe vs. Wade decision was handed down in 1973, it seemed to coincide with what I had experienced and learned up to that point in time.  Abortion during the first trimester pretty much coincided with the early miscarriages which many of my large extended family experienced on a fairly regular basis.  The thing that was different between a miscarriage and an abortion was that a miscarriage occurred naturally and abortion was done by choice.  But since the unborn fetus was not a human being as I understood in practice and through my Catholic education, I did not think it was an act of murder to abort a fetus in the first trimester of a pregnancy. I could see it being more of a problem as the pregnancy continued and the fetus developed into more and more of a viable human being during the second and third trimesters of a pregnancy.  My mother, who has since died, never understood the Church’s insistence that the miscarriages that she and the other women in our family suffered resulted in a lost child.  Sad?  Yes. The loss of a potential child?  Yes.  But the loss of a human being whom they would eventually meet in heaven (which I am sure my mother and any mother of 10 has earned many times over)?  No. 

I could make a lot of other arguments of why the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion is wrong in my judgment, but they all get into areas of philosophy, theology, and biology in which none of my very large family had education and training.  But I will stand with my family, all good Catholic people, trying to live the best lives they could in the circumstances in which they found themselves, and reflecting the religious and practical values which were transmitted to them and which they transmitted to us.  

I understand that abortion will continue to be a divisive issue in our society. The Catholic Church has the duty and responsibility to promote its beliefs about abortion.  But I do not think it is appropriate that the religious belief of one part of the polity should be imposed on those who do not share that belief.  But no matter what our belief is regarding abortion, we should all make every effort we can to focus on minimizing the need to choose an abortion through many avenues: providing health care for all including pre-natal and post-natal care; making birth control available to those who want it; re-imagining and re-structuring the economy to provide for a more equitable distribution of the wealth created by all people; working for women’s rights and equality in society, the workplace, and the home; doing whatever is possible to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, provide drink for the thirsty, and all of the other social justice and peace initiatives which will allow all human beings to develop into authentic and flourishing human persons.

That is what my family’s collective conscience and my conscience tells me to do.  I do my best to act accordingly.

With respect to early abortions there is now also a practical consideration.  When Roe was decided, abortion was always a surgical procedure, and it's largely possible to regulate surgery (though illegal abortions were another matter).  Now that it's possible to induce early abortions with drugs (I'm talking RU486, not Plan B) I don't think the law can prevent early abortions at all.  Assuming the Catholic bishops suddenly got their way and abortion was banned nationwide.  There would immediately be a determined underground movement to make make RU486 available, and it would be available. 

How successful has the government been in making marijuana unavailable?  This would be the same, with the added complication that many people in the RU486 networks would be distributing it for conscientious reasons, which I assume is not true of marijuana dealers.  With at least half the country being pro-choice, how easily could a prosecutor secure a unanimous conviction from 12 jurors for illegal RU486 distribution?

I think the best thing prolifers can hope for is to restrict abortion after 10-12 weeks (although I don't see that happening soon) and try to drive down the abortion rate with improved access to contraceptives for poor women and more food stamps, WIC, etc.  That's why it drove me half mad when my former bishop basically told his flock that we were bad Catholics if we don't vote Republican.  He didn't seem to understand how hard a prohibition would be to enforce, and how much a woman's decision to continue a pregancy depends on a knowledge (for example) that when the child is born, she will be able to feed that child.

I'm not interested in the fine points of when a fetus is a baby and when a baby is a fetus, everyone has their own feelings on that issue. What distresses me is the amount of time, money and passion that is spent to attempt to change laws rather than help parents and families and create a society where all children are welcome. It's as if the true mission was not to save the unborn but to enforce specific lifestyle choices. In this the activity on abortion is all too similar to the attitude on same sex marriage.

That a morula has precisely the same rights as the woman in whose uterus it reposes may be a certainty to the unmarried men who govern The Catholic Church (and who continue to consign to hell those of us who use contraceptive devices), but Peter Steinfels's excruciatingly labored argument that the idea is counter-intuitive is-- to put it mildly-- an awfully tepid rejoinder.

While I find Peter Steinfel's essay sober, authentic and well-reasoned so far as it goes, I await a companion essay dealing with his assessment of the Church's position on contraception: "about which I later concluded that the hierarchy’s continuing condemnation was a tragic and self-destructive error."

Re:  Abortion, I have several comments and questions, as follows:  1. one sperm cell fertilizing one egg cell is more like a 'potential' human life rather than human life itself;  2.  when exactly does human life begin (historically, Catholic theologians have had differing opinions on this)?  3.  Aren't some abortions morally justified, e.g., to save the life of the mother, when the fetus is several deformed/brain damaged and has no chance of living a fully human life?  4.  Who should make the decision to bring a pregnancy to term---judges and politicians, or a woman, her spouse, physician and spiritual advisor?  5.  When an unwanted/unloved fetus is brought to term, who is responsible for providing the necessities of life until that child can provide for itself (age 18)?  6.  With serious social sins like war, nuclear weapons, torture, hunger, lack of affordable health care and housing,  unemployment, capital punishment, should our Church be a single-issue (i.e., abortion) Church politically, as the hierarchy would have it be?

CORRECTON:  In item #3, the phrase should read, "...when the fetus is severely deformed/brain damaged..."  Thanks, Anthony

Nice essay. A small space is carved for those of us Catholics who do not believe that from the earliest stages, the unborn offspring deserves the same protection as human beings who are somewhere between birth and death.


Nice essay. A small space is carved for those of us Catholics who do not believe that from the earliest stages, the unborn offspring deserves the same protection as human beings who are somewhere between birth and death.



While thought provoking and sincere, I still think that Peter Steinfels’ article, Beyond the Stalemate [Commonweal, 6/14, vol. 140, #11), comes up wanting.  Steinfels seems to be trapped in his infused or inherited [can’t decide which?] “Catholic philosophy of life.”

Is Steinfels simply another Catholic apologist for an increasing anachronistic anti-feminine ideology?  Or, is he attempting to bridge the intellectual and cultural chasm between Catholicism and the modern world’s understanding of women?  I can’t tell?

Unfortunately, Steinfels comes off to me as just another Catholic hierarch, albeit a very unusually sympathetic one, who can’t quit all that discredited Catholic ideology. 

After rereading the article I still could not find anywhere a woman’s voice – which to me is critical when discussing attitudes and practices of abortion.  Especially since it is first and foremost women’s health, women’s autonomy and self-agency that is at stake in this debate.

I share my own conscience-raising experience that challenged my comfortable Catholic understanding of the reality of life:  Early on in my clinical practice a young African-American woman came to consult with me about the consequences for her of an unintended pregnancy.  [I recall this woman being referred by two very assertive parents, both of whom were ordained ministers in their church.]

Smart, intellectual, yet socially shy and naïve, emotionally circumscribed, this young woman was the first in her family to attend university.  She looked forward to a future in a professional career – another first for her family.  She carried the heavy burden of generations of hope and progress.

All of that now was in jeopardy with her pregnancy – the result of essentially date rape.  As I was confronted with her personal story and crisis, I could no longer glibly operate out of my own facile moral prohibitions and prescriptions.  I was forced to see her world through her eyes

This therapeutic encounter freed me from my preconceptions and prejudices.  In many ways, it was the first time I experienced what Carl Rogers called “unconditional positive regard” for one of my patients.

Ever since, I have understood that the central issue at stake in the abortion debate is not just its effect upon the fetus, but also the woman’s personal autonomy and self-agency as expressed in the very human act of making a choice.

I have always held sacred the dignity of all human life.  I believe that abortion is the very last option for women, but sometimes it is necessary.  I believe society must always strive to make abortions legal, medically safe and very rare. 

I am now scandalized by the Catholic Church’s stubborn refusal to mitigate the need for abortions by its continuing efforts to foist its discredited ideology about contraception upon society, especially poor women.

I know that it sounds simplistic and jaded – maybe even un-Catholic, but I have come to regard especially Catholic hierarchs’ opposition to abortion as more their rite-of-passage, their “cred” issue, which greases their way up the clerical ladder.  I sense little, if any, regard for women in their moral reservations. 

Consequently, I have stopped listening to the hierarchs long ago.

   I am deeply grateful for Mr Steinfels piece. It adjudicates most of the intellectual routing a mind must pass in order to reach a full understanding, within human reason, to that which is given us by Grace as an absolute. I do wich he had gone more into Berardin's ethic o flife, but in the context of the time/space this is as good as it gets.

   I note especially the French 'system' of regulating abortions, where *8 weeks is kick off into an

administration of abortions where a tribunal decides the efficacy of abortion past that 8 week gestation. The French to their credit still have inculcated in their Catholic heritage, if not their practice, a need to be philosphicaly based in their decisions.

      were we to be the same abortion, would be regulated in a similar manner, and gay marriage would be discussed not in the right of gays to 'marry' but in the right of a child to have a mom and dad. Viva la France' and viva le Mr Steinfel !

After reading Peter Steinfels' article Beyond the Stalemate,I went to sleep, and I had the most unbeliebable dream.  

In my dream, Pope Francis issued a proclamation that the Catholic Church would not rely on politicians to implement the moral position of the Church on abortion.  He stated that the Church would sell all of its assets which were not absolutely essential to its primary purpose.  Sold  would be   all real estate and works of art and all gold and silver and precious gems to raise tens upon tens of billions of dollars.  This money would be put into a special fund to pay women and their families not to have an abortion.  The Pope reasoned that no woman, as a small girl, wants to grow up to have an abortion.  Women take that horrible act out of desperation, usually because they are poor and have no extra money for another child.  

The fund would also pay for the care of the families children until age five.  Additional funds would be provided for raising children with any physical or mental handicaps.  Adoptions would be arranged for those women who would not or could not raise their child.

The Pope also called upon all peoples of good will to donate generously to this fund so that tens of thousands of abortions could be prevented every year.  The Pope also repeated Jesus's advice to the rich man, and asked all wealthy persons with more than $10,000,000 in assets to donate 10% of their assets to this fund to assist poor women so that they do not have to resort to abortion.  If the rich would not do so willingly, in appropriate circumstances, they would be denied the sacraments.  

The Pope also asked all of the nuns in all of the countries to the world to manage and distribute these funds, with no oversight or direction from the Curia or local bishops and cardinals.  

And all Catholics rejoiced in the Church's bold moral sacrifice, and tens of thousands of fallen away Catholics returned, inspired by this great act of love and commitment.  

And then I awoke, and realized that this was just a dream, but I pray that one day it will come true.

Grew up Catholic but lost interest around fourteen. I had been pro-choice without any great thought. It was the right position at the time, early 70's. Antiwar and pro-choice. Years later returned to the Church through a Charismatic baptism in the spirit, tongues and all. I became an instant pro-lifer with the influx of the Holy Spirit. Later worked with Pro-lifers for Survival as a Catholic Worker - Madonna House Catholic. My spirituality shifted to Eastern Christian, was always Orthodox, in nature.

Now? Status quo pro-lifer comes to mind. The yearly number of abortions estimated before Roe and recorded after have remained stable since 1973. No huge spike as we feared. Most abortions happen in the first trimester while second and third trimester abortions are comparatively rare. Opinion polls show abortion is inherently a morally ambiguous choice amongst Americans. The earlier the better seems the general consensus as actually practiced and accepted.

Given all the moral reservations Mr. Stienfels excellent essay addresses it seems to me, abortion as actually practiced in the United States is morally acceptable. I do not believe a 8 week or 12 week or 20 week law will improve the actual practice. Maybe bans on second and third trimester, with exceptions would help. I think not.

It seems, without legal restrictions, women and the population in general have decided the matter in a moral consensus in practice. Let us move on to create a Pro Life society that cares for those born, young and old, men and women. That cares for their economic security, their dignity, their sanctity of life.

William B. Gault said:  “ … unmarried men who govern The Catholic Church (and who continue to consign to hell those of us who use contraceptive devices), …”

A little common sense reminder is appropriate:

“During the 1966 Papal Birth Control Commission, at which Chicago Catholics and co-directors of the Christian Family Movement Patty Crowley & her husband Pat were members, a heated discussion about how the church could save face if it were to allow couples to decide how to limit offspring, Marcelino Zalba, a Spanish Jesuit member of the commission, asked, “What then with the millions we have sent to hell” if the rules are relaxed? Patty immediately responded in what became perhaps her most memorable quote. “Fr. Zalba,” she said, “do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?” “

Are you/we prepared to throw doctors and women in jail for having an abortion for any reason during the early stages of a pregancy?  Does the Church still teach that if a choice must be made between saving the life of the mother and saving the life of the fetus, the life of the fetus must be saved?  What additional programs and funds are you/we willing to provide for the nourishment, health, shelter and education of the unwanted babies/children until they reach 18 years of age?

When a choice must be made between the life of a fetus and the life of a mother, even Orthodox Jews believe that the choice must be made in favor of the mother. This is the opposite of what the leaders of the Catholic church preach. One possible reason: Rabbis marry and have daughters. They value women and girls much higher than the celibate male Catholic clergy do.

By insisting that the "rights" of a single-celled fertilized egg should always trump the rights of a woman or girl, even if she is pregnant as a result of rape, Catholic leaders leave themselves open to charges of misogyny. The church's other policies and explanations for them, including why women can't serve as priests, strengthen this perception (which is, let's face it, not merely a perception but a reality).

Finally, calling contraception a "grave evil," meriting an eternity in hell, completely destroys the church's credibility on reproductive issues.

This discussion has not yet dealt with how we Catholics treat the unborn. Do stillborns get funeral masses? Do we have pre-natal baptisns? Are they welcomed into our faith; are they Catholic?

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