Letters: Abortion Stalemate & Author's Reply

I congratulate Peter Steinfels on his insightful delineation of the broader issues surrounding abortion (“Beyond the Stalemate,” June 14). I offer a consideration of two biological facts that may help reduce some of the discomfort Steinfels describes; they are relevant to the hard cases (to save the life of the mother and following rape).

First is the fact that there are three actors on this stage: the mother, the embryo, and the placenta. The placenta, while a “product of conception,” is not the fetus and is not a part of the fetus. The placenta is largely autonomous; its role is to latch onto the mother’s blood stream to ensure adequate nutrition for the embryo. In addition, it secretes substances into the mother to alter her metabolism, redirecting it to meet the needs of the organism growing within her. Those substances are responsible for many of the changes (physical and emotional) related to pregnancy.

Sometimes, however, that process goes wrong and the chemicals produced by the placenta create disease in the mother that threatens both her life and that of the child she is carrying (as in the infamous Phoenix case). It is important to understand in those instances that it is not the fetus that is threatening the mother—nor is it the fact of the pregnancy, per se. It is the placenta. What must be removed under such circumstances is the placenta, not the baby. Unfortunately, with available technology, removing the placenta results in the loss of the baby, but the loss of the baby is not the intended consequence, nor is removing it the means for saving the mother’s life. Catholic moral theory is perfectly capable of dealing with such unintended, indirect effects.

The second fact bears on the question of when human life may be said to begin. Steinfels notes a preference for eight weeks after fertilization, based on resemblance. He is careful to describe the union of the paternal and maternal chromosomes as “fertilization,” not “conception.” Fertilization is an observable biological event, while conception is a construct, often used to connote individuation. (Thus the phraseology often includes such words as “an individual human from the moment of conception.”) Steinfels rightly stresses both the ambiguity of that “moment” and the fact that it is inherent in the situation itself.

Some of that ambiguity may now be dissipating as a result of the finding that many normal singleton pregnancies start out with fertilization of two egg cells by two spermatozoa, an event that had previously been thought to lead to fraternal twinning. New evidence has shown that after fertilization those two genetically distinct cell masses sometimes fuse into one, which then goes on to develop as a normal fetus. The resulting “blended” embryo is a literal chimera, a fact detectable only by modern DNA technology. The prevalence of such chimerism is unknown, but there is reason to believe that it could involve a significant fraction of all singleton births. Fusion can occur up to about twelve to fourteen days after fertilization. To call the embryos prior to fusion “individual humans” and then “a single individual human” after fusion presents formidable philosophical difficulties. Chimerism makes it biologically difficult to push the time of individuation back to fertilization. This is not to argue that termination of the life of an embryo prior to individuation is a morally neutral act. But it is to say that its moral character differs from that of termination following individuation.
-Robert Heany, M.D.
Omaha, Neb.

Life after death
Peter Steinfels hopes that a reappraisal of the Catholic Church’s entire engagement with the abortion question will help to move the United States “Beyond the Stalemate.” I share his hope and commend him for taking the lead. Alas, most politicians would rather pander to whatever constituency best serves their own interests.

Late in his article, Steinfels suggests, on biological grounds, that a consensus might be reached that would permit abortion through the eighth week of pregnancy. But that seems liable to an objection he himself lodges against concentrating “on scientific findings about embryonic life as though these rendered unnecessary the examination and defense of moral premises.”

Allow me to suggest something a bit different. The moral premise most deeply in play is the premise that innocent life may never be taken licitly. But does Catholic moral thought not make provision for the taking of innocent life in certain instances, such as self-defense or just war? Could early abortion be framed as such an instance? That would shift the debate away from the status of the fetus and toward the morality of taking its life. On this line of reasoning, one may grant the unborn full human rights and still be faced with a question about abortion.

One of the strengths of Catholic moral thought is its awareness that many actions, seemingly remote from actual killing, can have murderous effect. So, traditionally, any interruption of the biological processes that lead to conception—that is, not just the interruption of gestation—has been considered morally wrong. That’s why sterilization has been condemned, and why even masturbation has been equated with murder, as it was at my own Catholic high school. That may seem laughable today, but there is a clear moral consistency about it. But then is it not the case that consistent Catholic moral thought permits sterilization under certain cases and that the natural loss of sperm or egg as in nocturnal emission or menstruation is regarded as morally innocent because nature is the work of God, and God has the right, which humans lack, to interrupt the processes that lead naturally to conception? Masturbation is moral so long as God does it for you.

It is easy to mock this kind of moral thought, as I have just done, perhaps most because of its stunning consistency. A Jewish high-school friend, listening to my high-school explanation of how my church regarded human conception, asked me: “But then how can you even eat an egg for breakfast?” He was for inconsistency. He wanted to flout the natural law by which rooster and hen produce chick rather than breakfast. He knew that, in this regard, I was as inconsistent as he was. He made his point, to which I will return, with telling concision. Yet the church had a point, too, for life, rather obviously, does not begin at conception. It begins before conception. Sperm are alive. Eggs are alive. The gonads where they originate are alive. There is wisdom in recognizing that life is a vast and complicated ongoing process.

By the same token, there may be a necessary wisdom in recognizing that life kills and must kill. The life of the human species goes forward only by the endless killing of the plants and animals that we feed on: the egg is only one example among millions. We are constantly interrupting and otherwise intruding upon natural life processes. Peter Steinfels now accepts as moral the interruption in the life process constituted by artificial contraception. So does the overwhelming majority of U.S. Catholics, though the Catholic Church, as its opposition to the Affordable Care Act made clear, still regards artificial contraception as tantamount to murder (and still, so far as I know, officially regards masturbation, too, as a form of murder). What I wish to suggest is that engaging abortion as another interruption of the continuum that reaches far back before conception and—in that way but only in that way—as another form of licensed killing may open a path to the consensus that Steinfels seeks. Situating selective abortion in a broadened understanding of the life of the human species as an ineluctably and naturally life-taking continuum may bring it within the reach of the Catholic moral imagination. As this is done, a second continuum could come into play—namely, the continuum between birth and life-long nurturance, with this understood as, again, a collective natural process. Those who legally require a woman without resources to bear a child incur an obligation to provide her the resources she requires to raise it. Communitarian solidarity is squarely within the Catholic moral tradition, even if the tradition is honored mostly in the breach. A Catholic legal initiative would consistently link federal restrictions on abortion with federal taxation for child support.

I can imagine someone objecting: “How grotesque: You equate aborting a baby with harvesting a chicken egg!” I don’t, but I do mean to push away from thinking of the pregnant woman as a lone murderess or the abortionist as a lone murderer, and toward thinking of abortion as something comparable to war that we do after moral reflection as a nation and—here is the crux—of what we may legitimately do as a species because the moral obligation, coinciding with the natural instinct, to “increase and multiply” is not individual but collective and is not negated or undermined when abortion is countenanced. I oppose most wars as immoral, but I decline to oppose all war a priori. If I can oppose abortion in a similar way, then my conscience can be clear even when, collectively speaking, there is blood on my hands. Not all bloody hands are guilty hands.

Law, of course, is always a simplification. The eighth week? The third trimester? Steinfels is quite right: a strong and steady consensus exists in favor of some regulation and against the brutal free-for-all that total, unregulated license could unleash. It is prudential regulation that saves us from the madness of analogical argument of the sort that goes, “If you forbid abortion, then you are forbidding fried eggs” or “If you countenance one abortion, then you are countenancing genocide.” No: The slope is only as slippery as we choose to make it. We have the right to stop halfway up or halfway down. Consensus regulation won’t happen soon, but it will never happen unless we begin imagining how it could happen, and that may mean thinking a bit more candidly about the fact that life in all its sanctity is built upon the melancholy foundation of innumerable life-serving deaths.
-Jack Miles
Irvine, Calif.

Whose choice?
Peter Steinfels argues that a fetus must be fully protected legally from the moment of conception, yet he later notes that he could approve abortion up to eight weeks (when many women would not know they were pregnant). He does not explain that contradiction. I was also surprised when he questioned the prochoice position that the fetus is a part of the mother’s body. The fetus is located within her body, attached to it by the umbilical cord, through which it draws nourishment. Steinfels reacts to those facts with anger and name-calling (unscientific prochoice sloganeering, moral blindness, and deviousness)—neither of which refutes the facts. Not only does the fetus take its food from the mother, but it causes medical and psychological problems. Steinfels does not discuss the total picture of abortion. Yes, there is a moral issue related to the fetus. But other moral issues are involved. Half of women seeking abortions already have one child. They have moral obligations to that child. They may be the child’s only caretaker. They have moral obligations to protect their own health. They may be victims of rape or incest. From the tenor and content of the article, I must assume that these issues are not important, even as they complicate the decisions made by pregnant women. To pretend that women do not evaluate their moral obligations is to insult their intelligence and sense of responsibility. Leaving these issues out of the article is itself an insult to women. It is exactly for those reasons that legal bodies should not be involved. A woman should make this decision in consultation with her doctor—and her conscience.

-Karline Yierney
Catonsville, Md.

Out of proportion
Peter Steinfels’s otherwise admirable article seems to ignore, or implicitly approve, the absolutism of Catholic teaching on abortion. This absolutism dismisses questions about rape, incest, and the life or health of the mother. The embryo seems to have absolute rights that take precedence over the rights of mothers or families. Thus, excommunication was leveled by local bishops in well-publicized cases in recent years (Phoenix; Recife, Brazil), in which the likely death of the mother (in the case of Recife, a nine-year-old girl impregnated by her father!) or the certain death of the fetus (in the Phoenix case doctors determined that continuation of the pregnancy would most likely cause the death of the mother well before the baby’s viability) surely made abortion a rational and even commonsense moral choice as the lesser of two evils.

In the case of an Italian physician, Gianna Biretta Molla, canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2004, she decided to continue her pregnancy to term in spite of the strong probability of her death. Her decision left her three other children motherless, and was considered heroic. Maybe so, but was she a model for expectant mothers?

My late wife’s attitude toward abortion changed radically when she was a social worker in a home for young girls placed there by the courts because of family abuse, many of them pregnant after suffering incestuous rape. Does the church demand that very young girls carry those babies to term? Are their welfare and mental health of no consideration? What does respect for life mean in such a case? Now we know that these wrenching circumstances are more frequent than was thought years ago, with no commensurate consideration by the always-vigilant hierarchy. I wish Steinfels had turned his keen eye toward this issue.
-Richard W. Jonson
Broomfield, Colo.

The author replies
I am grateful to Robert Heaney for spelling out some of the biological facts that keep me from taking “moment of conception” literally. To be clear, however, I did not nominate eight weeks after fertilization as the point at which a human life deserving the same protection we accord the born may be said to begin. My own conviction is that this point comes much earlier. Rather, I suggested eight weeks as one possible point around which a socially persuasive consensus about the nature of the fetus might be formed.

Jack Miles is a friend and writer whose work I greatly admire. He was also my exact contemporary at the other Jesuit high school in the Chicago area, where they evidently indulged some folk theology about masturbation as equivalent to murder that I, thank God, was spared. Nor have I ever encountered serious theological claims to that effect about contraception. I do not deny that there may be wisdom in viewing our painful moral quandaries within a larger web of life and death, creation and destruction; or in recognizing our constant intrusions upon natural life processes; or in taking collective responsibility for women and children without resources (quite independently of any question about abortion); or in building on religious and cultural concerns for the protection and nurturance of life, especially human life, in general. But if this effort involves a blurring of the distinction between human life, on the one hand, as it exists in sperm, egg, or my big toe, and an individual human life, on the other hand, then I think we are taking a step backward in morality and civilization.

A brief tour on the internet indicates that Karlina K. Tierney is a veteran of decades of admirable activism and lobbying for women’s rights. I hope that is not the reason her letter reads like the boilerplate appeals sent out from Emily’s List and NARAL rather than a careful response to my argument. My article did not attempt to discuss the total picture of abortion issues. It did go to considerable length to explain why those of us who find compelling the philosophical and theological case for protecting fetal lives from very early after conception should, nonetheless, aim at something more modest legally. (Eight weeks was simply my own suggestion; although Tierney’s point about many women being still unaware of a pregnancy does not speak to the status of the fetus, it is the kind of fact pertinent to any framing of a legislative goal.) Tierney is quite right in saying that the biological nexus between mother and fetus has moral dimensions—as do many other biological ties and bodily realities in life. But surely she knows that the prochoice claim about the fetus being “part of the mother’s body” entailed an equivalency with “parts” lacking any similar character. I know the former fetuses of women who declined pressures to seek an abortion. They are now walking around playing music, teaching school, raising children, pursuing careers, and behaving in a manner quite unlike any of their mothers’ other organs would be capable of. Tierney is also quite right in saying “there is a moral issue related to the fetus.” But she concludes that anything other than leaving the framing and evaluation of that issue to each particular woman is an “insult to women.” I disagree. I don’t think we insult elected leaders, no matter how experienced, when we insist that their decision-making about war and other critical matters must be governed by moral and legal limits. We do not insult generals or officers on the battlefield, no matter how honorable, or medical practitioners, no matter how devoted, by erecting codes of ethics, often with legal teeth, that restrict individual judgment. We do not insult employers when we inject antidiscrimination measures into their complex decisions about hiring and firing, or insult parents or spouses when we intervene in the admittedly complicated dynamics of family life to prevent child endangerment or spouse abuse. Of course, whether abortion is at all parallel to these other instances depends on exactly what the moral issue regarding the fetus is and why. On that point, Tierney is silent. A useful conversation might ensue if she—and many other prochoice stalwarts—were not.

I wish that Richard Jonson had foresworn the facile denunciation of “absolutism.” The other guy’s absolutism is my fundamental principle. I agree that there is absolutely too much absolutism around, from Catholic bishops and anti-abortion activists, as my article indicated, as well as from free-speech and church-state watchdogs, environmentalists, and Tea Partiers. Jonson highlights appalling cases of incestuous rape and life endangerment. A little more than 1 percent of abortions are due to incest and rape, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and the Guttmacher Institute, Planned Parenthood’s research arm. Like Jonson and his late wife, I suspect that the actual percentage is higher. Like Jonson, I wish the hierarchy were more vocal and proactive about this and about abusive situations. (See my notion of a massive Catholic Pietà Fund devoted to the health, education, and safety of women around the world, [“Shock Therapy,” March 8]). But Jonson should know that a fair number of moral theologians, and probably many more pastoral practitioners, have been exploring the significance of Catholic teachings on assault and self-defense for abortion in the case of rape, incest, and threat to the mother’s life. (The elastic concept of health is a more complicated matter.) The American hierarchy long ago made peace with legal exceptions for rape, incest, and threat to a woman’s life. And for every bishop taking an extreme (and usually well-publicized) position on a “hard case,” there are probably far more, even now, who prefer to quietly leave such judgments in the hands of God. In fairness, I would also guess that Catholic social services and charities do as much to relieve the problems of family abuse as other agencies, if not more. Are circumstances to be considered in deciding when, if ever, it is moral to take a life? That is a legitimate and demanding question. I don’t think these familiar reproaches of the hierarchy move us far toward an answer.
-Peter Steinfels

Published in the August 16, 2013 issue: 
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