Tuesday, October 11, 2016
I know it is preposterously optimistic to hope that people on the different sides of the abortion debate can ever work together to end abortion (or at least make it rare). But hey, at least some of us want to try, still. I think that starts with reducing polemical rhetoric, increasing mutual understanding, and searching for common ground to build from.
I grew up in the staunchly pro life Bible belt. I was raised pro life. I was surrounded by pro life people, i.e., evangelical Christian Republicans mostly, and I converted to Catholicism at twenty-two. I consider myself absolutely pro life, in the most "extreme" (i.e., consistent) way possible--from conception until natural death. I make no exceptions for rape or incest (why impose the death penalty on a child for the sin of a parent?). I am even for the abolition of the death penalty. I am opposed to euthanasia. I am for welcoming and being open to children and large families (and practice that--we now have six).
I think these positions are demanded by a consistent pro life ethic, and defensible without relying on religious rationale, although they are certainly strengthened by Christian, Catholic faith. We also need to structure society as much as we can to minimize cases where people feel that taking life is a good choice. I do not see these as an either-or proposition--we can make the right to life inalienable and compassionately help people in need. We must.
I published my first pro life article in 2004. I wrote in 2008 on how I prioritize life and related issues in deciding whom to vote for. I've written my Congressman. And written here and here and here. I have had innumerable conversations on social media, email, and in person defending and advancing the pro life position. I teach my children to be pro life. I have voted for many pro life candidates, with that issue playing a big part in my choice. I contribute bi-weekly to the Blessed Margaret Home for Crisis Pregnancies. (I note that to advertise the good work they do and suggest others consider supporting them or similar homes. As one of my pro choice friends said recently--that should be something even pro choice people can get behind.)
There should be no question that I am staunchly pro life. I live it. I speak it openly and publicly.
Not Anti Choice
All that said, I am not "anti choice." Putting restrictions on abortion and, ultimately, making it illegal, does not remove a person's free will to choose. We have all kinds of laws, and people still choose to break them, with varying degrees of knowledge and consent. We have oodles of legal groundwork for what it looks like for abortion to be illegal--the women are not punished by those laws, and they certainly still made the choice to abort, even when it was illegal.
A person who is pro life is no more "anti choice" than is a person is who thinks that pedophilia, rape, or murder should be illegal. On important issues, society has to draw the line and say "this behavior is not okay." And come on, riding a bike without a helmet and speeding is also illegal--talk about being anti choice... Abortion takes the life of a human being. It should not be legal. It should not be an inconsequential "choice." By wanting to make it illegal, pro life people are saying that this is a line that should not be crossed--even knowing that some people will still choose to do it.
Not Pro Abortion
Similarly, I'd like to address my pro life friends who tend to like to use the term "pro abortion" to apply to anyone who is pro choice. (I admit to doing that myself--to make a point.) "Pro abortion" is a polemical choice of language. It does not accurately reflect the view of most of the people to whom it is applied.
Some claim that "pro choice" means a choice for abortion. But the CDC says that in 2012 (the most recent data we have), "the abortion ratio was 210 abortions per 1,000 live births." That means that roughly 2 in 10 women chose to abort. So factually, the claim is false. Women currently have the legal choice to choose abortion, and 80% choose life (as of 2012). I don't know what the ratio was prior to Roe vs. Wade, but I suspect it wasn't a lot different. People in desperate situations often still choose to break the law if they feel they need to.
Even if you're not direly poor, carrying a baby to term, giving birth, and being responsible for it for life is a big deal. I don't care how wealthy you are, that's a big life change--real pain, potential impact to your livelihood/ability to work, and years of responsibility. For the vast majority, it's not a flippant choice to make at all. Even choosing to give a child up for adoption is not an easy choice, even though it may be the best choice. I feel like in all the emotional fervor of the pro life movement, we often lose sight that abortion is by no means a choice that most women freely want to make.
According to this Pew 2016 data, only 15% think abortion is morally acceptable, while 56% think it should be legal. That means that by far, most do not think abortion is good--they are not for (pro) abortion, but they think it should be a legal option. Again, the data contradict the claim that being pro choice is being pro abortion. We know that such truly pro abortion people exist, but they are a small minority of pro choice people.
Also, it is noteworthy to see that while 56% think abortion should be legal, a full 80% actually act pro life and choose life. That's a good thing. Can you imagine if everyone who thought abortion should be legal actually chose abortion? That'd be almost 3x as many abortions per year. Thank God that people act more pro life than they vote.
Now, the Catholic bishops in the U.S. have made it abundantly clear (in line with the universal Catechism of the Church and unbroken prior teaching going back to apostolic tradition as seen in the Didache) that formal cooperation in abortion is objectively, intrinsically, gravely evil. On that, someone who is faithful to Catholic teaching and practice cannot disagree. We will never be able to turn a blind eye to abortion. We will never be able to see it as a morally acceptable choice, so the case is very strong to make it illegal in our view.
Data for abortion mortality show that legalizing abortion led to less danger for those women who will choose to do it whether or not it is legal. It is difficult to reconcile that with criminalizing it again--nobody wants women to be endangered. But I admit that I find it more difficult to reconcile keeping something legal that is the (often brutal) murder of an innocent child. That people will choose (even under duress) something that endangers them does not mean, in itself, that it should be legal--especially when the chosen action results in the murder of another human being.
On the flip side, pro choice advocates have shown little, if any, willingness to budge. And it seems even in recent years that this conflict has only increased antipathy towards the pro life cause while at the same time galvanizing the pro choice folks and even making their positions more extreme. What are we to think when the "and rare" qualifier is abandoned from "safe, legal, and rare"? Clearly, this culture war has only resulted in greater polarization and impasse. And I can't deny I think it's largely due to the posturing and pandering of politicians.
Reconsidering the Focus of Pro Life Action
Pro life advocates often use rhetoric that makes it sound like that by making abortion legal, we essentially created the problem of abortion. "By not criminalizing it, we are killing N number of babies every year/minute." I have even thought and argued that in the past. But as I learned more, I discovered that not only has this evil always been with us (which of course I knew) but also that the numbers have always been high. Indeed, data show that restrictive laws do not correlate with low numbers of abortions.
While I do not agree with the fallacy that essentially says we should make murder legal because people will do it anyways, the numbers do indicate that our efforts to criminalize abortion would not have a significant effect on the actual number of abortions. And it's certainly not as if criminalizing it will reduce that number to zero, as is implied by the rhetoric. So this argument that often pushes people into prioritizing voting for pro life politicians based on these numbers doesn't hold up. People even use this argument to justify voting for Trump, which is unfortunate to say the least, considering everything he has going against him from a moral/common good point of view and that he appears to be only nominally pro life.
Again, that doesn't mean we should keep something that is intrinsically evil legal. It just means we need to put the practical impact of the laws in perspective. It seems that the terrible numbers of abortions will not be greatly impacted by criminalization. Proportionally, then, the common pro life argument that this issue is far more urgent than others does not appear valid. And in the last twenty or so years, even while legal, the numbers have been dropping. Each side has their rationale for that drop. I suspect it is a combination of many factors, not the least of which are pro life awareness efforts and efforts to help women in crisis pregnancies.
Another observation is that in the pro life movement, there is a lot of focus on overturning Roe vs. Wade. But even if Roe vs. Wade were overturned, that doesn't guarantee each state would criminalize it (indeed some states had decriminalized it before then), and even after 40+ years of trying, we still haven't managed to reverse it. We still today have a majority of people who think it should be legal. Something isn't working, and not for lack of trying!
I am anything but a pro abortion apologist (as I doubtless will be called by some for posting these thoughts), but I think we pro life people have to consider these data. So, so, so much energy and passion is invested in this war to reverse Roe vs. Wade and re-criminalize abortion. We do this for good reason--abortion is intrinsically evil; it is at least as evil as any murder and even more repulsive given the circumstances of it being a defenseless baby in its mother's womb. But given the considerations above, is focusing so much on criminalization still the best way we can fight this evil?
Without giving an inch that it is intrinsically evil, could we shift more of our energies to 1) something that has a greater chance of actually happening and 2) has a more immediate, significant impact on making abortion rare? Like fighting the things that cause women to feel they need an abortion? Like enabling women to feel they have a real option to choose life? Like evangelizing our culture so that even more women will choose life? At this point, are we maybe working against ourselves to focus so much on criminalization? It seems to be the epicenter of polemical divisions that prevent us from working with others to truly make abortion rare.
For the record, I do not want to downplay the immense efforts that many pro life persons make in concretely helping women and educating the populace on abortion-related issues. I literally support them. But I am thinking particularly of our political efforts, which are front and center right now. Is it possible that, in politics specifically, we've let ourselves be manipulated into letting criminalization shape our thinking so much that we are spending too much of our energies there when they could be better spent in other areas? Is it possible that it is suboptimal to think of being pro life as primarily voting for people who will work to criminalize abortion? Have those we voted for to that end delivered on that promise? Have they and we neglected other considerations that could more effectively, actually reduce abortion, not to mention other issues of grave importance? What more should we look for in a pro life platform and political action?
This is not a call to surrender. It is a call to reprioritization and a call for honest reflection on what our current strategy has done and not done and probably will or won't do in the future. It's a call to think more about how--if we really do care about all these babies and all those women--we can really, actually save and help them.
Some Questions for Pro Choice Folks
For those who are pro choice, given that so few believe it is an acceptable moral choice, how do you true that up with thinking it should be legal? Isn't something off in our society when it is illegal to drive a car without a seatbelt, but it is legal to kill an unborn baby? What restrictions on abortion might be acceptable restrictions? What can you do--assuming you think it should remain legal--to help society not become numb to the horror that it is? What can you do to educate people about the terrible realities, including the emotional pain that haunts most women for life? Would making it illegal help people to understand the severity of the evil? What can you--we--do to help enable women to choose life?
I also know there are those who really see nothing wrong with abortion, who don't think it is killing a human person. Even for those, surely we can agree that even just considering the often negative impact on the women who have them, it's not a good thing. And can you be absolutely certain that it is not a human person deserving of equal protection? Is it worth taking the risk given that it might be a human person? Seems to me that it's still safer and better to work to reduce abortions.
Can We Work Together?
To all, the common ground seems to be fighting the causes that lead to the perceived need for abortion, educating people on the realities of abortion, and ensuring that we have social structures and services to help women who find themselves in crisis pregnancies--to help them choose life. It's a tall order, but it touches on so much that could be better in our society. I think it's worth the effort.