Human dignity rests above all on the fact that humanity is called to communion with God. The invitation to converse with God is addressed to men and women as soon as they are born. For if people exist it is because God has created them through love, and through love continues to keep them in existence. They cannot live fully in the truth unless they freely acknowledge that love and entrust themselves to their creator.
Gaudium et Spes (“The Church in the Modern World”), Vatican II, 1965, #19.
As a Catholic, I struggle with the issues surrounding abortion. I am at one time horrified by taking a life and equally horrified by forcing a woman to be pregnant especially when that pregnancy endangers her life or results from rape. I recognize abortion as the most difficult decision a woman will ever make and know that whether legal or not ultimately the decision is hers alone.
This week we had one governor sign into law legislation that would ban abortion after six weeks with no exception for rape even if the person raped was 10 years old and the next day the same governor allowed the execution of a man. Missouri has passed a law outlawing abortion after eight weeks with no exception for a medical emergency or rape of a child. In other words, it is acceptable to let a woman die which will also result in the death of the fetus but essentially says it is not acceptable to save the mother if you can’t save the fetus.
Thus we have learned this week that pro-life is an obsolete word that is without meaning. It isn’t obsolete because people of faith do not believe that abortion is morally wrong. It is obsolete because it has been co-opted by opportunistic politicians that are no more opposed to abortion than anything else they espouse and then do absolutely nothing to change. Worse, they focus solely on the act of abortion and ignore all the factors that lead to abortion.
The Catholic Church is consistent in its teaching that life begins at conception and many faith traditions agree, but certainly not all. Officially abortion can be forgiven, but it can also result in the most severe punishment in the Church – excommunication. It is maintained that from the moment of conception a human embryo is fully human and deserving of all the protections of any human being. If one viewed this statement simplistically, it seems compassionate. We must treat this new life as if it were the same as a school child or a treasured grandparent. It is when one realizes that in saying “all the same protections of any human” it must necessarily mean that the mother is subservient to the human embryo so what is clearly meant is the same protections as a man. She must give up the control of her body to that human embryo, which is why some people make caveats for rape, incest, and life of the mother. If we logically followed this reasoning a man should have to do the same, but there are no laws requiring a father to give an organ to save the life of his child or for that matter to even give blood for his child.
Politicians and pro-life and pro-choice advocates were outraged by the statement of Donald Trump when he suggested that women who have abortions should be punished during his campaign and to avoid that we have decided that if a physician performs an abortion it is murder, but the person that contracted for the murder has no guilt. It is no surprise that pro-choice advocates and most women were outraged then as they are today. However, for pro-life advocates and politicians who build careers preying on the faithful, it is nothing short of hypocrisy. We have already heard of two politicians that had their children aborted. Those that claim outrage against Trump’s statements need to consider what he said and what they claim to believe. Claiming the woman should be punished is consistent with what I would expect of someone that believes that the human embryo is the same as a child or an adult in rights. If a mother killed her 6-year-old or her neighbor, it would be expected that she would be punished. If one believes abortion is murder, then it would be expected that the person who committed or hired someone to commit murder is punished. However, what isn’t consistent is not also punishing the person that incited the murder – the father, or the driver that waited in the getaway car while the murder was committed. If one believes life begins at conception, and the human embryo is fully human and deserving of human rights rather than potentially human from that moment, then one should support Donald Trump’s original statement. Likewise, we should do away with all those fertilized embryos waiting to be implanted. Isn’t the physician that isn’t implanting them holding them hostage and when they dispose of them doing the same as the person who performs an abortion?
What about rape? Even if one agrees that the fetus is fully human and endowed with human rights by six weeks then what is being said about the child of God that has been raped and is pregnant. We are saying it is acceptable to enslave her body for nine months against her will. We are saying it is acceptable to treat her like nothing more than a human incubator. We are saying it is acceptable to endanger her life, cause her pain, and attack her every day for nine months. If we say the child is innocent then we are saying the rape victim is not. We are saying her well being is less important than that of the child of a rapist. This is what I cannot reconcile with reason or my conscience.
The Compassionate Alternative
Wanting to punish a woman for having an abortion shows a complete lack of compassion for a woman in trouble. Isn’t that what we teach with excommunication. When we say we punish the woman and not the man we are clearly setting different standards for men and women, doctors that do abortions and women that hire them, and mothers, fathers, and significant others that drive women to the abortion appointment. If one truly believes that abortion is a mortal sin, then to condemn the woman as a murderer is too easy and self-satisfying. It is too easy because it allows us as a society, a faith community, and as individuals to do nothing to help her through the pregnancy, to dismiss her as immoral, and to condemn her and those who assist her as murders and consign them to the criminal justice system. Calling abortion criminal allows us to continue to advocate against abortion without showing the same concern for women before pregnancy, during pregnancy, or after birth.
The child/fetus in the mother’s womb is drawing its life directly from the mother, and she must be nurtured, nourished and protected. Only then will the child develop to its full capacity. Not only is it necessary for a mother, a woman, to be cared for during her pregnancy, but we know through medical science that nutrition is essential even before conception. What we are doing for all women of childbearing age we are also doing for the child she will one day nurture. When we fail her, we fail to defend the integrity of the human embryo that will grow into a child.
We can begin our compassion by ending the use of the terms pro-life and pro-choice. Let us start saying what we believe. In stating our beliefs, we may find common ground that brings us together to find solutions that don’t criminalize acts of fear and desperation and further grow our flawed criminal justice system. I reject be label as pro anything. Here is what I believe:
- Women are fully human – not less than men or human embryos or human fetuses.
- A human embryo has all the genetic material of a human being but is not sentient from the time of conception.
- The human embryo/fetus is drawing its life from the mother.
- Self-determination should be a right for all sentient beings – rights come with responsibilities to make moral decisions.
- However, pregnancy is a choice in most circumstances – rape, incest, and the life of a mother are special circumstances that force choices between the good of the human embryo and human fetus and the good of the mother.
- Contraception meant to prevent implantation is not equivalent to abortion – it does violate the teaching of the Church, but can result in a reduction of abortions.
- Poverty, abuse, lack of child care, few education options for women with children, fewer job opportunities and discrimination against women with children, and inadequate support for those that are pregnant impact a woman’s decision to have an abortion.
- Abortion is a moral decision – women are endowed with consciences and can make moral decisions.
- Pregnancy is stigmatizing – society values fertility, but not the always the pregnant woman especially if she is unwed or poor.
- The objective act of abortion being immoral does not equate to the person carrying out the act as being either good or evil.
The compassionate solution cannot be to build a wall between women and legal and safe abortion and expect it will end abortion. It cannot be to take away safe abortions and not explore laws to help women care for their children. We should begin with compassion and start by passing laws and making policy changes that will encourage women to give birth and value pregnancy.
- Paid maternal leave for six months
- Affordable child care based on income
- Educational support for pregnant teens and new moms
- Adequate nutritional assistance for all women of childbearing age
- Free adoption that isn’t limited by religion, sexual orientation, or whether one has a fire extinguisher in their house (don’t ask as you will be angry)
- Women’s health care in all communities that is free to all women of childbearing age
- Corporations that don’t disadvantage women with children
- Mental health care for all women that have been raped and all with unwanted pregnancies
If we put the same passion into supporting pregnant women as goes into preventing abortion, the result may be surprising. I look forward to the day we are praying in the streets outside of community health centers and family practice clinics insisting that they provide women’s healthcare including maternity care or that we march on Washington every year to insist that all women have paid maternity leave and affordable childcare. This week taught us one important lesson – justice must include compassion. It is inhumane to treat women seeking abortion and physicians that care for them as criminals.
I cannot find it in my heart to condemn a woman to carry the child of a rapist. I find it to be inhuman to not recognize rape as a crime that should not punish the woman by forcing her to carry the child thus being raped over every single day for nine months. I can understand the fetus as innocent, but I also understand the woman as innocent. If we ask a woman to suffer and recognize her as having equal human dignity then if she is forced to carry the child to term we must fully support her. Certainly, we should not ask her to pay the medical bills, to forgo her education, to have anything less than the best and most nutritious food, to have a fully funded education for that child, and to provide her all the medical and mental health support she will need.
This is not an easy issue and I would never violate the teachings of my faith, but I will not ask others to abide by them. I will only encourage people to explore all the implications, consider the possibilities, and know I will never turn my back on a woman struggling with the most difficult decision of her life.
Catechism of the Catholic Church on Abortion
2270 Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.72
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.73
My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.74
2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:
You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish.75
God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.76
2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. “A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae,”77“by the very commission of the offense,”78 and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law.79 The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.
2273 The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:
“The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death.”80
“The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined. . . . As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child’s rights.”81
2274 Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.
Prenatal diagnosis is morally licit, “if it respects the life and integrity of the embryo and the human fetus and is directed toward its safeguarding or healing as an individual. . . . It is gravely opposed to the moral law when this is done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion, depending upon the results: a diagnosis must not be the equivalent of a death sentence.”82
2275 “One must hold as licit procedures carried out on the human embryo which respect the life and integrity of the embryo and do not involve disproportionate risks for it, but are directed toward its healing the improvement of its condition of health, or its individual survival.”83
“It is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material.”84
“Certain attempts to influence chromosomic or genetic inheritance are not therapeutic but are aimed at producing human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities. Such manipulations are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being and his integrity and identity”85 which are unique and unrepeatable.