The nature of the problem of abortion is unique and troubling. We have two people with equal dignity and equal rights that are in conflict because one of them is literally inside of and dependent on the other. Because laws do not bend, there is no law that will be perfectly just. Affirming the rights of one automatically infringes the rights of the other. Our response as a society has been to split and argue. One side emphasizes women, one side emphasizes children, and each feel the other is an urgent threat.
In our urgency and frustration, it is easy to forget our limitations, our inability to actually resolve this insanely difficult problem. However, can we pause for just a moment and breathe? Unclench our fists, and reflect on this war and our role in it?
As a full disclosure, I am a Catholic who upholds the Church’s entire social teaching. My intention here is to present pro-life and pro-choice perspectives, and by listening with open hearts, hopefully spark understanding and willingness to collaborate. What I think I hear everyone saying, in one way or another, is that we desire to live in a world that respects all people, even when inconvenient or imperfect.
To get there, I offer this essay as a neutral place to put down our arms and just be human together, with the sole intent to pursue a holy patience and openness to each other. A truce.
It feels like a naïve and traitorous suggestion, as though I am trying to trick you into compromising with evil. But as I see it, humility is the only way. Our Lord showed us how to fight by patiently bearing a cross. We are each other’s cross. While we fight the human way, the world fills with hardness and death. We have to try it His way.
Here is what I see:
1) Statistically, most Americans don’t like abortion, but realize that it’s not okay to dictate someone else’s health care decisions. And that is what an abortion ban does.
2) Scientifically, human beings are human from the moment they are conceived. Elective, direct abortion is the deliberate killing of a defenseless human being.
3) People are using abortion to gain money and power. Picking sides benefits them and harms everyone else.
Statistically, most Americans are somewhat pro-choice.
Pro-life reader, we must recognize that pregnancy and childbirth involve the woman’s body. It is her body that drives to the OB, speaks to the providers, and drinks the sugary stuff. It is her arm that has blood pressure checked and vials of blood withdrawn, it is her belly with goop on it, and her vagina that is probed. Every time she goes to a medical facility, she must consent to things being done to HER body.
It is her body that feels the painful contractions and opening of her cervix, or her abdomen that is opened with the surgeon’s knife. Her muscles, her sweat, her tears, her decisions, and her mental energy that make and endure the immense effort required to give birth. Afterwards, it is her breasts that make milk and then dry up, and her body and mind that must heal.
When pro-choice people say, “my body, my choice,” they mean just that. An abortion ban singles out a section of the population and says, “The government has made a medical decision about your body because it will harm someone else.” I see why they see it as a human rights restriction – because it IS a human rights restriction.
This notion is very distasteful for people on both sides. Conservatives instinctively understand that giving the State more power is unwise. As we learned during the Covid19 pandemic, being pressured to sacrifice your bodily autonomy for others feels awful. Pro-life and pro-choice people completely swapped arguments when it came to mask and vaccine mandates. And what’s to prevent the government from taking it too far and actually mandating abortions?
Even though pro-life people understand that they are, in this very limited area, in favor of placing a temporary restriction on women’s bodily autonomy, it is actually a limit on a lot of our society’s unhealthy habits. Pregnancy is a completely foreseeable result of having sexual intercourse, yet we constantly choose to risk it. Promiscuity, financial hardship, and education/career pursuits do not happen in a vacuum. Holding men accountable for their choices could go a long way towards protecting women and unborn children. And all of us would benefit from companies that have an incentive to financially support families instead of take advantage of them. Abortion is a lazy out for everyone except the woman.
Perhaps we understand the pro-choice position more than we thought. When we speak with someone who is pro-choice, do we verbalize a sincere respect for women, especially women who have been victimized or made poor decisions? Do we acknowledge her challenges and affirm her feelings, or do we dismiss them? Do we give her space and time to work it out for herself, having patience, and trusting that she can sort through truth and lies? Perhaps we have room for more empathy and agreement with social policies that would alleviate her very real crisis. Having basic life necessities makes good decisions a lot easier.
Pro-choice reader, you have reason to be hopeful. Less than 10% of Americans believe that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. This means that most pro-life people recognize the stickiness of this issue, and that making extreme laws to punish women is not their goal. Pro-life people do have genuine compassion for women; try not to let the loudest and scariest voices distract you. If we can step out of combat mode, build real relationships, and have calm conversations, there is a lot of room for creativity and collaboration.
Scientifically, human beings are human from the moment they are conceived.
Abortion is the deliberate killing of a defenseless human being. You may be surprised to learn that pro-choice people don’t dispute this fact. I think pro-life people assume that once that fact is established, any human with a sense of justice would realize it is murder and change their stance. Not so. Pro-choice people understand that the unborn child is not a clump of cells and is not part of its mother. They maintain that we have the right to kill it because the potential for extreme penalties against mothers and health care providers is too great. When laws are ambiguous and inflexible they lead people to hide when they need help or when things get complicated, even if they’ve done nothing wrong. And as we know, it doesn’t matter what you do, someone will be happy to condemn you. Pro-choice people don’t have to imagine the worst, it’s already happening.
Abortion laws have to be extremely precise. There is a massive difference between spontaneous miscarriage and elective abortion, and between abortions of necessity and abortions of convenience. Almost 40% of abortions are not surgical. The idea that policing and prosecuting would be limited to doctors is not realistic. People who call themselves pro-life need to be the loudest voices defending post-abortive women, not condemning them. If we are a movement of mercy, we have to insist on mercy in our laws and in our courts.
Is it possible to craft a pro-life directive that is not coercive? I don’t know. The Catholic teaching that an embryo and fetus are persons with rights equal to its mother, while undeniably true and logically consistent, for most people is not obvious. Absolutist and punitive policies would effectively create a modern crusade, and a lot of martyrs. Even when the Church had earthly power and respect that strategy did not go well; and with our recent round of disgraceful conduct, it will almost certainly backfire on us now. I am certain that our Lord is on the side of mercy.
Pro-choice reader, please try to see that pro-life people love women too and want to see her flourish as much as you do. Second and third-trimester abortion procedures are horrific. An innocent, trapped, and completely defenseless child is often burned alive, decapitated, and dismembered. This mistreatment is vomitous, and not tolerated against anyone else in our society. Are you sure this kind of violence can be justified? How forthright are you when you answer her questions and describe the procedure? Do you take her perception of her options at face value, or could you offer life-affirming alternatives, and find ways to give her heart hope? Children actually do bring women joy. Perhaps you could put more effort into verbalizing this truth, and uncovering her deeper desire to not kill her own child?
Pro-life reader, take heart. At some point pro-choice people become uncomfortable with the choice to abort. Less than 20% believe abortion should be legal in all circumstances. This means that most pro-choice people recognize the stickiness of this issue, and compromise is possible. Every pro-choice person I know genuinely loves children. If we can step out of combat mode, there is a lot of room for creativity and teamwork. Perhaps God doesn’t expect us to prevent or prosecute every single death. Perhaps His standard of justice involves how we love one another.
People are benefitting from this fight. Picking sides is making it worse.
With good intentions, pro-choice people seem to think that a $1.6 billion dollar company, out of the goodness of their hearts, is providing practical, morally neutral, comprehensive education, services, and advocacy that this country needs. The truth is that abortion is a money-maker, and the trouble we get ourselves into is very convenient to capitalize on, and encouraging sexual activity is a sure way to keep a steady flow of customers. Planned Parenthood could expand to include life-affirming services (that many women would love) but chooses not to. They disproportionately target poor and minority women, offering them an easy “out”, instead of basic necessities that would actually improve their situations.
Also with good intentions, and alongside their work to help women in crisis, pro-life people seem to be using the Republican Party to get unborn people the legal rights they have been denied. However, the GOP is probably the wrong tool for this job. When it comes to other social justice issues, their policies and rhetoric do not align with Christ’s exhortations to care for the poor and vulnerable, the immigrant, and the imprisoned. Vigorously supporting them does real damage to our mission. At the moment, our laws accurately reflect the ambivalence of our populace, so efforts to ban all abortions are basically efforts to force a minority morality on everyone else. In a representative democracy, this is an unwelcome strategy, and gives the impression that our arguments are too weak to accomplish honestly. Whatever good the GOP does, in your zeal for their pro-life promises, don’t be too quick to drink their Kool-aide.
Again, I propose a truce. I challenge my fellow Christians to lead the way with listening, accompaniment, compassion, humility, and even heartfelt repentance. To love our enemies, we have to see that they are not really enemies and have potential to be at least partial allies. It’s really only on election day that we have to pick a side. Every other day of our lives we can be pro-child and pro-woman, doing everything we can to encourage the woman in front of us to choose life, and yet recognizing it is not our place to force her.
I realize that this vision is highly improbable. That’s what makes it ripe for the Holy Spirit to conquer hearts. What a triumph it would be if babies were born, and women were honored, and families prospered because opposing sides chose to come together. We owe it to them to try.
In closing, I invite you to sit with these uncomfortable realities for a bit. Maybe stop by a Catholic Church and rest in front of the tabernacle. Whichever position you have historically taken, let down your arms and distance yourself from it, just for a bit, so you can be open to the Holy Spirit. Perhaps He wants to stretch your heart, and refresh your soul, and give you strength to love again. Maybe this topic will fade away and you and the Lord will discuss something else that’s pressing on your heart today. That’s okay too.
I wish you many, many blessings.