Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Reader Writes: How Rare Should Abortion Be?

In the discussion following this recent posting, Mark has asked me how rare abortion ought to be. This question was in response to my statement that, in my view, abortion should be safe, legal, and rare, a formula that I believe comes from President Clinton.

Mark's question to me has made me think. I've blogged fairly extensively here in the past about my own understanding of abortion. As I've noted repeatedly, I do not think that the leaders of my Catholic church and of the pro-life movement in general have mounted a very persuasive argument for a consistent ethic of life, and their inability to convince the culture at large of the importance of such an ethic is evidence of their conspicuous lack of success.

The pro-life movement (including its considerable Catholic component) is not convincing, I would argue, because its ethic of life is not in the least consistent. It is focused with obsessive intensity on life in the womb, and appears to have limited regard for life after birth. Indeed, it frequently supports policies that actually militate against a consistent ethic of life, and which make the option of abortion much more appealing to women in difficult economic circumstances.

I also do not find the coercive way in which the leaders of my Catholic community have long sought to do business as they work against abortion a service to a serious ethic of life. Shutting down conversations, seeking to force Catholics and non-Catholics alike to parrot magisterial language about abortion as the most serious moral issue of our time and about conception as the moment at which a fetus becomes a person: these give the impression that the foundations of the magisterium's pro-life argument are weak rather than strong.

When you have to force people to do your "moral" bidding, what you've essentially told people is that you aren't enforcing a position that can legitimately call itself moral. And when you shut down conversations, as the Vatican and Catholic bishops have done within the Catholic church, about such matters as the fact that leading theologians including Aquinas held for many centuries that the fetus is ensouled at the moment of implantation and not conception, you suggest that you don't want to craft a coherent and thoughtful response to a complex moral position: you want, instead, to impose, issue orders, and coerce. And you want to do this even to those who are not part of your faith community and who may not share your presuppositions about these issues.

When the Vatican and the bishops insist that people not talk about the fact that a significant percentage of fertilized ova don't implant in the uterine wall, or that a zygote we're commanded to believe is a unique person is capable of twinning down the road from the moment of conception, what the Vatican and bishops are really communicating is that the Catholic "pro-life" position is a matter of fiat and not of reason or careful attention to sound scientific evidence coupled with theological evidence. 

And there's also this: as the two articles to which I linked in the posting at which my discussion with Mark occurs both point out, when abortion was decriminalized in the U.S. with Roe v. Wade, the movement to overturn Roe v. Wade was immediately linked to a politics of race-baiting and opposition to the rights of women. For many of us who have long followed the rhetoric and tactics of the pro-life movement, that movement is so entangled with misogyny and racism, in its very foundations, that it's difficult to see the movement as a movement serving the values of life in any credible way at all.

I'd go a step further and say that, in my estimation, the pro-life movement as it has long been configured in the U.S. has had some conspicuously toxic effects in American culture and American political life. If its goal is to diminish abortions, or even to end them short of legal prohibition of abortion, then the way it pursues that goal seems to me downright inimical to its primary goals.

The attack on Planned Parenthood, about which I've repeatedly blogged here, is a case in point. In many parts of the country, this organization doesn't even provide abortions. What it does provide is much-needed health care for poor women.

In the part of the country in which I live, the very same religious right groups that want to shut Planned Parenthood down and reverse Roe v. Wade have done everything in their power to make it well-nigh impossible for poor women and poor children to obtain much-needed healthcare. The states of the bible belt, the Southeastern states, which profess to be the most Christian and biblically faithful of all the states in the nation, have now created almost a solid block against the Affordable Care Act.

These heavily Christian, bible-believing states are willing to turn back billions of dollars offered by the federal government to help draw the poorest of the poor into systems of adequate healthcare. These states, in which some of the nation's poorest people live, are willing not only to continue permitting many people in their midst to go without even minimal healthcare, but they're now choosing to do so defiantly in order to score political points against the Obama administration . . . while professing that they are more pro-life than any other states in the country!

And so Mark's question: how rare should abortion be? I personally seriously oppose making abortion illegal, and I've sketched some of my reasons for opposing that step in the discussion with Mark to which the link above points. If the goal of the pro-life movement is really to make abortion rare, short of turning back the Roe v. Wade decision, here's a checklist of ten items that I'd advise pro-life folks to consider:

1. Work as hard as possible to make contraception widely and easily available, especially for economically distressed women.

2. Support healthcare systems and networks that seek to make contraception widely and easily available, and that encourage responsible family planning.

3. Support strong sex education programs in schools.

4. Work as hard as possible to see that every American citizen has access to good basic healthcare, including contraceptives.

5. Work particularly hard to see that women struggling to make ends meet, and their children, have the opportunity to obtain solid educations and good jobs that pay well and provide good benefits.

6. Work to educate all Americans about the fact that those living in poverty are not to be blamed for their impoverishment, but need to be assisted and drawn out of marginalization and into the structures of society.

7. Support a strong safety net for poor families, and work to enhance government programs already set up to provide that safety net, including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, and so on.

8. Work within faith communities to educate people of faith about all that a consistent ethic of life demands, and to encourage teaching and preaching about the links between the various life issues--to encourage attempts to connect rhetoric about abortion as a life issue to all the other issues of life that have to be discussed if the critique of abortion is to make any sense at all.

9. Challenge hospitals sponsored by communities of faith to offer contraceptive services to women if they're also going to refuse to provide abortions, and to offer affordable or free healthcare services to the indigent, as well as outreach programs to assist economically deprived women raising children learn how to cope with their privation and raise children as effectively as possible given such privation.

10. Challenge communities of faith who proclaim that they are pro-life to offer church- or synagogue- or mosque-based health services to their local communities, services like free nursing care, screening for serious illness, inoculations, and so forth.

If the goal of pro-life people of faith is to make abortions rare, then it seems to me that these and other steps like them are a sine qua non for achieving that goal. Unfortunately, I have to say bluntly that a vast number of people of faith I know or observe who style themselves as pro-life seem to move in precisely the opposite direction. The tag "pro-life" simply does not connote "life" to many U.S. citizens, and it certainly does not connote a consistent ethic of life.

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