Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Reader Responds: Throwing Reason Out the Window in Abortion Debate

My friend and colleague Colleen Kochivar-Baker left an outstanding response to my posting yesterday about passion overruling reason in the abortion debate. What Colleen has to say closely parallels my own recollection of how the abortion debate has shaped up in American culture from the early 1970s to the present.

I want to lift Colleen's response into a posting so that as many readers as possible can take advantage of what she has to say. Colleen writes:

I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that back in the day, say right before, during, and after Roe v Wade, and before the Religious right chose this issue as the base for their political push, there was reasoned debate and dialogue.

That dialogue was led and argued primarily by women and NOW and NARAL had the more persuasive case. Their arguments made people take a real look at their reasoning and most people, upwards of three quarters of the population, could not reasonably come to the conclusion that a conceptus was fully equal to a new born, or a third trimester fetus. Most of us took the position of Thomas Aquinas that life began at quickening, or when the fetus had a reasonable chance of survival outside the womb.

I was only when politically driven men began to dominate the debate that reason was thrown out the window in favor of passionately defending their unassailable position that a full life exists at conception--not begins, but exists in toto.

Once the debate was shifted in this way, it's been all down hill for any number of social justice issues which directly impact a woman's ability to have and raise a child. I absolutely can not fathom that the USCCB would have ever taken the current stand on health care back in the seventies. It is unnuanced and purposely disregards the fact that Catholics have been participating in funding abortions for decades in over half the private policies issued in the US. Why is there no equal call to stop funding abortion in private policies? Because they can't; because abortion is a legal medical procedure.

So they have put themselves in the position where they are rejecting health care for the poor over a principle they are not requiring from those who have private insurance which funds abortion. This is a hypocritical and unreasonable position which fosters abortion. Which is why I agree with Bill. It's not about abortion, it's about maintaining the sanctity of the free market system and the health industry's right to make obscene profits off of our health and deaths.

The health industry is the real culture of death and that's the truth the abortion screaming is designed to cover.

As I told Colleen in my reply to her posting, what she says here echoes some points I made yesterday in an email discussion with a group of folks discussing some current pieces about the abortion debate in American religious-political life. I'll blog further about that discussion in a separate posting.

For now, I want to clip some snippets of my comments in the email discussion (slightly edited), which reinforce Colleen's memories of where the abortion debate has headed since the 1970s, particularly in Catholic circles:

It would be interesting to see some studies written (and maybe they exist already) about precisely how and why the evangelical right has bought into Catholic rhetoric about abortion. My own memory seems to contain some gaps, and that may have to do with several parts of my own biography.

As I ended my undergrad studies in 1972, I spent several years living with several other students interested in social justice work, and we were deliberately out of touch during those crucial years with much that was going on in the social mainstream. We didn't even have a television.

I went off to do graduate work in Canada after that, and this placed me, again, out of touch with much that was going on in the American social mainstream and media. As a result, it's as if I have a kind of amnesia for that crucial period in which I think the alliance between the Catholic church and the evangelical right around abortion was being built. And the kind of Catholic theology I was taught in Canada didn't prepare me for the reality into which I re-entered, when I came back to the U.S. and began teaching.

In my own simplistic way, I've come to connect the shift that occurred in the 1970s as right-leaning evangelicals and Catholics made common cause around opposition to abortion, with a kind of global resistance to women's rights and women's autonomy. From what I remember of my Baptist days, that has to be a more powerful driving force in this shift than some new-found theological penchant for pro-life rhetoric, I think.

And, of course, I also wonder about that resistance as the primary motivating factor in the Catholic church's choice to focus on abortion at this point in its history. I wonder--it's difficult to put my question here into clear language--what got this movement so organized so quickly, how it found legs so quickly as it came onto the scene as a major religious-political movement.

I have two strong memories of the beginning of the movement in Catholicism, but not much to connect those memories with what happened as the movement began to be organized. The first dates from 1973, when I taught for a year in a Catholic school in New Orleans while living in the community involved in social action ministry.

During that year--and I now realize this must have been a response to Roe v. Wade--the archbishop of New Orleans
forced all teachers in Catholic schools in that archdiocese to attend a propaganda film about abortion. What I remember about that event was 1) that the film was very simplistic, and equated abortion at any stage of fetal development with murder, 2) that the film entertained no questions about the complexity of the moral issue, and 3) that all the teachers in the school in which I taught, all of whom were women (besides me), resented being forced to attend this film and did not buy its analysis of the issue.

It was clear to me when I saw the film that it was not about convincing those who saw it, providing sound information, and helping us reason through the issues. It was about intimidating and coercing.

In other words, there was a clear intent from Roe v. Wade forward, on the part of church officials, to shut down conversation and force conformity to a preconceived position. And the reaction of all the women in my school (I was the only male teacher) confirmed that: they were angry at being forced to attend this propaganda event, and they chose a passive-aggressive response of non-collaboration after they saw it.

Soon after that, I also recall the Jesuits at Loyola in New Orleans, where I did my undergrad work, sponsoring a public discussion of abortion. In that discussion, several elderly and theologically middle-of-the-road Jesuits argued that the issue of abortion ought to be open for further discussion, given the variety of viewpoints about this issue in the Catholic tradition, and that the pro-life movement did nobody a service by unilaterally claiming the title "pro-life" for itself while implying that other positions are pro-death, and by characterizing abortion as murder.

I knew these Jesuits. Some of them had been my teachers. They were far from radicals. They were traditional, sound, middle-of-the-road thinkers.

And every one of them stated that the question of abortion is far more morally complex than the church's political response to the issue wanted to make it out to be. Every one of them pointed to the discrepancies in the tradition that should make us tentative about our certainty that a human being is present at conception.

Each Jesuit who spoke said that pro-life groups were doing an injustice to anyone who did not adopt their positions, by implying that to oppose their hard-line formulation of the issue was to be pro-death. All the speakers lambasted the pro-life groups for claiming that those who choose an abortion are murdering a child.

Something seems to have happened in the period after that. Those voices--sane, middle-of-the-road, very traditional voices--were quickly silenced in the Catholic tradition by a powerful organized movement. I wonder where that movement came from and how it got organized so quickly.


I grew up Southern Baptist and joined the Catholic church as a teen, at age 17. My choice to leave my family's church had much to do with its less-than-stellar response to the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. At that point in time, and in my own area of the country, the Catholic church was actually progressive in comparison to other churches, and that attracted me.

In all my years growing up Southern Baptist, I never once heard abortion mentioned. (And, for what it's worth, my family's ties were pretty thick, to the SBC. I have two cousins who are SBC ministers; their father, my father's brother, spent his life as an academic dean in SBC colleges). Abortion was simply nowhere on the radar screen of Southern Baptists when I was growing up.

Race definitely was, and the movement to set up "Christian" schools in the South had everything to do with race. As well as I remember, abortion came onto the scene for Southern Baptists only down the road from the turmoil over the civil rights movement and then the anger in Southern evangelical churches when their moves to set up separate, all-white religious schools in response to the integration of public schools set many of those churches on a path of confrontation with the federal government. The anti-abortion movement in evangelical churches was another stage on that same path, but a later one, which didn't have any strong historic roots at all in the theology of evangelical churches prior to the 1980s.

Colleen is right. If there ever was an opening to reasonable culture-wide discussion of abortion, it was in the wake of Roe v. Wade. Unfortunately, many of the religious groups concerned about this issue chose the opposite path. The Catholic church, in particular, shut down intra-ecclesial discussion of the abortion issue. Along with its collaborators in the evangelical right, it placed all its eggs in the coercion basket, trying to force a legislative end to abortion, against the will of the majority.

That has not proven a productive path. If abortion is the kind of game-changing issue that these churches claim it is, then it deserves careful, reasoned analysis and discussion, at which those on opposite sides of the fence sit down and try to understand each other's positions.

The unwillingness of the religious right (including the Catholic church) to entertain such discussion suggests to me that the crusade to end abortion is about something much more than getting people to understand and buy into a pro-life ethic. I'm not convinced at all that that "something much more" is really about respect for life at all, in the final analysis.