Yes, We Can Talk About Abortion

Over at dotcommonweal, a serious and thoughtful discussion on abortion by three Catholics of slightly divergent views — Dennis O’Brien, Peter Steinfels and Cathleen Kaveny — demonstrate how to talk about abortion like adults: with courtesy, humanity, a bit of breadth and not a clenched jaw in sight — and it is frankly, a very excellent thing.

I predict you will not agree with any of them, in totality — nor do I — but I believe you will be surprised at how much common ground may be found between “progressive” Catholics and “conservative” Catholics, on this issue. On fundamentals, there is barely a shadow’s worth of difference, although shadows can still startle; where there is difference, there is refreshing maturity. (I’ve heard brilliant and kind Peter Steinfels speak several times, and believe he would concede to “maturity” with a rueful chuckle.) And I am very pleased to see the difficult question of the criminality covered, here.

Read the three pieces, please — and if you’re going to go into the comboxes and declare “I read the first three lines and realized none of these people has anything to say to me,” please don’t. Be willing to suspend a habit-of-reaction for a few minutes, to more deeply consider a proper response. None of these people are denouncing the church teaching about life; none of them are recommending storming the Vatican or ousting the bishops. But they have opinions, thoughts and ideas that are all at least worth wondering about. As Gregory of Nyssa said, “only wondering leads to knowing.”

We mustn’t be afraid to wonder about and discuss any question — that is how our understanding grows, and as I noted in my presentation last May, our good pope models for us a willingness to engage, and “to put any idea throughout the wringer of Catholic analysis, because he is confident that a thorough discussion, rooted on the truth of Christ, will always lead us to the ends of Catholic orthodoxy, and so Pope Benedict is fearless and open, and in Christ’s truth, we can afford to be, too!”

I think you’ll actually enjoy this; it’s a nice change from, “Shut up, it’s a woman’s right” and “You shut up, it’s murder!” From, “You’re evil!” “No, you’re evil!

Three writers, three excerpts:


The Catholic position on abortion seems unassailable. From embryo on through birth, there is in existence a being with specific human DNA. This human being has a right to life commensurate with that of any human being. There is no direct way around this claim. It certainly cannot be that the woman has a simple “right to choose.” You have a simple right to choose when the issue at hand is indifferent. “Vanilla or chocolate, it’s your choice.” That cannot cover abortion. To accept that position one has to deny any moral status to the fetus. Putting down the family dog cannot be done as a matter of indifference, much less ending nascent human life.

The moral picture here seems heavily in favor of the Catholic position, yet I think there is something missing. What gets left out is the reality of pregnancy.


A number of women I know, having found themselves pregnant in difficult circumstances, have confronted the question of abortion. Some made choices only hinted at; some, acting in the teeth of social convention, gave birth to individuals whose fortunes as youngsters and adults I now follow.

None of them made me privy to their decision making at the time. Yet I can pretty safely say, with due respect to the bishops, that neither the Catholics nor non-Catholics who were faced with these decisions gave a tinker’s damn about episcopal rhetoric, one way or another, in working through the moral issue. Nor did they have to be told that pregnancy would drastically change themselves and imperil or transform their life plans. Being reasonably well informed, they simply knew that there was a distinct human life within them, even if not a “fully” independent one, and that it possessed a beating heart, an individual blood type, a rapidly forming and active brain, and a genetic make-up that, being different from either parent’s, would make it a unique he or she in the world.

In trying to understand the moral status of this tiny but dynamic human entity and to weigh its destruction against the impact of pregnancy and motherhood on their own future, they would get precious little help from [O'Brien]. At most, they would get the assurance, as Dennis writes in his book, that their own “life experience of pregnancy is determinative in assessing the moral situation.”

Cathleen Kaveny:

All law has a pedagogical function; it is a moral teacher. What do Roe and its progeny teach about the value of unborn life? Prolifers excoriate Roe’s decree that the unborn are not equally protected persons under the Constitution. The line that I have always found most chilling however, was penned by Justice William Brennan, who stated in more than one opinion that “abortion and childbirth, when stripped of the sensitive moral arguments surrounding the abortion controversy, are simply two alternative medical methods of dealing with pregnancy.”

No. They’re not.

Because Roe purported to interpret the Constitution, those who opposed it had very few options. They could try to push through a constitutional amendment undoing it, or they could try to remake the Supreme Court to overrule it. Neither approach was easy, quick, or certain—as the past forty years attests. [...] The best book on abortion policy I have read is Mary Ann Glendon’s Abortion and Divorce in Western Law. Glendon writes that “what is important is that the totality of abortion regulations—that is, all criminal, public health, and social welfare laws relating to abortion—be in proportion to the importance of the legal value of life, and that, as a whole, they work for the continuation of the pregnancy.”

Glendon’s approach gives us moral pedagogy about the value of unborn life without the hard edge of prophecy. It situates both the pregnant woman and the unborn child within a supportive society rather than consigning them to an all too isolating intimacy. It builds a culture of life, rather than merely castigating a culture of death.

UPDATE: And then this story out of Canada

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Kenny R

    There’s a school of thought that suggests that the Social Security Act of 1934 was the beginning of a chain reaction that deeply diminished the moral standard of honoring one’s personal responsibility for the care of his/her elderly parents and grandparents. I believe there’s ample empirical evidence to make this case.
    The same can be said about abortion. Would the “difficulties” of pregnancy be there if we all collectively hadn’t yielded our responsibity for each other to the government? Or if abortion on demand hadn’t created a generation of craven men?

  • The FatMan

    I’m not sure your link, “…this story out of Canada,” is what you intended…if it is, I’m VERY confused.
    (I was thinking it was intended to be the nineteen yr.old mother freed on suspended sentence after killing her newborn.)
    The FatMan

    [Thanks, Fatty -- repaired. I need a nap; going on no sleep! -admin]

  • Bill

    re “this story out of Canada”:

    So we are back to the days of the pagans, who had no problem with throwing an infant or a young child over the city wall at nightfall, knowing that in the morning it would be gone, dragged away and eaten by animals.

    This is horrible. At one time, I thought Canada was a decent country, full of people with good sense and Christian ethics, ruled by a moral government. What happened?

    May God have mercy on us all, and may He keep the United States from sliding down this same slope into evil.

  • David

    Interesting I think O’Briens point about Mother-child intimacy was worth the read. Although I don’t think it changes the innate value of the baby in the womb or the morality of the act, which I think is too serious to be mitigated, it does provide an insight useful in counseling. Of course after birth as in the case at the link is even more heinous when seen in this light.

  • Richard Johnson

    Fascinating pieces, Anchoress. Thanks for posting about them. I will definitely keep these bookmarked and revisit them. The points raised, especially surrounding the moral and ethical arguments, is very thought provoking.

    Kenny R points out the school of thought surrounding the Social Security Act of 1934, and I believe he has a point with this line of reasoning. However, I suspect we diverge on the reasons this act was necessary.

    The Great Depression devastated our nation, leaving even those fortunate enough to still have jobs barely able to take care of their immediate family, let alone their aging parents. Churches were doing their best, but faced the same economic distress that their parishioners faced. And those who were unchurched had an even harder time of finding support.

    Coming out of that the government sought to provide some form of assurance for those who had worked to build (and re-build) our society so they would at least have a modicum of security. This was done because the other society safety nets of family and community were strained beyond belief.

    If we begin to remove the government safety net that has existed for the past 65+ years, is the church able and willing to resume the work it was doing in the past? It might mean that our modern houses of worship may fall into a bit of disrepair as more people turn to their local churches for support, and that some television ministries might have to stop airing. Are we ready to accept that?

    Christians, especially more conservative Christians, are rightly proud to point out that they contribute more to charities than their more liberal, more non-believing counterparts. This continues in spite of the economic downturn. But, are these conservative believers ready to take on the full burden of supporting families who will undoubtedly turn to their churches once Social Security is phased out?

  • Dan

    Kenny R is talking nonsense.

    My own pet theory is that the soldier’s embrace of total war in WW1 and again in WW2 demeaned the value of life and taught that the first and only valuable life was one’s own. The REPUBLICAN appointed justices on the Supreme Court who once practiced these principles of war started to apply them more generally, as did the country and the culture, which carpet-bombed Cambodia and Viet Nam during that same era as Roe was approved. Imbibing total war and the Greatest Generation instilled Roe into the nation.

    Its a better narrative than an attempt to make America’s abortion culture a product of a lack of libertarianism. Seriously?

  • Fran Rossi Szypylczyn

    I am so glad to see this posted here. It is an excellent piece worth reading and you are so right about not agreeing all the way around.

    It is about how we can begin to talk about this matter with civility and that gives me much hope.

    As someone who really had a long journey to make in regard to my own position on abortion, it was never rhetoric, shouting or histrionics that made sense to me. If anything that drove me away… it drove me away from wanting to enter into this and to do so deeply.

    This article points out how much value that can have and I hope that people really take the time to read it all.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Dan, you’re joking, right?

    You really blame our society’s loss of respect for life on the soldiers who defended us, during WWII?

  • Doc

    C’mon, Rhinestone. It’s his pet theory. Don’t mock it. He sleeps with it at night.

  • Greta

    Yes, those who defeated an evil that gave us the death camps and the rape of nanking are what gave us Roe. Right. When we go to war against evil, there is no easy way to end it. Since the liberal mindset got involved during and after Vietnam on war, there is almost no way that we can ever defeat evil. We heard during the last election that we would change everything and now talk to our enemies like North Korea and Iran and the Islamic terrorist and once we appolgized for our wicked ways in the USA, everything would be OK, the troops would come home, and we would not need to spend so much on defense. Appeasement of evil does not work. For about 300 years the west and Christianity tried it with Islam until they were just about overrun and had to put together the crusades. Now we fight wars with “rules of engagement” that would have been unthinkable during WWII. Had we used those same rules, we would still be fighting WWII or speaking German.

    Yes, the nanny state and removing personal responbility go hand in hand. It is interesting that social security had more to do with growth and power of the federal government than it did with seniors. Keep in mind that the program itself was very small with only a few paying anything in and the average age of death then being about 58 with retirement at 65 little going out. Like all big government nanny state programs, it is the foot in the door. On this opening were stacked what we have today in Social Security, but also SSI, Medicare, Medicaid, and now obamacare. Had the supreme court justices not bowed down to the threat of FDR to pack the court and stayed with the ruling that this type of program is not consitutional, we would be far better off today. And yes, if what the government has done was done in the private sector, you would be in jail with Bernie Madoff as it is a ponzi scheme.

    As to the issue at hand, abortion, this exchange was indeed very good as indicated by The Anchoress. I believe that Roe was bad law again, and again not constitutional in any way. I believe that life starts with conception and that killing this life is wrong for any reason. I believe that this is as Pope Paul VI said in Humane Vitae the nature outgrowth of birth control and that after abortion, it leads to what we saw in Canada in the link. When you start to say no to God, it never turns out good.

  • Richard Johnson

    Greta #10: “Now we fight wars with “rules of engagement” that would have been unthinkable during WWII. Had we used those same rules, we would still be fighting WWII or speaking German.”

    Had we fought WWII while providing tax cuts to corporations (war profiteers) and the wealthy as we have done for the past ten years, we would never have been able to rebuild Europe and overcome the “Red Menace”. The USSR would have dominated in Europe and we would have become a second-rate country with huge debts.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Sorry, Doc, shoulda realized—it’s his pet! Naughty, Rhinestone, very naughty!

    Sadly, it’s really not at all historically plausible. But then, “Pet” theories usually aren’t.

  • Greta

    Richard, the entire situation with regard to corporations and taxes are far different today than during WWII. The ownership of corporations is much more diverse now as well with regular folks, pension funds, etc, owning stock. The entire country was involved in WWII unlike today with few people seeing any of the day to day pain of war. However, billions were made by companies during WWII as often happens when we need new solutions and new materials. Those who had investments in many early forms of plastics and other materials did quite well.

    Taxes on corporations are simply more tax passed on to those who buy the products or services. it becomes part of the cost of doing business and thus part of the cost basis. As a former CEO, I know we figured in taxes and all other costs to determine what we would have to charge for a product, especially if we were selling the product to a not for profit company. We worked very hard each quarter to meet expectations on earnings and if we needed to make changes to lower costs, it was not possible to lower taxes, so more often than not it came with cuts to personnel. The entire tax code needs to be revised and corporate taxes need to be lowered dramatically. We also need to encourage companies and people to bring cash back into this country and an ability to do that without tax would bring trillions back into this country which would have a profoudn impact on jobs.

  • Greta

    We had a very good discussion and prayer on the issue of chastity and the ongoing battle with evil that often ends in abortion at the Angelic Warfare Confraternity meeting. This is a Dominican supernatural brotherhood or fellowship of men and women who make a sacred pact to pursue some good together in the Church. A Confraternity is a bond of love serving some good and holy purpose, and reflecting the communion of the Holy Trinity. It has been in existence since 1400′s.

    I would urge those who are close to a Dominican parish to seek this out if you are struggling with issues around chastity as it is excellent. Many of those who we have helped in Rachels Project abortion program have joined this as well to help them fight what in many cases started them down the wrong track and also in some cases to find friends. It never hurts to get closer to St Thomas Aquinas and The Blessed Virgin.

    Wonderful program…

  • Doc

    Greta, please stop interfering with the class warfare agenda. Your facts are getting in the way of the narrative.