Open Wombs, Closed Borders?

Open Wombs, Closed Borders? February 1, 2017


There are basically three reasons I know of why a person is likely to be pro-life. The first is a devotion to traditional sexual ethics, and in particular a commitment to the patriarchal nuclear family as the ideal for human society. Within this worldview, abortion is wrong because it takes the life of a child — but also because it does away with the consequences sex and enables feminism.

The second is a nationalist ethic in which abortion is wrong because it weakens the state and makes immigration necessary to achieve population stability. This kind of anti-abortion stance need not be pro-life in any sense, and it often accommodates abortion for eugenic reasons.

Finally, one might be pro-life out of a belief that human life is always sacred in all forms from conception until natural death. Such an ethic precludes neglect of the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned, the abandoned, the marginalized, and the foreigner.

The latter is the kind of pro-life ethic that is featured in the gospels. In fact, neither abortion nor contraception is ever mentioned explicitly in the Bible — the belief that we must show reverence for life in its early stages, and that we must even show reverence for the act through which life is conceived, flows from our conviction that God sees an immeasurable value in human life. A value which He expressed through a forceful command to care for those who were abandoned and despised.

This is why within Catholic teaching, the gospel of life is always presented as being a consistent ethic which includes both those concerns that are usually classed as “pro-life” and those that are usually classed as “social justice.” The point that the popes make repeatedly is that these are not separable: abortion is a social justice issue, social justice is a pro-life issue; hence the discussion of social justice in JPII’s pro-life encyclical Evangelium Vitae, and the discussion of abortion in Benedict’s social justice encyclical Caritas in Veritate.

Trump’s “pro-life” ethic is not of this sort — and scandalously, many pro-life Catholics seem happy, even eager, to support the truncated gospel of today’s GOP.

In Trump’s world it is acceptable to put an indefinite hold on refugee applications from Syria. This means that Syrians who have already qualified for refugee status will be left in conditions of poverty and peril until Trump decides they are safe — an eventuality which might not come to pass. Some of these people will die as a result. The elderly, children, and pregnant women — the very groups that pro-lifers are most concerned about on American soil — will be the most likely to suffer.

Catholics who claim that this is justifiable appeal to the “threat of terrorism” and speak of “prudential discernment.”

Here is my question to those Catholics: why is it that a woman cannot appeal to “prudential judgement” in order to justify closing her womb to life? Since new vetting protocols were introduced after 9/11, the risk of dying in a terror attack has fallen to about 10 Americans per year, on average. Many of these incidents involve domestic terrorists. None have involved refugees. The number of American women who die in childbirth each year is 600. Yet even high risk women are expected to be open to life.

So why is it reasonable to expect women (including those who conceive as a result of rape) to accept this risk — but not reasonable to expect Americans to accept a much lower rate of risk to ensure the right to life of Syrian refugees? Why is it intrinsically evil for a sexual assault victim to deny food and shelter to an embryo by taking Plan B, but prudent for an American president to deny the same basic goods to people who will die in the Middle East because of unnecessary barriers at the border?

The Pope and the USCCB answer this in a consistent way: it is not Christian to look at a Syrian refugee and see first a possible terrorist. We must look at both the refugee and the unborn child and see Christ. We must also remember that Christ said “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”(Matt 25:41) to those who did not welcome Him when He was a stranger. This is consistent. It demands sacrifice, yes, but it expects that all Christians will share in the willingness to accept risks in order to practice mercy.

When the gospel of life is reduced solely to a condemnation of contraception and abortion, those risks fall disproportionately on sexually active women. And it is a scandal: when a woman sees a male or a celibate who appeals to “prudence” in order to justify protectionist policies which will lead to the deaths of innocent Muslims and which may not even save even a single actual American life, it is natural for her to conclude that something other than a commitment to the sanctity of life is motivating the pro-life rhetoric.

The arguments that pro-choicers use to dismiss pro-life claims are not merely evidence of hardness of heart. They are also the footprint of this scandal. It’s not accidental that many pro-choice people believe that Christian pro-lifers are actually motivated by a desire to control women’s bodies or to punish women for having sex. That they think we only really believe that white, Christian life is sacred. That they see our moral convictions about abortion as a kind of puritanical legalism.

These accusations become supportable when pro-lifers do not actually promote a consistent pro-life ethic. The inconsistencies in the pro-life ideology of the Right too often suggest that opposition to abortion is not actually based on a good faith belief in the universal value and dignity of all life. When people who march for the lives of unborn Americans make excuses for policies that will turn away Muslim mothers, leaving them to bear their precious unborn children in conditions of squalor, poverty, and hunger, without adequate water or medical care, it really is not surprising that the pro-life message comes across as hypocrisy.

Scripture does not go easy on those who enjoy wealth and safety while turning away the poor and the stranger. Indeed, when Christ explicitly names the type of behaviour that will result in eternal damnation, He describes people like the rich man in the story of Lazarus, who have enjoyed plenty and who have made excuses for neglecting those in need. In the Old Testament, Ezekiel warns “this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy…Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.” (Ez 16:49-50)

The Catechism and the documents of the Church may not place the kind of clear guidelines on social justice that they do on sexual morality. This is not because social justice is more optional, or it’s neglect less damnable, but rather because there is no objective point at which we can say “Now I am fulfilling the law of love. Now I can rest secure.” The demands of charity are supposed to be more onerous and more pressing, than the demands of chastity — that’s why we cannot draw a line and say “This will suffice.” It is not to give us leeway to make excuses for laws that put a barricade across the doors of mercy.

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