A Catholic Feminist Grapples with Abortion Or: Why Isn’t Everyone Sad?

A Catholic Feminist Grapples with Abortion Or: Why Isn’t Everyone Sad? June 29, 2016

A few months ago I asked my tech-savy fiancé to create a Facebook filter that would eliminate all mentions of “abortion” from my Facebook newsfeed.  Just to clear a few things up, I am not squeamish about women’s issues, despite what this demeaning article would have you think: The One Thing Anti-Abortion Protesters Can’t Handle Hearing.

 I know I have a vagina, and I take it with me wherever I go.

I’m very comfortable with conversations about sex and sexuality and anatomy.  I know several Pro-Life doctors and nurses and I’m pretty sure they’re comfortable with it too. Penis. Vagina. Condoms.  Okay, we cleared that up.  I also don’t believe that woman should simply “keep their legs shut.” (I will discuss my personal choices regarding sexual morality in another post.) So I didn’t block the abortion talk because I was afraid.  I did it because, as a practicing Catholic working in the New York arts scene, my Facebook feed was starting to seriously get me down.  By that I mean I was going through an existential crisis. Every day, I forced myself to read every article about the issue that some acquaintance of mine happened to post.  I did this because I wanted to be “informed.”  But, because of my unusual place smack in the middle of the Culture War, half of my friends are passionately Pro-Life and half are passionately Pro-Choice.  And they hate each other.  And they view each other as either stupid or evil or both.  And they bash each other on social media.  And they are all, without exception, desperately trying to avoid pain.   Finally, I woke up in the middle of the night unable to breathe.  When my fiancé asked what was wrong I said: “I’m sad about abortion.  I don’t understand why everyone else isn’t sad.”  So we cleansed my Facebook feed while I cleansed my mind.

With the recent Supreme Court decision, the posts are back.  They’re back because the word “abortion” has been replaced with the word victory. The Supreme Court has dealt a critical blow to state abortion regulations. The Pro-Choice groups are ecstatic.  The Pro-Life groups are aflame with righteous fury.  I still don’t understand why they’re not sad.  I’m not talking about the sadness that some religious people feel when they talk about the sheer numbers of unborn deaths.  I believe they are really sad about this, but what I’m talking about here is the sadness one feels when one realizes that one is human, and as part of being human, there is no option but to be in pain.

The abortion debate essentially boils down to two incompatible conceptions of reality.

  1. Unborn children are human beings.  They are not partial, or almost, or potential human beings.  They are complete people worthy of respect and dignity.
  2. Women are human beings.  We are not vessels of childbirth.  Safe, legal abortion is the only thing that truly protects us from sexual slavery, the almost universal historical standard. Before legalized abortion, women were literally dying.

Actually, these statements are not incompatible at all.  If my undergraduate logic course is correct, the only way to prove a premise false is to find within it a direct contradiction.  Look closely, and it is obvious that there is no such contradiction.  So they could both be true.  I am not saying they are.  But they could be. And if they are both true, we as a society have to deal with that.

Most Pro-Choice activists solve this problem by simply denying the first concept.  I’ve never heard a convincing argument in their favor.  Many believe that a child becomes “alive” when it takes its first breath.  This implies that breathing is the essential quality of life, which is pretty poor science. The best arguments assert that we can’t know whether or not an unborn fetus is a person.  I say, when unsure if something is a person, one ought to err on the side of human being.  So as to avoid potentially killing a human being.  More often, though, these activists simply deny a fetus’ humanity because it is inconvenient.  It is horribly, painfully, and monumentally inconvenient for a fetus to be a person.  I agree.  But that doesn’t make it untrue.

In the Pro-Life camp, it is rare to meet someone who thinks women are just vessels for babies. (This despite the opposition’s characterization.) More likely, they will assert that unplanned pregnancy is hard, and rape is terrible, but murder is worst of all.  So we have to make murder illegal.  This stance is philosophically sound but leaves the bearer trapped in an armor of callousness.  What I’ve found to be the case, and was the case with me, is that the devotee will use the massiveness of the importance of saving lives as an excuse to patently ignore the feminine issues at hand.  We will deal with those issues, they say, once abortion is taken care of.  And that will be…. When exactly?  Never, it looks like.  Sorry women, for all practical purposes you don’t matter.

(Sidenote: I admit that the Pro-Life movement is extremely disparate.  There are plenty of crazies, like the woman my friend stood by at March for Life carrying a sign that read “Women Wearing Pants Cause Abortion.”  I can’t speak for these people.  But there are plenty of Pro-Choice crazies too.  I met a girl last week who jokingly told me that she believes in “legal abortion up to three years.” I did not find that funny.  At all.)

So how does a Catholic feminist rectify this situation?  Pope Francis recently stated that Cafeteria Catholics, that is, Catholics that pick and choose which teachings they happen to like, aren’t real Catholics at all.  Pope Francis is right.  Christ didn’t say “Try really hard and I’ll cut you some slack.”  Christ said “Be perfect.” (Matt. 5:48) I fail at this command every day. And I wish with all my heart that I could return to my high school days when I was Pro-Life without qualms.  (Because killing is wrong no matter what, so no other arguments matter.)  But, short of surrendering my God-given conscious, I can’t allow myself to return to a world where, as bell hooks describes “men want sex and women fear it.”

So here’s what I do, and it may not work for anyone.  Probably, it doesn’t work for anyone but me, as I’ve come to learn about most of my opinions.  I consider myself Pro-Life without exception.  That means I believe that all children have a right to life regardless of projected disability, standard of living, or the circumstances of their conception, even violent conception. (Read: rape.)  Meanwhile, I oppose any and all legal restrictions on abortion.  Okay… I’m losing you.  Hear me out.  We cannot, from a truly life-affirming perspective, force women to have children.  I can’t imagine a scenario where such a practice would result in anything other than violence.  So what I do, to the best of my ability, is strive to create a society in which it is not only possible, but attractive for a woman to choose life.  This means a radical restructuring of our entire view of sexuality, pregnancy, and childrearing.  This means, if you’re really Pro-Life, create the support system which does not exist for women now.  This means get over your sexual rigidity and need to shame a woman for being a sexual being.  This means Pro-Life people should adopt.  They should adopt children who don’t look like them.  They should pay for the healthcare of pregnant women, even if they aren’t adopting their child.  Yes, I’m that serious.  Pro-Life people should be kind and empathetic.  And then, maybe, maybe we won’t need to be having this debate.  Maybe abortion will only be happening in the most extreme of circumstances.  (But it will still be tragic.  And Christ did say be perfect.) That’s really all I got.

The specific legal ramifications of Whole Woman’s Health vs. Hellerstedt are actually not that compelling to me.  It’s a bit bizarre that they threw out the part about abortion clinics having to meet fire codes.  That seems legal, but I’m no judge.  I understand that these requirements mostly existed as an excuse to shut down abortion clinics, and that’s a bad look.  (Why are we trying to be shady about this?)  What is alarming to me is unabated celebration of the Pro-Choice movement.  Victory. There’s no victory in a scenario where we must choose between harming woman and harming the unborn.

This is the fundamental problem with American politics: we see most issues as a matter of winning.  We’re happy because we beat those bad Republicans, so who cares about achieving moral Goodness?  We stop caring about the ethical consequences of our “victories.”  The #shoutyourabortion movement, a key factor in my decision to newsfeed cleanse, holds as its basic principle that there is literally no downside to abortion.  Women should shout their abortion, because they refuse to be shamed. Their slogan is “This is not a debate.” (Um, yes it is.) It’s true that we should all share our stories without shame, but when did recognition of sadness become a bad thing?  Once again, the denial, the callousness, was hard to bear.

 How revolutionary for our society if the feminist were to say, “I believe in abortion, and I know this might result in loss of life. This pains me.”  How earth shattering for the Christian to say “I oppose abortion in all cases, and I know this could harm women. This pains me.”  If we were to truly grapple with ourselves, I imagine I wouldn’t be the only one waking up unable to breathe.  And that would be a good thing.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that everyone take my admittedly convoluted stance on abortion. Clearly, it doesn’t help me sleep at night.  Rather, I am challenging each of us to avoid the comfortable pattern of denial that allows us to cope with our decisions.  I’m challenging us to own our consequences.  In other words, take your ethics seriously.

For those of us who support legal abortion, we should still allow ourselves to mourn.  We mourn that this is necessary for society to function. This is a sign of just how bad things are on this Earth.  And I do believe this is an evil planet, reactionary as it may sound.  We ought to learn to mourn without shaming ourselves and others.  We ought to learn to live with a little bit of shame, because that’s part of being human. Imperfect.  And not okay with it.

And let’s consider, for a moment, the possibility that our enemy is not evil or stupid.

Let’s consider, for a moment, that we are.

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