A recurring topic on “Catholic Answers Live,” a radio show produced by my former employer Catholic Answers, has been “Why are you pro-choice?” Hosted by the apostolate’s specialist in pro-life issues, my former colleague Trent Horn, the premise of the show is to invite people who are pro-choice to call into the show and talk with Trent about why they’re pro-choice. I have to admit that I didn’t bother to listen to “Catholic Answers Live” very often, so I can’t comment on Trent’s interaction with his callers. I hope he lived up to his aspiration to “graciously and persuasively engage those with disagree with [him].”
Sometimes, though, I did occasionally fantasize about calling into the show myself. “Hi, my name’s Michelle, and I’m pro-choice,” I might have said. “I’m also pro-life. Let me explain why.” That call isn’t going to happen, but I would still like to explain why I consider myself both pro-choice and pro-life.
First, though, I should clarify how I’m crafting my case. I chose to order my identification as “pro-choice, pro-life” because I think “pro-life” is the more fundamental position of the two. “Pro-choice” qualifies “pro-life,” not the other way around. But I’m going to explain why I’m pro-life first because I’ve come to this point in my journeying on the issue as someone unabashedly “pro-life” who gained an appreciation for what it means to be “pro-choice” over time. If this were a “which came first?” riddle, “pro-life” unquestionably came first.
Why I’m pro-life
I’ve been pro-life since my early teens, long before I was a Catholic or even a practicing Christian. During my junior year of high school, my English teacher gave us the assignment to write a persuasive argument on a topic of importance to us and read it to the class. I wrote my persuasive argument on abortion, using vivid language to describe precisely what happens during an abortion. The class was completely silent when I finished reading. I have no idea whether the teacher agreed with my argument, but after class he asked me for a copy of the speech to use as an example of persuasive writing.
I’m pro-life because I believe that human life begins at the moment of conception. I believe that the existence of a new, individual human organism that will, if left alone, grow into a human child is a scientifically verifiable fact of nature. I believe the Church’s teaching that God specially creates a new human soul at the moment of conception, thereby transforming the human organism created by fertilization into a human person. (It’s God who creates the human person, I believe, not the biological process of fertilization because what makes us human persons created in his image is the joining of spiritual soul to body.)
Given those premises, I believe that abortion ends the life of a human person. If the abortion is spontaneous (in other words, a miscarriage), then the death of the child is tragic but there is no moral culpability on anyone’s part for the child’s death. On the other hand, if the abortion is procured—meaning that someone has deliberately and intentionally induced the loss of the pregnancy—then there may be moral culpability for the death of the child.
You may have noticed that I’ve tried to use very careful language here. Abortion, in and of itself, is simply the termination of a pregnancy. It can be a spontaneous, natural occurrence, something that happens all too frequently for many women. When that happens, we call it “miscarriage” because that word indicates that the termination happened naturally, and sometimes despite the best efforts of the mother and medical professionals to sustain the pregnancy. When the abortion is induced, that means that someone did something to cause the pregnancy loss. Most often that happens when the mother asks a medical professional to take steps to terminate the pregnancy. But it can also occur when third parties deliberately induce an abortion without the mother’s consent (for example, when the father decides he doesn’t want the child and induces an abortion without the knowledge or consent of the child’s mother).
Also worth noting is that, as scientific knowledge of life in the womb advanced in the last quarter of the 20th century, pastors of the Church became more and more careful with the language they used to condemn abortion. St. John Paul II, in Evangelium Vitae, promulgated in 1995, phrased his condemnation of abortion this way:
Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his successors, and in communion with the bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. … The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end (EV 57, emphases added).
John Paul was alluding to two things here: 1) there can be instances in which abortion is an undesired consequence of some other morally good, or at least morally neutral, act (such as removing a blocked Fallopian tube to save the mother’s life); and 2) that culpability for mortal sin requires not just grave matter (direct abortion) but also knowledge and consent. If the abortion isn’t direct and voluntary, or if there are circumstances that impede knowledge or consent in an individual case, then there is no mortal sin. The death of the child is no less tragic, but in such a case wouldn’t involve mortal sin.
I’m pro-life because I believe that unborn children are human beings, who have the right to live from conception to natural death, and that a deliberate, voluntary act that knowingly causes a direct abortion is a mortal sin.
Why I’m pro-choice
So, then, how can I be pro-choice? First, let’s check in again with Trent Horn and allow him to give his definition of what it means to be “pro-choice”:
When I say someone is “pro-choice,” I don’t mean only that he has voted for a political candidate who happens to support keeping abortion legal. I mean that person is committed to the idea that legal abortion is necessary and that he votes for laws and politicians with the intention of keeping abortion legal.
I gave Trent the floor here, not because I think he has any standing to define what it means to be “pro-choice,” but because I know he’s treated as an authority on the matter by constituents of Catholic Answers. If I don’t deal with his definition of the term, someone’s bound to copy and paste it into a comment in an attempt to refute this essay.
In fairness to Trent, I acknowledge that he’s limiting the scope of his definition to a person “committed to the idea that legal abortion is necessary” “and” who “votes for laws and politicians with the intention of keeping abortion legal.” By that definition, if a person is undecided whether legal abortion is necessary but votes for a law or politician for some other reason than “keeping abortion legal,” then that person is not “pro-choice” in Trent’s view. Since Trent made both premises necessary to qualify as “pro-choice” by his use of “and,” then it’s fair to say that by his definition a person could be undecided about whether “legal abortion is necessary” but vote for laws and politicians with the intent to keep it legal (perhaps because he doesn’t want to abolish a law when he’s not sure whether it should exist) and still not be “pro-choice” in Trent’s view.
As I hope is now clear, Trent’s own definition of what it means to be “pro-choice” is somewhat muddled and open to interpretations I suspect he’d reject.
In my own view—and, to be clear, I’m speaking for myself and not attempting to define the term “pro-choice” for anyone else—to be “pro-choice” means to be for (i.e., “pro”) choice. In the current social climate in which abortion is debated, “pro-choice” has been treated as a synonym for people who advocate for abortion rights. That definition has value, but like Trent’s definition, I believe it’s limited. To be “pro-choice,” in my opinion, isn’t limited to abortion advocacy.
One day, a few years ago, I was waylaid by a Planned Parenthood representative seeking my signature on a petition for a law intended to safeguard women’s reproductive health. I didn’t bother to read the petition since I knew I wouldn’t sign it. But I wanted to seek common ground with the woman gathering signatures.
“I’m pro-choice,” I said, after she finished her pitch. “I support all of women’s choices. I can’t sign the petition because Planned Parenthood performs abortions.”
As you can see, I was defining being pro-choice to “support for women’s choices.” Now, I was engaging in some mental reservation here. I meant that I support all morally legitimate choices. But my intent wasn’t to deceive, only to try to help the woman understand that it was possible to simultaneously support choice and to oppose abortions in principle.
How did she respond? We ended up shaking hands at the end, and she commented that she respected my position.
This was where I was at on the issue of being pro-choice five years ago, when I first told this story on Patheos (and while working as a staff apologist at Catholic Answers). The story didn’t inspire any controversy at the time, nor did it cause any alarm among my colleagues. It’s not a story that I would’ve told on Catholic Answers’ platforms, but it was well within permitted opinion to be expressed on a personal blog.
What changed? Enter Donald Trump. During the 2016 campaign, Trump was asked, “Do you believe in punishment for abortion—yes or no—as a principle?” Trump answered, “Yeah, there has to be some form [of punishment].” He later issued a statement clarifying his position, saying women shouldn’t be punished for abortion and that they are victims of the physicians and other abortion practitioners who perform the procedure.
When this story first erupted, I was appalled. I took to my personal Facebook page to rant about it to friends. I opened by saying, “Now that Donald Trump is advocating criminal punishment for women who have abortions (which alone should tell you that this is a Rotten Idea), it becomes necessary to explain why those who are actually pro-life—as distinguished from those who have claimed to have had a ‘miraculous conversion’ during campaign season—do not advocate for criminal punishment for women who procure abortions.”
I sincerely believed it to be obvious that, as a matter of public health, it’s dangerous to treat the loss of a pregnancy as a potential crime. A woman who knows that she could be subjecting herself to a criminal investigation if she goes to a hospital because she’s bleeding heavily from her lady parts (whether or not she even knows she’s pregnant) has every incentive to not seek medical care. She’s more likely to try to stop the bleeding on her own and more likely to become more seriously ill or die. You don’t punish a pregnant woman for obtaining an abortion because it’s in the interest of public health to ensure that all women are assured of competent, compassionate, non-judgmental medical care when they need treatment for pregnancy loss.
Much to my surprise, even horror, Catholic Answers quickly published an apologia by Trent defending the principle of punishing women for having abortions.
When I am asked about how women who choose illegal abortions should be punished, I reframe the question in order to get at the moral logic that hides behind our conflicting emotions. The larger question we should ask is, “What punishment should women receive when they kill any of their children, born or unborn?”
… If we can agree that this woman [in a case involving a mother alleged to have smothered her newborn child] should have been punished for what was undoubtedly infanticide, then we should ask, “What should the punishment be if she had killed the baby five minutes earlier while it was in her womb?” I don’t think such a small difference in time and the location of the baby would change our intuitions about the matter.
Trent myopically focused on his arguments establishing the personhood of the unborn child, not taking into account at all any consideration as to how such legislation would affect women’s lives—their very lives, which could be placed at risk if every suspected pregnancy loss is investigated as a potential crime, and which you’d think should be just as valuable as the lives of unborn children.
That incident became for me an epiphany, opening my eyes to the fact that many people who call themselves “pro-life” aren’t actually concerned about the life of every human being from conception to natural death. “Pro-life,” for them, seems to mean forcing women to give birth. Nothing more. In fact, politically conservative pro-lifers will become quite defensive when progressive pro-lifers point out that strengthening the social safety net by focusing on job creation, universal health care, paid maternity and family leave, and other life-sustaining policies that support pregnant women and their families can cut the abortion rate (thereby saving children’s lives) and should be considered a valid approach to pro-life advocacy.
Once I realized the power dynamic at play in conventional “pro-life” advocacy, I realized that I could no longer support “pro-life” legislation or candidates who sought to end abortion through forced birth, without regard to the freedom of women to act in concert with their doctors to make choices about health care for themselves and their children.
I still believe that abortion ends a human life. I still believe that direct, voluntary, induced abortion is grave matter and could rise to mortal sin if the individuals involved act with sufficient knowledge and deliberate consent. I want to live in a country where every child, born or unborn, is recognized as a unique, unrepeatable gift from God and is welcomed by his or her parents and supported by the community. I am pro-life.
But I also don’t think that a culture of life can or should be achieved by disregard for human freedom, for individual circumstances, for public health, or for the lives of women. The loss of a pregnancy is always a tragedy. It always results in a child’s death. But not every abortion qualifies as murder and I believe that laws that treat every abortion as a potential crime cause more harm than good. In this regard, I am pro-choice.
(Image: Pregnant woman, Pixabay.)