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Apologies of a Pro-Choice, Pro-Life Catholic

Apologies of a Pro-Choice, Pro-Life Catholic January 28, 2021

No, I’m not going to offer expressions of remorse for outing myself in Why I’m a Pro-Choice, Pro-Life Catholic. I was a professional Catholic apologist for seventeen years, working for the apologetics apostolate, Catholic Answers. For me, “apologizing” often meant “explaining and defending” a position. In this essay, I don’t intend to express remorse for what I said, but I will take a closer look at a couple of concerns my public acknowledgment that I’m pro-choice (and pro-life) inspired and see if I can resolve difficulties readers expressed.

For the purpose of this post, I’ve adapted the first question from a concern widely expressed by readers of my essay. The second question appeared publicly in the comments section of my Patheos column (meaning it was posted to the public), but I’ll redact the commenter’s online handle. And, just for fun, I’ll take some dramatic license and frame the questions as if they’d been asked by callers into my (non-existent) podcast.

“Hello, caller, and welcome to the show! What’s your question?”

How can you say that “not all abortion is murder”? The Church teaches that direct abortion is always the murder of a child! If the baby has died and is removed from his or her mother’s womb, that’s not abortion. You’re mixing apples and oranges there.

This was a common source of confusion for a lot of readers, and I think the reason for the confusion is because many in the pro-life movement define abortion as a deliberate and voluntary act that directly causes an unborn child’s death. When pregnancy loss occurs in other ways, such as by the natural death of the child in utero, pro-lifers assume that this isn’t an abortion.

That assumption is simply incorrect. Taber’s Medical Dictionary defines abortion as “the spontaneous or induced termination of pregnancy before the fetus reaches a viable age.” Merriam-Webster, which I linked to in my essay, defines abortion as “the termination of a pregnancy after, accompanied by, resulting in, or closely followed by the death of the embryo or fetus.” It goes on to bracket out categories of abortion, including “spontaneous expulsion of a human fetus during the first 12 weeks of gestation” and “induced expulsion of a human fetus.”

When I asserted that “not all abortion is murder,” I deferred to the commonly accepted medical and lexicological definitions that, in and of itself, abortion is simply the termination of a pregnancy. Whether or not moral culpability exists for an abortion depends on whether the abortion itself was spontaneous (i.e., miscarriage) or induced (i.e., deliberately initiated as a means or an end), and on the knowledge and consent of parties to an induced abortion. In the case of natural fetal death in utero, which either results in a natural expulsion of the unborn child or requires a medical procedure to remove the dead fetus to protect the woman’s life, there is a termination of pregnancy (an abortion) but no moral culpability for anyone who acts to save the mother.

The Church teaches that “direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (CCC 2271). Do you still assent to the Church’s teaching on abortion?

In the essay, I referred to John Paul II’s teaching in Evangelium Vitae (57) and stated:

John Paul was alluding to two things here [in EV 57]: 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 fully believe the Church’s teaching on what constitutes a mortal sin. I’ve simply applied the conditions of mortal sin to abortion and concluded that for an abortion to be a mortal sin there needs to be not just grave matter (induced abortion) but full knowledge and deliberate consent. If any of those three conditions are missing, there is no mortal sin. That’s Catholicism 101 (CCC 1857).

As for whether “direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law,” I assent to that principle as a matter of objective truth, yes. That’s why direct abortion qualifies as “grave matter.” But knowledge and consent must still be present for there to be moral culpability for that grave matter.

“Okay, thanks for your call. We have time for another caller.”

On the question of punishment for abortion, if there is no penalty for the person who sought it out, for the person who paid for it, for the person who was willing to lay down upon the table and put their feet in the stirrups of their own free will, as well as for the medical personnel who performed the procedure, then what is the point of having a law forbidding it? All law is coercive. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be “law.”

Let’s start with the general and move to the personal. Your second point was “All law is coercive. If it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be ‘law.'”

In All the Pope’s Men, a book I highly recommended to all aspiring apologists, John L. Allen Jr. gives a very helpful overview of the Vatican’s understanding of law. He states:
Thomists believe the purpose of law is to promote virtue; in the social construct theory underlying Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence, the law represents the minimum infringements on personal liberty necessary to regulate social life. In this sense, Italians [whom, as Allen points out, are a primary influence on the Vatican] might best be described as “Thomistic realists”—they think the law should indeed promote higher standards of morality, but they don’t really expect it to work.

The idea that law should be “coercive” is part of the Anglo-Saxon approach to law that Allen talks about. The Church’s understanding of law, informed as it is by Thomists, is that the law exists as an ideal to which human beings should strive, while allowance is given to human frailty. That’s one reason why Aquinas followed Augustine in arguing that civil governments could tolerate some social evils, such as prostitution, when outlawing them would create more harm than good.

Now let’s look at the personal example you offered.

If there is no penalty for the person who sought it out, for the person who paid for it, for the person who was willing to lay down upon the table and put their feet in the stirrups of their own free will, as well as for the medical personnel who performed the procedure, then what is the point of having a law forbidding it?

Aquinas might say the purpose would be to uphold the principle that all human life is inviolable, from conception to natural death—to promote to society the virtue of respecting the dignity of human life. At the same time, if assessing punishment in individual cases creates a situation in which there is a threat to public health (e.g., women fear going to a hospital when they experience pregnancy complications), then he might also say punishing a woman who obtains an abortion could cause more harm than good and therefore shouldn’t be done.

And, whatever Aquinas might have had to say, that’s pretty much the argument that I made. Punishing women for obtaining abortions can cause more harm than good because it constitutes a public health risk for all women (and their unborn children, if women choose not to go to a hospital to try to save their baby’s life during a miscarriage).

Well, that’s all the time we have for today. Join us again soon for another exciting round of “Are You Smarter than a Catholic Apologist?”!

(Image: Unborn child inside leaf, Pixabay.)

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