When confronted with problems of social justice and what is due to the person, it is common for people to object to certain claims on the grounds of inconvenience: if housing the poor means giving up some of my money, then we can’t house the poor. If welcoming refugees means risking that a violent extremist might sneak in, we can’t welcome refugees. There are numerous problems with the ideologies behind these assumptions, not least of which is that Catholics who make them demonstrate a total disregard for the church’s long and venerable tradition of care for the oppressed. There’s also a failure to look at goods on a proper scale: yes, property ownership is a good, but the life of the person is a higher good. It is just to sacrifice a lower good for the sake of a higher one. Acting as though the two are equally balanced is a case of false equivalence.
Fellow New Pro Life founder Matthew Tyson wrote recently about the uncomfortable but immovable realities of justice:
So many of us hold the belief that justice is somehow relative to our own personal situation. But it’s not. Justice is objective. It is static. It doesn’t care about material obstacles. It doesn’t care whether *we* think it’s fair or not. And it certainly has no problem demanding sacrifice.
Justice only cares about justice, and our duty as Christians is to ensure that it is properly distributed–especially to the poor and marginalized.
So, yes, that means doctors, insurance providers, and taxpayers may have to contribute extra so all can receive healthcare.
Yes, it means business owners and those at the top may have to take a pay cut so workers at the bottom can receive a just and living wage.
Yes, it means a man with two homes should give one up for a man who has none.
And yes, it means that sometimes we must sacrifice our own luxuries for the greater good.
This applies to abortion, too.
What I am about to say will probably win me a good bit of criticism from both sides of the fence, but it’s a Friday in Lent, so I’ll go for it.
A. The protection of the life of the unborn is a matter of justice. This does not mean that it is easy or comfortable. That does not mean that it is pleasant. The famous “violinist argument” made by Judith Jarvis Thomson uses the example of a person who wakes up one day finding out that a famous violinist had been plugged into him / her:
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation? No doubt it would be very nice of you if you did, a great kindness. But do you have to accede to it? What if it were not nine months, but nine years? Or longer still? What if the director of the hospital says. “Tough luck. I agree. but now you’ve got to stay in bed, with the violinist plugged into you, for the rest of your life. Because remember this. All persons have a right to life, and violinists are persons. Granted you have a right to decide what happens in and to your body, but a person’s right to life outweighs your right to decide what happens in and to your body. So you cannot ever be unplugged from him.” I imagine you would regard this as outrageous, which suggests that something really is wrong with that plausible-sounding argument I mentioned a moment ago.
It is true that I would regard it as outrageous, unpleasant, horrible. While it is true that the analogy is not a great one (pregnancy only lasts nine months, not forever; the relation between mother and child is organic, personal, and internal, not like being attached ot some stranger) – it makes an important point about bodily self-possession. I would be in error to if I brushed aside the legitimate feelings of violation experienced by a woman who finds herself pregnant against her will, especially if as the result of rape. I would be insensitive if I pretended that lawmakers telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies often demonstrate extreme insensitivity to, or gross ignorance of, what it means to be a woman with a woman’s body. However, my issue with the violinist argument is that it creates a false equivalence between the very high good of bodily autonomy, and the even higher good of life itself. If we did not recognize that the one good is higher than the other, we would not regularly argue that imprisonment is acceptable, but capital punishment isn’t. If you wake up one day with a violinist attached to you it is unjust, difficult, terrible, oppressive….but, you still have a moral obligation not to act in a way that will result in the death of the violinist. This is connected with what Max Scheler referred to the tragic nature of the universe. Everything cant always be made all right. We do our best. It’s not something I want to be glib about, but it is still true.
B. The flip side of this is that, if you find yourself attached to a violinist, and obliged to make sacrifices to keep the violinist alive for nine months (I’m modifying Thomson’s argument) – you are yourself a victim of injustice. And the demands of social justice are that society itself do everything in its power to help you through those nine months. Now, let’s extend this to pregnancy: while I would never refer to pregnancy itself as an injustice, I do recognize a) a woman’s bodily autonomy is a very high good, and not something to be sneered at by lawmakers who regard her simply as a useful container; b) women often seek abortion precisely because of societal injustices such as poverty, violence, fear of homelessness, lack of health care, lack of safe housing, no maternal leave, fear of job loss. Will it inconvenience others to provide these for her? Possibly. But if we can ask her to overlook her own bodily convenience for the sake of life, we are in no position to shift the goal-posts of justice, in order to avoid our moral obligation to do everything in our power to help her. And if we refuse to do help her, I question whether we can truly call ourselves champions of life or justice.