Dear Pope Francis: This Kind of Language About Abortion is Not Helping

Dear Pope Francis: This Kind of Language About Abortion is Not Helping May 26, 2019

Once again, Pope Francis has compared having an abortion to “hiring a hitman.” As reported in CBS News:

Pope Francis on Saturday said abortion can never be condoned, even when the fetus is gravely sick or malformed. He is urging doctors and priests to support families to carry such pregnancies to term.

During an audience with participants of a Vatican-sponsored anti-abortion conference, Francis said opposition to abortion isn’t a religious issue but a human one: “Is it licit to throw away a life to resolve a problem? Is it licit to hire a hitman to resolve a problem?”

Francis denounced decisions to abort based on prenatal testing, saying a human being is “never incompatible with life.” The pope has spoken out strongly against abortion, though he has also expressed sympathy for women who have had them and made it easier for them to be forgiven.

I have made no secret of my admiration and support of Francis, but I do not believe he is above or beyond criticism, and his gaffes tend most often to appear in his remarks about women, sexuality, and the abuse crisis. I don’t pin this wholly on him as a person: the issue is systemic, connected with the institutional church’s own problems when it comes to sorting out genuine Christian teaching from attitudes and prejudices inherited from patriarchal civilizations. It would probably be impossible for any man to rise far enough through the ranks of the hierarchy to become pope without having thoroughly imbibed these attitudes and prejudices.

Dangerous comparisons

In this case, as much as I welcome the pope’s emphasis on mercy and forgiveness, I find his language, especially his use once again of this analogy, to be unfortunate, misleading, and even dangerous.

This is not because I deny the dignity of life of the unborn. I have said before that being pro-life ought to mean drawing the circle of protection as widely as possible, though perhaps at this point the term “pro-life” has been too sullied by bad associations with racism and sexism to be worth the effort of salvage. Whatever we want to call it, a good ethic means one that protects all life in all stages, and opposes systemic violence and oppression.

But in so doing we need to be realistic about the context for human choices. It’s interesting that some Christians will bend over backwards to defend the atrocity of the U.S.’s nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and defend nineteenth-century slaveowners as mere products of their time, but give zero credence to the reality that women, for the most part, are not choosing abortion as an act of privilege and power, but as an act of desperation.

We do not live in a society that makes it easy for women to choose life, even in the best of circumstances, and the reality of nature and biology is that pregnancy and childbearing – which rest entirely on women – can be burdensome, painful, terrifying, traumatic, dangerous, and life-threatening.

While so-called “late term abortion” is rare, these cases get held up as instances of violent eugenics, when in reality they are often desperate measures to save not only the life of the mother, but also to protect the unborn child from dying in excruciating agony, slowly. Bioethical discussion about these cases must always privilege sanctity of life, but should not a) leave out the sanctity of life of the mother, or b) pretend that extreme pain and suffering are not moral evils to be avoided and prevented.

Utterly different contexts

Hiring a hitman to solve a problem is an act of violent indifference by the powerful and privileged. It takes money and clout and political protection to do such a thing.

Having an abortion is in no way comparable to this. Often it is a choice made precisely because of lack of money, clout, or political protection. Regarding women who make these choices as though they were heartless mob bosses creates a culture of misogyny and fear in which women may find themselves at increased risk of violence. 

Remember, a considerable percentage of women who have abortions have children already, love their children, are trying the best they can to care for them, and sometimes feel that the prospect of bringing another into an already difficult situation would be impossible.

If we truly care about the lives of the unborn, we need to be honest about the unique context of abortion, the unique vulnerability of a pregnant woman, and do what we can to create a culture in which real and legitimate choices are available to women. This means access to affordable health care, especially when women and babies are threatened by severe life-threatening conditions that require extensive and emergency aid. This means ending the culture of discrimination against women and our bodies, opposing all rape tolerance, mandating paid parental leave. It means effective sex ed that puts women in control of their own reproductivity. Stop treating women as mere “host bodies” or incubators that belong under male control.

Pro-choice activists often ask pro-lifers, why aren’t you supporting these things? Well, I am supporting them, as the best way to create a society that is healthy for both women and babies.

But as long as the vast majority of the pro-life movement continues to support, enthusiastically, right-wing policies and candidates, they can not say the same. And as long as our religious leaders continue to make bad comparisons that fail to address the reality of the situation, not only will the problem not be solved; it might even be compounded.

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