Is a Truce Possible on the Abortion Issue?

Is a Truce Possible on the Abortion Issue? October 15, 2007

Even though we are all Catholics on this blog, and accept the Church’s position on abortion, it is still the topic that exposes the greatest divisions among us. What is true in this tiny, rather insignificant blog, is also true in the global Catholic world. Now, I notice that Vox Nova is singled out as an “anti-choice site”: M.Z. has a post on that particular issue. I would like to made a different point, a broader point. Is dialogue possible between Catholics and those who disagree with the Church on abortion? Can we find “common ground”? Cardinal Bernardin certainly thought so, although his initiative did not survive his death. Too often, those who support abortion and those who do not simply talk past each other and, in the blog world, that so often means preaching to the converted and scoring points among a close circle of like-minded individuals. At the same time, they are not going to convince us that abortion is a “right”, and nor will we convince them that abortion is intrinsically evil. Are we at an impasse? I hope not. Despite everything, I believe there is scope for fruitful dialogue.

As a starting point, we can talk about the best way to deal with the thorny issue of abortion from the legal perspective, but one thing Catholics will never accept is that abortion is a “right”. We are not hypocrites, for we believe in a “seamless garment” approach to the life issue that would condemn not only abortion and euthanasia, but the death penalty, torture, unjust war, as well as policies that faciliate poverty and inadequate health care. Fundamentally, we hold that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God and that life is sacred, even the life of the unborn. Even if you disagree with last conjecture, you must at least accept the validity and power of this argument.

Yes, there are many who use the abortion issue to score cheap political points and other for whom its is more an issue of sexuality and keeping women in their place– but that is not the Catholic position, at least in theory. I would say that even the major pro-life organizations are often tragically flawed, as they focus only on the life issues that do not contradict the platform and practical policies of the Republican party (for example, I was shocked to learn that the National Right to Life Committee opposes the government negotiating with drug companies to lower the cost of medicines). Another core Catholic principle is that you can never do something that is wrong so that good might come of it. That certainly holds for abortion, but also for things like torture and the use of nuclear weapons. Hence the use of nuclear weapons is always wrong, and the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki can never to defended. How many pro-life advocates at the political level can say they have a consistent ethic of life that is not tarnished by consequentialist modes of thinking?

Having said that, it is quite clear to me that abortion is related to poverty and prevailing social conditions. Declines in abortion in the US occurred most rapidly during times when poverty rates were falling– most notably under the Clinton administration (see here for detailed argument). Look at some of the statistics: 57% of women opting for abortion are economically disadvantage, and the abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level ($9,570 for a single woman with no children) is more than four times that of women above 300% of the poverty level (44 vs. 10 abortions per 1,000 women). And when asked to give reasons for abortion, three-quarters of women say that cannot afford a child. 

And yet, the political pro-life movement often ignores this aspect. Not only that, it often uses the abortion issue to cover some less savoury aspects of policy. Note that when supposed pro-life candidates are elected, we see little impact on abortion, but a major advance in economic policies that foster upward redistribution. And too often, the pro-life lobby contents itself with minor victories that have little direct impact on abortion, but do rally political support. Case in point: I am pretty certain that S-CHIP will do more to lower the abortion rate in the US than the partial-birth abortion ban, which everybody pretty much agrees will do almost nothing.

It is also the case that banning abortion often does not really impact on its incidence. Ireland has a robust abortion rate, even though there are no abortion providers in Ireland, because travel within the EU is so easy. I often wonder if a repeal of Roe v. Wade, when the issue gets pushed to the states, will have much impact on abortion? Personally, I doubt it, except for the very poor who cannot travel to states that allow it. And while I believe the repeal of Roe would be good, simply because I cannot accept abortion as a “right”, I believe a political strategy focused solely on this goal is fundamentally misplaced. We need to create the conditions that would encourage women not to have abortions in the first place. 

Could this be a point of common ground among Catholics and pro-choice feminists, since we are not really going to change each others minds on this matter? If we would focus less on the coercive side, would you be willing to work to minimize the abortion rate? Can we move away from a situation whereby one side wants to lock up women and the other believes that there is no such thing as too many abortions (given that it is a “right”). Even if we believe abortion should be illegal, let’s be frank: there is no public support for an outright ban, which would in any event likely be circumvented. We must open our eyes to different strategies. But we should also remember that the easy acceptance of abortion cheapens the value of life in our society. We can do better. As Archbishop Chaput said a few months ago:

“You can have good Catholics who say that they’re not for the criminalization of abortion, or they want to take gradual steps toward eliminating it by convincing the public that this is a bad thing. Those are all legitimate political positions-as long as you’re really moving towards the goal of protecting unborn human life. You at least have to have the goal.”

We need to tackle poverty and economic conditions. We need universal health care urgently. I also think we need to work on the breakdown in family life in some of our communities. We may need to think outside the box. I have proposed on this blog that the government provide subsidies to women to carry their children to term, and provide sizeable financial incentives for adoption. I was attacked for doing so, and maybe there are good reasons for not pursuing this in the realm of policy. But we need to start putting our money where our mouth is. Otherwise, the pointless “culture war” that benefits nobody will keep raging.

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