Abortion and Free Choice

"Against Abortion? Don't Have One."

I try to understand other people's opinions. Those who read the articles in this website will have to judge if I have done a fair job presenting contrary views. If I have missed the mark, I welcome correction.

There is one line of reasoning I do have a hard time grasping. It is the argumentation of those who call themselves "pro-choice." I can understand why people would want abortion to be legal. But some of the arguments - or slogans - used to defend its legality just don't make sense.

I remember when I first saw a bumper sticker which stated: "Against Abortion? Don't Have One." I was tempted to get that same sticker myself, but also have one made to put on the other side of the fender: "Against killing animals for fur? Don't buy a fur coat." A myriad of similar questions could be asked: "Against child abuse? Don't hit your child." or "Against drunken driving? Don't..." Well, you get the idea.

As you can imagine, I decided not to put such a series of bumper stickers on my car. Some folks would not have perceived the irony and may have thrown rocks - or worse. No doubt people who feel strongly about killing animals for their fur would react with rage to the preceeding paragraph. They would be thinking, "You just don't get it. We are talking about an innocent, defenseless creature. Who knows if it is really that different from us? We do not have a right to take its life just to satisfy our own convenience. It is just not the same."

Indeed, I agree abortion and killing an animal are not the same, but for a different reason than animal rights activists. A human person has immeasurably more value than even the most intelligent and human-like animal. That conclusion is based on a premise which is ultimately religious (see Mission Statement). Even tho they do not share the religious premise, most secular humanists instinctively agree that a human being has immeasurable value. I say instinctively because they are still living off a Judaeo-Christian inheritance which considers man to be earth's unique image of God. (For sure this is changing as animal rights activists gain more influence.)

Please note that even if one does not know for sure if the blastocyst, zygote or fetus is a human person, the mere possibility should be enough to make us want to protect it. Suppose you were in charge of knocking down a building and someone told you a child had crawled inside. You consider it a remote possibility. Would you go ahead and let the wrecking ball do its work? I do not think you would. If someone can lobby for laws against killing animals for fur, is it fanatical to want some restraint for those who would destroy what a woman is carrying in her womb?

At this point someone might protest, "This is a private, personal matter. You are trying to impose your morality on the rest of society." Or as Governor Mario Cuomo argued at Notre Dame a few years ago: We Catholics have been unable to convince our own members not to have abortions. Are we asking the government to do what we have failed to accomplish? These are heavy, even stinging arguments. However they are not unanswerable.

First, and perhaps easiest: Catholic women who practice their faith are much less likely to procure an abortion. The same is true of practicing Evangelicals. Our call for a change in the current law is not an act of desperation. (For more on this topic see my homily about the Caananite woman.)

Second, all of us - not just "religious" folks - want the law to have a role in setting a certain moral tone. Consider the seventh and eighth commandments: "You shall not lie. You shall not steal." People are constantly breaking their promises (lying) and defrauding (stealing). The swindler, considering that his chances of being caught are slim, may even boast about his behaviour - his superiority to the gullible folks who trusted him. As he jokes with his friends, he hopes by a wink to draw them into his rejection of conventional morality. But if he is finally apprehended, he will often change his tune and try to justify his actions. We begin to hear him talking about "mitigating circumstances" and even some "higher motive." This new-found moralism evokes an Anglo-Saxon expression that sounds like dull wit. We have no hesitation in using the law to teach the crook a lesson. In doing so we want to impose a little morality on him; to have him acknowledge the seriousness of his actions. We also hope to send a message to other people, that is, to set a certain moral tone for our society.

Third - and this is the crucial point - we cannot rule morality out of court because it is found in the Ten Commandments and ultimately depends on the existence of a Law-Giver. In the discussion of secular humanism and two of its elegant exponents (Carl Sagan and Will Durant) I have shown that we all constantly appeal to the one moral law. Sure, it gets in our way and we want to pick and choose which parts apply to us in this or that circumstance. And some people, like Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) who thought he could somehow go "beyond good and evil," attempt to reject it outright. But its demands keep coming back. Even Nietzsche could not escape them.* It is not only written on the stone tablets - it is written in our hearts. And it is the ultimate basis for civil law. To use the previous example: We throw the swindler in jail because we want him to face what he has done, that is, acknowledge the demands of the inner moral law. We are rightly convinced that deep inside him - even if anesthetized by cynicism - lurks that inner voice of conscience. We want to put him and others on notice that they cannot just do what suits their convenience. We will not allow them to trample over others. We cannot give them the "freedom of choice" which Nietzsche argues they should have.

Let's be fair. No one is really pro-choice. If we feel strongly about something, if we believe it is destructive, harmful, inhuman, dangerous - in a word wrong - we will do our best to stop it. Push the right button and the most ardent pro-choice person will say, "You cannot do that." The one who sees a wrong and does nothing about it, is considered simply a coward. He does not have the courage to stand up for his principles. We are constantly asking others to just that. In Seattle (as I imagine throughout North America and Europe) there are billboards showing the face of a bruised, battered woman. They urge us not to stand by and allow such abuse to happen. Wife battering is so repulsive we have passed severe laws and applaud the police when they enforce them. No one says "Well, of course, I am personally opposed to wife abuse, but I will not deny his right to choose. After all, they did become one on their wedding day. It is an intimate matter of personal conscience that the government should never get involved in." I shrink at even writing such words. I only do so to make a point. When another human being is involved, we recognize she has certain rights. And we also recognize that a truly human society depends on defending the rights of each one, especially those not in a position to defend themselves. Otherwise we simply surrender to Nietzsche's "morality" of the Ubermensch: the one who boldly exercises his power to subordinate weaker beings to his exalted purpose.

Many people fear that accepting the moral law will lead to rigidity - to crushing individualism and diversity, even play. I believe just the opposite is the case. G.K. Chesterton uses the image of a town set on a high plateau. The residents build a fence on the edge to protect the children and they are able to play and invent wild games. But in a push for freedom, the fence is one day torn down. A few children plunge to their destruction. The games stop and they begin to huddle in the center of the plateau. The moral law is that fence. Its sane boundaries make possible an astonishing freedom.

One of the things it makes possible is to truly follow the beautiful principle "Live and Let Live." That standard is part of the moral law's respect for creativity, individuality and conscience. But there are limits, places where we feel we must draw a line, even when opinions sharply differ. Here in Seattle some folks from the Sudan wanted to have their daughter surgically "circumcised." The girl herself was in agreement. A physician at a local hospital was willing to do it arguing they would probably have it done anyway, perhaps in unsterile or dangerous circumstances. As you can imagine the public reaction was such that the doctor backed down. No one said, "It is a private matter between the woman and her physician." Pro-Choice folks want to use the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship and the great prestige of doctors to make abortion seem legitimate. The above case - and many others** - show that it really will not wash. Notwithstanding our desire to give them god-like status, doctors are under the same moral law as the rest of us mortals.

Notice that no one says, "This is a woman's issues. Male doctors should butt out." To call this a "woman's issue" is really another way of dodging the tough question of morality. (We men are most anxious to do that as a recent letter shows.) A huge part of the problem, as I will show below, is that men want to opt out of a matter in which we are deeply implicated.

In spite of the weakness of the pro-choice argument, there is something we must acknowledge: the abortion debate is ultimately not going to be won by logic. We do not connect emotionally with an unborn child the way we do with a furry animal. Nor do we want to in our present society. In spite of ultra-sound images, the babies we abort are those we do not see. At least the mother herself normally does not see her aborted child. The abortionist and his assistants do have to piece the tiny arms, body and head together to make sure nothing is left in the womb to cause an infection. The introduction of chemical abortions (using the drug called RU 486) may carry a certain risk for its promoters. In this case the mother will have to look at what an abortion actually is. She cannot simply bury or flush the expelled fetus; it must be carried to the abortion clinic where it will be checked before being discarded.

Still, as Pope John Paul II has pointed out in his beautiful book, Crossing the Threshhold of Hope, a woman's choice to abort her child is often the result of many factors. Not the least, he notes, is the selfishness and insensitivity of the child's father. My experience in talking with women who have submitted to an abortion is that they were in a confused, dazed state of mind when they made the decision. Usually the greatest cause of the confusion is the indifference - or even hostility - of the man she loved so much. I see her like a beautiful white rabbit who placed her paw in an iron trap. In her pain and fear, she gnaws her own leg and leaves it in the trap. But for the rest of her life, she walks crippled.

David Reardon (The Jericho Plan) has the right approach to the abortion controversy in America. We need to concentrate on how abortion affects women who have undergone such a drastic procedure. Only by reaching them with what we have to offer - forgiveness, healing, an understanding heart - will we change the culture which believes no restraints should be placed on taking an unborn human life.

And of course we need to reach the fathers as well. This is taller order. We ask young men to take fatherhood seriously, but we send them a mixed message. We want them to take an interest in their child, but in the same breath we let them know they are dispensable. We do this by denying them any legal say in what happens to a child they have conceived. In most states the father, even if he is married to the mother, does not have to be informed before an abortion is performed. Something is wrong with this picture. We want our young men to accept their responsibilities, but we do not trust them with even knowing their own child would be aborted. They have not only a physical, but an emotional relation to the child - and above all to the mother. While I have not had so many men come to me regarding the abortion of their baby, some have. Sometimes they were angry because the only ones who counted were the mother and the medical technician; the father was a fifth wheel. But mostly they evidence a deep loss and hurt - as well as guilt (in this case a sane guilt) which needs forgiveness and healing.

It is on that level - what in the church is called a pastoral level - that the battle must be joined. Still, we should not let the "pro-choice" slogan go unchallenged by murmuring platitudes about this being a free country and sure, we respect the individual conscience. As in the case of the previous slogan, we need to point out that at best this line of reasoning is silly. The silliness is exposed when one tries to extend the principle beyond this one issue. Any pro-choice person would bridle at freedom of choice being used to justify something he is convinced is wrong. To take a current example, consider how we react to the news report of a girl choosing to throw her new born baby in the trash so she could return to dance at the prom.

And if the slogan is not silly, the alternative explanation implies a sinister motive. In that case is not the use of the "pro-choice" slogan an attempt to deceive? It serves as a smoke-screen for an industry involved in the destruction of tiny lives - and with dramatic impact on the parents and others beyond them. What I and many others are calling for is not that we be "pro-choice" or "anti-choice" (if such a thing were even possible) What we ask is that we look at the real consequences of our choices -and then decide the reasonable restraints we can put on harmful ones.

--Fr Phil Bloom
August 1997, Seattle, WA (updated December 1998)


Show Truth to America
(Demonstration at Seattle University, September 27, 2003)
Warning: Contains Graphic Images

*Nietzsche has been enormously influential in our century. As indicated above, his philosophy underlies the pro-choice position. The irony is that Nietzsche himself could not escape appealing to precepts of "conventional morality." He passionately denounces hypocrisy and asks his readers to boldly question received assumptions. But what good are such appeals unless we both accept the moral precept, "Thou shall not bear false witness"? Pope John Paul has persuasively shown the inter-relation of the precepts of the moral law. For example, it is inconsistent to value truthfulness without also seeing the wrongness of adultery or fornication.

**Q. What business does government have in regulating medical procedures? Isn't this a private matter? A. Here is a short list of seven areas where government regulates medical practice in Washington state.

Former Pro-Life Democrats

A Challenge to Our Pro-Choice Friends

Picture from March for Life (January 17, 2002; Olympia)

Post-Abortion Healing

Abortion and Early Church Teaching

An impassioned Pro-Choice response.

The fate of the aborted child

The overpopulation question.

Gen 1:28 - Have we "filled the earth"?

From Abortionist to Catholic: Bernard Nathanson, M.D..

Abortion and Forgiveness.

The question of conscience.

How this issue relates to Salvation.

Relation of Abortion to Birth Control.

Homily on Birth Control and Abortion.

A Pro-Choice Argument

God's Weak Ones

Does Birth Control solve or cause Poverty?

The Moral Law and the Existence of God.

Holy Week Reflection (Abortion and Immigration)

From Sarah: "Do you honestly believe that making abortion illegal will solve the problem?"

Lifeissues.net (Clear Thinking about Crucial Issues)

He Approached the Victim: "It's much more likely one of your relatives will lose his life by surgical abortion than by heart attack."

Stem Cell Research: Teaching of Bible & Catholic Church

Germaine Greer on Birth Control

Human Cloning: A Catholic Perspective (How the Unthinkable Became Inevitable)

Dr. Leroy Hood - Institute Systems Biology: Cloning & Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Pictures of Institute for Systems Biology

Good Friday Service for Life vs. Dr. Leroy Hood's Support of Cloning & Embryonic Stem Cell Research

Renewal of Vows, Prayers of Faithful and Blessing of Married Couples on World Marriage Day

Governor Christine Gregoire vs. Washington State Pharmacy Board


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