Illegal or Unthinkable: One Pro-Life Catholic’s Perspective on How to End Abortion

Confession: I really don’t want to write this post.  Despite evidence to the contrary, I don’t court controversy and don’t enjoy being bombarded by people from both sides of our country’s political divide. And so I’ve been uncomfortable but quiet over the past few weeks as many of my pro-life friends celebrated and most of my pro-choice friends decried the latest laws limiting abortion.

Then I attended my 30-year Georgetown Reunion, and took part in a workshop on Social Justice.  One of the takeaways was that although the need for change can seem overwhelming, and we may wonder what–if any–impact an individual can have, we all have spheres of influence where we can hope to make a difference.  And we were charged with committing to doing what we could within those spheres.

So here I am, y’all.  A blog (and its associated social media) seems like a pretty obvious sphere.  And not writing about the controversy surrounding the new abortion laws is starting to feel like cowardice.  After all, I have a history of writing at the intersection of the Catholic faith and social justice, and even though I have been keeping quiet, it’s not as though I have nothing to say.  So here goes.

The Goal of the Pro-Life Movement

Let’s start with a question: what is the goal of the pro-life movement? I suspect if you asked a pro-choice person, he’d say it’s to make abortion illegal.  On the other hand, if you asked a pro-life person, I’d hope her answer would be that it’s to END abortion.

By itself, outlawing abortion won’t END abortion, because women with means will procure safe illegal abortions while poor women resort to unsafe ones.  Babies–and some mothers–will continue to die.

What we should really want is to make abortion UNTHINKABLE.

Tell me, why don’t you beat your children? Until 1875, there were no laws in the United States to protect them from abuse.  But is that why you don’t beat them, because you are afraid of being caught and arrested? No, you don’t beat them because it is abhorrent and you would never dream of doing such a thing.  That’s how we should want everyone to feel about abortion in the future.

If you think all of the above means that I don’t think abortion should be illegal, you’d be wrong.  If an unborn baby is a human person, then it deserves the same protections as any other human person.  We cannot allow killing an innocent human person to be legal.

The “Heartbeat Laws”

So why am I not enthusiastic about the “Heartbeat Laws” virtually banning abortions (because most women would not find out they were pregnant in time to get one)?  There are a number of reasons and I am here to break them down for you.

These laws have not yet gone into effect and I doubt they ever will.  They were drafted with one goal in mind–and it wasn’t to make abortion  unthinkable.  Rather it was to force a challenge to the Roe v. Wade decision, gambling that the latest conservative-leaning Supreme Court justices will seize this opportunity to overturn it.  AND I DON’T THINK THEY WILL.

These laws are going to be challenged and overturned, as they are currently unconstitutional, as they were designed to be.  Babies will continue to be aborted as the laws make their way through the courts.  If the Supreme Court chooses to take them up–and remember, they can refuse to–I believe they are so extreme (not including the rape and incest exceptions that most Americans–NOT ME–favor) that the justices will uphold Roe v. Wade as settled law.

I might be 100% wrong.  I hope I am.  But remember, even if Roe v. Wade goes away, that leaves many states where abortions will continue to be legal, and where those pro-abortion laws will no doubt become even more entrenched in response.

An Incremental Approach

The legislative approach I prefer is an incremental one.  For example, it’s perfectly licit for a Catholic legislator to vote for an abortion-limiting law that contains exceptions for rape and incest, not because those babies ought to have any fewer rights, but because it is still better than the current situation and such bills have a better chance of passing into law and being upheld by the courts.  In the same vein, there are other laws that could be proposed to limit abortions that the majority of Americans find reasonable.  Laws that limit abortions after a fetus can feel pain, laws requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital, laws regulating abortion clinics in the same manner that other free-standing medical clinics are regulated, laws requiring parental consent:  these are measures that the majority of Americans who are in the mushy middle on abortion can understand and support.

The Mushy Middle

And that’s most Americans.  Most Americans don’t embrace the extreme positions represented in our online debates.  They think abortion is wrong and should be limited but not prohibited before a certain point.  Most Americans would be perfectly happy with unlimited abortion in the first trimester and increasing regulations thereafter, with exceptions for rape, incest, fetal abnormalities, and to save the mother’s life.

For practicing Catholics (and other pro-life supporters) and extreme pro-choice supporters alike that position doesn’t make any logical sense.  To be clear, if abortion is killing a human being, it is always gravely wrong; and on the opposite end of the argument, if it’s ever acceptable it must be always acceptable.  These are the facts that underlie the entrenched positions of those of us doing most of the arguing, that we cannot ever really get past.  But the position of most Americans on abortion–the folks I call the “mushy middle”–is not rooted in logic.  It’s rooted in their feelings–their feelings of distaste for the procedure AND their feelings of compassion for women in difficult circumstances.

Making Abortion Unthinkable

Those people in the mushy middle are the ones we have to win over if we really want to end abortion.  And we are not winning them over by passing extreme laws.  They are horrified by diagrams of partial-birth abortion, but they are equally horrified at the prospect of twelve-year-old incest victims forced to bear their rapists’ children.  Never mind that both of those scenarios are rare compared to the total number of abortions; they are what we both sides trot out to to try to swat opinions and they end up canceling each other out.

I fear these new laws will take those moderate folks and turn them radical, that they will be more moved by the “my body my choice” argument as they see abortions becoming illegal without the exceptions they largely favor.  And that would be a shame because we have been making progress with them!  Millennials are a more pro-life generation.  People with disabilities are becoming more visible, many of them advocating themselves for their right to be here.  We’ve succeeded in some states at passing more moderate laws limiting abortions.  Clinics have been closing.  Abortion rates have slowed.

So how do we continue the progress we have made?  By helping women.

Respecting All Life

Look, I know that there are lots of folks active in the pro-life movement who are also providing assistance to women and their unborn babies and caring for babies after they are born.  I know all about Catholic Charities.  And I know that I’m not the only pro-life “social justice warrior” in the state of Tennessee, not even close!  I also know that some people who oppose legislation to help the poor are very generous on a personal level.  And while it’s true that people of good will can disagree about the best way to help these women, it’s hard to ignore the statistics in articles like this one demonstrating that abortion rates go down during Democratic administrations.

But this is the reality: women are aborting babies because they don’t have affordable day care, because they don’t have maternity leave, because they don’t have affordable housing, because they are desperate.  Until we fix some of this, abortion will remain the first thought for many desperate women, and the people in the mushy middle will want them to have access to it, thinking that is compassionate.  If every pregnant woman had the support she needed, the perceived need for most abortions would disappear and most Americans wouldn’t see any reason for it anymore.  In time we could look back on the past 40 years and wonder how this ever could have happened and why on earth it took so long to fix it.

I know that most pro-life people really do care about babies, but I also understand why many Americans don’t believe that.   When we vote to end abortion but for caging migrant children,  against health care reform,  for removing welfare funds, and against family leave, we don’t seem pro-life.  We don’t look consistent.  We really make it look like “controlling women’s bodies” is all that we care about.  If we can demonstrate through common-sense, compassionate legislation that we really love them both and that our opposition to abortion is rooted in our respect for ALL life, I believe that’s when we will start to change hearts and minds.

And while legislation may make accessing abortion more difficult, it’s changed hearts and minds that will make abortion unthinkable.