3.04.2006

The A-Bomb

So, there's a great question from a comment last night, asking if I've ever published a post on my ideas about abortion and choice, and since I haven't, I thought I'd take the chance to explain what I mean when I say that I'm "pro-life". Let me engage in some meta-chat about the comment first, and then I'll get to (hopefully) a fuller discussion of what I think about life and choice.

First, the meta-chat. The comment asks how I, as a gay man, can live my life as a gay man in dissent with church teaching, and yet, as A writes, cannot "extend that sense of agency to women." I do have a decent sense of moral complexity, I think, though anyone who knows me knows that I do my dardnest to avoid studying moral theology in my professional life; I don't have the gifts for that sort of work. But one principle that might help us here comes from a theory of the church, not from ethics: just because the church teaches on issue A and on issue B, it doesn't mean that it teaches with the same weight. So it's entirely legitimate, IMO, to dissent from one teaching and not from another; it seems to me that the questions around life and death in talking about abortion are more serious than those surrounding same-sex sex.

There's another important assumption, I think, to be countered here though. While one's moral decisions are always personal, they're never entirely mine. This comes out clearly in the prolife argument that abortion involves not only the mother, but also her potential child (and possibly the father, but that's a little more distant). But it should also be there in regards to same-sex sex. I'm obviously hoping that same-sex commitment will one day be recognized and celebrated within the R.C. church (indeed, within the church taken as a whole, it already is in some parts); but I'm also respectful, even in a strange way grateful, for the challenge within the church for me to explain myself, to tell the truth of my life, to defend myself against the charge that I'm deceiving myself. I obviously want that discussion to be respectful, charitable, and more open than it is today; but if no one in my community challenged the fact that my life seemed to upend a relatively settled value of the community, that wouldn't show a respect for my choice, it would show a lack of love, a lack of concern for me. Similarly, A is right to note that I'm not going to personally have to deal with a problematic pregnancy, in that I'm not going to be pregnant, nor is my partner, however open to the miracle of life we might be. But if I take my commitments to those around me seriously, if from a Christian perspective I take the priority of the family of the church over our families of origin seriously, then I will, and should, be concerned about the difficult choices around pregnancy.

So if I want the right to live my life, being challenged, but not prevented, why shouldn't I approach abortion the same way? Why do I insist that challenging, when it comes to abortion, might extend to legal coercion?
It's rooted in my belief, and the belief of a long tradition in Christian history, that while a fetus isn't morally equivalent to a child, it more similar to a child's life than different. My ethicist friends can make better distinctions about the difference between abortion in the first weeks of pregnancy and later in term, but the weight of the tradition, for me, suggests a presumption for the life of that fetus. And, in comparison with same-sex activity, the imperative to intervene on behalf of that life or potential life, is stronger than is the case for same-sex activity. And while I don't want to impinge upon the rights of women in very difficult situations lightly, I don't think that the decision of whether to end that life is entirely her own choice, for similar reasons that as a society we don't think ending a child's life after that child is born is an individual's private choice.

That being said, my understanding of being pro-life has a lot of sympathies with Hillary Clinton's "safe, legal, and rare" position. I think that it is entirely irresponsible, and far too typical, for pro-life activists to abandon women and their unwanted children as soon as they are born, and to ignore their own responsibility for putting women in those situations in the first place (though some are getting better on that). I also think that the myth of the rich white suburban woman having an abortion on a whim in order not to hurt her legal career does tons of harm in distancing pro-life activists from the real faces of women in near-desperate situations, and creates an easy scapegoat to make them feel good about how morally upright they are. I think that the church's teaching on artificial contraception is sinful in its complicity with backing women into a corner with regard to their legitimate reproductive rights; there are, and there should be, other options for women to have control over their own bodies besides abortion, and the lack of free, easily obtainable contraception is a scandal for which we who are Catholic will have to answer to God and to history. I also don't think that it's realistic, absent a massive social overhaul of the way we care for women, particularly the most vulnerable members of our society, to suddenly remove abortion as an option. It's also not realistic to ask a woman to sacrifice her own health or life for the sake of her child; while that sacrifice might be admirable, one can't require heroic virtue. And that's how I vote.

Does that make me pro-choice? I don't think so, because I refuse to accept that the current state of affairs is the best that we can do. I refuse to accept that we cannot create a society in which abortion is no longer the best symbol of our respect for women and their rights. I jump at the chance to vote for candidates who combine a suspicion with regard to abortion with a commitment to the lives of the poor and the rights of women. And just as I don't think it's legitimate to ask me to ignore the moral choices of women because I'm not going to individually face the same situation, neither is it legitimate for me to ignore my own guilt in creating and maintaining a society in which women are regularly backed into tragic corners.

2 comments:

Nate said...

"though some are getting better on that..."

Who, for example?

BaptizedPagan said...

Well, if you look at almost any right to life website, you'll find numerous links to services for pre- and post-abortion counseling, for social service referrals, for medical assistance during pregnancy, etc. And, anecdotally, one thing many of my friends involved in pro-life activism think was missing in the early pro-life movement was a sense of how abortion had to be connected with a Bernardinian "seamless garment" mentality which made continuing governement support for single mothers through welfare and child assistance programs crucial to a coherent pro-life identity. I do genuinely believe my friends who describe their conflict of wanting to support the Democratic party on most social welfare issues, but can't bring themselves to vote in a way that would continue to allow abortion without any restrictions. I don't think they're being duplicitous, but (and these people, mostly women, are my age or younger) have learned from some of the compartmentalizing problems of the past.