Now that the votes have been cast in the US election, I hope Catholics can once again discuss the issue of abortion without being accused of trying to sway the Catholic vote. And discuss it we must, because it is clear that something has gone wrong in the way we as Catholics are attempting to put this Church teaching into practice. It is time to take an honest look at our approach to this problem that reaches to the core of our understanding of the sacredness of life and the dignity of the human person.
The intensity of Catholic rhetoric surrounding abortion in recent months has brought into sharp focus the inadequacy and even the potential destructiveness of certain patterns of thinking within the pro-life movement. Much of the problem, it seems to me, lies in our inability to think clearly and comprehensively about abortion, which leaves us open to political manipulation and potentially to cooperation with evil, even if we have the best of intentions.
In order to reevaluate the political significance and meaning of the problem of abortion, we need to remind ourselves that it is at once a moral, a legal, and a social problem, and to recognize that we have a tendency to obscure or minimize the social aspect. The ultimate goal of the pro-life movement is to eliminate abortion and not just make it illegal, and an approach that focuses only on abortion as a moral and legal problem risks becoming Quixotic and ultimately ineffective. By recognizing abortion as a symptom of larger systemic social pressures we can shift to a more productive approach to pro-life activism—one that is rooted in the politics of the present and better reflects the teaching of the Church and especially the message of the Francis papacy.
In an attempt to contribute toward the development of a more comprehensive perspective on abortion, I will outline the three central dimensions of the problem in turn before placing it within the context of the teaching of Pope Francis.
Abortion as a moral problem
On the question of the morality of abortion the Church has a definitive, irreformable answer: abortion is wrong, and is always wrong in all circumstances. No matter what new perspectives on the problem of abortion we may come to, by keeping this moral absolute firmly in mind we will stay anchored in Church teaching.
Abortion as a legal problem
We sometimes forget that the Church’s condemnation of abortion applies just as much to illegal abortion as it does to legal abortion. Whether an abortion is legal or not has no bearing on the morality of the act. Nevertheless, the law has played an important role in both preventing and providing access to abortion, particularly over the last 175 years or so.
Abortion has existed in some form in most cultures throughout the history of civilization, even if it has typically been confined to the private worlds of women. In North America before the nineteenth century, it tended to be addressed as a moral issue, if it was addressed at all, and not as a public and political issue like it is today. During the nineteenth century, however, as abortion became more prevalent in urban areas—not just as a practice of the desperate and marginalized but as a response to the burden of child-rearing in a rapidly-developing industrial society—it gradually entered the public consciousnesses as a social problem that demanded a response from the state. Ordinary Americans could see in many newspapers the ads for procedures and medications that claimed to cure “irregular menstruation” or similar complaints—a trend which became embodied in the public mind in the notorious abortion entrepreneur Madame Restell. Doctors raised the alarm, and over time, laws were introduced which regulated or banned abortion, first with a focus on post-“quickening” abortion and then on all abortion (see James C. Mohr’s Abortion in America for a detailed look at the history of abortion and abortion legislation in the US). Quacks could no longer peddle their dangerous services without severe consequences, and the abortion rate was likely curtailed, but tragically this did not stop abortions from happening. The number of abortions that did occur is unclear, since of course they were not typically recorded. Frederick J. Taussig, a proponent of abortion law reform, famously calculated in a 1936 study that there were approximately 681,600 abortions each year in the United States (338-89), but this figure includes spontaneous abortions (more commonly called miscarriages) along with induced abortions. Of the total number of abortions, he estimated that 25-30% were spontaneous, 10-15% therapeutic (induced due to a serious threat to the health of the mother), and 60-65% illegally induced, which would amount to around 409,000 illegal abortions on the low end. Even if Taussig’s statistics are grossly inflated, and they may well be, one can be certain that induced abortion was still very prevalent in the years between full criminalization and Roe vs. Wade.
The criminalization of abortion, though it likely lowered the abortion rate, also turned abortion into a legal issue that could be questioned and challenged in the public sphere, setting the stage for the legal reversals of the 1970s and beyond. Whether or not there will be yet another legal reversal remains to be seen, but the legal battle will undoubtedly be a long and fraught one. Even if Roe vs. Wade is overturned, the battle within and between states will continue, and that is just inside the US. There is only a small handful of countries in the world where abortion is illegal in all circumstances, and it is unlikely that this situation will change drastically in the near future.
Overall, the tactic of focusing on legislation to stop abortion has not been particularly successful. This is not to say, however, that a legal approach to ending abortion is hopeless or irrelevant. It can and should be part of a larger strategy, and it may play an especially important role in countries where the potential legalization of abortion-on-demand is still a live political issue. But in the many places where access to legal abortion has been long taken for granted, and especially where it is considered a constitutional right, a new approach is needed in which the law cannot be expected to lead the way or even hold back the tide of public sentiment for any extended period of time.
Abortion as a social problem
Taussig states, “So powerful and universal is the instinct for motherhood that, when a woman is impelled to do away with the child within her body, we may feel sure the fault lies primarily with the special conditions under which she is living. Here and there selfish reasons may enter into the problem, but certainly in the vast majority of cases external factors are largely responsible” (389). We would do well to meditate upon this statement. However strident pro-choice rhetoric may sometimes get, for most women the choice to abort their child is an agonizing one resulting from pressures that we cannot dismiss. These pressures in no way justify the act, but if we are to take seriously the problem of abortion they must be taken into account.
Some will point to examples like the “Shout Your Abortion” movement as proof of liberal depravity when it comes to abortion, but this is activist rhetoric that emerged in response to the 2015 movement to defund Planned Parenthood in the US. Some may also point to flippant attitudes toward abortion expressed by some liberal commentators or entertainers, but again this must be placed within the context of American culture-war rhetoric. As Taussig suggests, abortion is always a betrayal of deeply-rooted maternal instinct, and thus is rarely chosen free from the pressure of external social influences.
So what are these influences? In our world, they are myriad. Some are less prominent than they used to be; bearing children outside of wedlock, for example, does not carry the crushing stigma that it did in the past. At the same time, our modern economies have made child-rearing a more involved and/or expensive endeavour than it used to be. Dual-income families have greatly outnumbered single-income or ‘traditional’ families now for many decades, and childcare costs continue to rise. Growing income inequality is shrinking the middle class, and the sorts of jobs that can provide a steady and secure income for a large family are becoming more scarce. Many young women struggling to thrive in our “gig economy” find it difficult to imagine ever being able to get married, buy a house, and raise a family. And of course, all of these pressures are compounded in marginalized or disadvantaged communities. This is just the situation in the first world; in many other parts of the world, simple survival is a challenge. Further, many women feel, not without some justification, that patriarchal and misogynistic cultural forces aim to keep them away from education, careers, and positions of power by confining them to the responsibilities of childcare. Faced with these pressures, along with many others, some women will inevitably decide that they have no choice but to turn to abortion to end unwanted pregnancies. Under the weight of a system we refuse to change, morality and the law will continue to buckle.
Viewed in light of the forces that contribute to making it prevalent, we can see abortion as a systemic social problem, and because it is systemic it is possible for us to perpetuate it even if we do not condone it in any way. This may be difficult for some to accept, since indeed the Church and the pro-life movement are only gradually coming to appreciate the influence of the systemic social pressures that cause suffering and encourage sin, as shown by recent controversies surrounding the idea of systemic racism. The fact is, though, we can’t wipe our hands clean of the stain of abortion just by identifying as pro-life or voting according to the prescriptions of anti-abortion advocacy groups. It is tragic that we spend little to no time examining our consciences for sins of omission that leave untouched the social and economic structures that ensure the continued existence of abortion.
In saying all this, I should be clear I don’t mean to deny that abortion is a preeminent moral issue. It certainly is, but especially in the sense that it is integrally connected to all those other issues that pro-lifers too often write off as prudential or negotiable, such as those relating to social, economic, and environmental justice.
Moving Forward: Political Love
In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis surveys the landscape of a fragmented world racked by conflict, anger, and indifference toward human suffering. His prescription is to call Catholics away from ideology and to a new awareness of human fraternity and the basic human needs of others. Further, we are asked to expand our understanding of morality to include not only sins of commission but also sins of omission. This is why the parable of the Good Samaritan is at the heart of the encyclical. It points toward the need for a deeper understanding of social morality, and not just individual morality.
Fratelli Tutti does not address abortion specifically, except in passing (18, 24), but its message can be applied to the pro-life cause. We don’t have much trouble understanding, at least in theory, how as individuals we might be complicit in environmental degradation, the suffering of the poor or marginalized, or the perpetuation of racist social structures. Why can’t we think this way regarding abortion? It’s not just a horror for which other people are responsible, and once we realize this we can’t ease our consciences simply by voting for an ostensibly pro-life candidate in an election, or by preaching to the pro-life choir about abortion as a great moral evil. Our duty toward the unborn should demand much more of us than that. It should lead us to engage in both individual acts of charity and what Pope Francis refers to as “political love” (186), or political efforts to improve society as a whole and change social and economic structures that benefit some and stifle, suffocate, or simply eliminate others. He writes, “It is an act of charity to assist someone suffering, but it is also an act of charity, even if we do not know that person, to work to change the social conditions that caused his or her suffering.” Thus, our solidarity with both women and the unborn should inspire us not to culture war, but to social change accomplished through acts of love.
We are so accustomed to thinking of politics as a battleground that this idea of political love seems naïve and idealistic, but it is eminently practical. What is not practical, in our current political landscape, is to imagine that an executive order or court ruling will make abortion go away overnight, or that abortion can be eradicated solely or even primarily through such means. Perhaps even less practical is the dream that we are on the verge of a great breakthrough in evangelization that will convert all people to the Catholic faith and the Catholic understanding of the sanctity of human life; such a thing is possible, but it has not been guaranteed to us. Political love, however, operates within the world of politics as “the art of the possible.” It encourages us to act as good Samaritans in an organized way, through acts of social solidarity. Within the context of the pro-life movement, it calls for a politics geared toward easing the pressures on women and families that make abortion something thinkable. We have boundless opportunities to engage in such efforts, and if we ignore them in favour of focusing solely on abortion law we may end up chasing a forever-receding horizon of success.
The Challenge of Abortion
None of the above is intended to water down Catholic teaching on abortion or suggest that we accept the status quo. Instead, my point is that the problem of abortion poses an even greater challenge than we tend to think. It should weigh upon the consciences of us all, forcing us to ask ourselves what we need to change in ourselves and our society in order to foster solidarity with both women and the unborn. Pope Francis maintains that “everything is interconnected” (Laudato Si, 70), and this applies not only to our connection with our natural environment, but also to each other.
An abortion politics that is rooted in mere moralism, and is focused purely on punitive measures, is one drained of love. We have seen again and again how such a limited strategy and perspective can dissolve our broader understanding of morality and lead us into a politics of force, or even of hate. Law can certainly be a part of political love, and the accomplishments of the pro-life movement may one day be cemented and maintained through law, but it is increasingly apparent that law cannot lead the way and must instead follow a path forged by love.
Print Works Cited
Mohr, James C. Abortion in America: The Origins and Evolution of National Policy, 1800-1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Taussig, Frederick J. Abortion: Spontaneous and Induced. St. Louis: C.V. Mosby, 1936.