January 22, 2022 marks almost fifty years since the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade found that a constitutional right to privacy protects a woman’s right to choose abortion.
What has happened during half a century of legal abortion? Countless unborn lives have been lost. Mothers’ and fathers’ lives have changed irrevocably by the trauma of participation in the death of their own child(ren). We have experienced–though perhaps ignored–systemic societal damage as these losses have accrued and in the process have become accustomed to building a world that relies on abortion for women’s full participation in society and the economy. An undeniable ableism–aided by the advent of prenatal genetic testing and its wide availability–has taken root. Even the Mississippi “15-week ban” at issue in the Dobbs case makes an exception for abortions due to “severe fetal abnormality.”
In December 2021, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in what will almost certainly be the most impactful abortion ruling in the United States in thirty years. It is not outside the realm of possibility that the Roe decision is overturned and abortion bans before fetal viability become constitutionally possible once again. In light of all of this, is it possible to imagine what a real pro-life future might look like? Can we dream about what American society might look like if abortion was both “unthinkable” and illegal?
Abortion itself, its legal availability, its prevalence, its status as “health care,” widespread access to it even via telemedicine, has shaped a reality that society has had to reckon with. And, for the most part, it seems that we’ve simply accepted it as the way things are, and how they must in some sense remain. We have become desensitized, unable to comprehend the magnitude of the losses and the generational harm. In Fratelli Tutti 275, quoting the document on Human Fraternity, Pope Francis refers to this “desensitized human conscience” as “among the most important causes of the crises of the modern world.” This desensitization, a sort of spiritual deadening, may have fostered blindness to the very real injustice deeply rooted in the ways we talk about and consider abortion today. Fighting desensitization, Pope Francis himself has likened abortion to “hiring a hitman“; he said recently on the flight back to Rome following his trip to Hungary and Slovakia that “abortion is homicide”; and in Gaudete et Exsultate, Francis said, “Our defence of the innocent unborn needs to be clear, firm and passionate, for at stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development.”
Within the Church, this deadening has become apparent. Many Catholics are disenchanted with the political machinations of the pro-life movement, particularly in the last five years. For example, among Catholics there has been significant criticism of Texas SB8, a “heartbeat bill” with a creative legal workaround that has effectively banned abortion in Texas after the detection of a fetal heartbeat. In a particularly egregious example of desensitization, the group called “Catholics for Choice” on Thursday projected their group’s name and other pro-choice slogans on the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington as the Prayer Vigil for Life went on inside. Catholics for Choice’s rhetoric is indistinguishable from that of progressive reproductive rights advocates, stating they “believe in sexual and reproductive freedom” and using hashtags such as #AbortionIsEssential.
Of course, not all criticism is evidence of spiritual deadening, but at times frustration and resignation can give way even among those of us who profess a consistent ethic of life to a sort of malaise that lurches into affirmation of the status quo. There are warnings about “pyrrhic victories” in response to state laws that restrict abortion. We often minimize the importance of abortion in most years and then criticize the outsized emphasis it receives as a political football during election season.
Admittedly, the political-legal approach of the pro-life movement has disappointed repeatedly and has led to easily anticipated negative political consequences. Acknowledging this, the demands of justice still require a concerted effort to do what is right and to legally protect innocent human beings. Abortion restrictions are one facet, albeit a significant one, of comprehensive efforts to align this country’s mores with the principle that all human beings have inherent dignity. Said another way, opposing abortion restrictions in the hope of changing the culture of death first is counterproductive and inconsistent with itself.
Certainly, for the pro-life movement to have credibility, we must hold accountable political leaders who support policies that endanger the lives of the unborn. In order to successfully overcome the challenges that lie ahead, Catholics who value human life at all stages must work together, even with those whose approaches have been different than our own. Authentic politics requires prudence and compromise and that people of diverse backgrounds and viewpoints work together, dialogue, and even debate in order to promote peace and justice. We cannot allow either our frustration with MAGA Pro-Life (as Fr. Frank Pavone called it) or our exhaustion with the discussions surrounding abortion as the “preeminent moral issue” to dissuade us from considering the seriousness of the abortion issue now and into the future.
A Moment for Dreaming
Human beings are extremely poor at predicting the future. Our prudential judgments, insofar as they are rooted in what we imagine the future implications of this law will be, are fallible and not definite. Julie Beck writes in an article on “imagination” for The Atlantic,
Even though people can dream up detailed, novel scenes of things yet to come, their imagined futures are really just projections of their pasts. The future holds more surprises—and, potentially, more disappointments—than we might predict.
If our predictions about the future are simply projections of our memories, per Beck’s article, then we have to challenge ourselves. Should we believe that history will repeat itself? Or should we, as Francis often invites us, dream of a different future, one in which abortion is both unthinkable and illegal? In Let Us Dream, Francis writes:
In every age people experience “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6), a cry that goes up from the margins of society. If we discern in such a yearning a movement of God’s Spirit, it allows us to open up to that movement in thought and action, and so create a new future according to the spirit of the Beatitudes.
It is especially important to challenge our imaginations at this moment, because the Supreme Court just in December 2021 heard oral arguments in Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health, which is poised to be the most decisive abortion case in thirty years. Their decision is expected in June 2022. Everything from upholding the status quo to overturning Roe appears to be on the table. This, put simply, is what the pro-life movement has been working to accomplish for almost 50 years.
But what will happen next? After Dobbs, if Roe/Casey is overruled, questions about state laws governing abortion become immediately relevant to all of us. Many states (estimated to be between 21 and 26 states) are expected to move to ban abortion in all or most cases. There are a number of “trigger laws” on the books, that could effectively ban most or all abortions in these states immediately following the overturning of Roe/Casey. Other states have legislatures and governors who have said they would act to restrict abortion following a Supreme Court ruling. Conversely, states such as New Jersey, New York, Virginia, and Illinois have recently passed radically permissive abortion laws that establish abortion as a fundamental right in their states.
Very soon, state abortion restrictions may become a “live” issue, and voters will have to decide which laws to support and which to oppose. Legislators will find themselves in situations where they must decide on abortion restrictions, such as gestational limits, or exceptions for “the life and health of the mother.” As pro-life Catholics, how will we respond to the almost-inevitable abortion exception for “severe fetal anomaly” and the ableism it promotes? The bishops of New Jersey recently issued a statement on their recently-passed “Freedom of Reproductive Choice Act,” which may model one way forward for this pro-life response. Unequivocally condemning the new law, they said it “absolutely and forthrightly extinguishes the human and moral identity of the unborn child.” At the same time, they called for greater support for initiatives that would improve conditions for women so that they are more likely to carry their children to term:
We have failed as a society when a response to any pregnancy is fear rather than joy. Sadly, too often this fear is born out of the mother’s uncertainty she will not be able to provide for herself and her child the resources necessary to live a flourishing life. We must do better. Therefore, we urge all Catholics and people of good will to actively participate in breaking down the economic, employment, social, racial, and emotional barriers that lead mothers into thinking that abortion is a better option than life.
Fighting for Women and Families
In our polarized abortion debate facts are often misconstrued and motivated by the assumption that pro-life voters or citizens do not also promote policies that would address some of the economic and social reasons women seek abortion. But Catholic bishops and state conferences have been remarkably consistent in their advocacy for the expansion of Medicaid programs and equitable healthcare access (with the simple request that abortion not be included as a “healthcare” service). There are countless programs and charities run by Catholic organizations and the institutional Church specifically designed to aid women facing crisis pregnancies or economic hardship. On September 1st, the same day that the heartbeat law in Texas went into effect, another Texas law—supported by Catholic bishops—expanded Medicaid benefits for postpartum mothers from two months to six months.
While these laws and programs are not sufficient in themselves to “make abortion unthinkable,” they are a far cry from the suggestion that “nothing” has been done to help women—a claim that is grossly dismissive of pro-life efforts. Being honest and straightforward about the facts on the ground cuts through the divisive rhetoric and stonewalling on this critical social justice issue. This will also help guide public opinion and resources more effectively to ensure women get the resources they need.
Finally, the possible end of the Roe/Casey regime, which pits mother and child against one another rather than acknowledging that they form what in postnatal care is called a “dyad”—a mutually beneficial interrelationship of dependence and love—leads us to challenge squarely the idea that women and their children are fundamentally at odds. In reality, it is our society that is against women, as well as the children they bear. Gloria Purvis, in a September article for America accompanying her recent podcast interview with pro-life legal scholar Helen Alvare, highlights the systems of anti-woman injustice undergirded by legal abortion and invites us to imagine a different future:
Imagine the law, businesses, educational institutions, the military, the economy, the very structure of our society not having abortion as a buttress. Imagine our world making way for women truly as we are and, in justice, giving us what we are due because of our womanhood.
Our society is responsible for the creation of an economic system and its profit-driven corporations that often force women to feel abortion is their only real option, due to poor maternal support, labor policies, and health benefits. If abortion was severely restricted, will these corporations who have expressed support for abortion or included it as a health benefit assist women through pregnancy and postpartum with resources, money, time off work, and a good quality job? Or will they continue to cynically fight for “women’s rights” and “autonomy” that really serve corporate interests over the rights of workers and families? The answer is probably the latter, and why shouldn’t they? These corporations thrive on the cheap labor of women and men who are unburdened by the demands of growing families. Given a choice between abortion and confronting root causes of anti-woman, anti-family policies and practices, why would we as a society continue to condone abortion, which only perpetuates this nation’s deep-seated prejudices?
Overturning Roe could expose many social evils that are masked by the easy fix of abortion and force us to finally confront them. Feminist scholar Erika Bachiochi wrote in December that “In Roe’s absence, concerns about women’s economic welfare would have to be addressed as they should: by ending poverty, not unborn lives.” She calls for systemic structural change in the wake of a possible overturning of Roe. This is both right and just.
Let Us Dream
The Dobbs case offers new hope for anti-abortion advocates. An end to Roe could, after the inevitable backlash and societal conflict, reframe the conversation. Rather than myopic discussions about how to be pro-life in an entrenched pro-abortion regime, we can continue building a culture of life where abortion is not only illegal but unthinkable. This would be an opportunity for the pro-life movement to finally make progress in changing minds and hearts, without being so entangled in self-destructive national politics.
Christians are called to be a perennial challenge to both the culture of death and the legal regime that was born from it. For the sake of this country, millions of innocent lives, and mothers everywhere, let us work for more pro-life laws and pray for an end to Roe.
Rachel Amiri is a contributor and past Production Editor for Where Peter Is. She has also appeared as the host of WPI Live. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with degrees in Theology and Political Science, and was deeply shaped by the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. She has worked in Catholic publishing as well as in healthcare as a FertilityCare Practitioner. Rachel is married to fellow WPI Contributor Daniel Amiri and resides in St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising three children.