Abortion: Should a Man’s Wallet Be More Private, Free, and Unregulated than a Woman’s Womb?

Chittister 2

My recent post, “Face It: Donald Trump Is Right about Abortion” drew many responses. (You can read more than 100 of them here.) One comment characterized my position there as “radically pro-choice.” Someone else called it “pro-abortion.”

However, it was not my intention (especially as a Catholic moral theologian) to write a piece that might be interpreted in those ways.

No, I was simply attempting to show that Republican position that “abortion is murder” can be quickly reduced to the absurd.

It was ironic, I suggested, that someone as clueless as Donald Trump should end up being the agent of moral clarity. He did so by verbalizing what the standard Republican position on abortion implies, Viz. that if abortion is murder, those involved should be charged and punished accordingly.

My point was that the immediate vilification of Trump’s impolitic assertion indicated that the judgment that “abortion is murder” is untenable.

What’s not untenable however is the fact that responses to The Donald’s Trumpian logic show that the abortions debate in the public sphere needs a dose of straight talk. So let’s try that out. In the end, it pits women’s sovereignty over their wombs against men’s control of their wallets.

Begin with the fact that few people (if any) are actually pro-abortion. Invariably, it is a painful and regrettable decision usually taken with the utmost seriousness.

From there admit two other facts. One is that abortion cannot be eliminated, no matter what laws are passed. Trying to eliminate abortion is like trying to eradicate prostitution. Large numbers of people have always and will always seek abortion services. The rich will fly their wives, lovers or daughters to the Netherlands or Belgium or wherever safe abortion procedures are legally available. The poor will go to back-alley practitioners or they’ll take drugs or use coat hangers to do the job themselves.

The second undeniable fact is that we live in a pluralistic society where people of good faith find themselves on both sides of the abortion question. And this is because they differ (most frequently on religious grounds) about the key question of when specifically personal life begins. That is, few would argue that a fetus at any stage does not represent human life and should not therefore be treated with respect. No, the real question is when does fetal life become personal? The question is when does aborting a fetus become murder?

In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas and others held the position that personal life began with “ensoulment,” i.e. when God conferred a soul on the developing fetus. According to Thomas, because of the high numbers of spontaneous abortions in the early pregnancy, ensoulment could not logically happen at the moment of conception. So in his patriarchal way, he conjectured it occurred for males 40 days after conception; for females it happened after 80 days. Before those turning points, there was no question of personal life.

Of course, Aquinas’ logical position is no longer held by the Catholic Church. Its official teaching is that personal life is present from the first moment of conception. This means that in a world where as many as 50% of  pregnancies end in miscarriage, half of all “people” are “aborted” spontaneously usually before the mother even knows she is pregnant.

Such facts about miscarriage have led many to conclude that personal life begins well after the moment of conception.  They locate it, for instance, at the moment of “quickening” (when the mother first feels her baby move), with viability outside the womb, with actual emergence from the womb, or (as with some Native Americans) with the “painting” of the emergent child to distinguish it from animals.

Given such differences, it seems counterproductive to impose the view of one religion on an entire culture. We might expect such imposition from the Taliban. But it has no place in a democracy characterized by separation of church and state.

Instead in a country like our own some compromise is necessary. And that is what happened in Roe v. Wade. There it was determined that in the first two trimesters, the pregnant woman can make a decision on her own and in consultation with her physician. In the third trimester, the state asserts its interest and can make laws restricting abortion to protect the woman’s health and the potentiality of human life.

However a Roe v. Wade approach can never be sufficient for genuine pro-life advocates. Abortion law must be complemented by social programs. These include pregnancy prevention measures – sex education in our public schools along with easy access to contraceptives.

Nonetheless when unplanned pregnancies occur, programs discouraging abortion needs to kick in. These would provide free counselling and pre- natal care for pregnant mothers along with post-natal services for their newborns. Job provisions would be available for new mothers along with free daycare for their pre-school children. Programs would also include low cost housing and (where necessary) help paying grocery bills.

All such measures are genuinely pro-life. They create a welcoming environment for new life.

But this is where the real debate about abortion’s relation to privacy enters the picture. Simply put the question is: which should be more vigorously protected from state intervention – a woman’s womb or a man’s wallet?

Put otherwise, the debate about life-friendly social programs pits on the one hand mostly well-to-do male legislators (in the U.S. Congress and in the Catholic Church) against poor women who cannot obtain abortions abroad. The patriarchs are quite willing to have their laws invade the privacy of a woman’s womb while defending invasion of their wallets to provide a welcoming atmosphere for all the unborn.

Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister has called such typically male attempts to evade responsibility by its true name. She wrote:

“I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”

Contributing to that broader conversation is what my controversial blog post was about. So is this one.

Tell me what you think.