Why Not Kill Them All: Abortionists, Soccer Moms and God?

Anti-abortion extremism is in the news again. (Does it ever disappear?) As everyone knows by now, it’s because right-wing lawmakers in Alabama have advanced a law banning abortion at every stage of pregnancy – from the moment that sperm fertilizes egg. The law makes no exceptions for rape or incest.

In terms of logic, the law can easily be debunked as literally absurd. In terms of theology (and remember, the question of abortion has been shaped by theology, regardless of what we might think about that fact) the law makes God himself (sic) deserving of capital punishment. Finally, in terms of the U.S. Constitution, criminalizing abortion contradicts the First Amendment which explicitly states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

To clear the air of confusion and to clarify the concept of pro-life itself, let’s consider each one of those points.

Logic

To begin with, consider the law’s logical inconsistency. It begins by holding that abortionists are killers deserving capital punishment. Its reasoning runs as follows: (1) Abortion is murder, (2) But all murders are capital crimes; deserving capital punishment; (3) Therefore abortion-providers should be punished by execution or life imprisonment.

Strangely, the woman who seeks an abortion finds no place in that logic. I say “strangely,” because her exclusion doesn’t make sense according the syllogism just referenced. Murder is murder. And legally speaking, employing a hit-man to kill another person makes the employer guilty of conspiracy to commit murder regardless of who actually pulled the trigger. Both contractor and contractee deserve the same punishment. Since it’s the woman who employs the murderer, why not execute her or imprison her for life, the same as the abortionist?

The answer is because doing so would be absurd. It would be politically untenable.

Virtually no one in the electorate would support it – especially in the light of polls showing that 80% of Americans believe abortion should be legal. Seventy-one percent oppose overturning Roe v. Wade – including 52% of Republicans.

Imprisoning abortion-providers might be one thing. But imagine, if legislators proposed filling jail cells with all the soccer moms among those responsible for the at least 45.7 million abortions performed since 1973 and the passage of Roe. Hundreds of thousands of moms in prison for life wouldn’t make sense. It is patently absurd.  It wouldn’t be acceptable to anyone.

But think a little further about those numbers. They are familiar to us, because “pro-birthers” usually employ them to train focus on the zygotes and fetuses in question. However, the numbers can also suggest something else.

Exchange the viewpoint of zygotes and fetuses for that of our mothers, wives, daughters and sisters who’ve undergone the procedure. If the fundamentalists are right, the sheer numbers mean that millions of the women we love are actually murderers. Millions of them over the last nearly 50 years have committed murder and, according to fundamentalist logic, deserve capital punishment – no less than the others on death row. Again, murder is murder. And in the case of abortion, the scale of the slaughter collectively perpetrated by the women we sleep with is beyond compare. It means that American women – women throughout the world – women in general – cooperate in mass murderers dwarfing the crimes of Hitler!

Logically speaking, all of that – treating abortion as murder, punishing abortion providers as capital criminals, refusing to do the same for the women employing them, and identifying millions of women throughout the world as evil murderers (while saying not a word about the men who impregnate them) – reduces to the absurd the position that abortion is murder.

In fact, it constitutes the very definition of logic’s reductio ad absurdum that proves the falsity of an argument by demonstrating that its conclusion is completely untenable. In other words, when you put words to it and draw the logical conclusions, the contentions of the pro-birthers sound absolutely crazy to almost everyone. Case closed.

Theology

And that brings us into the field of theology.

For Catholic moralists, commonly shared perception like that just referenced is called the “sensus fidelium.” Sensus fidelium refers to ordinary people’s conclusions about matters of faith and morals (such as abortion). It refers to conclusions based on common sense rather than the arguments of the experts including theologians. Catholic doctrine regards such agreement as infallible.

But here I’m suggesting a unique kind of sensus fidelium – one accessible primarily to women and their special ways of knowing. After all, male legislators cannot possibly understand women’s physiology, biological processes, psychology, or moral sensitivities in the same way as women.

In other words, women are a uniquely privileged reference group. However, because of the domination of theology (and politics!) by men, the latter act as if they know better than women. As a result, women are treated in effect as pre-rational children in need of direction by the culture’s patriarchs. (This, perhaps, offers another explanation of the disparate treatment of abortion-providers and women seeking abortion. The women in question are not truly responsible moral agents.)

To correct such imbalance, women of all faiths (and none) and not just Christian men should be in charge of any reasoning about and regulations of abortion. At the very least, such women deserve a decisive place at the table where theologians, ethicists and legislators discuss the question. If that were the case, another reductio ad absurdum would soon come to light – this one specifically theological. It would be that God Himself (sic) is the world’s abortionist-in-chief responsible for filling sewers with aborted babies.

What I mean is that according to medical researchers spontaneous abortion is the “predominant outcome of fertilization.” At least half of fertilized eggs are simply flushed down the toilet without their “mothers” even aware of their presence. They never knew they were pregnant in the first place.

If (as pro-birthers maintain) God is responsible for and cares about every fertilized egg, the conclusion is inevitable. God is a wholesale abortionist. Like all abortionists, he deserves the fate that death-of-God theologians declared fifty years ago.

(As a matter of fact, understanding God according to the absurdities just described might well be responsible for the rejection of his existence by rational adults. The fundamentalists themselves may have unwittingly but effectively executed him!)

Constitutional Considerations

What all of this means is that the recently passed Alabama law is unconstitutional, since imposes on Christians and non-Christians alike a particular religious (and therefore unproveable) theory about God’s role in the initiation of specifically personal life.

As we’ve seen, the particular theory arbitrarily holds that each fertilized egg is a unique human person with an immortal soul wedded exclusively to that particular fertilized ovum. The theory further holds that when the ovum in question dies, the soul’s God-intended purpose is forever frustrated. The world is forever deprived of the aborted-one’s unique gifts, which God cannot or will not supply through another person.

The idiosyncrasy of that position is unmistakable. As is the case with other faiths, one could easily understand early abortion as not that important in God’s grand scheme of things. A soul prevented from incarnating in one form could just as easily be imagined as appearing in another – when its time is right.

In other words, and more specifically, the theory that life begins when sperm fertilizes egg is not at all generally shared even across religions, much less by agnostics and atheists. For instance, some locate the beginning of personal life at the moment of “quickening” (when the mother first feels her baby move), others identify it with viability outside the womb, still others 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 clearly unconstitutional to impose the view of one religion on an entire culture. We might expect such preference of one religious view over others from the Taliban. But it has no place in a governed by a constitution with the First Amendment quoted earlier in this essay.

Conclusion

The bottom line here is that in a diverse country like our own, some form of legislation like Roe v. Wade might be the best we can do. There it was determined that the pregnant woman as moral agent can decide about abortion on her own during the first trimester and in consultation with her physician during the second. In the third trimester, however, 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. For them, abortion law must be complemented by social programs that provide a welcoming atmosphere for all life forms. 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 not only discourage abortion; they also create a welcoming environment for new life.

However, don’t expect Alabama politicians to endorse such measures. For them, pro-life concern ends at birth. Afterwards, the burden must be assumed entirely by the mothers in question.

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.”

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.

How to Be Pro-Life and Not Just Pro-Birth

Joan Chittister

Recently, Benedictine Sister, Joan Chittister, grabbed some headlines when she took on the hypocrisy of the “pro-life” crowd.

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.”

Sister Chittister’s point is well-taken. Being truly pro-life means joining reluctant mothers in the sacrifices they routinely make to see that their children are fed, properly housed and educated. So claiming to be pro-life while campaigning against food stamps, universal health care, Head Start, and subsidized housing is disingenuous to say the least. It also seems incompatible with defunding Planned Parenthood, our nation’s largest provider of sex education – probably the most effective, non-intrusive birth control measure of all.

And it’s significant that such reminders come from a woman. Women after all are the ones who primarily bear the burden imposed by the narrow pro-birth demands made mostly by men. Women alone are capable of bringing unwanted pregnancies to term. They are the ones who usually end up raising children as single parents.

Meanwhile, it is primarily men who insist that women fulfill responsibilities men themselves cannot fulfill on the one hand, and can easily evade on the other. The men include most prominently celibate Catholic clergy and an overwhelmingly male U.S. Congress. In biblical terms they are (to use Jesus’ words) “experts in the law” who “load people down with burdens they can hardly carry” and which the “experts” themselves “will not lift one finger” to lighten (LK 11:46). It’s no wonder so many women see pro-birthers as militants in a war against women.

But it’s even worse than that. If abortion is the crime they allege, pro-birthers are criminal accessories. They are co-abortionists. This is because their anti-life policies which deny reluctant mothers sex education, good jobs, decent wages, maternity leave, free child care, programs like Head Start, and subsidized food and housing create an anti-life culture. And that in turn drives desperate women to terminate unwanted pregnancies that will effectively impoverish them.

If lawmakers and religious leaders really care about life and want fewer abortions, they need to create a pro-life culture that invites bringing pregnancies to term. Most obviously, this means that it’s unjust for women to be left holding the bag. In particular it means:

  • Recognizing that the absolute prohibition of abortion endorsed by many Christians is not universally accepted.
  • Realizing that abortion as already restricted (to the first two trimesters) by the Roe v. Wade decision is about as much restriction as possible in such a pluralistic context.
  • In that light, having Christians adopt a prophetic, persuasive approach to limiting abortions rather than a legal coercive one.
  • This means that committed Christians would themselves refuse to abort unwanted fetuses, that they would support others in following suit, and (above all) that they’d promote pro-life measures across the board including anti-poverty legislation, but also advocating war resistance, elimination of capital punishment, and strict environmental protection legislation.
  • Supporting sex education programs like those offered by Planned Parenthood.
  • Changing the patriarchal teaching of the Catholic Church about birth control.