A bit longer reflection this weekend, by necessity. 

Writing about abortion I fear is opening a Pandora’s Box. Nevertheless, I really feel I need to offer some reflections about this very heated moral issue. I remember the days before the 1973 Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade. Many women died in those days from pregnancy complications or from the back-alley abortions that impoverished women or frightened teenagers inevitably sought. I remember when President Bill Clinton said in 1992  that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” I remember as well, about the same time, a serious conversation about abortion with a now deceased European cardinal.

The cardinal had been publicly quite well-known for his very strong opposition to abortion. He invited me, however, as an historical theologian, to interview him about the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965). Just the two of us. After talking about the Council, I asked him if he really thought abortion could never be justified. He stared at me in silence for a minute and then said: “Not for publication! My younger sister was a missionary nun in Africa. She was raped and became pregnant. I contacted a missionary doctor, paid him, and ordered him to perform an abortion on my sister, and then to keep his mouth shut.”

According to the Associated Press, for the leaders of the two largest US Christian denominations  — the Roman Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention — the major concern about the Joseph Biden administration is its support for abortion rights. Many US Catholic bishops and the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, of course, have been very critical of President Biden.

When writing about abortion, I would like to promote dialogue with civility: to build respectful conversation bridges not blow them up. Respectful conversation, of course, must also be honest conversation.

I would begin with a clarification of terms. Some equate the “anti-abortion” position with the “Pro-Life” position. Quite often this is not the case, however. A great number of contemporary US anti-abortion political and religious leaders support capital punishment and ignore poverty, healthcare, crime, equality, nuclear weapons buildup, and the environment. Such behavior is not pro-life and some bishops in the U.S., like  Bishop John Stowe,  Diocese of Lexington, Kentucky and Bishop Robert McElroy, Diocese of San Diego, have made this very clear. 

Unfortunately, for many religious and political conservatives, “Pro-Life” often becomes convenient rhetorical shorthand for avoiding  the broad spectrum of urgent contemporary life issues. 

As a Catholic I remember and applauded Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, and his 1983 “Seamless Garment” appeal for a consistent ethic of life with attention to the whole array of life issues. Bernardin was president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1974 to 1977.  I still resonate completely with his “Seamless Garment” perspective. Unfortunately it was later criticized by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger while he was serving as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger, the later Pope Benedict XVI, feared the “Seamless Garment” approach would diminish the unique evil of abortion.

Direct abortion is the termination of a pregnancy by removal or expulsion of an embryo or fetus before it can survive outside the uterus. An abortion that occurs without intervention is known as a miscarriage or spontaneous abortion. Miscarriage is the most common complication of early pregnancy. Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is between 10% and 20%. 

US attitudes about abortion have changed significantly since the 1973 US Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. According to the Pew Forum, as of 2019, public support for legal abortion remains high. Currently, 61% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 38% say it should be illegal in all or most cases. In terms of religious affiliation, about three-quarters of white evangelical Protestants (77%) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. By contrast, 83% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do nearly two-thirds of black Protestants (64%), six-in-ten white mainline Protestants (60%) and a majority of US Catholics (56%).

Most studies confirm that criminalizing abortion doesn’t lead to fewer abortions. It leads to more women dying from unsafe procedures. The most recent study of the US abortion rate indicates that the rate is now at its lowest since legalization in 1973. Researchers attribute this decline to better sex education and greater availability of contraceptives, reducing the rate of unintended pregnancies in general and leading in particular to an historically low teen pregnancy rate. 

Anti-abortion supporters argue that abortion is morally wrong on the basis that a fetus is an innocent human person or because a fetus is a potential life that will, in most cases, develop into a fully functional human being. Some believe that a fetus is a person upon conception. Some in favor of abortion argue that abortion is morally permissible because a woman has a right to control her own body and its life-support functions. This position simply ignores the question about whether or not the fetus is an innocent human person or prioritizes the rights of the woman over the rights of the fetus, whether or not it is a person. (The famous 1971 article, for example,  “A Defense of Abortion” by the American philosopher, Judith Jarvis Thompson, argued that even if the embryo or a fetus is a person, the woman does not have an obligation to carry it in her uterus.)

Are fertilized eggs human life? Surprisingly between 30% and  40% of all fertilized eggs miscarry, often before the pregnancy is known. Some fertilized eggs develop into tumors The question of when an embryo or fetus is a human life is still being debated with a variety of scientific and ethical opinions and theories. A good example, perhaps, concerns brain activity. If we use the idea of brain death as the criterion for dying, then the brain waves’ beginning would be the start of life. If one believes that death occurs when brain waves in the cerebral cortex cease to exist, then one could propose that human life begins, when brain activity starts around the 23rd week of a normal 40 week human pregnancy.

Some theologians suggest that human life begins with “ensoulment.” The thirteenth century philosopher-theologian, Thomas Aquinas, drawing on the philosophy of the fourth century BCE Aristotle, thought the fetus receives a soul 40 or 80 days after conception, depending on gender: 40 days for males and 80 days for females. Aquinas and his contemporaries knew nothing about the female contribution to procreation. (Aquinas himself declared that women are “deficiens et occasionatus” – defective and misbegotten.)

In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV set “ensoulment” at 166 days of pregnancy, almost 24 weeks. In 1869, Pope Pius IX moved the “ensoulment” clock to the moment of conception under penalty of excommunication, influenced, it was said, by scientific discoveries in the 1820s and 1830s. Nevertheless, the matter is still subject to debate in the Catholic Church. As recently as 1974, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith acknowledged that the issue of “ensoulment” was still an open question.

When it comes to abortion, people want to see clear-cut answers about what is right or wrong. Frankly, I don’t think the answers are always that clear-cut. Some people get quite upset and angry when I say that. Sorry, but the question of when human life begins still gets a mixture  of answers. Some are more biologically medieval than contemporary. People can and must make prudential judgments.

Right now, indeed,  I believe the best responses about the morality of abortion and the morality of voting for candidates who favor the legalization of abortion are found in sincere conscientious reflection and decision-making. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, the human person “has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions.” This teaching is clearly stated and affirmed, specifically, in the documents of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 1965) Dignitatis Humanae and Gaudium et Spes.

In Gaudium et Spes we read: “In the depths of our conscience, we detect a law which does not impose, but which holds us to obedience…. … As the innermost and inviolable part of the person, conscience is our encounter with the God who made us and wills our good. This means that conscience is accountable to God.”

I remember, with a bit of a chuckle, the observation of the Anglo-Catholic saint, Cardinal John Henry Newman, in his  “Letter to the Duke of Norfolk” a book written in 1875:  “I shall drink to the Pope, if you please, still, to conscience first, and to the Pope afterwards.” Newman’s observation reminded me of  the 1969 commentary on  Gaudium et Spes, by then theologian Joseph Ratzinger, who stated unequivocally: “Over the Pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.” 

The formation of conscience is primary and depends on the traditional sources of ethical knowledge: scripture, tradition, reason/science, and experience. Yes of course, this means that people of good will and conscience can disagree, even on the absolute but not infallible moral norms of the Catholic Church. That is why we need to build bridges and respectfully study, discuss, work, and learn together.


18 thoughts on “Abortion

  1. An excellent exposition of the subject – a thoughtful, knowledgeable and compassionate examination of various opinions and points of view. As you quote Ratzinger: “one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else” echoes Blackmun’s decision in Roe v. Wade: “a decision to have an abortion should be made by a woman in consultation with her doctor.”

  2. Thank you, Jack, for such a clear and thorough presentation. I will pass it on to some of my friends, unless you desire otherwise. Peace!

  3. Dear Jack,
    Of all issues that divide our country and our church, abortion separates families, friends, and even church leaders. Abortion is abhorrent by its very nature yet imposing bearing a child on women who are in many ways unequipped to bear a child is also intolerable. But, when modern medicine can save “wanted” children at much earlier times during gestation, it is difficult to justify abortion in late stages. One of our wise sisters whom I can’t remember (it may have been Joan Chitister) said many conservatives believe actually in “Right to Birth” instead of Right to Life. If giving life with a simple wish to go and have a good life without offering support after birth isn’t true ” right to life.” As one whose mother “had” to get married because she was pregnant with me, I find it very difficult to support elective abortion. The old saying that every baby is “wanted by someone” makes the argument for abortion hard to justify. Ironically, abortions have declined during liberal government administrations that allow abortions. If our church were to carefully support contraception, the abortion “problem” would be much less. Isn’t it interesting that many of our religious sisters who work in impoverished areas with families are much more tolerant of women struggling with abortion issues than old celebate single priests and bishops who live comfortably in rectories with most financial and physical needs taken care of by their congregations. You have opened one of the most complex and, possibly, unsolvable issues that faces our society and faith. Will it ever be resolved?

    1. Abortion is a Religious issue not a political one. Men on the Christian Right joined Catholic Bishops in the 1970’s to stop the Womens Human Rights movement in this country.
      And to separate women from each other. Hate has consequences. Women are leaving the Institution in droves.
      We have lost at least Two generations. Thank you Dick for laying it out as well as you did. Just thought I would remind you of the political details. Women will Not Go Back.

  4. Thank you, Jack. Such a difficult topic. I am not pro-abortion but I do believe it must remain legal in our country. I believe the ability to procreate comes from God but I do not believe that our God touches every conception and makes that decision. It that we’re true we would also have to believe that he sometimes chooses not to allow loving couple, wanting a child with all their hearts, to conceive. I couldn’t worship a God who would choose such decisions.

  5. No women wakes up, yawns and thinks “you know I think I’ll have an abortion today. I’ve got nothing else going on.” I find the entire abortion situation so vexing. We continue to build and improve and pay for weapons that can kill millions at once with impunity. Yet some of us will lecture, shame, and ridicule a women who is agonizing about having an abortion. We are too often unwilling to render real financial support for her, which she so desperately needs, if she is going to take on the raising of her child, especially if she is alone. I say Ban War, Ban Nukes, Ban the Military, Ban Poverty, and then, and only then, can we have an intelligent WOMEN lead conversation concerning abortion and the sacredness of all life. “First, remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
    Kip Rondy

  6. Jack, your report about the Cardinal standing by his sister awoke a very painful but inspiring memory about abortion. Some years ago, a friend sent a woman to see me. She felt that she had given her soul to Satan as a consequence of caring for her daughter and felt her skin was turning into scales. One morning her teenage daughter came into the kitchen to tell her that she was pregnant by a boy friend who now mocked and rejected her. She wanted her mother to arrange for an abortion. This woman was adamantly opposed to abortion as a Catholic and told her daughter so. As they argued, the daughter suddenly grabbed a knife from the counter and raised it over her head. As the knife came down toward her daughter’s stomach, she grabbed it with both hands and wrestled it from her daughter as they fell to the floor. There she sat bleeding and hugging her hysterical daughter whom she finally subdued by agreeing to an abortion. All went well for the daughter as the months went by, but this woman grew increasingly tormented. She sat crying in my presence so vehemently that her clothing became wet from tears as she repeated how she had deliberately given her soul to the devil because she loved her daughter and saw no solution. As I sat listening to her despairing refrain of how she gave her soul to the devil, suddenly the words of Saint Paul went through me. “He did not consider being with God something to be clung to but emptied himself and took on the condition of a slave even to accepting death on a cross.” I was overwhelmed by the love of this woman for her child, and she became and has remained for me a sacrament of how God so loved the world. I tried to share with her how I had experienced her decision to attain the abortion, and I tried to assure her of God’s faithful love of her in spite of or even because of her decision, but I never felt that I succeeded in helping her move from her vivid feeling of Satan’s hold on her to believing in God’s embrace. After some hours, she left and I never saw her again. I felt that she had been so indoctrinated by her Catholic environment about the evil of abortion that the message of God’s graceful love at the heart of our Catholic faith could not penetrate her guilt and self-loathing. The focus of the Church on abortion has angered me. Its entire movement against abortion has been far more successful in defining Catholic identity than the Church’s effort at proclaiming the love of God for humanity in all its brokenness. A dialogue that would challenge and repair this distortion is a major facet of the New Evangelization, in my judgment. Your reflection and the comments of your readers have comforted me, but how do we repair the damage we have done to the Gospel?

  7. Jack, the way in which you singled out COMPASSION as the theme of my reflection awakened my memory. I saw the woman on a Saturday morning, and the next day, at Sunday Mass I shared my conversation with her in my sermon on grace which was on the only topic on which I ever preached. When I ended and before I could continue with the prayer of the faithful, some people in the congregation rose and started to comment on the sermon. That had never happened to me at Mass before or after. They were focused exactly on what you had singled out. They seemed grateful to hear someone talk about abortion that did not make them feel more guilty and despicable. They took the opportunity to speak about the importance of compassion for parents who have had to struggle with this controversial issue. They were all obviously parents and they understood profoundly this woman’s story.
    I enjoyed the comments of the others to your reflection and was sad to see them end. This is a topic I feel that Church has ignored, as if everything about abortion is perfectly clear. It is not to me.

Leave a Reply