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 He stared at me in silence for a minute and then said: “Not for publication!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.”
Well, I did write about abortion in February 2021. But in view of the heated and vitriolic debate about Roe v. Wade and a possible reversal of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision, I would like to return to it this week.
When speaking or writing about abortion, I believe we need to promote dialogue with civility: to build respectful conversation bridges not blow them up. Respectful conversation, of course, must also be honest conversation.
We need a clear 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 U.S. anti-abortion political and religious leaders support capital punishment and torture and ignore poverty, healthcare, and the environment.
Unfortunately, for many religious and political conservatives, “Pro-Life” often becomes just convenient rhetoric 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 “Seamless Garment” appeal for a consistent ethic of life with attention to the whole array of life issues. In a December 6, 1983 Fordham University lecture, Bernardin said: “The spectrum of life cuts across the issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare and the care of the terminally ill.” He challenged Catholics to view as “a seamless garment” diverse issues, not just abortion, but also nuclear weapons, the battle against poverty, and human rights violations at home and abroad. Bernardin was President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 1974 to 1977. Unfortunately Bernardin’s “Seamless Garment” was 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. More recently, Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles criticized the “seamless garment” approach in 2016 because he felt it results in “a mistaken idea that all issues are morally equivalent.”
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%.
U.S. attitudes about abortion have changed significantly since the 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion. According to a new poll by NBC, support for abortion rights has hit a new high, with 63% of U.S. Americans opposed to overturning Roe v. Wade. Only 5% of U.S. Americans say abortion should be illegal in all cases. According to Pew Forum, 83% of religiously unaffiliated U.S. 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%).
On Saturday, May 14, 2022, thousands gathered in Washington DC and at hundreds of events across the United States to rally for abortion rights, as a direct response to the leaked draft of an opinion by the Supreme Court indicating that it is positioned to overturn Roe v. Wade,
Most studies confirm that criminalizing abortion doesn’t lead to fewer abortions. But it leads to more women dying from unsafe procedures. The most recent study of the U.S. 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.
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, because females are “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.
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 legalization of abortion are found in sincere conscientious reflection and decision-making. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, there are situations in which abortion can be medically necessary due to serious problems connected with fetal development or to save the life of the pregnant woman. Then it is indeed a matter of personal conscience 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, where 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.”
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.
And a final observation. The contemporary U.S. far-right wants to use the power of the government to enforce, on the majority of U.S. Americans, the beliefs of a radical minority of U.S. Americans. If the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade, it is very likely that the far-right will also push to have the Supreme Court reverse the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges landmark civil rights case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples. In either case, Pandora’s Box will be thrown wide open.
PS I am posting this reflection on Thursday, May 19. My next reflection will be on Thursday – Ascension Thursday – May 26. Then I will take my annual summer R&R.