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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, January 24, 2003
NO ACCIDENT: The Accidental Catechist has two great posts today. The first is on the horrible experience he and his wife had with genetic screening. Money sentence: "I am offended at the notion that since we have the technology (as if) to have only perfect babies, it is irresponsible of people to have imperfect babies." The second is own his distress, as a Democrat, with the behavior of the major Democratic presidential candidates at this week's NARAL dinner (Click here for TNR's coverage of the event).

posted by Peter Nixon 1:30 PM
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PRO-WHAT? On a random Saturday morning in the Spring of 1989, you could often find me in front of an abortion clinic. My colleagues and I would get up before sunrise, gather in a parking lot, and wait to receive a call telling us where we would be heading. The word would come, we would load up, drive to the clinic, and fan out to begin our work.

But I was not there to stop abortions. I was there to prevent others from stopping them.

In the Spring of 1989, trying to stop Operation Rescue from shutting down abortion clinics was just one of many ways that I was involved in the abortion rights movement. I was among a small group of people who founded a coalition of abortion rights organizations in a large East Coast city. I served on the steering committee of that coalition, and edited its newsletter. Over a two-year period, prior to my returning to graduate school, I attended more demonstrations then I can remember, many of which involved heated exchanges with demonstrators on the other side.

Those of you who have been reading along for the past week might be a little surprised by this history. I recount it primarily to prove a point: people can change their minds on this issue. I’ve probably changed my mind too much for some, and not enough for others, but it’s hard to deny—although I did for several years—that there hasn’t been some serious movement.

So what happened? Did my deepening religious faith play a role? Sure it did. But it wasn’t one of those deals where I woke up one morning and said “I’m a Catholic, I need to be pro-life.” In truth, I’ve found that Protestant theologians like Stanley Hauerwas and Richard Hays have been more helpful to me in thinking through this issue than any Catholic writers I’ve read.

But my faith did force me to think about abortion, and once I started to think about it, I found that it was difficult to stop. I read everything I could get my hands on about embryology and fetal development. The more I learned, the more the boundaries that the abortion debate had imposed on fetal development—birth, viability, trimesters, etc.—seemed highly artificial.

It was the birth of my son in 1998 that probably pushed me over the edge. It wasn’t the ultrasound, although that was a piece of the puzzle. It was seeing how completely helpless and dependent he was after birth. In many important ways, he was still as much “potential life” as when he was in the womb. If you could justify abortion then, could you justify infanticide now? It was something to think about.

The more time I spent thinking, the more some of the rhetoric of the pro-choice movement started to drive me crazy. The problem, we were told, was that pro-life politicians “didn’t trust women to make choices.” But the issue wasn’t about choice in principle, it was about the moral content of a very particular choice. Do laws against child abuse suggest that politicians don’t trust parents to raise their children?

One of the things I came to realize that my work outside the clinics in 1989 had essentially been a lie. It was a lie because while I believed I was there to protect “choice,” the only choice I was offering was abortion. I was willing to walk with a woman for the two minutes it took her to walk from the car to the clinic door. But I wasn’t offering to walk with her if she changed her mind, to walk with her for months, or years if necessary. Rather than enabling her freedom, I was merely one more link in a chain, one more wall in a maze.

I’m still not convinced that bringing back the pre-Roe abortion laws is the answer. Maybe it’s a lack of nerve, a refusal to follow my logic to its inevitable conclusion. I have some serious doubts about whether those laws could be effectively and equitably enforced, particularly in the face of determined opposition (and believe me, my erstwhile comrades are quite determined). I am attracted to the way that a number of European countries have approached the problem, with abortion regulated but available early in pregnancy, and progressively more difficult to obtain as the pregnancy progresses. Those countries have abortion rates that are much lower than the United States. It’s not a perfect solution, but it may be a workable one.

But in some way, my hesitation has a lot to do with those women I remember from the clinics, the look on their faces as they ran the gauntlet of screaming protesters from both sides. Having failed them once, the idea that I would now run to the police and the courts to remedy my failure seems cowardly. It’s hard to extend a hand to someone when you are holding a club behind your back.

So does that make me pro-life? Pro-choice? All-pro? Frankly I don’t really care at this point. When people ask me what I think about abortion these days I tell them my views are complicated and they don’t fit on a bumper sticker.

To be truthful, watching the pro-life and pro-choice movements engage each other in the political realm tends to drive me nuts. I particularly detest the insistence of activists on both sides in using unflattering names to describe the other side. Pro-choice activists insist on calling pro-life people “anti-choice” or “antis,” while pro-life activists tend to favor “pro-aborts” to describe their counterparts. I find this behavior infantile, particularly considering the gravity of the issues at stake. Sometimes I think that if I hear one more pro-life reference to the Holocaust, or one more pro-choice reference to the Taliban, I will explode.

My heart, if I have one, belongs to initiatives like Project Gabriel, local pregnancy centers, and groups like Feminists for Life who are trying to provide real, concrete assistance to women with crisis pregnancies. That work dovetails well with my own understanding of the demands of Christian discipleship. As Christians, I don’t think we are called so much to legislate the alternative as to be the alternative. I don’t think we are called so much to block clinic doors as to open other doors, to help people find strength within themselves that they don’t know is there. I think we are called to be the kind of community where the act of choosing life becomes not merely possible, but joyful.

It’s been an interesting week. Thanks for reading and commenting.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:33 AM
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Thursday, January 23, 2003
PERSONALLY OPPOSED: As we gear up to enter another election cycle, we will no doubt be treated to the spectacle of pro-choice Catholic candidates—primarily Democrats—wrestling with the issue of abortion. We know the script: Bishop issues solemn statement that Catholics in public office must oppose any law that attacks human life. Catholic candidate replies, equally solemnly, that while he or she is “personally opposed to abortion,” he or she must represent “all of the people,” and thus cannot impose his or her personal views upon them. Bishop delivers a homily shortly before Election Day that almost—but not quite—suggests that Catholics cannot, in good conscience, vote for such a candidate. Catholic voters then go to the polls and split their vote more or less evenly between the candidate and his opponent.

Are we getting anywhere here?

Now I am not one of those who believes that there is no room for prudential judgment when it comes to formulating public policy about abortion. I have extraordinary reservations about trying to replicate the abortion laws that existed in most states prior to Roe. But I’m getting tired of the “personally opposed” line. What it tries to suggest is that the politician really is personally anguished about abortion, but can’t let that anguish be the basis of public policy in a religiously pluralistic country.

The problem is that there aren’t many pro-choice politicians, Catholic or otherwise, who are showing any discernible anguish at all. This really is a change from the 1970s and early 1980s, where even pro-choice politicians routinely used words like “tragedy” to describe abortion.

Within the Democratic party, it has gotten to the point where a candidate that even expresses personal moral qualms about abortion is subject to censure by the abortion rights lobby. In 2000, Presidential candidate Bill Bradley pummeled Al Gore about a comment Gore had made some years ago that abortion was “arguably the taking of a human life.” Bradley sought to prove his Democratic bona fides by arguing, in essence, that he had never, ever had a moral qualm about abortion. He needled Gore about his comment at every opportunity, until Gore finally recanted, saying “I would not use that terminology anymore.”

Well why the heck not? If you are going to tell voters that you are “personally opposed” to abortion, I would think they would have a right to know why. If you really believe in your heart that abortion is the taking of human life, shouldn’t you at least be willing to say it, to take the risk of speaking the truth? I don’t think that necessarily commits you to re-criminalizing abortion. But can’t we even admit that having the highest abortion rate in the industrialized world is a moral challenge we need to address?

Let’s imagine, for example, that there was a communicable disease spreading in the community that caused women to miscarry a third of the way through their pregnancies. Let’s also imagine that this disease was causing 1.3 million miscarriages a year. Wouldn’t we be calling for millions for research to investigate the causes of this disease and to find a cure? Wouldn’t we be looking at public health interventions that could prevent its spread? Wouldn’t we find it bizarre if one of our major political parties simply refused to discuss the issue, calling it “a private matter?”

I don’t think that Catholic politicians are obligated, as a matter of faith, to conclude that the only way to deal with abortion is to bring back the police, the prosecutors and the courts. But I also don’t think that any Christian who takes his faith seriously can throw up his hands, say “it’s a personal choice,” and leave it at that. The problem with the way the Church has approached pro-choice Catholic politicians is that they’ve turned it into an issue of ecclesiastical discipline. That approach isn’t working, and it will probably never work in the United States, where we tend to like guys who stand up to big institutions.

I think that the bishops ought to take off the pointy hats, take these guys out to lunch, look them in the eye and say: “You’ve told me what you’re not willing to do. What are you willing to do? Are you willing to visit a crisis pregnancy center? Are you willing to defend those centers against overzealous Attorney Generals? Are you willing to take a serious look at late-term abortions? Are you willing to speak more explicitly about why you are personally opposed to abortion? Are you willing, in short, to give any sign at all to the public that your ‘personal opposition’ is anything more than rhetorical window dressing?”

Most voters—including most Catholic voters—probably don’t care if a Catholic politician gives Rome the bird. But they might care if he’s obviously a hypocrite. It’s worth a shot.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:37 AM
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Wednesday, January 22, 2003
COMMON GROUND? In today's New York Times there is a joint opinion piece written Cristina Page, program director of the New York Chapter of NARAL and Amanda Peterman, life media director of Right of Life of Michigan. Both grew up in the 1970s, and suggest that younger activists on both sides of the abortion issue may be able to move beyond the slogans and find some common ground:

Instead of just focusing on our differences, we need to acknowledge the surprising number of important issues on which we agree. We all believe we should work to reduce unintended pregnancy and abortion. We should recognize, too, that our efforts are succeeding. Over the last seven years the rate of abortions performed in the United States has dropped by 11 percent, according to a 2002 study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit research group.

Whether that has come through better education on contraception or through programs that discourage premarital sex, pro-life and pro-choice advocates should celebrate such an achievement together and acknowledge each other's role in it.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:32 PM
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HISTORY: Christianity Today reprints an article from 1989 that provides a history of abortion in the United States. Lots of other abortion related links at CT this week.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:25 PM
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ROE AND HUMAN LIFE: One sometimes hears the assertion that the decriminalization of abortion has undermined respect for all human life. In its vulgar form, I think this argument is extremely difficult to prove and often amounts to little more than rhetorical overstretch. There is no straight line, and probably not even a curvy one, between abortion and, say, the Columbine massacre.

But one can make a case that the philosophical and legal arguments that were used to justify the Roe v. Wade decision have begun to be deployed in ways that weaken respect for human life in areas other than abortion. Like ripples from a stone thrown in a pond, Roe—and the subsequent decisions upholding its central findings—have influenced how we think about human life in other contexts.

The principle reason for this is that abortion rights in the United States are grounded in decisions made by judges rather than legislators. Because American law is so dependent on precedent, abortion rights supporters are acutely sensitive to anything in legislation, regulation or judicial decisions that could, in any way, be seen as undermining the foundation on which Roe v. Wade rests.

Consider the example of physician-assisted suicide. Advocates for PAS have explicitly appealed to Roe in making their case. If laws against abortion are unconstitutional, so the argument goes, then laws against PAS must also be unconstitutional. When PAS came before the Supreme Court in the 1997 Vacco case, the first decision cited in the ACLU’s amicus brief in defense of PAS was the 1992 Casey decision in which the Court reaffirmed the key elements of Roe.

Another example is the area of embryonic stem cell research. One might think that abortion rights organizations would have “no dog in this fight.” No woman’s rights are abridged if the government decides to prohibit destruction of embryos for research. Nevertheless, on the day that Bush announced his compromise decision on the issue, the National Abortion Rights Action League and the Religious Coalition on Abortion Rights both issued press releases denouncing Bush for caving in to “anti-choice extremists.”

Why did NARAL and RCAR decide to wade into the stem-cell fight? Why did Planned Parenthood condemn the Bush Administration for extending health insurance coverage to unborn children? Why did NARAL oppose moves by the Bush Administration to extend “human subject” safeguards to embryos used in research?

The answer is that these organizations feared the long-term downstream legal impact of these decisions on Roe. They have been increasingly aggressive in trying to prevent any legal recognition of the value of human life in the womb or any law or regulation that suggests that the right to privacy and/or procreative liberty may not be absolute.

In the 1950s and 60s, the principle argument for liberalization of abortion laws was prudential. Advocates argued that the existing laws were not preventing abortions and were leading many women to put their lives at risk in an effort to end their pregnancies. But since 1973, the increasingly aggressive efforts of the abortion rights movement to defend Roe have led them to embrace, almost without realizing it, a different and more chilling logic: human life in the womb is without value and we can do with it whatever we wish.

If that logic is embraced, it is hard to see where the end lies, particularly as we enter what some are already calling “the biotech century.” For if the human embryo has only instrumental value and procreative liberty has no limits, then what arguments can we deploy against efforts to engineer children to our own specifications? The threat to human life here is not merely death, which comes to all men eventually, but extinction, as individuals pursuing individual goods lead us gradually but inexorably toward a post-human future.

In the late 1960s, one could certainly have argued that the United States’ existing approach to abortion regulation was in danger of collapse and needed to be replaced by something different. But in their attempt to embed abortion in our system of Constitutionally protected liberties, abortion rights advocates have unleashed something whose import is only now becoming clear. One wonders whether Americans, once they realize where this train is taking them, will want to remain aboard.

Tomorrow: The dilemma of pro-choice Catholic politicians. Some thoughts, but there will be no calls for excommunications. Tune in!

posted by Peter Nixon 10:30 AM
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Tuesday, January 21, 2003
JUST WAR: I know I said that "link" posting would be light this week, but Tom and Brian are having a great discussion about the just war teaching over at Disputations. Be sure to check the comment boxes.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:19 PM
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COMMUNITIES OF LIFE: One of the things that struck me in reading the Gorey book (scroll to yesterday’s post for more detail on the book) was how a large number of mainline Protestant clergy were involved in the abortion “underground” in the 1960s. I had generally assumed that the increasingly explicit support for abortion rights that one finds among the leadership of the mainline denominations was a function of their increasing theological liberalism and the rise of women to positions of leadership. But it’s clear the involvement of the mainline denominations predates these trends.

Before she founded Reproductive Health Services of Saint Louis in 1973, Judith Widdicombe was the founder of something called Clergy Consultation Services of Missouri. The ostensible purpose of this organization—and dozens of others like it across the United States—was to provide “counseling” for women who were considering abortion. While some counseling no doubt occurred, in practice this service was a way to refer pregnant women to abortion providers.

Women would call the consultation service—a phone on Widdicombe’s back porch—and be referred to one of several Protestant clergy who had volunteered to be part of the service. The clergyman would meet with the woman, discuss her options, and if she wished to go ahead with the abortion he would orally provide her with the phone number of an abortionist. This intricate choreography was designed to frustrate prosecutors, most of whom were disinclined to pursue violations of the abortion referral laws if it meant going after a clergyman.

Looking back, one wonders what might have happened if as much energy had been put into offering women with crisis pregnancies real alternatives to abortion. Many of these ministers rationalized their involvement by noting that the scriptures do not proscribe abortion. While this is, strictly speaking, accurate, it ignores the fact that the communities from which the New Testament scriptures emerged were strongly opposed to abortion and infanticide, which were widely practiced in the Roman Empire at that time.

I also wonder what kind of vision of pastoral theology informed these men. Is the role of a Christian leader merely to help individuals weigh difficult choices? Isn’t it also to build communities that bear witness to the truths that Christians believe, communities where we support each other in becoming the kind of people we are called to be? Shouldn’t a Christian leader be willing to say, in effect, “we are a community that is called to welcome life. There are those in our community who have faced your choice, and, with the support of their community, chosen life. Come, see how they live.”

The problem, of course, is that this is often not a good description of many of our Christian communities! A few months ago, I was talking to a woman I know about her own experience of finding herself unmarried, pregnant and still a teenager. “My parish was the last place I would have turned for help,” she said. Women with crisis pregnancies often run away from their churches, not toward them. This is changing, of course, with more parishes involved in supporting crisis pregnancy centers and initiatives like Project Gabriel.

If we are going to build a “culture of life,” then I think Christians need to begin by being “communities of life.” I think this goes much deeper than trying to involve more parishioners in traditional pro-life activities, particularly political activities. It’s about being a community that shapes it members in such a way that they cannot imagine abortion. It’s about being a community that reaches out to women in crisis, grabs hold of them, and says “we will walk with you.”

It’s also about being a community that is inclusive of the disabled, and thereby showing that having a disabled child is not the worst thing that can happen, either to the mother or the child. It’s about supporting single mothers in our community spiritually and materially, and thereby showing that single motherhood, while hard, is a life that can be lived. It’s about giving voice to women who have given their children up for adoption, thus showing that the pain of that experience can be lived through.

Many women choose abortion because they literally cannot imagine what life would be like for them if they chose life. We have to be the kind of communities that make that act of imagination possible.

Tomorrow I’ll be taking a look at the argument that Roe v. Wade has diminished respect for human life in general . Hope to see you then.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:40 AM
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QUICK HITS: As you can tell, I'm sort of running a special series this week, so links will be in short supply. You can read reflections on Roe v. Wade from the National Catholic Reporter, National Review, and the Tidings. You can also read a sharp pro-life homily from Fr. Jim Tucker here (stay and read his series on liturgical articles while you are there). John Allen is here. Fr. Ron Rolheiser is here. Emily Bazelon and Dahlia Lithwick are discussing a book on miscarriage at Slate. The Tablet argues that it's too soon for war and has an interesting review of a book on Thomas Aquinas. That'll have to hold you until next week!

posted by Peter Nixon 9:44 AM
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Monday, January 20, 2003
MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS I recently read the book Articles of Faith: A Frontline History of the Abortion Wars, by Cynthia Gorey. Gorey recounts the history of the last half-century primarily through the eyes of pro-life and pro-choice activists in Saint Louis, Missouri. She does a masterful job at portraying each side sympathetically, allowing you to understand their point of view.

The book doesn’t shrink from describing the physical facts of abortion, the techniques used and their result. Whether the tool is a scalpel or a vacuum tube, something that was alive and growing is now dead. What lies in the stainless steel dish at the end often has ten fingers and ten toes and it is hard for me to see how an honest person can deny our kinship with it.

Gorey tells the story of Judith Widdicombe, the director of Reproductive Health Services of Saint Louis, and Michael Freiman, one of the clinic’s physicians, traveling to Washington, DC to learn a technique for performing second-trimester abortions. Both view the procedure being performed by another physician. As the attending surgeon is removing the aborted child piece by piece from the woman’s uterus, Freiman turns to Widdicombe and says “I don’t know whether I can do this.” We learn at the end of the book that he no longer performs abortions of any type.

Gorey’s descrptions of abortion are certainly harrowing, as they should be. But also harrowing, it must be said, are her descriptions of the results of illegal abortions prior to Roe. There is a chart on page 21 that lists foreign objects found by physicians in the uteruses of women who had tried to induce an abortion: pointed objects, corrosive powders, rubber tubing.

I am not a woman—which makes the act of imagination more difficult—but I am trying to imagine how desperate I would have to be to plunge a knitting needle inside myself. I am trying to imagine what it would be like to be an attending obstetrician at Los Angeles County Hospital in the 1960s, where at any one time 50 to 100 women would be recovering from complications related to abortion. Gorey’s book makes clear that decriminalizing abortion was the cause of many physicians and nurses before it became a cause that was inextricably bound up with the feminist movement.

We will hear a lot of talk this week about “30 years.” But we should be willing to admit that abortion has been with us a lot longer than 30 years. Four hundred years before the birth of Christ, the Greek physician Hippocrates swore that he would “not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion.” The earliest Church document to mention abortion, the Didache, dates from the first century.

Just how many illegal abortions were occurring in the United States prior to Roe remains the subject of great dispute. Activists on both sides of the issue tend to exaggerate the numbers in the direction that serves their interests. The most credible estimates usually fall somewhere between 500,000 and one million a year by the early 1970s, and my own attempt to sift through the data leads me to favor a figure in the middle of that range.

So we can talk about “30 years and 40 million dead” since 1973, but had abortion remained illegal, we would probably still be talking about at 10-20 million lives lost to the procedure in the last three decades. Even if abortion had not been decriminalized, it would still remain a serious moral challenge.

It is understandable why many fulminate against the courts and the legislators whose actions (or inactions) have frustrated most attempts to protect unborn life. But in the end, each abortion comes down to an individual woman who makes a desperate, irrevocable choice to end the life that is growing within her. Those of us who would like that woman to make a different choice need to enter into her desperation, come to understand it, and let her know that whatever burdens she will face, she will not face them alone.

Tomorrow I’ll be offering some thoughts on the role of the churches in the abortion debate. Hope to see you then.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:44 AM
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