This year’s anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision has a zero at the end of it, so the pro-life universe has been operating at a fever pitch to make some noise. Novena cards have been printed. Volunteers are picketing with signs displaying gruesome scenes of mangled fetuses. Politicians are giving their speeches.
But has anybody tried to figure out why Roe v. Wade has been able to stand all this time?
Abortion is the law of the land (at varying levels, depending on which state you live in), and it appears that it will be for the duration. Since the usual methods have not really changed anything, it’s time for a reevaluation.
Many Americans don’t really know what Roe established: A common misconception is that the Supreme Court decision made abortion on demand legal anywhere, anytime. That’s not the case. In what came ominously close to legislating from the bench, the Court set requirements for each trimester of pregnancy. First-trimester abortions are legal, second-trimester abortions can be regulated for safety and third-trimester abortions can be banned outright.
Citing the 10th Amendment, the Court permitted each state to establish its own laws within those boundaries. My high school spent a lot of time teaching us the evils of partial birth abortion, and I left the place with the idea that the practice was ubiquitous. It turns out that I live in a state where third-trimester abortions are already illegal, so it turned out to be a lot of wasted breath.
We don’t agree on where life begins: The Catholic Church teaches that life begins at conception, but science has indicated that it’s not necessarily that simple. Before the fertilized egg cell even implants on the wall of the uterus, there is as much as an 80 percent chance that it will miscarry. In fact, many – possibly most – miscarriages go undiagnosed because they were mistaken for a period.
When you come to this point, you are faced with some serious ethical questions. If our souls enter into our bodies when the sperm and egg unite, do billions of people die through miscarriage? I have a lot of trouble accepting that.
So that leaves the question, when does life begin? Some believe that the soul proceeds from the heart, so would the detection of a heartbeat make it official (about 6 weeks)? The Holy Spirit has been described as a breath, so are we alive when we breathe for the first time (at birth)? Now there are psychologists claiming that our souls are in our eyes, so does the opening of the fetus’ eyes enlighten the child’s soul (26 weeks)?
There has been no hard and fast answer to this. St. Augustine, for example, was candid in his assertions that he just did not have an answer to the origin of the soul. St. Thomas Aquinas, while he opposed abortion, believed that humans develop a soul some time after conception. There cannot be a constructive dialogue on the issue until both “sides” agree that they are operating under beliefs and not facts.
Stop electioneering the issue: After president Barack Obama’s reelection, I heard a number of Catholics lament the polling data that said that more than half of the nation’s Catholics voted for him. There seemed to be a sense of disbelief combined with admonishment: How could Catholics vote for an “anti-life” candidate? My pastor told me that he had been asked before the election if it was a sin to vote for Obama (the answer was no).
Take off the abortion blinders and you see that voters consider more than just one issue when they make their decision. If Catholics voted for Obama, it could have been out of concern for the poor or the environment, or a host of other reasons.
But all that aside, Roe v. Wade should not be a primary concern in presidential balloting because it was a Supreme Court decision. That means it would take another Supreme Court decision or a constitutional amendment to overturn it. The president has no control over either. True, the president appoints justices to the Supreme Court, but that is an indirect influence, at most. Looking back 40 years, there have been five Republican presidents in office – including a couple who served two terms – since Roe, yet the decision still stands. There is no reason to believe that a Romney White House would necessarily change the situation.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has had a lot of trouble earning a position of moral authority on the issue because of all the other pet issues it adopts. Its involvement in opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage has does nothing but inflame people’s prejudices. The campaign to defend “religious liberty” (re: the HHS mandate of Obamacare), has made a mockery of places in the world where people really don’t have religious liberty (North Korea, anyone?) and turned a fringe issue that only affects a relatively small number of people into a national crisis for which we are asked to fast and pray. Meanwhile, more pressing issues have received short shrift. Fr. Joe Nangle, who previously ran the Franciscan Mission Service, wrote about this problem a few days ago:
Our Catholic Church in America has become what Dr. King called a “weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound”. We are known primarily for our opposition to abortion, stem cell research and same-sex marriage. At the same time the enormous issues of national and global poverty, war making, the destruction of our planet go unnoticed or surely unaddressed by most of our bishops, especially in the exercise of their diocesan pastoral ministries. We are known as a Church of the Republican Party, when we should stand against all political parties as their conscience.
Current methods of activism are not winning hearts and minds: The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is known for crude, yet ostentatious public protests of various forms of animal cruelty. What they are not known for is winning people over. And this is coming from a vegetarian.
The Pro-Life movement needs to look at PETA’s example. Holding up signs with pictures of dead fetuses does not inspire disgust with abortion. It inspires disgust with the sign-holder. Claiming that 55 million babies have been murdered since 1973 makes people think, “Yeah, right.” If a person does not believe that abortion is murder, then a sign is not going to change his/her mind.
PETA would save more animals if its methods were more moderate. The same goes for a number of pro-life organizations. If you insist on continuing to use methods that do more harm than good to your message, then your goal is being right instead of doing right.
Want to put your talents to a good pro-life purpose? Instead of worrying about politicians, work towards ending the cycle of societal decay that is leading to the abortions. There are many homes and organizations around the country devoted to caring for girls and young women who made the right decision to not abort. They need money, baby food and volunteers, not sign-wavers. As Angie Weszely writes at Think Christian:
Working to make abortion illegal, or to keep it legal, does not bring the acceptance and support that can change the trajectory of the lives of women and children. The people best equipped to bring this change are Christians living out a theology of grace. We have experienced God’s total forgiveness through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. We can level the playing field and bring a counter-cultural message that a woman facing an unplanned pregnancy is no different than the rest of us. We can see God bring transformation so that both the woman and the child can thrive.
The church needs to make a decision: In his epic biography of Pope Paul VI, Peter Hebblethwaite recounts the drama surrounding the pope’s issuance of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical which stated that birth control was against church teaching. Paul found himself defending himself against opposition from various quarters until somebody pointed out to him that the “good” Catholics were the ones arguing with him. The “bad” Catholics were using contraceptives anyway.
Nearly a half century later, Humanae Vitae seems no less archaic. But what puzzles non-Catholics the most is that the Church roundly condemns abortion while roundly condemning contraception at the same time. Instead, it continues to operate under the delusion that the faithful will happily submit to chastity before marriage and the rhythm method afterwards.
Now the bishops need not reject Humanae Vitae (lest they be out of a job, if not excommunicated outright), but would it kill them to sweep it under the rug? Just put a page on the website saying something about contraception and leave it at that. Then a campaign against abortion would look like a response to a societal evil. Instead, the Church looks like it expects a family unit out of Mayberry.
Remember that the women are often victims, too: It is a huge irony of Christian history that the faith’s opposition to abortion was a draw for women in the early years. Sociologist Rodney Stark recounts in his analysis of the pre-Constantine years, The Rise of Christianity, that women in the Roman Empire were often pressured by their husbands to abort. In those days, abortion involved taking a minor dose of poison to induce labor, and hence was often fatal for women. Christianity, which abhorred the practice from the get-go, represented a liberation for women.
Today, some women choose to get abortions, then realize what they have done after the fact. Others do not want to get an abortion, but their parents and/or boyfriends pressure them to. And, of course, there are women who were raped. Approaching the issue by making comments about women’s alleged promiscuity is not only unchristian, it’s often inaccurate.
We are Christians. We need to act like it. Pope John Paul II went out of his way to forgive the man who shot him. If you cannot forgive a woman for getting an abortion, then look to Jesus’ own words:
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and fail to notice the plank in your own? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’ when you cannot see the plank in your own? You fraud, take the plank out of your own eye first and then you can see clearly enough to remove your brother’s speck.
– St. Luke 6:41-42 (J.B. Phillips)