A Third Way on Abortion

John Fea directs attention to this interesting piece on the abortion debate among Christians by Michael Sean Winters at the National Catholic Register. Obviously, this passage stands out to me:

I question the moral integrity and political efficacy of the mainstream pro-life movement for a simple reason: By lashing themselves to President Donald Trump, they have morally and indelibly compromised their cause. The Susan B. Anthony List announced it will launch a $52 million campaign to reelect the president and help the Republican Party hold on to its majority in the U.S. Senate. Marjorie Dannenfelser, the group’s president, did not voice any concern about the unborn children waiting with their pregnant moms at the border, denied entry by a racist president who has turned his back on our nation’s proud history of welcoming immigrants. She did not explain how the president’s denial of climate change has retarded efforts needed to help the thousands of pregnant women in Bangladesh who are experiencing higher rates of miscarriages due to climate change. Nor did she explain why she thinks the theme of this year’s march — “Life Empowers: Pro-Life is Pro-Woman” — is a thought that can be entrusted to a man whose misogyny is legendary.

Obviously, this all rings true to me. However, as Fea points out, this article also challenges both sides of the argument. Here is Winters again:

What is convincing, what is undeniable, is that the whole theme of the Scriptures is that God has bestowed the gifts of life and love upon sinful mankind, sometimes we humans spurn that gift and go astray, and the Lord calls us back. If abortion does not constitute the spurning of a gift, and a most precious gift, I am not sure what does. Catholics may differ on what legal solutions exist for the problem of unwanted pregnancy, we can admit that the moral gravity of the act is diminished by a variety of circumstances, but I do not see how a Catholic can ever adopt a libertarian stance on abortion any more than we can adopt a libertarian stance on climate change or economic justice. That, for me, is one of the absolutes in this discussion.

There is a lot of really good stuff to grapple with in the piece, and I wish I had more time today to do so. I’m hoping soon to do so. But for now, I really just want to highlight this passage from the end of the essay:

I cannot — and this year I would not — join the marchers on the National Mall in Washington on Friday. Many large-hearted souls will be there whose consciences have led them to attend. Still, the organizers have become blind to the damage they have done to their own movement. I do not celebrate an Alabama law that makes no allowance for women who have been raped. I do not celebrate a president who daily exhibits himself to be immoral or amoral or both. I do not celebrate the addition of Supreme Court justices who will vote to undermine workers’ rights, defend corporate rights and oppose the kinds of regulations we need if our pro-life commitment to preserving the planet is to become real. That said, I challenge the Catholic left as well not to abandon the cause of defending life.

I struggle personally with the question of abortion. I straddle a line wherein I do not think the act of abortion is moral good, but I also do not think that legislating the personal health decisions of women in one of the most challenging and important time of their lives is a good idea. In fact, reading Winters own approach to Supreme Court case law on this, I come done pretty close to him. He writes,

 If the pro-life movement were smart, it would actually ask the high court to overturn their 1992 decision, Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania vs. Casey, but uphold Roe. It was Casey that shifted the standard for upholding a law from Roe‘s trimester framework to the new standard of whether or not a law placed an “undue burden” on a woman seeking an abortion. Roe placed the U.S. squarely within the legal orbit of most developed countries, permitting abortion in the first trimester, allowing regulation of the procedure in the second and granting states the authority to ban the procedure entirely in the third trimester, excepting situations where the life of the mother is at stake. As a political and legal resolution of the issue, I do not believe we can do better. Overturning Roe would throw the issue back to the states where abortion-on-demand would become the law in more states than not.

This is a really interesting approach to case law that I hadn’t considered before, and I think that is because of the shallow and chiefly political (rather than moral) argument around abortion in America today. Too often, the debate becomes one over completely legalizing versus completely disallowing. This is why I place myself, at present, firmly in the pro-choice camp politically, despite my moral misgivings about the act itself. I think, in policy making, we must consider the results of our actions, and I have very little doubt that a complete overturning Roe would do more harm to the cause of women’s health and autonomy, as well as not solving any moral issue around abortion, than keeping it in place and being more nuanced in our approach to policy. In short, abortions are gonna happen whether the law permits it or not; regulated and licensed doctors performing them is preferable to unregulated and backroom procedures.

And, of course, none of this has even acknowledged the fact that, despite its legality, abortion is a steadily declining; the number has been going down fairly steadily since the early nineties, and is at the lowest point since before Roe made it legal. This is a longer way of saying that the conservative fear mongering about the explosion of abortions in America is, in fact, a lie.

Again, I struggle with talking about and thinking about abortion. As a straight white man, I know the dangers of pontificating on something that I’ll never have to personally experience or go through. There is a long, sordid history of men who look like me dictating policy to women that I find abhorrent, and I don’t feel comfortable straying into the territory. I have many good friends and family who are strongly pro-choice, and I honor and respect their passion and their drive, and far be it from me to act like I know more about or have something more important to sat about this issue than they do. At the same time, as a Christian theologian thinking and writing about religion in 21st century America, I can’t really avoid the issue; in fact, its not far fetched to say that the election of Donald Trump was driven indirectly, but almost completely, by the political logics surrounding abortion access and the making of case law on the subject. So I cannot ignore it; I must deal with my own discomfort here. Finding pieces like Winters is helping me do that.

So consider this a placeholder and reminder for me to engage more fully with Winters’ piece, and other like it, and become more clear in my thinking on the subject.

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