Letters & Op-Eds 2006

Is Abortion Bad? A Response from Catholics for a Free Choice

Having followed with great interest the dialogue between Katha and Will and the responses in the “fray,” many things surprise me. I think this discussion embodies the core tensions within prochoice circles at this time. The fact that not a single leader of the movement has entered the dialogue is disturbing. Consider this a plea to those who are providers of services and advocates for reproductive health to use the forum provided to let people know what our values are. Everywhere I go people are eager to know what we really believe, beyond sound bites and spin, about very complicated aspects of women’s rights and fetal value. There seems to be a prevailing liberal sensibility that letting people know what you believe is synonymous with being “judgmental” or imposing your views on others. Saying, for example, “I believe, or my organization believes” (as we do in Catholics for a Free Choice) “that valuing yourself means taking the greatest care not to create life you cannot bring to personhood or into the world is a moral and social good, is jumped on as anti-woman.

Again, my own experience in working with the “persuadables” as well as women who are considering abortion or have had abortions is that they are smart enough to distinguish between the expression of a personal or institutional value and the desire to coerce.

The major difficulty I see for those of us who are strong advocates of a framework for legal abortions that stresses near-absolutism for women as decision makers (a position I agree with) is that it rarely acknowledges or allows room for the public consequences of such a policy. Pregnancy and child birth are private acts with public consequences. The old way of looking at this was the population control impulse – we don’t want to let women decide to have as many children as they want because we as a society end up absorbing the consequences. A newer dimension is genuine public concern about the relationship between abortion and building a society in which many forms of life are valued – fetuses, animals, nature, This concern emerges from a fear that prochoice advocates, who constantly hammer away about the “who” of abortion, may be distancing themselves from the “what” of abortion in a way that devalues all human life.

While I think there is more work to be done on Will’s statement that “It is bad to kill a fetus”, he does a service by putting it out there so baldly. There are many problems with the word “bad” and how it is heard. A more nuanced way of saying this is that the act of abortion is not a moral good. Things that are not moral goods are not necessarily immoral or bad. And they may, as is the case with abortion, be often justifiable and almost always have positive outcomes.

Unfortunately, in the world of politics and in the face of an unrelenting and increasingly successful political effort to simply deny women the opportunity for moral reflection by making abortion illegal, thoughtful moral discourse in which ambiguity is honored is seen as impossible. I say that it is not impossible and it is, in fact, what most Americans are rightly struggling with in the abortion debate. As a prochoice advocate, I want my movement to help shape this struggle, which includes living with public discomfort, as we discuss how to balance women’s predominant right to make decisions about their lives and society’s right to be involved in questions of respect for human life, even for life that is not yet a person and properly is not accorded rights. We are great(?) and correct in demanding the conditions that would enable women to make non-coerced decisions about having children and having an abortion, but we must also be prepared to speak out for personal responsibility as well. I respect women too much to let them off the hook about preventing conception by complaining about how difficult it is to use contraception. Get over it. Women are competent capable moral agents. Being a moral agent means hearing from others what they think responsibility entails. Take it or leave it, but don’t expect not to hear it.

This article appeared on Slate.com’s Fray blog.

Catholics for Choice