This week my younger son graduates from high school. It began a week ago with the Senior Prom and ends on Tuesday with the actual ceremony. Between the two was an assembly where awards and recognitions were handed out. Not only did my son get recognized for his many hours of service (over 250 this past year) but my wife was also recognized for her service to the school as a devoted parent.
Why tell you this? My son attends a Catholic High School. The reasons are many, but one was that it was both diverse and demanding. Another was that we believed learning to live as a minority in a majority is important. While we are of the privileged when it comes to race and class and sexuality, we (my family and I) are in the minority around religion.
Why mention this now? Because the news is full of the controversy around the president going to Notre Dame University and those who think this is a slap at Catholic Social Teaching, the phrase my son learned in four years of religion classes. That, and the news that for the first time in a generation a majority of Americans call themselves ‘pro-life.’
Other can and will handicap the politics of abortion. What I want to note is the blurry line both parties cross that makes this such a tortuous issue.
For those who oppose abortion because it is a form of murder, the line gets crossed when religious doctrine becomes the basis for law. Unless I am mistaken, no law in our country can rest on being Biblical or Christian as its reason for existing. Yes, the Ten Commandments say murder and theft and adultery wrong. But we consider them illegal not be cause they are Biblical but because every other culture says the same thing. The Bible also says one must keep the Sabbath, but clearly this one is not reinforced by law because those whose religion does not keep a Sabbath should be not forced to observe someone else’s religion.
Abortion cannot become a crime just because it is also a sin, any more than we can make eating pork a crime because Muslims and Jews consider it a sin. We may only outlaw abortion on the basis of non religious reasons. And this neither science nor reason can objectively define.
When does a person become a person? Birth is the oldest test, as we issue birth certificates as legal documents. We only give legal names and personhood to someone who has been born. That’s brute fact. But for some time we have done Cesarean sections and otherwise intervened in ‘nature’ producing children before they would have been born conventionally. They are no less alive and no less human.
However, as we have delivered living babies earlier and earlier in pregnancy and science has allowed us to perceive more precisely the activities of gestating babies within weeks of conception, the clarity that humanity begins at birth has been erased. When factual clarity vanishes, the emotional need for clarity does not diminish. It actually rises. One could say that the success of modern obstetric medicine has created the abortion problem.
So, ironically science has not clarified the issue but created it. Abortion opponents then are confounded when the try to use science to make their point. In the end the reinforce the confusion about when life begins and then use that to justify resorting to an arbitrary point, conception, which sounds objective but ultimately is as arbitrary as birth itself. If conception is the legal point when we become human, then we should ban IUDs and the Morning After pill. But should also issue free condoms and Birth Control Pills as these prevent conception at all. Of course, that would approve of sexual activity for something other than procreation, which is strictly against Catholic Social Teaching. Others share this notion less explicitly, but let’s all admit that abortion is deeply tied to religious values about sexuality overall. Its moral tidiness in politics is something artificial and ultimately deceptive.
See how complicated and messy this is when we cannot use religion as a basis for law? But false simplicity is also the pro-choice mistake. They argue that it is just a medical decision, not one of moral (which is to say social) consequence. And because it is just a medical decision, only the patient has a right to make it. But if a pregnancy is not ended, another person will be born, and that makes the choice to get or stay pregnant consequential socially and morally.
Thomas Aquinas wryly observed over five hundred years ago that not all crimes are sins, and not all sins are crimes. I am prepared to accept that ending a pregnancy is a sin up to a point, and a crime beyond that point. What I mean is that for those to whom humanity exists on religious principles from conception, they should not terminate at all. As the bumper sticker says, “Don’t Like abortion? Don’t have one.” But when ending a pregnancy means a viable human being will perish, the state has a reasonable right to prevent it by law.
In other words, the way things are now is as good as they can be, legally. They can be better socially and morally, but not by making better laws. We need to be better people. Better parenting, better education about sexuality, better support for families including single parents and extended families, and more responsible choices by men as well as women, will make abortion what a Surgeon General said, ‘safe, legal and rare.’
No easy answers, but when were moral questions easy? This seems to be lost to both sides of this argument. We all need to grow up and face this unpleasant but indisputable fact.