Friday, January 28, 2005

Some Thoughts About Abortion

This essay deals with the role of government in legislating abortion law. It is written with respect to Catholic Social Teaching.

The issue of abortion never will be resolved in the modern American landscape. The progress made on both sides of the issue had led to a virtual standstill between those screaming murder and those resolved to protect individual rights at any cost. Morality seems to be a dense fog in the midst of these two camps, with both sides claiming “right” on their side. What must be examined then is the role that a democratic government should have in regulating such a debated issue. Do the moral implications of condoned infanticide outweigh the potentially slippery slope of government interference in citizen’s everyday lives? The answer in our modern day society is that abortion must neither be encouraged nor restricted by the government. Whose morals are we to follow? What religion dictates these morals? There can be no answers to these questions which lead to an inevitable conclusion about abortion and many other issues. While a morally repugnant practice, abortion must be kept legal as the laws of our country guarantee the right of a woman to have the final say over her own pregnancy; beyond that no action should be taken other than those rights guaranteed already in our constitution. The corollary of this is that the government must withdraw all government monies going to support a practice many regard as murder.

In the last year American taxpayer’s money went to support abortion clinics throughout the United States. Under the Bush administration last year over 100 million dollars went to support Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of abortions in America. Government programs like Title X and Medicaid provided support for Planned Parenthood to keep operating and turn a major profit in the United States[1]. This money seems unjustified as 47% of Americans do not believe that abortion should even be legal in the United States[2]. Catholic social teaching over the last century has indicated that the role of government must protect human dignity[3]. If a democratically based government’s constituency does not overwhelmingly support an issue as socially important as abortion, the government must not in any way encourage abortion. As it is their money the government is spending, the dignity of those voting must be respected in this case.

The next and most important issue then becomes how exactly, if it all, does the government legislate pragmatically in the United States. Since the legality of abortion has been determined, what moral steps must a government take to protect the rights of women and that of the unborn. In this case the autonomy of the woman to dictate control over her pregnancy becomes the focal point of the debate. As a country, we must respect the woman’s moral agency to make decisions about her own children. No one knows better the situation of a pregnancy than the woman involved; certainly not the state. The Catholic position articulated by the Bishops of the U.S. asserted that "The Gospel of Life… must be proclaimed, and human life defended, in all places and all times.” This position is of course valid and should be encouraged. However, it lacks the sophistication to answer such questions as, “What about the cases where the pregnancy could pose serious health threats to the mother?” Nor does it address significant scientific questions. “When does a life begin?” “Can there be early abortions that take into account the viability of a fetus?” There has been no consensus in the scientific community. If there are no rational answers to these questions, we cannot simply default to religion as a safe backup. Individual morals can not be applied on a such a broad level and effectively govern a nation.

The next moral issue that must be addressed is the rights of the fetus. Certainly one cannot only focus on a woman’s autonomy without mentioning the potential autonomy of a fetus. While the scientific community has no consensus as to when a life begins, there is no doubt that a life is ended in abortion. Strenuous effort then should be made to limit abortions to the very early stages of a pregnancy. If the government can make a distinction that a fetus has the same rights as citizens, then the same rights must be guaranteed. A moral case should be made to insure that pain and suffering be limited to the fetus (and the mother as well).

John Paul II’s encyclical “The Gospel of Life” treats very seriously the threat of abortion on the dignity of the human person. We must all come to:

“recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree. Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself are founded.[4]

While again, this does address the morality of the issue, the pragmatic approach to eliminating abortion is ignored. Morally abortion should not exist, but it does. The issue then again defaults to- what is our responsibility as a nation to respond to this problem. Morally, perhaps we should focus on a “Gospel of Life,” however, the same political groups that oppose abortion support the death penalty. A quandary of sorts emerges when one tries to legitimately address the issues raised by John Paul II’s encyclical. It seems then a more philosophical approach may be necessary, ignoring short term fixes and the political animal.

What emerges from a close examination of the ideal and the possible with regard to legislating abortion is a picture of compromise. On the one hand, morally, abortion should be rare and frowned upon by society at large. It promotes, at it core, a sanitized version of infanticide. Yet, the issue is not as black and white as it appears at first glance. Popular opinion, the dominating factor in guiding the actions of government, supports abortion. Our modern society allows, for better or worse, for a sort of moral ambiguity to exist. While Catholic social teaching makes valid assertions with regard to governmental support of abortion, it makes no specific charge as to how to address the larger social implications of abortion (i.e. unwanted children, economic hardship). The culture of life it promotes is certainly the ideal for any society; however, the reality is in our current climate, the ideal may be unattainable.

As such, we must react with a calculated response. Encouraging government to enact radical legislation on either side of the abortion issue is not the best, nor even perhaps the most moral response to the problem of abortion. It ignores the larger social and moral issues at stake and realistically may lead to a sad culture of back alley abortions or as is the case in China, forced abortions. Neither extreme is acceptable. Instead, what we must do is foster an environment of education so that women are empowered to make the decision to choose adoption or other alternatives to abortion. Being pro-women and pro-child are not and should not be mutually exclusive of each other.

[2] ABC News/Washington Post Opinion Poll Jan. 22nd, 2004
[4] The Gospel of Life, His Holiness John Paul lI 1995


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