The National Catholic Review
Steven C. Moore
A personal perspective on the abortion debate
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On the wall of my office in the parish of which I am pastor, there hangs a photograph taken around 1905. It shows five young girls between the ages of 4 and 15 sitting on the back of a horse: my grandmother and her sisters, all showing off their new shoes. Despite a penchant for thrift, their father had bought each of the girls a new pair of shoes, apparently enough of an occasion to be memorialized in a photograph.

The woman that I knew as my grandmother is the oldest in the picture, though my true grandmother is one of the younger girls. My father never knew his biological mother, because she died of a botched abortion when he was 18 months old and she was in her 20s. The abortion was forced upon her by my great-grandfather and performed by her two oldest sisters. My grandfather (her husband) was an alcoholic who was charming while drunk but kept a job and supported his family only with great difficulty. For my great-grandfather, an abortion was the solution to the problem of another mouth to feed.

After the abortion, my grandfather was coerced by my great-grandfather into marrying another of his daughters, one of the two sisters who had performed the abortion. My great-grandfather did not think my grandfather could provide properly for his family (which by all accounts was probably true); but as the paterfamilias, my great-grandfather could threaten to take my grandfather’s children away if he did not do his bidding. My great-grandfather was a powerful figure in his rural Western county, and likely no one would have stopped him. When my grandfather’s second wife became pregnant, she too was forced by her father to have an abortion; in her father’s opinion, my grandfather was still unable to provide properly for a larger family.

Unspoken Wounds

In the early 1970s, my father was visiting a residence for senior citizens and ran into his pediatrician, then in his 90s. This doctor had also tended to my grandmother as she died. In that visit, my father learned most of what had happened all those years ago. Difficult conversations with his stepmother filled in the rest. The doctor knew on the night my grandmother was brought in what had happened, but it was never written on any chart or ever reported. In a poor country area full of sad situations, for an overworked doctor she was just one more.

The tragedy hung like a dark, unmentionable cloud over my father’s childhood, warping and wounding him and his older sister in deep ways. Being forced to marry one of the women responsible for the death of the wife he loved wrapped my grandfather and his family in a web of unspeakable guilt, darkness and depression. The sins of one generation truly were visited upon the next—and the next. Those events of nearly 90 years ago became a part of childhood for me and my siblings as well. My father was a good dad, but he bore the wounds of growing up in a household headed by a father and stepmother acting out their own guilt, resentments and rage against each other and their family. As those wounds shaped him in so many ways, they also shaped the manner in which he raised his own children.

Rhetoric and Reality

As I look at that picture on my wall, I take away two things. The first is a conviction that many women have no real choice in the decision to abort. As a priest, I have been approached by young pregnant teens who need assistance in fleeing their home because one or both of their parents have insisted they have an abortion. I have also counseled women who were under intense pressure from boyfriends, family members and even husbands to abort. I have seen women abandoned with no economic re-sources and nowhere to turn who see abortion as their only option. The rhetoric of choice rings very hollow to me, because it masks the real anguish and desperation of the women I have known in this situation.

The second thing I take away is a realization that abortion has always been a reality in a society made up of sinful, myopic, selfish human beings. Abortion was a crime when and where my grandmother and step-grandmother were forced to abort, but criminality was no deterrent for the people involved.

I hate abortion. It is a personal and societal evil. Its devastating consequences never leave the lives of those who endure it. I do not want to be an apologist for those who promote it or who treat it as a trifling matter of no consequence, and I do not have much use for politicians (and others) who engage in endless arguments of the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” type about when life begins. I also consider the argument that one is “personally opposed to abortion” but would never impose the belief on others to be a dodge, particularly when legislators (and others) are all quite willing to impose their beliefs in any number of other areas.

But I struggle, as I question the recriminalization of abortion, with what we as a society should do. The law is a blunt and deeply flawed instrument for dealing with the hardest realities of human life and is quite unsuited to the task. Yet inevitably the law is the first resource we turn to when faced with difficult societal questions. Many have adopted a strategy that the only morally acceptable answer to abortion is a legal one that would involve—at some future date—overturning Roe v. Wade. But that is just the beginning. If Roe were overturned, each of the 50 state legislatures would have to craft laws on abortion. This would involve another series of lengthy battles on the state level to recriminalize abortion and would put off to some far distant day any law that could be enforced. The defeat last November of a complete abortion ban in North Dakota—a state more likely than most to restrict abortion—underscores the limits of recriminalization as a strategy.

Reducing Abortions Today

Ultimately, I think there are three questions that anyone who pursues only recriminalization as a primary strategy must ask. As of today, how many abortions have been prevented as a result of this strategy? At what point will pursuing this strategy significantly lower the abortion rate? And if abortion is recriminalized without significantly changing the realities that lead women to abort, what will recriminalization accomplish?

Studies suggest that the majority of abortions (somewhere between 50 percent and 70 percent) occur for economic reasons. If you add abortions that occur as a result of pressure from others (boyfriends, parents and husbands), there are certainly a significant number of abortions that could be avoided today, not at some future date.

We can accomplish such a reduction by working to change the current economic realities (unemployment, underemployment and lack of health care) that significantly contribute to abortion rates. We can work to change the attitudes and circumstances that rob women of power over their own lives and make them particularly vulnerable to the power others may have over them in making this most dreadful decision.

Would such efforts be a perfect or complete solution to the abortion question? Obviously not. But these we can work on today. The moral obligation to stand against abortion cannot rest solely on some possible future event. We have an obligation to reduce the abortion rate now. For myself, I owe at least that to those five girls—my grandmother and great-aunts—who posed for a picture on horseback more than a century ago.

Three writers reflect on Catholic political activity under a new president. Read their articles here.

Rev. Steven C. Moore is pastor of St. Benedict’s parish in Anchorage, Alaska.

Comments

Paul Louisell | 2/26/2009 - 12:53pm
Great article. Criminalization is not the answer and creates more problems than it resolves. Federal funding of abortions in any form, including via medicaid, is a real problem for me. If a doctor decides an abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother, let the doctor do what he has sworn to do - preserve life. Let the private sector (charitable organizations) provide the funding. Don't get the government involved. It seems to me that individuals more and more look to the "government" to solve their problems - and blame the "government" for not providing them with a job, a house, health insurance, etc. It's a slippery slope. Government really doesn't do these things very well - and was never intended to. When a nation puts its faith in Government and forgets about God, it gets in trouble. Christ issued the ultimate comment for the separation of church and state - When the state starts assuming the church's role, and vice versa, we are in trouble. Government control of private property - government interference with individual's lives, through regulations, taxation and criminalization of private acts that do not impact on others, limits a person's ability to achieve his God given potential. It can destroy a society. God gave us free wills and the ability to reason. Why do we want to forfeit these gifts to a bunch of elected officials and bureaocrats - who attempt to justify their existence by passing increasingly oppressive "laws" limiting our freedom to act rationally and morally as individual citizens? Criminalizing abortion didn't work before Roe and won't work post Roe. The federal governmnent has no business in our bedrooms - It has no business asking us to fund a medical procedure such as an abortion that is not medically necessary to preserve the life of the mother. It should be up to the parents, then their families, then their community to deal with the problem of unwanted pregnancies. Washington D.C., both Congress and the Supreme Court, should never have been involved.
Mary Bognich | 2/25/2009 - 5:53am
What gives men alone the right to make war, pay or not pay taxes, financially support or not support their family or the education of their children? What gives women alone the right to bare or not to bare a child whose existence depends on two people, one male and one female? What gives a woman alone the right to abort or not to abort a child when the creation of that child depends on his/her parents giving up their "right to privacy" in the performance of an act that ensures the creation of a third independent party?
CATHERINE MARESCA | 2/22/2009 - 11:18am
America's focus on the pro-life movement published articles by three men. Yet abortion is a choice to be made by women. This is an issue where men should only listen respectfully to women speaking from every perspective. Let men struggle with the issues where they do have choices: whether or not to go to war, whether or not to pay their taxes, whether or not to pursue great wealth at the expense of the poor, children, and the earth itself. Catherine Maresca, Washington DC.
Mary Bognich | 2/15/2009 - 5:17am
Something that many people do not understand is that there are many crises pregnancy centers in this country which provide financial, material and medical assistance to all women considering abortion for any reason. This kind of help goes a long way to help young women who feel pressured into unwanted abortions. I know of at least one of these facilities where I live. The problem is that abortion facilities are more high profile than crises pregnancy centers. And while crises pregnancy centers are present at abortion facilities to offer help there are some who choose to ignore the existence of such help and whine that nothing is being done to help women who find themselves in situations where abortion seems the only likely choice. There are 2 other examples worth considering. I came across a lady entering an abortion facility who felt abortion must be a choice because the state of marriage, in her mind, obliged her to consent to intercourse with her spouse at any time for any reason. Any resulting pregnancy of course must be done away with if it was inconveniantly timed. The other is the notion that the availability of abortion gives a woman the right to the privacy whereby she can have complete control over what happens to her body. Unfortunately these people do not believe that they give up this right to privacy when they get between the sheets to perform an act that can result in an unwanted pregnancy. Face it. While there are many situations out there that demand our compassion we need to open our eyes to the real world.
Jim Lein | 2/7/2009 - 5:48pm
I forgot to mention the minor error in Father's article. South Dakota, not North Dakota, had a complete abortion ban voted down last fall.
Terry Carroll | 2/7/2009 - 11:52am
Abortion is and always will be a choice, no matter how many coercive factors may enter into that choice. It shouldn't need to be said that absolutely everything possible should be done for women whose choice is influenced by lack of economic and personal resources. Many choices are made easier or more difficult by countless combinations of circumstances, but they are still choices. The principal, and not insignificant flaw in Fr. Moore's compassionate presentation is that much the same could be said for choices that we consider unthinkable, such as infanticide, or killing off one's children when economic hard times hit. Given the current implosion of our economy, why shouldn't we be just as compassionate towards families who make the desperate choice that, faced with too many mouths to feed, they see no alternative but to reduce that number through both illegal and unthinkable means? I concede that "abortion will always be with us," whether legal or not. We shouldn't, however, let necessary compassion and practical strategies of support distract us from the reality that abortion is still homicide. To "criminalize" abortion does not have to mean that women who abort, or their doctors, must all go to prison. It's simply to say, in law, that we the people consider this to be an act that is wrong, even evil. Compassion is needed. Support is needed. But compassion can become misplaced if it manages to blind us to the true evil of what abortion is about.
Jim Lein | 2/7/2009 - 11:17am
Personal, gripping, moving. I agree that our focus needs to be the troubled pregnant woman. She needs our prayers and our help. Many self-called pro-life Catholics seem to think that all women have abortions mainly for convenience. They don't think of troubled pregnant women, such as Father Moore described. Our having cut welfare benefits to mothers has led to fewer poor women having children -- and to more of them having abortions. This group now has the highest rate of abortions. The stimulus package should include a restoration and an increase of benefits to mothers or would-be mothers. Even if some women did have children to get benefits, how is this a problem from a pro-life perspective?
JAMES OLEARY MR | 2/6/2009 - 11:14pm
It's the sad truth that this honest, brilliant piece by Father Moore will generate nasty criticism from the pro-life Catholic crowd who don't understand common sense. The Catholic bishops have driven away lots of people of good will and common sense with their muddle-headed approach to ending abortion.
Michael Bindner | 2/6/2009 - 1:36pm
Thank you for printing Father Moore's touching testimony on the causes and consequences of abortion. I would echo his question and ask what the Church can do as an employer and an educational provider to prevent women from resorting to abortion? If a living wage were to mean, operationally, that families are entitled to an increased wage each time a child is born, then the Church must increase salaries for its employees every time this occurs. When teens become pregnant, it should celebrate the new life, offer to perform a marriage and provide both parents with Catholic secondary, collegiate and/or vocational education along with living expenses for the new family. The fetish in the Catholic educational system toward college and away from vocational education must be overcome by getting into the votech business, as well as the field of remedial adult education. Failing to do so is both classist and not in keeping with a culture of life.