Can a pro-life and a pro-choice Catholic find common ground? We gave it a shot.
The following is a discussion between Keara Hanlon, a former Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., Fellow at America, and Ashley McKinless, an executive editor at America, who have differing views on legal abortion. Each will introduce herself and then have the opportunity to agree or disagree with a series of statements and explain her stance.
Keara Hanlon: The pro-life movement I knew as a child told me that only evil, irresponsible people seek abortions, and that these people selfishly murder unborn children. As I got older (and navigated the complexities of women’s health care firsthand due to experiencing painful ovarian cysts), it became clear to me that abortion could never be defined in such black and white terms as good and evil.
I identify as pro-choice, not because I would ever have an abortion (I pray I never find myself in a situation where I would even consider such a procedure), not because I want there to be more abortions, not because life is not sacred, but because I need to know that I have autonomy over my own body, and because I do not feel that I can make such a difficult decision on behalf of others, whose circumstances I can never fully know.
Dialogue on difficult issues is essential to our society and is integral to America’s mission.
When I started working for America, I was surprised to find a far kinder, more authentically pro-life sentiment at work in my co-workers than I experienced growing up. Tentatively, I began to have conversations about this issue and realized I could find more common ground with pro-life Catholics than I ever thought possible. Dialogue on difficult issues is essential to our society and is integral to America’s mission. I am grateful to my colleague Ashley McKinless for being my conversation partner on this extremely neuralgic issue.
Ashley McKinless: I want to thank Keara for encouraging me to have this conversation. Like most Americans, I don’t usually seek out discussions on abortion; positions are so deeply felt on both sides that it can simply feel like an opportunity to hurt or alienate people you care about. That’s why I’m also grateful that Keara asked that we frame this discussion around areas of common ground.
Unlike Keara, I did not have much of an impression at all of the pro-life movement growing up. Despite living just miles from the National Mall, I never attended a March for Life (before covering one for America). My parents were pro-life Republicans, and as a Catholic, I considered myself pro-life by default. But I did not give the issue much serious thought until my time in college and then more so while working at America.
I also see abortion as a part of a larger failure, what Pope Francis has called our “throwaway culture.”
And like Keara, I’m grateful that my “pro-life” education took place among colleagues who held a consistent life ethic: In my time on the editorial board of America, we have spoken out against abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia. We have called for stronger safety nets and support for migrants and refugees. I see abortion as a uniquely grave failure in our society: a failure to protect the dignity of unborn life; a failure to support women in that most profound and natural role of motherhood; a failure to expect and encourage men to fulfill their full potential as fathers. But I also see it as a part of a larger failure, what Pope Francis has called our “throwaway culture.”
1. I welcome the overturn of Roe v. Wade.
AM: Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: This is a decision to celebrate but not to gloat over. I am aware that millions of people in this country are terrified and angry. My fellow millennials have only known a world under Roe, and to have what had been considered by many a rock-solid right taken away is understandably destabilizing. I do not want to minimize or dismiss their real concerns.
Taking a morally fraught, life-and-death issue that is nowhere to be found in the Constitution out of the realm of public deliberation and placing it in the hands of nine unelected judges was anti-democratic.
But I do not think that overturning Roe is “extreme” and anti-democratic, as many abortion-rights supporters have characterized it. When the Supreme Court “found” a constitutional right to abortion in 1973 and overturned laws in almost every state that banned or placed severe restrictions on abortion, that was extreme. Taking a morally fraught, life-and-death issue that is nowhere to be found in the Constitution out of the realm of public deliberation and placing it in the hands of nine unelected judges was anti-democratic.
While this result is undoubtedly the fruit of decades of work, prayer, political engagement (including some tactics and alliances I did not agree with) and perseverance on the part of the pro-life movement, at the moment, I see it more as a victory for the Constitution and the democratic process than for the movement per se. The work of the pro-life movement is in many ways just beginning (and I have some serious concerns about its readiness to meet this moment, which I will get into later). But now that work is at least taking place in the proper arenas: the public square, state legislatures and, where appropriate, Congress.
I too, hope for a world with fewer abortions, where life is treated as sacred, but I do not agree that this is the way to get there.
KH: Thank you for your sensitivity to the fact that there are many people with real concerns regarding the overturn of Roe v. Wade. I am one of these people.
When the Dobbs decision was released I felt afraid. I watched as other Catholics celebrated the overturn of Roe v. Wade and knew that I could not join in.
There are many pro-life Catholics who have dedicated themselves to this cause because they believe they are pursuing a moral good. They are happy with the Dobbs decision because they sincerely trust that overturning Roe v. Wade is the first step to a world where there are fewer abortions, where all life is treated with dignity. I too, hope for a world with fewer abortions, where life is treated as sacred, but I do not agree that this is the way to get there.
Rather than banning or criminalizing abortion, make it easier for pregnant people to make the choice to carry their pregnancy.
Rather than banning or criminalizing abortion, make it easier for pregnant people to make the choice to carry their pregnancy. Teach comprehensive sex education so that people who do not want to become pregnant have the knowledge and resources to prevent a pregnancy from happening.
While pro-life Catholics surely saw in the Dobbs ruling a chance for a world that no longer murders unborn children, I pictured women like my own mother (who experienced two miscarriages) trying to peel back layers of red tape during their darkest hour to receive life-saving medical care in the midst of a miscarriage now met with scrutiny. (America has published an article on the dangers of such scrutiny to women even in states that will allow “life of the mother” exceptions.)
They imagine more families happily adopting; I mourn the many people in my life who have experienced sexual assault and fear the thought that they could be forced to carry a pregnancy that was the result of non-consensual sex for nine months. Some states plan to allow an exception to their abortion laws in the case of rape or incest. How will they decide who has been sexually assaulted or not? What trauma will they inflict on pregnant people in the process? (America has also published on the #MeToo movement and Roe v. Wade.)
My faith calls me to have compassion for that person too, and I don’t think compassion can look like nine months of forced pregnancy.
Not all pro-life people support banning abortion without exceptions, but those laws exist anyway. And the overturning of Roe v. Wade is how we got here.
Now what about the pregnant person with no sad story, with no medical emergency and no trauma, who simply is not ready to have a baby? My faith calls me to have compassion for that person too, and I don’t think compassion can look like nine months of forced pregnancy.
2. Life begins at conception.
KH: Even as someone who identifies as pro-choice, I do subscribe to the Catholic teaching that life begins at conception. Once a zygote is formed, it will—in the absence of a medical issue or some other form of intervention—become a human child. This is one reason that I would not personally choose to have an abortion. Being pro-choice does not mean being pro-abortion.
In my opinion, a woman forced to carry a pregnancy for nine months against her will is not being treated as “equally sacred” to her unborn fetus.
That being said, I cannot support any laws which would force any other pregnant person to give birth, even if I believe that the cells inside of them are a human life. Love is what makes someone a parent. A forced birth makes that person an incubator.
Additionally, I recognize that my belief that life begins at conception is formed almost entirely by my Catholic faith, and that other religions (as well as people who subscribe to no religion at all) deal with the issues of life and abortion very differently.
Even the understanding of the Catholic Church on this issue has developed over time. For over 650 years beginning in the fifth century, the Catholic Church, while treating both as wrong, had different penalties for abortions that occurred before and after the point in pregnancy called “quickening”—when a fetus begins to move. Then, in 1869, a statement by Pope Pius IX established the same canonical penalty for abortion at any stage of a pregnancy. This resulted in a 1917 papal codification that confirmed the new teaching that the lives of the unborn at any stage were “equally sacred” to the lives of their mothers.
In my opinion, a woman forced to carry a pregnancy for nine months against her will is not being treated as “equally sacred” to her unborn fetus.
That church teaching has developed to reflect advances in scientific understanding is not a mark of weakness but quite the opposite.
AM: I agree that life begins at conception, but I do not see this conviction primarily as a matter of faith. The church teaching that life begins at conception does not rely on the Bible or divine revelation or tradition. It is the fruit of our understanding of natural law. In the words of the late Jesuit philosopher John Kavanaugh, “anyone willing to use reason and consider the facts of genetics and embryological development” can arrive at the same conclusion—and many non-Catholic biologists do. Modern science has only deepened our understanding of this truth; in an age before sonograms, I can understand how the “quickening” emerged as a moral benchmark. But today, mothers can know exactly how big their baby is compared to various fruits and vegetables starting at just four weeks. The sex of a child can be determined by testing the mother’s blood at just 10 weeks. That church teaching has developed to reflect advances in scientific understanding is not a mark of weakness but quite the opposite.
But it is true that science cannot tell us exactly where to go from there. The question of personhood—when a human organism becomes an individual worthy of rights and protection—is the crux of the matter when it comes to abortion law, and it is a hotly debated subject. (I found this interview with the moral philosopher Kate Greasley on “The Ezra Klein Show” to be an even-handed explanation of both the pro-life and pro-choice perspectives on personhood.) For my part, I find the various “lines” that abortion rights supporters draw—viability, the ability to feel pain, a certain level of brain activity—to be arbitrary, and I find the idea that no line can be drawn before birth to be morally repugnant. If we agree that what we are dealing with is a human life, I think the most morally persuasive and philosophically consistent conclusion is that the intentional ending of the life at any stage is an illicit act.
If one believes, as I do, that human life in the womb is a person with inherent dignity, it is not “imposing my religion” on others to seek to have that value reflected in the law. Every law is an imposition of some moral value, and in a democracy, those values are meant to be debated and codified according to the will of the people. The overturning of Roe allows that conversation to happen.
Even though the polarized, angry state of our country is in some ways the result of Roe’s influence on, or usurpation of, regular politics, that doesn’t change the fact that the decision is landing in a fractured nation.
3. There are some things that concern me regarding Roe v. Wade being overturned.
But I do have concerns about how we got here and what that means for the pro-life movement going forward.
In 2016, many pro-life Republican voters made a deal: They would hold their noses and vote for Donald Trump, and he would deliver justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe. As of June 24, it looks like that deal paid off. But at what cost, and for how long?
Even though the polarized, angry state of our country is in some ways the result of Roe’s influence on, or usurpation of, regular politics, that doesn’t change the fact that the decision is landing in a fractured nation and, in the short term, is likely to deepen our divisions. It comes as the country watches the Jan. 6 hearings and learns in new detail that Donald J. Trump was not only unwilling to stop the attack on the Capitol but was eager to join the assault. Many of the same pro-life Republicans who initially “held their noses,” then stood by the former president as he attempted to undermine the peaceful transfer of power—and many continue to do so. As David French writes in The Dispatch, “The Dobbs ruling has landed in the midst of a sick culture, and the pro-life right is helping make it sick.”
I am less sure that pro-lifers are well-positioned for what must come next at the level of politics.
I understand the anger of those on the other side of the aisle who do not believe they have a good-faith partner with whom to debate abortion and family policy at the state or federal level—and who cannot separate the court decision from the man who nominated three of the justices in the majority opinion.
I do not doubt that at the grassroots level, pro-lifers are eager and willing to support women who will now carry to term unplanned pregnancies. I am less sure that pro-lifers are well-positioned for what must come next at the level of politics. In the eyes of many, the movement is tarred by its association with Donald Trump, and it will take years to remove that stain. I fear that will make it harder to reach bipartisan compromises on policies needed to support mothers and children, like expanded child care, paid parental leave and family tax credits. (The pro-choice side, however, shares the blame for our current impasse. The Democratic Party’s increasingly absolute insistence on the right to an abortion at any stage in pregnancy has put compromise further out of reach.)
If the institutional pro-life movement does not put significant energy and resources toward passing social support programs in addition to pushing for more restrictions on abortion at the state level, women and children will fall through the cracks, and the stain on the movement will be permanent.
I fear I am watching the disintegration of the democratic experiment before my eyes.
KH: While I do not share the sentiment in America’s editorial that Roe was a legal and moral travesty, I do share many of your concerns following the overturn of Roe.
Pro-life Catholics may have joined the movement in good faith but, as you point out, the politicians many of them have chosen to carry out their agenda have cynically courted pro-life voters while doing little to advance the culture of life and dignity that the Catholic Church tries to promote in the world.
Single-issue, anti-abortion voters have sacrificed so many opportunities to vote for candidates who promoted policies that would have made it easier to raise children in the United States, policies that would have upheld the dignity of not just the unborn but the imprisoned, immigrants and more. It seems to me that if these voters held a more authentically pro-life stance, they might have demanded more of the candidates they put into office. The politicians celebrating the overturn of Roe v. Wade and implementing abortion bans in their states are the same politicians who are pressing the court to review and reverse decisions that require a state to educate a child regardless of immigration status. They are the same politicians who are trying to get transgender youth removed from their families. They are the same politicians who support the death penalty. And that is all just Governor Greg Abbott from Texas.
The country (and the church along with it) grows more polarized each day. Each new Supreme Court decision rattles me, seemingly undoing generations of progress. I want to have more optimism that single-issue voters might suddenly move on to other pro-life issues following the overturn of Roe v. Wade, but I do not feel that is the direction our country is headed. I fear I am watching the disintegration of the democratic experiment before my eyes.
So yes, I have concerns.
Even if we want to say abortion is pre-eminent, I think it follows that there are derivative life issues that demand our attention beyond restrictions in the law.
4. Abortion is not the only pro-life issue.
AM: I believe this to be true on two levels. First, abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia are all grave issues of life and death. I understand why some people might see abortion as “pre-eminent”; the unborn child is innocent and has no choice in his or her killing; the former cannot be said of every person on death row; and people who choose euthanasia may be doing so as a result of economic coercion, but they at least have a say in the matter. I get the logic, but I don’t quite see the merit in such rankings. Each is the direct taking of a human life that has immeasurable dignity, and each should be resisted by all Catholics.
Pope Francis does not seem to be one for ranking our Christian duties to respect all life, either. In his apostolic exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate,” the pope writes that “the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection” are “equally sacred” to the lives of the unborn (No. 101).
But even if we want to say abortion is pre-eminent, I think it follows that there are derivative life issues that demand our attention beyond restrictions in the law. We live in a fallen world, not to mention a democracy; even if every red state banned abortion, it would remain widely available in the rest of the country, and with the widespread use of abortion pills, possible in those Republican states, too. As long as the conditions exist that drive women to abortion, unborn lives will be lost; if we want women to have the true freedom to choose life, poverty, domestic abuse, rape and incest are not secondary issues.
Being fervently anti-abortion and demonstrably pro-life are not necessarily the same thing.
KH: I could not agree more about the importance of working toward ending poverty, domestic abuse, rape and incest, as these are terrible and these issues intersect with abortion in many ways. I also agree that abortion is not the only pro-life issue. You mention a few other issues that could fall into this category. I will add access to affordable healthcare, fair treatment of migrants and ending discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q. people (who experience elevated rates of suicide).
I am privileged to have been in Catholic spaces that have engaged with these issues and supported a broad culture of life and dignity that goes beyond just abortion. (Most recently, I photographed the Outreach Conference and attended a panel discussion called “Wholeness and Holiness: LGBTQ Issues and Mental Health.”)
I am frustrated though, when I see Catholic leaders address the dignity of unborn life exclusively. I am tired of hearing about the so-called Communion wars, in which some bishops have declared President Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi cannot receive the Eucharist because of their pro-choice views. I know that there are also many pro-life Catholics who disagree with barring pro-choice politicians from Communion.
Being fervently anti-abortion and demonstrably pro-life are not necessarily the same thing. I will find myself more convinced that the pro-life movement is ready to address the many conditions that can drive pregnant people to seek abortions when I see the movement making greater attempts to address other pro-life topics beyond the single issue of abortion.
Whether someone identifies as pro-choice or pro-life, we should all be able to agree that there is significant work to be done on behalf of pregnant people and families to better support the choice to have a child.
5. No one should feel forced into having an abortion.
KH: To be truly pro-choice means to support the right of a pregnant person to choose to terminate a pregnancy, but also to support their right to continue with a pregnancy if they decide to. We have to support both options in order for it to be a true choice.
Unfortunately, there are many reasons that people may feel that their only option is to terminate a pregnancy, particularly in a country where women (and pregnant people specifically) have faced oppression, workplace discrimination and disturbingly high maternal mortality rates, especially for a developed nation. Notably, each of these challenges are compounded by the impacts of structural racism for people of color. For example, the CDC reports that “In 2020, the maternal mortality rate for non-Hispanic Black women was 55.3 deaths per 100,000 live births, 2.9 times the rate for non-Hispanic White women.” Pregnant people cannot have a fair choice in a country that is also lacking in adequate social safety nets and resources to support parents, such as affordable housing, childcare and healthcare.
The stigma of unplanned pregnancy in Catholic spaces has surely played a role in some people’s choice to have an abortion. When people are abandoned by their families, ostracized from their church community and fired from their positions in Catholic institutions because an unplanned pregnancy reveals that they were engaging in pre-marital sex, other Catholics make a person’s choice to carry a pregnancy to term infinitely more difficult.
Whether someone identifies as pro-choice or pro-life, we should all be able to agree that there is significant work to be done on behalf of pregnant people and families to better support the choice to have a child. We should all work toward a world that is safer, kinder and more equitable for our society’s children and for ourselves.
AM: I could not agree more that we have significant work ahead of us to improve support of pregnant women, and it is my (perhaps naïve) hope that with the overturn of Roe, the energy of the pro-life movement can be put toward precisely that goal. I know well the retort to this statement: What was stopping abortion opponents from building this “culture of life” for the past 49 years? To which I would respond: First, I carry no water for Republican politicians who cynically paid lip service to abortion bans and failed to put forward legislation to support pregnant women and families. Second, at the grassroots level, pro-lifers have been doing just that for decades. I find it baffling that Sen. Elizabeth Warren thought it an effective line of attack to point out that in Massachusetts, crisis pregnancy centers “outnumber true abortion clinics by 3 to 1.” Yes, these centers “have an agenda.” But they are also providing essential, life-saving care to women and babies.
But as important as that work is, I concede that private charity will not be enough to help women choose life in a world where abortions are severely restricted. And if politicians who called for the end of Roe are not serious about the work of supporting families, now is the time for the pro-life movement to call their bluff and lobby and vote accordingly. I am happy to sign on to Elizabeth Bruenig’s argument in The Atlantic that giving birth should be free, and I believe we need mandatory paid family leave and more generous tax credits. However, as long as abortion is presented as morally neutral, women will be pressured—by employers, partners and society in general—to end an unexpected pregnancy as the “easy” option and the path that demands the least of the rest us.
A nation whose best solution to the arrival of an unexpected life is to stamp it out is a nation that lacks imagination. We can imagine a country where vulnerable pregnant women are surrounded by a loving community from conception to birth and beyond. Wouldn’t we all choose that?