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​Helen AlvaréFebruary 23, 2016

The Zika virus is the latest predicate for the argument that we need to make abortion more available to poor women. It’s just tragic all around. Abortion advocates trade on fears that poor women would give birth to children suffering microcephaly, though a review of Colombian and U.S. medical resources indicates that the link is quite uncertain.

Though Zika is new, the argument tying more legal abortion to the plight of poor women is old. And it always goes like this. Step 1: Find a health problem that poor women or their children suffer disproportionately more then other women. Step 2: Recommend abortion as the solution. Step 3: Include self-deprecating language about how the person making the argument is a woman of privilege who is not at risk of the aforementioned health problem and who is therefore promoting abortion strictly altruistically. Step 4: Round up the usual suspects. These inevitably include the Catholic Church, pro-life politicians and uncaring men. Special disdain is reserved for pro-lifers who cannot demonstrate that they recently tried to adopt a disabled child. Step 5: Recite a litany of the programs and opportunities that would allegedly preclude the “need” for abortion among the poor but that are expensive and unachievable over the short run—hence the continued resort to the cheaper and quicker abortion solution.

Yet no matter how often it is repeated, the “merciful” case for abortion fails.

First, poor women have never wanted abortion as much as more privileged women have wanted to provide it for them. This finding has been constant for years, and the situation in Colombia is no exception. Poor women have fewer abortions per pregnancy than women of greater means. This is despite (and because of) the hundreds of millions of federal dollars (domestically and internationally) spent on contraception targeted to them.

Second, abortion really does cause women’s suffering, even or perhaps especially on the grounds of the child’s disability. This is not a debating or debatable point any longer. We are well past anecdote on this matter. And no one knows it better than the Catholic Church, with its Project Rachel ministry to thousands and thousands of women after abortion. A few weekends ago I spent time with several women who had experienced abortion following rape. Ten, 20, 40 years ago…it doesn’t matter. They regret the loss of the child bitterly. They just do, and it makes all the sense in the world.

Third, one has to wonder at what point advocates of more legal abortion will acknowledge not only that opponents are taking care of women and children before and after birth in extraordinary numbers, but that “pro-choice” organizations are doing almost nothing. It is extraordinary, really, this false—and ironic—accusation. I call it the “lazy slander of the pro-life cause.”

Fourth, a fair, empirical review of the literature urges caution at the very least, before commencing a full-on contraception-will-fix-it campaign. No matter one’s theological opinion about contraception, the net health effects of contraception are uncertain. There are the increased rates of nonmarital and unintended pregnancies among the poor who receive free contraception, as noted above. There is the Department of Health and Human Services’ admission that the current array of contraception (the same array the government would foist upon the Little Sisters of the Poor) is unpopular with women (40 percent annually leave their method), dangerous especially for obese women (36 percent of the population) and ineffective at surprising rates (failure rates of 9 percent to 30 percent). There is also the fact that nearly five years after the preventive services report that provoked the H.H.S. contraception mandate, the government’s preventive services body has yet to adopt its recommendation to list contraception. Then there are the nearly annual settlements, amounting to billions of dollars, paid by pharmaceutical companies to women harmed by contraception or to their surviving families.

Finally, there is the poignant fact that one cannot recommend abortion on the grounds of the disability of the child involved without making an awful statement about the value of the lives of all disabled people. It cannot be helped and even by itself should shut down the “merciful” case for abortion.

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Luis Gutierrez
8 years 4 months ago
The “merciful” case for "legally" (Canon 1024) aborting female vocations to the ministerial priesthood also fails, and compromises the Church's credibility in all issues of human sexuality.
Robert O'Connell
8 years 4 months ago
This is an excellent column: Thank you very much Helen Alvare!!! Is there a way I could get a copy with citations or footnotes to the sources used n this column? All too often, antagonistic souls ask "Who says?" or "Where did you get that?" and I would love to direct their attention appropriately.
Rosemari Zagarri Prof
8 years 4 months ago
The author is correct to point out that supporters of abortion have quickly appropriated the Zika virus/malformed fetus issue to advance their own ends. Nonetheless, in order to advance her own position, which advocates a complete ban on abortion, she is also guilty of distortion and unsubstantiated allegations. Not "all" women regret their abortions--either at the time or decades later. The author might profitably read a recent article in the Washington Post ("In Abortion Debate, A Space Between," Feb. 26, 2016) which highlights the vast range of responses women have to abortion--both at the time and years later. There is no single response; not all women regret their abortions; many are sad but believe it was still a necessary choice. The larger issue is that abortion is defined in terms of a problem by, for, and about women. Over the past 40 years the all-male hierarchy of the American Catholic Church has politicized the abortion issue in order to intimidate women and reinforce their own power. While a woman can honestly oppose abortion on its merits, she then becomes a pawn in the hierarchy's struggle to subordinate women. If the Church expressed more openness to artificial contraception and to opening up the priesthood to women, their position on abortion would not be so-self-serving and suspect.
Bill Mazzella
8 years 4 months ago
The false mercy, unfortunately, is on Helen Alvare's side. She is a good women who reads the Scriptures like Canon Law and dogmatic theology. Of course, women regret abortion as people regret so many things. But for so many women they were able to have children later whom they could take care of. The overwhelming fact is that we do not take care of our poor and disabled as is so clear the way we are neglecting the 6 million Syrians displaced from their homeland. There is no mercy toward them as is there is little mercy for women who are not in a position to take care of children.
Fernán Jaramillo
8 years 4 months ago
What about the merciful case for contraception?
Joseph C
8 years 4 months ago
Thank you, Dr. Alvare! It was good to see you speak at SEEK2015 in front of 9,000+ college students! A group of students from Vanderbilt recently had the opportunity to spend a few days working with the Little Sisters of the Poor in St. Louis. We were blown away by the humility and good work of those women! The fact that they still beg on behalf of the poor is impressive. The nursing home they ran is one of the happiest places I have ever been in. Their residents were old, poor, and often senile/grumpy; however, the good sisters treated them as if they were the most important people in the world. It is tragic that the Obama administration has chosen to threaten the Sister's ministry in order to impose their contraceptive ideology on them. A month ago, I got to meet a Special Olympics athlete. Despite being clearly disabled, he was an inspiring individual with an incredible work ethic. Seeing how much he relished living life, working 3 jobs, and competing as an athlete despite the disadvantages he had been born with, really opened my eyes to how I had been subconsciously dismissing some people's lives as not worth living. Watching this young man express how happy he was to be alive and how he contributed to his community. I thought of conversations were friends would advocate abortion as the "merciful thing to do" for children with severe disabilities, yet here was a gentleman who was living life to the fullest and loving every moment of it. Thank you for writing clearly and in the spirit of Jesus Christ on this difficult issue. At our next collegiate Knights of Columbus meeting, we will see if it is possible to send money to reputable Colombian charities to provide healthcare for babies born with microcephaly and their mothers!

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