To end abortion, we need to narrow the gap between civil and moral law

Pro-life advocates attend the 2017 annual March for Life in Washington Jan. 27. March for Life organizers announced at a Dec. 6 briefing that "Love saves Lives" is the theme for the 2018 march planned for Jan. 19. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)Pro-life advocates attend the 2017 annual March for Life in Washington Jan. 27. March for Life organizers announced at a Dec. 6 briefing that "Love saves Lives" is the theme for the 2018 march planned for Jan. 19. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

The March for Life, the annual gathering of pro-life activists, clergy and civic leaders, will take place in Washington, D.C., on Friday Jan. 19, 2018. In our pro-life commitment, America is allied with the sentiments expressed in the statement by the Society of Jesus of the United States, “Standing for the Unborn,” which was published in America on May 26, 2003. As is our annual custom, we republish excerpts from this text as an expression of our solidarity with the women and men who will march this month in the nation’s capital.

When we, the leadership of the Society of Jesus in the United States, survey the developments unfolding in our culture, we are deeply distressed at the massive injustices. A spirit of callous disregard for life shows itself in direct assaults on human life such as abortion and capital punishment, as well as in senseless violence, escalating militarism, racism, xenophobia and the skewed accumulation of wealth and life-sustaining resources. These realities compel us to speak out against what Pope John Paul II called “the culture of death.”

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A spirit of callous disregard for life shows itself in direct assaults on human life such as abortion and capital punishment.

Jesuits draw upon a long and rich tradition of reflection, professional study, experience and spirituality that brings many resources to the complexities of the abortion issue...

Abortion is a human rights issue. It is also a social issue, and not simply a personal decision made in artificial isolation from wider social reality. Attempts to frame the issue as merely a question of personal preference or private choice ignore important features of abortion as a public policy. Because the state and society as a whole have an intense interest in promoting respect for life, we may not with a clear conscience relegate such life-and-death issues to the private realm, no matter how appealing and convenient such arguments may appear on the surface. Abortion policy contains embedded cultural assumptions, values and attitudes that have wide repercussions for the way we collectively treat all human life. The whole array of potential threats to life and human dignity is interrelated, and the Christian imperative to oppose it calls forth from us a consistent ethic of life.

Some influential voices posit a zero-sum conflict between “women’s reproductive rights” and the right to life of unborn children. Jesuits ought to find their place among those who demonstrate the obvious confluence of women’s rights and respect for life in all its forms. Pope John Paul II summed this partnership up when he wrote: “Therefore, in firmly rejecting ‘pro-choice’ it is necessary to become courageously ‘pro-woman,’ promoting a choice that is truly in favor of women.”...

It is also a social issue, and not simply a personal decision made in artificial isolation from wider social reality.

As Catholics and Jesuits, we would naturally prefer to live in a country where every citizen, voter and court consistently favor legal recognition of and protection for the unborn.... We must acknowledge, however, that phrases such as “the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”...are phrases with contested meanings that others understand differently than we do.... The more attractive option seeks neither to flee nor to dominate situations of pluralism. It commits us rather to a process of engaging those who initially disagree with us on some issues, seeking to create an acceptable consensus wherever possible by building upon those truths on which we can reach agreement....

This path of “proposing, rather than imposing,” was described by the great American Jesuit theologian of the past century, John Courtney Murray. While emphasizing the value of tolerance and mutual dialogue, he also advised against any sort of moral relativism....

Another way of describing this stance is to say that Jesuits are committed to narrowing the gap between the current civil law of our nation and the demands of the moral law as we understand it. Our long-term goal remains full legal recognition of and protection for the unborn child—from the moment of conception.

Jesuits are committed to narrowing the gap between the current civil law of our nation and the demands of the moral law.

In the near future, we cannot realistically expect complete agreement among all participants in the abortion debate. We must listen respectfully to others’ opinions, just as we expect a fair hearing of our own arguments against abortion. Our confidence in the persuasive power of well articulated defenses of pro-life positions sustains us, even as we acknowledge the long struggle ahead.... In the meantime, our common calling is to stand in solidarity with the unborn, the “least of our brothers and sisters” (Mt 25:40), through prayer and political activism.

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Lisa Weber
6 months 2 weeks ago

Thank you for acknowledging that the debate on abortion encompasses cultural and church issues that are far broader than abortion alone. Abortion is wrong, but to speak of "ending abortion" is misleading. It is possible to end legal abortions, but not to entirely end abortions. Abortions were performed long before Roe vs. Wade and would continue to be performed if Roe vs. Wade were reversed and abortions were entirely illegal. A person can honestly speak of minimizing abortion. Minimizing abortion would mean taking a truly pro-life stance of providing healthcare coverage to all and ensuring that everyone has a minimum standard of living that includes housing, food, and employment opportunities. From a church perspective, speaking wisdom about sexuality would go a long way toward preventing abortion by helping to prevent the emotional and spiritual circumstances in which abortion seems like a reasonable way out of a difficult situation, and perhaps the only way out.

Pope John Paul II talked a pro-woman game, but didn't play it. His idea of being pro-woman was to continue to proscribe contraception, deny women an opportunity to preach at Mass, and to fail to find a way to foster women's leadership in the church. "It is necessary to become courageously 'pro-woman' " is a nice line, but it was not followed by any action that made the church more welcoming to women. The church will not be able to speak with wisdom about sexuality until it allows women to preach, women who are or have been married and have some understanding of what it means to have an active sex life. Until then, the church will offer teaching about sexuality that has a strictly masculine viewpoint and interpretation, which is only half of the story, at best.

Elizabeth Walter
6 months 2 weeks ago

EXACTLY. Thank you! Men will never, in any true way, understand what it is to be a woman, with all the challenges we face daily. Never. Walk the talk, or don't bother making statements you don't stand behind.

Jim Lein
6 months 2 weeks ago

And there is one group that could do much to solve the problem of abortion, a group directly involved in all problem pregnancies. Men. We have much to do in cleaning up our act, so to speak, in being more responsible, more loving, more caring, more supportive, more thoughtful. At the very least we can be non-judgmental, non-critical of women who are in a very difficult situation with the clock ticking and feeling abandoned, thanks to one of us. Who are we to judge?

Frank Pray
6 months 1 week ago

You are right to point out the heavy and suppressive weight of Church tradition on the role of women in leadership. I have been enlightened and inspired by women who preach in some Protestant denominations. And why not? Gender has little to do with enduring principles of truth. But the issue presented is the dynamic of law and morality. We might say the same of Church doctrine and morality. Each Catholic must foremost answer to an informed conscience. You, I, and others who want an end to gender discrimination in the Church have a heavy burden: are we grave sinners risking expulsion from the “life of the Church” because we press on for change? That is the threat. I urge you to make the case for full participation of women in the Church, including the case for women in the priesthood, and for the right of priests to marry. These ideas are clearly contrary to the magisterium, and only the bold and courageous dare speak out.

Jim Lein
6 months 2 weeks ago

A significant group of Catholics is pro-life and pro-choice. And a significant group is pro-life and for outlawing abortion. Pro-lifers often see pro-choicers as pro-abortion. In fact, both groups are for reducing the rate of abortions, though by different means.

Puzzling to pro-choicers are the many pro-lifers favoring cuts in government services to pregnant women in financial need. Such cuts not only increase the chance that these women will choose to abort, these cuts also deprive the unborn of sufficient intrauterine nourishment to develop, in some cases causing miscarriages or so-called spontaneous abortions.

The unborn need significant support if they are to develop. This means the women carrying them need support. Pope Francis clearly supports government programs that do this. Private programs are also helpful, of course, but private food charities would have to increase their support 20 fold if we cut federal food programs that now provide 95% of food for those in need.

Jesus and his followers clearly believed in pooling resources, even selling their homes to do so, in order to support the less fortunate. They also believed in not judging those in need. Certainly we can all agree that the unborn today should not be judged unworthy of government services, such as CHIP that provides health services to 300,000 pregnant women and their unborn.

Vincent Gaglione
6 months 2 weeks ago

I applaud and support Ms. Weber's and Mr. Lein's comments. They articulate exceedingly well the complexity of the issue both within and without the Catholic Church.

The total abolition of abortion procedures would result in medical situations that far exceed the wisdom of the simplistic political opposition to it. There are, in this pluralistic and diverse democracy, those whose religious scruples do not absolutely eschew abortion for medical and other reasons. Sadly, the rigid anti-abortion polemic has destroyed the potential for accomplishing what the USA Jesuit position paper calls for.

Jim Lein
6 months 1 week ago

Not allowing women a choice is demeaning to them. Who else to decide in such a personal matter? Who else knows the immediate pressures she knows and feels? Who is to judge her? Imposing Caesar's way of cold hard law rather than Jesus' way of love and concern and support is certainly not Christian. Leave Caesar out of it. That way is a cop out, especially for men, without whom there would be no unwanted or problem pregnancies. Studies have shown that from 1/3 to 2/3 of women with problem pregnancies experience pressure to abort, including from the men responsible for the pregnancy. Let's all of us including men clean up our act and reduce the pressure on women to end a pregnancy. One way of doing this is improving services to women, such as TANF, WIC, CHIP, SNAP, MEDICAID. It certainly is not cutting these services as many GOP Catholics favor. Judge not. Help out.

Frank Pray
6 months 1 week ago

Law for many determines morality. But Christians must think independently about abortion or same sex marriage, and be prepared to openly make the case for why such laws harm human relations. That is, Christians must be countercultural on issues our grandparents didn’t have to face. But the best case is made by example. Strong heterosexual marriages and improved adoption alternatives make the best argument for social health. On issues like these, the Church excels at teaching, but seems less effective in marshaling concerted action.

Rhett Segall
6 months 1 week ago

Each commentator on this page began his/her unique human destiny at the point of conception. No one has the right to deliberately destroy that innocent human life with its unique destiny. Each of us has the responsibility to defend the most vulnerable of God's children, each of whom God, "knit in our mother's womb." (psalm 139), and dedicated before we were born (Jeremiah 1:5)

Barry Fitzpatrick
6 months 1 week ago

The 2003 statement "Standing with the Unborn" from the Society of Jesus is a masterful piece that acknowledges the complexity of the issues always raised when treatment of the unborn is the topic, and it does so in an engaging way that invites participative, healthy dialogue. One element of the discussion that we could present in educational settings is the nature of the relationships that present us with the choice that women are faced with. Abortion does not happen in a vacuum, nor does it present itself as an option without a relationship in which it finds its context. Having taught teenage boys in a Catholic high school, I have heard the sad commentary coming from some of them, "I'm totally pro-life and anti-abortion, but if I got my girl friend pregnant, we'd have to consider getting rid of it." Before we blow those kids out of the water with our blistering criticism, let's reflect on where that thinking comes from and on our responsibility for its formation. I can never fully grasp or understand what it is a woman goes through when confronted with an unwanted pregnancy, but I can relate to the lousy decision-making that put her in that position in the first place. How may I positively affect the relationship decisions that are made daily on the part of young people if I don't engage them in the discussion? This throw -away culture we bemoan is our creation. Only a consistent ethic of life will address the many issues involved here, and this outstanding document from which you quote is a good place to start talking with an eye to changing the culture for good.

Rhett Segall
6 months 1 week ago

Barry, by all means lets talk "about" abortion: 1. Promiscuity and abortion; 2. Poverty and abortion 3. Health care and abortion; 4. Contraception and abortion; 5.The teenager and abortion; 6. Pluralism and abortion, etc. But front and center has to be defending the unborn's right to life. This core issue must constantly be at the heart of the issue. Otherwise it's like talking about slavery elimination after considering 1. Black people's IQ; 2.Slavery in Africa 3.Slavery and immigration etc. No one should be enslaved; no innocent human life should be deliberately killed.

Jim Lein
6 months 1 week ago

The unborn needs nine months of intrauterine nourishment and medical observation and care--and a relatively calm and supportive and healthy environment. Yet many Catholics who express such concern for the unborn are for cutting services that support pregnant women and their unborn.
In our thinking we can't separate the woman from her unborn. We can't give the unborn more status than the woman. They are one. We can't assign more worth to the unborn than to the woman. Yet many do. Our male dominated society and church are largely responsible for this thinking.

Rhett Segall
6 months 1 week ago

Jim, we have to attend to the health of the mother and the health of the unborn. But we have to attend to the fact that there are close to 1 million abortions each year in the US and 40 million abortions each year world wide. Many women have multiple abortions. Some say that a man really can't understand what a pregnant woman is going through, and consequently he has less of a say in this issue, is similar to saying that because soldiering has been mostly a man's duty that women have less of a say on warfare. Abortion is a human issue and male fetuses are killed too.

Lisa Weber
6 months 1 week ago

A thought to keep in mind is that no one can entirely control abortion except the woman who is pregnant. This fact is often overlooked in the discussions about abortion. You can end legal abortion, but you cannot end abortion entirely because of the control that the woman has in the situation.

To prevent abortion, you can either prevent pregnancy or you can persuade the woman to carry the pregnancy. I seldom see those most adamantly "pro-life" enthusiastically support programs that provide low-cost or free contraception. It is helpful to acknowledge that women choose to continue a pregnancy or not, whether abortion is legal or not. A woman is far more likely to carry a pregnancy to term if she is in love with the father of the child and if he is supportive of her. If the church could speak those truths - and it requires women to say them - it might have greater success in persuading women not to have abortions. Women are not allowed to speak publicly at the principal liturgy of the church, which is to say that women are effectively silenced simply for being women. Until women are allowed to preach at Mass, the church will be providing only a masculine viewpoint for everything under the sun, and sometimes men cannot effectively address particular issues. Abortion is one of those issues.

Rhett Segall
6 months 1 week ago

Women are very much at the forefront of the fight against abortion, speaking publicly and incessantly. To assert that women have to be persuaded to carry their pregnancy to term is backwards. It's of nature for women to mother and have to be persuaded to destroy what is most of their nature.

Lisa Weber
6 months 1 week ago

The nature of women is not really the question because it is women who have abortions. A woman contemplating abortion would have to be persuaded to carry the pregnancy rather than terminate it. It doesn't matter what women as a group do because a decision about abortion is an individual decision or the decision of a couple.

Stuart Meisenzahl
6 months ago

Lisa
I believe Rhett's argument is that a woman who chooses to have an abortion is acting contrary to her essential character /nature as a women. While I realize you find that a difficult proposition to reconcile with your views, you can hardly just dismiss it because it raises an inconvenient barrier to you position.
I find it interestingly informative that in your comments on this issue that you never address the "rights of the fetus/child/human embryo". Viewed solely as a matter of conflicting "rights" , you provide no basis for why a woman's right to exercise control over her body should be determinative at the expense of the fetus/child/ human embryo's right to existence/life.

Lisa Weber
6 months ago

I find it interesting that men are so willing to define the "essential nature of a woman." A woman who has an abortion is not somehow a non-woman afterward. It might be convenient to define her as a subhuman or substandard person, but that hardly makes it true. Women, for whatever reason, sometimes make the decision not to continue a pregnancy. It has been going on for decades at least, continues to go on now, and most likely will continue to go on in the future, regardless of whether it is legal or not.

I am not arguing that abortion is right or morally acceptable; I am only saying that it is part of the activities in the realm of human reproduction. I am not talking about "rights" of the woman or the fetus - that is a legal concept of little interest to me. I would only like the discussion about abortion to be more honest than it usually is. To say that making abortion illegal will end it entirely is dishonest. To overlook the fact that low-cost or free contraception reduces the likelihood of abortion is dishonest. To overlook the fact that women in the church have something of value to say in the discussion is dishonest. And women will have something to say other than what men tell them to say - to convey that "proper women", or "real women" conform themselves to what men think is further dishonesty. Men can have any opinion they like about abortion, but it is women who make the decision - whether abortion is wrong, immoral, disapproved of, or illegal. Once men accept that the decision is the woman's and always has been, maybe we can have a fruitful discussion of what to do about it.

Rhett Segall
6 months ago

Lisa, am I correct in recapping your points as follows:
1. Making abortion illegal is fruitless because women will choose on their own whether or not to have an abortion.
2. Abortion is overwhelmingly a woman's issue since she has to bear the burden of pregnancy.
3. Given # 2, men should be supportive of a woman's decision, one way or another.
4. The Roman Catholic Church does not give women the right to preach or be in Church leadership and so forfeits the right to speak on the issue of abortion.
Have I presented your points accurately? Have i left any points out?
Shalom

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