The next issue in the abortion debate after Roe v. Wade: Do we really honor motherhood?
For many Catholic adults who oppose abortion today, the pro-life movement was our real introduction to moral philosophy. Maybe we attended prayer vigils with our families in grade school or high school, or maybe we just read news magazines and argued with kids on the school bus. Either way, the questions surrounding abortion opened our minds to some fundamental moral questions. What do people owe to one another? What is a human life, and what is it worth? When must we set aside our personal goals for the sake of something bigger? I can still remember sitting in seventh-grade Spanish class, turning over the phrases in my head: “right to life,” “unique human being,” “woman’s right to choose.”
Even as it shaped our moral sensibilities, the pro-life movement also served for many of us as a kind of primer for politics in the United States. We may have come of age with a deep antagonism toward the American judiciary, but at the same time, we also had serious reasons to reflect on the value of civic peace. We reflected on the ethical and pragmatic reasons for pursuing worthy goals within the constraints of our political system. We talked a lot in the 90s and 2000s about “the culture of death,” and also debated what might be involved in building a culture of life.
For many years now, the prospect of overturning Roe v. Wade has unified pro-life Americans. We had our disagreements, but in a strange way, our shared opposition to this Supreme Court verdict provided the canopy for a very large political tent. But the recent leak to Politico of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito suggests that the Supreme Court will soon strike down Roe v. Wade, and a corner may finally be turned. We must consider the road ahead. It is a strange moment.
The recent leak to Politico of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito suggests that the Supreme Court will soon strike down Roe v. Wade. We must consider the road ahead.
If Roe is overturned, pro-life Catholics likely will rejoice, but we also must consider the ways in which the political landscape more broadly, as well as the dynamics among the various factions of the pro-life movement, may change as a result. It may feel harder to work together in pursuit of honorable goals. Nevertheless, we can. It is possible because the groundwork has already been laid.
Across all those years of praying for the right judges, we understood that originalist legal theories could not really do all the work. Strong legal protections for the unborn would be impossible without the support of a given state’s voters. Even with amenable voters, laws can only do so much. The state can and should provide some protections for unborn children, but a culture of life must go further. Children have enormous needs that cannot be met by laws. They need families. Most especially, they need parents.
The Face of Motherhood
The first eyes to meet a newborn’s gaze should normally be those of the infant’s mother. She is the person whose voice a child has heard for months on end. Her body was the child’s original home. Sometimes there are serious reasons why a mother cannot nurture her child, but in a culture of life, we would normally expect those eyes to be there, searching the tiny face, making first contact with the world’s newest citizen. No law can make this happen, but it needs to happen, at least in most cases, if we truly want to protect and support our children. What this means, of course, is that a pro-life society must support mothers. They are indispensable to the good of children, and to society as a whole.
What does this mean on a cultural level? This is a terribly difficult question, not least because it plunges us into broader controversies about the status of women generally. Historically, many or most societies have presumed that a woman’s primary responsibilities were to her household and children. Her civicstatus was generally mediated through her husband, her father or another familial male.
Children have enormous needs that cannot be met by laws.
As a somewhat natural but unfortunate extension of this principle, most societies have treated women as something less than full-fledged citizens. In many places, until recently they were a protected class, with only some of the rights and duties that define citizens. In the United States today, we consider that sort of arrangement to be unacceptable. Women do deserve to be citizens, with full access to civic society. As a woman, I am grateful that we have taken this laudable step, affirming the full dignity of women. Still, it remains undeniably difficult today to give women the moral and material support they need to be present for their children while also ensuring the opportunity to pursue outside work (whether out of desire or necessity) or other personal interests.
Particularly on the political right, some of the proffered solutions are fairly insulting to mothers. It is rare for these to reach the caricatured extremes of the recent book by Stephanie Gordon, Ask Your Husband, which posits that women should do little without following the instruction of the book’s title. But many people still seem to want women to diminish themselves pre-emptively, either personally or professionally, cutting out any personal interests or pursuits as if that could prove to the world that they are ready and available for mothering.
Another approach, often favored by pro-life Catholics, calls for a greatly enhanced social safety net. It posits that a strong safety net allows expectant mothers to feel confident that they can raise their children without experiencing dire poverty. Thus, they may be less likely to seek abortions. The situation would be still better if women could count on extended families and communities to offer practical help, regardless of the availability of the child’s father. Instead of scolding or punishing women for becoming pregnant (possibly under difficult circumstances), they argue, we should embrace the mother and child together, ensuring that they have what they need to thrive.
There is much to admire in this position. It replaces harsh judgment with gentle compassion. It recognizes that mothers both need and deserve material support, especially through pregnancy and their children’s early years. It is shocking and shameful to read stories of mothers in the United States who deliver their babies and head out within 48 hours to deliver pizzas or drive Ubers, just to keep food on their family’s table. As a society, we need to find better ways to support families, especially those raising children under adverse circumstances.
As a society, we need to find better ways to support families, especially those raising children under adverse circumstances.
Realistically, though, we must recognize that this strategy has its limits. We cannot buy good mothers because maternity has moral and spiritual dimensions that no social program can reach. Across the decades, pro-lifers have battled Roe v. Wadehere in the United States with remarkable tenacity and conviction. Meanwhile, in the world as a whole, abortion has become far more available, while birth rates have plummeted. We need to face the glaring reality that motherhood is extremely difficult, with or without a network of support. Social safety nets have their place, but if we treat them as a reliable solutionto the problem of abortion, we risk repeating a mistake that already undermines a culture of life: We risk making mothers invisible.
Invisible mothers are not a uniquely modern problem. This became increasingly clear to me over the years as I reflected on my maternity. I was raised on Bible stories, and I noticed from an early age that the Bible richly affirmed the value of children. In the early years of my marriage, my husband and I struggled with infertility, and I was grateful for the many stories about remarkable biblical women who experienced similar trials. I am now the mother of 5 children, and as my family grew, I was somewhat discomfited to notice that, although numerous descendents are promised to some as a reward for their faith, the Bible offers surprisingly few examples of mothers nurturing large families.
There are many Biblical mothers with a single child (Elizabeth, Hagar, Sarah) or possibly two (Rebekah, Rachel), but mothers of larger families get surprisingly short shrift. The mother of the Maccabees is impressive (not just for her seven sons), but she remains unnamed in the text. The sons of Jesse and Noah presumably had mothers, but they are not mentioned in the Catholic text. (In Jewish tradition, however, these women are known as Nitzevet and Na’amah.) Leah gave her husband six sons, but he still did not love her.
Why do mothers leave such a light footprint in the Hebrew Scriptures? Maternity was warmly recommended in biblical times, and occasionally we do see honor bestowed on mothers. The woman ofProverbs 31 is presented as strong and discerning, assured that her husband and children will “rise up and call her blessed.” Rebekah, leaving her family to travel to Canaan, is urged to become, “the mother of thousands of millions.” The prophetess Deborahis praised as “a mother in Israel,” which is metaphorical but clearly a compliment.
Still, compared to prophets, warriors or kings, mothers mostly stand on the sidelines in the Bible.
Still, compared to prophets, warriors or kings, mothers mostly stand on the sidelines. Their struggles and sacrifices specifically as mothers are not commemorated in history and lore. Biblical stories might easily leave readers with the absurd notion that the hardest thing about being a mother is becoming one.
Of course, overlooking the daily work of mothers is not just a biblical phenomenon. Mothers have been taken for granted in every human society. Bible stories end with the birth of the first child, and fairy tales rarely get further than the wedding. Motherhood itself is folded cheerfully into the “happily ever after”; we need not hear the details. Literature offers us the occasional Kristin Lavransdatter, but most of the time mothers are supporting cast members, offering loving encouragement or possibly just nagging.
The Case for Motherhood
If we squint at disappearing mothers from the right angle, we may start to see the trick. Mothers are taken for granted because their defining contribution is natural and therefore expected. It is built into the female body itself. The act of becoming a mother often simply arises in the course of married life. The woman can rise to the occasion, or not. Mothering, meanwhile, happens in the hidden places: behind closed doors, within closed wombs, at quiet bedsides. Historically, it rarely seemed necessary to incentivize this form of service or inspire young women to rise to it. What else were they going to do with their lives? People have understood for millennia that priests had to be motivated to pray, doctors to heal and soldiers to fight. Maternal motivation, until quite recently, probably struck most people as a trivial concern.
Times have changed. Little girls can no longer be seen as presumptive mothers from the day of their birth. Women have our own jobs, degrees and votes. When opportunity beckons from every side, it becomes necessary to make the case for motherhood, helping young women understand why the very real and onerous burdens that come with it are worth carrying. This is difficult, because even as women’s rights have advanced, our society has never really stopped taking mothers for granted. No one quite seems to know how.
To get perspective on this, we might consider motherhood alongside another highly demanding form of service: being a soldier. At first glance, it might seem strange to compare mothering to soldiering; one involves killing and the other fosters life. In many ways though, the parallels are quite strong. Historically, these are the only two demanding vocations that have been foisted on people in nearly all human societies, with little or no regard for their personal feelings or level of preparation. The demands are daunting, but failure can bring crippling consequences for individuals and society.
Motherhood is also like military service in that both require recruits to put their very bodieson the line, running very real risks of disfigurement or death.
Motherhood is also like military service in that both require recruits to put their very bodieson the line, running very real risks of disfigurement or death. These remarkable demands are justified in the simplest of terms: They are necessary. Civilization itself is at stake.
If motherhood resembles military life in some ways, there are also important differences. In my travels around the world, I have seen innumerable monuments commemorating battles and fallen soldiers. I have never seen a monument to fallen mothers. Maternal death has been an ever-present reality throughout history, and rates of maternal mortality in the United States are on the rise (between 2019 and 2020, the maternal mortality rate in the United States increased by nearly 20 percent), but there is no special tribute or salute for a woman who gives her life for the sake of a new one. These deaths are widely viewed as medical tragedies, without recognition of the sacrifices made by the woman.
For the living, the story is similar. I reflect on this sometimes in social gatherings with other experienced mothers. We affably commiserate about the various chronic health issues that naturally come with pregnancies, births and miscarriages. Pregnancy may have wreaked havoc on some people’s blood sugar or blood pressure; others do years of physical therapy for their back or for pelvic issues. Multiple bouts of mastitis lead to cancer scares, or perhaps postpartum brain chemistry unleashes a mental health crisis. Everyone has their stories. Pregnancy may be natural, but there is a price to be paid for growing multiple humans inside one’s body. The Veterans Administration may be a mess, but it exists. The scars of maternal service are treated as a personal health issue.
A Matter of Honor
Maternal honor is a necessary component of a culture of life. If we want women to choose life, we must begin shaping that choice long before any pregnancy occurs. Women should feel affronted by the suggestion that they have a “right to choose,” just as a soldier would feel indignant if his commanding officer suggested before a battle that he had a “right to flee” in circumstances of great emotional distress. A soldier is a danger to his unit if he cannot be relied upon to stand his ground on appropriate occasions. Mothers, likewise, will leave their children hideously vulnerable unless they can be relied upon to act out of love, making the necessary sacrifices. A pregnancy is an immense and life-transforming challenge, regardless of the woman’s circumstances, which is why motherhood must be viewed through a vocational lens. It must be understood as something bigger than oneself.
Honor has a unique capacity to help people internalize the demands of a role or office, in a way that is personally meaningful.
Honor has a unique capacity to help people internalize the demands of a role or office, in a way that is personally meaningful. As we are initiated into an honor-based subculture, we come to understand why a particular role matters and why it is worthwhile to become the sort of person who fills it faithfully. This is exactly what maternity requires.
When a woman becomes a mother, there is almost no limit to what the role may demand. Laws and social programs can give mothers some protection and assistance, but without interior resources, she is likely to fail her family and herself. Appropriate formation may help young women to grasp the magnitude of the maternal role, and this may prepare them to carry its burdens with greater grace and dignity.
Experienced mothers need to play a leading role here, helping to socialize young women and girls. It will be difficult or impossible to instill the right sensibilities, however, if society at large fails to recognize and reward maternal labors. Young women need to view the maternal vocation in an aspirational way, but that will not happen if matrons are largely invisible in society at large, or if they appear mainly as Cinderellas, stepping in when there are messes to be cleaned or scraped knees to bandage, but otherwise lingering at the sidelines. This kind of loving service is invaluable, and mothers will inevitably do a great deal of it, but to the fallen human mind it does not convey dignity, status or respect. Mothers need to be seen in positions that will inspire younger people to follow their own path. It must be remembered as well that people have different talents and temperaments, so a range of different models for motherhood are needed. We cannot expect everyone to be thrilled at the possibility of becoming Marmee from Little Women.
When a man or woman serves the state in some noteworthy way, we generally consider that person deserving of both formal honors and, in many cases, opportunities. Many state employees become eligible for pensions after a suitable period of employment. Military veterans get educational support, as well as preferential hiring status for many careers. Sometimes we offer small, honorary perquisites to people who have filled a particular role with distinction for a long time. An emeritus professor may or may not care about library privileges or the continued use of the faculty lounge. These little gestures still mean something, though. They signify that the individual’s contributions are valued and remembered.
The existence of an open-to-life Catholic mother can feel strangely liminal.
If grown children are grateful and reasonably successful, mothers may enjoy some assistance or shows of gratitude in their later years. Everything depends on the children, however. Mothers sacrifice their bodies and dedicate years of unpaid service to the great project of keeping the human race in existence. When their great task is completed, their service entitles them to nothing, at least in the eyes of our society and government: no benefits, no perquisites, no special educational or professional opportunities. From a social and material standpoint, they might as well have raised prize orchids instead of children. They are still largely invisible, watching from the sidelines as their children step into adult roles. Fame and fortune are not the things that truly matter in life, but they do help us to see what our culture values and honors. It will be difficult to persuade women to internalize a sense of maternal honor if they cannot see it mirrored in society at large.
As a young woman contemplating the abortion issue, I was deeply impressed by the injunction in Deuteronomy to “choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” I wanted to be the sort of person who chose life. I have tried to become that person, and given a chance, I would not advise my younger self to turn back. Still, I have a clearer understanding now of what that decision can cost. The existence of an open-to-life Catholic mother can feel strangely liminal. The world seems befuddled by the entire logic of our lives. We are constantly explaining ourselves to childhood friends, relatives or strangers on buses who gawk at our large families. It is an ominous sign for our culture when maternity feels liminal. But that incomprehension will not be resolved by judges or laws or expanded social safety nets.
It requires honor. Mothers must be honored, and we ourselves must also internalize a sense of honor, which compels us to nurture and protect the vulnerable lives that come into being within our bodies. This is the next step in building a culture of life.