Abortion: some ruminations

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Abortion: some ruminations

It will be obvious to readers that this is not a polished essay. I apologize for the paragraphs-by-number, but if I wait until I have put it into finished form, I may never get it done.(I’ll undoubtedly be editing this a bit in days to come but am hastening to put it out now before I lose my nerve.)

Callling my blog posts “ruminations” suggests a loosely organized, penultimate product. At the same time, though, “ruminations,” for me, has a different connotation than “thoughts” or even “reflections.” Rumination suggests a longer, more deliberate, “ruminative” process, however incomplete it may be. 

I have been ruminating about abortion for many decades, but I don’t think that I have ever written anything about it until now. Since the election of Supreme Justice Brett Kavanaugh, however, the atmosphere has begun to change dramatically in a way I had not foreseen. The debate about the issues surrounding Roe vs. Wade has suddenly made repeal seem possible, and it seems increasingly irresponsible for Protestant Christians to remain silent. I am therefore going to try to organize the way I have been trying to think about this problem and explain why I have not come to any clear conclusion. I’d like to think that this will be dialectical. I don’t mean this as a “middle road” (the much-touted Episcopal via media has always seemed like wimping out to me). I mean living in the painful tension between conflicting views. John Keats coined the phrase “negative capability,” which, in my view, is necessary for Christian ethical reflection.

The Roman Catholic Church is profoundly wounded, these days, but they do have teaching—the magisterium—and there is something to be said about that. Living in dialectical tension means showing respect for that, however hypocritical it may seem. I have been influenced, over the years, by the thinking of the Roman Catholic Church on sexual and reproductive matters. This teaching is widely derided by the culture, but I have always been impressed with the way that their best thinkers have worked out comprehensive ethical positions at length. I still remember years ago reading a Catholic defense of the “rhythm method” of birth control that impressed me, even though I never tried to live by it. Ruminating about this sort of double-mindedness has not led me to any fixed position. By writing this down, however, I hope I might make a contribution toward a more forthright way of being Christian in the midst of the impending conflict.

Here are some of the factors as I see them:

1)      Speaking first for myself, I believe abortion in all cases (even the morning-after pill) is a form of violating and killing human life and is therefore deeply disordered and an offense to the Creator.

2)      We are presently seeing a change in the political landscape which appears to be encouraging many in public life, perhaps especially men, to move to the right on the issue of abortion.

3)      This seems to be particularly true in the matter of exceptions. When male politicians in danger of losing their seats take an extreme position against exceptions in the case of rape, incest, human trafficking (the life of the mother usually, but not always, escapes from this list), it invites deep skepticism about their motives.

4)      One must wonder why it is that so many (not all, but it seems a majority) people who are vehemently opposed to abortion are so indifferent to loss of life by guns, loss of life on the southern border, loss of life because of poor medical care, loss of life at the hands of the police. It is not necessary to be soft on crime in order to be concerned about abortions.

5)      With regard to the timing of abortions, most people probably feel more uneasy about an abortion the longer the pregnancy proceeds. I personally would have great difficulty continuing to support abortion after the first trimester, but who would be the judge of the exceptional circumstances in the second trimester? I think I would virtually always oppose third-trimester abortions except in the life-of-the-mother case—but the matter of what happens to those babies is of paramount importance and should always be part of the discussion.

6)      I have always been struck by the vacuity of proposals to care for mothers who are forced to carry babies to term against their will. This is often the case with men, I’ve noticed. Lip service is given (“we must be sensitive to these women’s needs,” “we must offer support to these women,” “we must have programs to carry them through and beyond delivery,” “we must provide for these babies”) but they seem to me to be empty rhetoric. We know now what happened to many unwanted children whose lot was to be housed in cheerless orphanages where they often became part of the nameless and dishonored dead. I have not seen any truly impressive proposals, let alone actual programs, for effectively addressing the problem of caring for reluctant mothers and unwanted babies.

7)      Abortion has become so widespread that there are very few American-born babies for childless parents to adopt.

8)      Women have always found ways to have abortions. We know this. This will always be the case, human nature being what it is.

9)      Because there will always be abortions, it will always be the poor, underprivileged women who will suffer. This has often been a decisive factor in the thinking of those who are against abortion but reluctant to make it illegal.

10)  Abortions undergone because of inconvenience are particularly hard to defend ethically.

11)  The role of men who have fathered children who will be aborted is deeply problematic. Suppose a man fathers a child and pressures, or forces, the woman into having an abortion (a frequent scenario). Suppose a man who fathers a child is deeply distressed that the child is to be aborted and seeks to prevent it (less frequent, in my experience, but significant nevertheless). Suppose a man offers to adopt such a child and is refused by the woman who goes ahead with the abortion (also infrequent but significant).

12)  For these and other reasons, it is wrong and deeply unChristian to speak simply of “a woman’s right to choose.” There are two other human beings in this equation, the father and the unborn (not to mention God). Situations in life differ drastically; ethical decisions should not be made with reference to the woman alone.

13)  The rhetoric of the “pro-choice” movement, including the ubiquitous “woman’s right to choose,” is notably silent about the fact that a nascent human being is involved in these disputes. One looks in vain for any concern about the fetus having the right to choose not to be born.

14)  No one knows when life begins. I’m not sure that science will ever yield a certain answer. Certainly the timing of viability is now earlier than was previously thought, given the advances in medical neonatal care. Personally, I have a hard time thinking of the embryo as a mere “blob of tissue.” There is no agreement about this, but it is hard not to suspect that “pro-choice” advocates of bending the data, such as it is, to their cause. Various signs of unmistakable human life have been identified as the indisputable moment, including of course the much-mentioned fetal heartbeat, but I am not convinced that this point can ever be satisfactorily made, since it is so closely linked to the abortion issue. Addendum: I’ve been paying attention to some answers I’ve received pointing out that the embryo has biological life from inception. That, surely, is true. But (to give an example) we just had an exterminator come and destroy an ant’s nest under our house. That was a lot of biological life. Was that sinful (a serious question)? I don’t think the category of biological life is enough to give us much  guidance about the timing of the development of a human being.     

15)  The mainline churches, I believe, have been seriously delinquent in teaching about what is involved—theologically and ethically—with regard to abortion. In contrast to Catholic ethicists with their long, carefully reasoned discussions about the foundation of the Roman church’s implacable position against abortion, liberal Protestants have just gone along with secular categories and conclusions. No genuinely theological treatment of the matter has emerged on the “pro-choice” side, to my knowledge, to equal the Roman Catholic position papers.

16)  Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York, delivered a famous speech at the University of Notre Dame in 1984 in which he declared “The Catholic Church is my spiritual home. My heart is there, and my hope.” He meant it, and he lived it. But in that speech, courageously delivered in the heart of American Catholic academia, he also declared that as politician he would not support making abortion illegal. As a resident of New York State since 1969, I admired Cuomo père for his powerful intellect, his searching mind, and his demonstrable conscientiousness. (I wish I could say the same for his son Andrew.) I remember being deeply impressed by that speech at the time. In some ways, Mario Cuomo did a far better job of arguing for legal abortion without relinquishing personal and religious opposition to it in practice than the Protestant churches have done since that time 35 years ago. His position is still fiercely debated today; the speech and the controversy can easily be perused online.

17)  Mario Cuomo also stood firmly and theologically against the death penalty. In my opinion, formed over decades, Christian faith requires opposition to the death penalty (contra John Calvin). I hold to a form of Joseph Cardinal Bernadin’s idea of the “seamless garment” (evoking the robe of Jesus). Here’s a quotation from Bernadin’s 1984 lecture, “A Consistent Ethic of Life: Continuing the Dialogue,” in which he attempts to respond to his critics: “Nuclear war threatens life on a previously unimaginable scale; abortion takes life daily on a horrendous scale; public executions are fast becoming weekly events in the most advanced technological society in history; and euthanasia is now openly discussed and even advocated. Each of these assaults on life has its own meaning and morality; they cannot be collapsed into one problem, but they must be confronted as pieces of a larger pattern.”


The Roman Catholic Church is profoundly wounded, these days, but they do continue to have teaching—the magisterium—and there is something to be said for that. My experience (extensive, but admittedly not exhaustive) of the mainline Protestant churches is that abortion is simply not discussed except privately in the pastor’s study or the small support group. Therefore the mantra of “a woman’s right to choose” is not challenged. We are looking at the possibility of the most serious conflict on this issue that we have ever seen in this country. We are already a grievously divided nation, and the thought that the Protestant churches will stand by silently, or continue to take a pro-abortion position with insufficient reflection, is morally compromising in an extreme degree. It would be better, it seems to me, to follow thinkers like Mario Cuomo into the depths of the difficulty and continue to live in the tension than to say nothing and take no position.

For myself, in this as in other ethical and moral dilemmas, I pray for clarity of vision but also for God’s forgiveness in the mess we human beings can always be depended upon to make of our lives and the lives of others. Lord, have mercy upon us.

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