A Question About Abortion

A reader writes:

Here's an honest question. Yeah, it's a loaded question -- actually it's several related questions -- but I hope I'm asking it in a friendly spirit. Since this is about abortion, I better tell you up front: I think abortion is wrong, but I don't think it's murder. And by the way, I'm a pacifist.

This is the question: If a woman takes a drug that prevents a newly fertilized ovum from being implanted in her uterus, and thus ends her pregnancy, does her act possess exactly the same moral character as that of a woman who holds a gun to her six-year-old child's head and pulls the trigger? Or to ask the same question in a more general way: is an abortion morally identical to the murder of someone after they are born?

I ask because your rhetoric suggests you think the two acts are morally the same. And that seems to be what the church teaches. Is that correct?

If I'm right, doesn't it result in some fairly disturbing consequences? Especially considering the following:

--Neither political party shows much, or any, commitment to ending abortion.
--Pro-life political activism in its current form hasn't worked to end or even significantly limit abortion, and shows little sign of working any time in the future.

And finally:

--The church teaches that violence may be used to protect the innocent when all else fails.

No, I'm NOT trying to make an argument for violence! I oppose it.

My point is quite different: if you really believe what you say you believe, how do you  avoid the conclusion that violence -- e.g., burning down abortion clinics, killing abortion doctors, kidnapping women who seek abortions, assassinating pro-abortion politicians -- is the only appropriate response to this "holocaust"? How do the Catholic bishops avoid it?

I ask because when I see the kind of rhetoric pro-lifers use, I always wonder why they don't advocate a literal violent uprising against the abortion system. Heck, I never even see Catholic bishops, or hardly anyone else, insisting that pro-lifers have an objective moral obligation to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to stop abortion using purely nonviolent means! Why not? Do you folks still seriously believe pickets, marches, letters-to-the-editor, and voting Republican will make any difference at all? (But yeah, I know you're not a big advocate for voting Republican across the board.) Have you never heard of Gandhi or King?

I find myself increasingly suspecting that pro-lifers themselves secretly disbelieve their own rhetoric: they know abortion is bad, but not really murder, but they keep on using the rhetoric because they hate the pro-abortion camp so much and it makes them feel good to be morally righteous. Am I wrong?

If you've read this much, thanks, Mark!

I reprint this letter because I think it raises issues that pro-life Christians need to address if we are to bear a credible witness to our culture for the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception.  Note that it is written by somebody who is fundamentally friendly to the prolife cause and who is, indeed, a pacifist who has a greater abhorrence for the taking of human life, guilty or innocent, than most people have.  Yet it is not uncommon to see a letter that raises questions like this simply smacked down with contempt and the author rejected as a sort of fifth columnist who is trying to destroy the resolve of prolifers by asking "gotcha" questions.  I suspect part of that reaction is due to the fact that, on the one hand, we know at some level that the logic of the prolife argument points to the obvious conclusion that, yes indeed, that fertilized egg is a human fertilized egg with 46 chromosomes who will develop into a human being and not a goldfish or an oak tree--and therefore it is human and nothing else and entitled to the protection to which all innocent human  life is entitled.  Yet on the other hand, it is still difficult to articulate a reply to the points the writer raises.  We feel in our bones that there are all sorts of mitigating circumstances for, say, a panicked teenager under pressure from her boytfriend vs. a cold-blooded Nazi who places the barrel of the gun between his victim's eyes and fires. We know that abortion is murder--but we also know that nobody is particularly eager to condemn a desperate mother for murder nor to begin a civil war over the matter. And so we get tongue-tied and don't quite know how to respond.

I think the first thing that must be done is ask for a clarification of terms.  Very often, moral arguments can get muddled with a kind of aesthetic argument.  So, for instance, asking, "Does her act possess exactly the same moral character as that of a woman who holds a gun to her six-year-old child's head and pulls the trigger? Or to ask the same question in a more general way: is an abortion morally identical to the murder of someone after they are born?" seems to me to be similar to asking whether a crew of bombardiers, talking about their favorite football team and laughing about the card game last night--all while they are routinely unloading a payload of bombs on some Vietnamese hamlet as part of today's routine mission--may or may not be doing sometthing "morally identical" to a face to face act of murder.  Precisely what is missing is the element called "the face".  The simple fact is, it requires an extra kind of resolve to kill--or murder--when the victim is looking you in the eye.  So the gravity of the act may be the same (you just killed an innocent human being) but the culpability or the killer may be all over the map due to factors like interior freedom, understanding that a sin is being committed, etc.  Even in cases which the law does recognize as murder, this is so.  That's why there are different degrees of murder.

In the case of an abortion (where our legal culture is organized, ranked and ranged against the teaching of the Christian tradition and the normal moral intuitions of average person to perpetuate the lie that abortion is not the taking of innocent human life), it is quite possible that in our confused secular culture people could be subjectively propagandized so deeply that their conscience actually approves an intrinsically evil act and opposes an intrinsically virtuous one.  Certainly, we have seen plenty of examples of precisely this subjective approval of conscience among those who have been lied into imagining that the deliberate mass murder of civilians in the terror bombings of WWII were done "for the greater good".  It is not inconceivable, therefore, those who have absorbed false notions of compassion through no fault of their own might commit gravely evil acts such as abortion while regarding it as absolutely morally repugnant to, as my reader suggests, kill a six year old.  What this tells us, of course, is that that people can have varying degrees of moral culpability due to knowledge and freedom.

It does not, however, tell us a thing about the intrinsic evil of a given act itself. People can be sincere and sincerely wrong.  The heart can have reasons that reason knows nothing of.  One of the most excruciating--and damning--indictments of the moral legacy of slavery ever written is a passage in the greatest American novel of all time: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  In chapter 31, Huck wrestles with the moral dilemma of whether to betray his friend Jim, a runaway slave, in obedience to all that his culture had taught him was "right"--or to "violate his conscience".  It is painful--and instructive--reading to see how real conscience vs. false conscience can war--and how real conscience can triumph in unexpected ways, even as the person exercising that conscience may feel guilty for doing so.

Once I said to myself it would be a thousand times better for Jim to be a slave at home where his family was, as long as he's got to be a slave, and so I'd better write a letter to Tom Sawyer and tell him to tell Miss Watson where he was. But I soon give up that notion, for two things: she'd be mad and disgusted at his rascality and ungratefulness for leaving her, and so she'd sell him straight down the river again; and if she didn't, everybody naturally despises an ungrateful nigger, and they'd make Jim feel it all the time, and so he'd feel ornery and disgraced. And then think of me! It would get all around, that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom; and if I was to ever see anybody from that town again, I'd be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame. That's just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don't want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide it, it ain't no disgrace. That was my fix exactly. The more I studied about this, the more my conscience went to grinding me, and the more wicked and low-down and ornery I got to feeling. And at last, when it hit me all of a sudden that here was the plain hand of Providence slapping me in the face and letting me know my wickedness was being watched all the time from up there in heaven, whilst I was stealing a poor old woman's nigger that hadn't ever done me no harm, and now was showing me there's One that's always on the lookout, and ain't agoing to allow no such miserable doings to go only just so fur and no further, I most dropped in my tracks I was so scared. Well, I tried the best I could to kinder soften it up somehow for myself, by saying I was brung up wicked, and so I warn't so much to blame; but something inside of me kept saying, "There was the Sunday school, you could a gone to it; and if you'd a done it they'd a learnt you, there, that people that acts as I'd been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire."

It made me shiver. And I about made up my mind to pray; and see if I couldn't try to quit being the kind of a boy I was, and be better. So I kneeled down. But the words wouldn't come. Why wouldn't they? It warn't no use to try and hide it from Him. Nor from me, neither. I knowed very well why they wouldn't come. It was because my heart warn't right; it was because I warn't square; it was because I was playing double. I was letting on to give up sin, but away inside of me I was holding on to the biggest one of all. I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger's owner and tell where he was; but deep down in me I knowed it was a lie-and He knowed it. You can't pray a lie- I found that out.

So I was full of trouble, full as I could be; and didn't know what to do. At last I had an idea; and I says, I'll go and write the letter- and then see if I can pray. Why, it was astonishing, the way I felt as light as a feather, right straight off, and my troubles all gone. So I got a piece of paper and a pencil, all glad and excited, and set down and wrote:

Miss Watson your runaway nigger Jim is down here two mile below Pikesville and Mr. Phelps has got him and he will give him up for the reward if you send.

I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking- thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

"All right, then, I'll go to hell"- and tore it up.

This is why we are told not to judge others.  The complexities of how people--particularly people deprived of the guidance of the Catholic moral tradition--navigate questions of conscience are past searching out.

At the same time, the fact that culpability for grave intrinsic evils can vary widely does not in the slightest take away the fact that something is a grave evil.  And the simple fact is that the deliberate destruction of innocent human life--at any stage of development--is a grave evil.  The fact that one is killing a human being at a particularly early stage of their development remains eternally a fact.  How one happens to feel about the aesthetic difference between a single egg and a trillion-celled baby does not enter into it in weighing the objective morality of the act: a human being has been murdered.  But in weighing the morality of the act we don't just look at the grave matter.  We also look at the knowledge and freedom of the one committing that act.  And in our culture, these are typically radically impaired.  What is necessary is not judgment, but mercy.

As to the question of using violence to stop the evil, I think it is in the nature of the gospel to assume that non-violence rather than violence is the first option and can only be abandoned when all other options have been exhausted.  This is essentially the point of just war teaching.  The Church typically endorses subsidiarity in dealing with social issues.  Subsidiarity is the notion that those closest to the problem should deal with the problem.  There is only one extremely notable exception to this principle.  When it comes to the use of violence, the Church labors to take the matter out of local hands and kick it as far up the ladder of authority as possible.  This means that rather than Hatfields and McCoys, it is the state that decides who needs killin'.  The practical result of this is the Church's absolute opposition to lynch mobs, vigilantes and self-appointed executioners of God's wrath.  Similarly, the state of Illinois does not get to declare war on China if the Chinese ambassador says something insulting about Obama.  The federal government has the responsibility to take us into war.  And, indeed, we have seen the Church likewise try to beef up the notion that some supranational body like the UN be given the final authority for military actions so that even nation-states like the US can't go to war without the approval of a higher authority still.

The point of this, as with all Just War teaching is simply this: the Church's default position is peace, not war.  The use of violence is a last resort and the Church's teaching is heavily slanted to make violence and bloodshed as difficult as possible for our fallen race to excuse.  So the notion of "solving" the abortion problem by turning the US into a society like Beirut, Lebanon--honeycombed with vigilante violence and careening toward disintegration or an iron-fisted police state trying to stay the collapse is a manifestly terrible idea.  It will not stop abortion.  It will only guarantee the establishment of a post-Christian police state with abortion on demand.  It would be not merely sinful, but stupid.

The Church has been engaged in a war for 2000 years.  That war is against death--namely, the second death.  That war is to be won by the power of moral suasion, not by violence.  Christians have sometimes forgotten this and tried to compel conversions in the hope of saving people from the second death by force.  The price we have paid for this has been a massive loss of credibility.  Trying to stave off the first death by acfs of vigilante violence is likewise the claim that we can do evil that good may come of it. 

So yeah, I do believe pickets, marches, and above all, prayer, do make a real difference.  Abortion clinics are closing as a result of 40 Day for Life efforts and similar initiatives.  The last thing on earth that would help the prolife movement would be violent resistance to abortion.  It is the heart that must change and the heart responds to prayer and love, not molotov cocktails.

Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, April 17, 2014.

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