TO BE ‘PRO-CHOICE’ IS TO HOLD THAT A WOMAN HAS THE RIGHT TO CHOOSE whether to proceed with, or to terminate pregnancy. In this chapter let us examine this proposition in general, then in detail, and then investigate its underlying motivation.
The proposition is sometimes accepted as a self- evident truth on one of two grounds. One ground is that proceeding with a pregnancy and abortion are neither objectively right nor objectively wrong, but morally indifferent, morally neutral, options between which the woman has a right to choose as she wishes. This is however untrue if in the previous chapter it has been validly argued that proceeding with a pregnancy is objectively right, and abortion is objectively wrong.
The other ground for accepting the proposition as a self-evident truth is that (again) the two options are neither objectively right nor objectively wrong, but options to which it is the woman’s prerogative to give moral content: in other words it is for the woman to determine which option is right and which is wrong. It must be replied that any serious moral thought reveals that it is not the sentiments or deliberations of a given individual that make certain actions right (such as showing compassion to one who suffers) and certain actions wrong (such as destroying an innocent, defenceless life) but that (again) they are right or wrong objectively.
From the Catholic standpoint this second ground may be expressed in one of two ways: the claim to the moral autonomy of the conscience and the claim to the moral autonomy of man. These two claims are addressed in detail in the encyclical Veritatis Splendor.
With regard to the first claim, the Church teaches that man must act according to the moral law. It is this moral law which is revealed in the conscience with respect both to general principles of conduct and to particular actions. As is observed in Veritatis Splendor s.54 quoting from Gaudium et Spes: ‘In the depths of his conscience man detects a law which he does not impose on himself, but which holds him to obedience…’ The judgments of conscience are, however, not infallible and should be corrected if in conflict with the moral law, because ‘Conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil. Rather there is profoundly imprinted upon it a principle of obedience vis-à- vis the objective norm…’ (Veritatis Splendor s.60 quoting from Dominum et Vivificantem). With regard to the second claim, Veritatis Splendor 232
s.35 quotes from Genesis 2:17: ‘Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat’, and comments as follows: ‘With this imagery Revelation teaches that the power to decide what is good and what is evil does not belong to man but to God alone’. For man to abrogate moral autonomy to himself, for him to constitute himself the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong is to disobey this commandment of God, and to seek to ‘be like God’ but ‘without God, before God, and not in accordance with God’ (St. Maximus the Confessor, Ambigua: PG 91, 1156c). It is not just a sin: it is the prototype of sin.
What particular factors are thought to give a woman the ‘right to choose’? Let us now evaluate in the light of the remarks in the previous chapter the most popular feminist116 arguments for abortion. These include the slogans referred to in that chapter.
1. ‘Our Body Our Choice’
The slogan suggests that the unborn:
- (a) is part of the mother’s body;
- (b) is located within the mother’s body;
- (c) cannot exist outside the other’s body (the so-called ‘viability’ argument).
As Romano Amerio notes in Iota Unum (s.90): ‚Feminism…in its last unfoldings…is…the negation of marriage and the family‘.
(a) is untrue: the unborn has a body of his own; (b) is true; (c) is true up to about 6 months from conception.
Can (b) and (c) to the extent that it is true, justify abortion? Does the unborn’s location within the mother and dependence upon the mother justify killing him? Not if, as has been argued in the previous chapter, the unborn is a human being (rather than a noxious parasite), a person, with dignity in himself, created in the image and likeness of God.
In illustration: take an invalid dependent on another person for life. His dependence clearly does not justify killing him, wherever he may be located.
2. ‘A Woman’s Right to Choose’
What factors might this slogan be thought to cover other than factors (a)-(c)?
(d) The woman’s self-sacrifice in proceeding with a pregnancy, in addition to trauma if it resulted from rape;
- (e) The trauma of giving a child into adoption;
- (f) The self-sacrifice involved in bringing up a child especially if the child is disabled.
This trauma and self-sacrifice involved in these cases is undeniable, but must be seen in the light of the rewards of giving birth to and bringing up a child (particularly a disabled child) if this is undertaken with love.
Now in line with the considerations adduced in the previous chapter, any sufferings here do not clearly outweigh the sufferings involved in abortion, whether to the mother or to her progeny, but in any case cannot justify killing an innocent human being. In short, the fact that a person causes one suffering unintentionally does not justify one to kill that person.
In illustration: one’s suffering in carrying for an invalid does not justify one to kill the invalid.
3. The prospective suffering of the child in being born disabled or unwanted
Now, disabled children do, perhaps, suffer more than other children in general but as experience shows, if they are brought up in a loving family, can lead a fulfilled life. Unwanted children may be adopted; it is not evident that adopted children suffer greatly.
In any case it must be said again that any suffering that may be experienced by the child does not clearly outweigh the suffering involved in abortion, and cannot justify killing an innocent human being. With regard to the second point: the possible future suffering of a person does not justify one in killing that person.
In illustration: imagine an invalid who is not at the moment suffering; the possibility of him suffering in the future does not justify one in killing him now.
4. No Return to Back-Street Abortions
This slogan is thought to justify abortion under the present law as preventing ‘backstreet’ abortions. The slogan expresses the following position: Abortion under the present law, which involves relatively little suffering for the mother (being largely untraumatic and hygienic) is preferable to ‘backstreet’ abortion – which involves much suffering to the mother (being traumatic and not invariably hygienic).
This argument is also invalid because although under the present law the circumstances of the operation are less traumatic, there are many more women and children involved so that in fact there is both more suffering and more killing.
It may be added here that it would appear117 that the quantity of women who died after ‘backstreet’ abortions in Britain had been vastly over-estimated and was in fact already diminishing before the Abortion Act was passed.
As remarked earlier, it is suffering that gives weight to the principal pro-choice arguments, as has been seen in varying degrees in these four arguments. The appeal to suffering is a feature of that hedonism which has been discussed above, an approach to moral reasoning which prescribes the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain or (in its slightly more sophisticated version) the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of suffering.
It has been argued in the previous chapter that hedonism is a shallow philosophy and hence defective. Just as its shallowness was seen before in its failure to respect dignity of man, so its shallowness is shown here by its failure to respect the importance, the gravity of suffering. (Indeed, as suggested before, the two types of failure are related).
A human being has objective dignity and the fact of his suffering is important and grave: any philosophical or religious system of depth recognises these truths. Suffering is not an enemy to be avoided at all costs but something to be accepted and born patiently and an occasion for learning compassion. A right response to suffering is essential for a life of integrity and spiritual growth: ‘whoever does not know how to suffer does not know how to live’. (Human Life Under Threat by Josef Cardinal Ratzinger) The deepest understanding of suffering is clearly the Christian understanding: namely, that suffering is the highest vocation of all for it is the vocation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It is for man humbly to accept his sufferings as sent by God, to offer them to Him as a loving gift, and as the completion of ‘what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His Body, that is, the Church’ (Colossians 1.24).
Suffering does not give the woman the ‘right to choose’, then; it may, however, give her the belief that she does have this right. In other words it is not so much a rational as a psychological ground for this belief. It may be noted here that an individual’s philosophical outlook often reflects his or her psychological make-up: atheism, for example, typically results from anger that finds its origin in disappointment, suffering or oppression, especially during childhood.
The typical psychological antecedents for the pro- choice stance may perhaps be described as follows: The motivation for abortion is hedonistic (issuing from considerations of pain, suffering or self-interest – see the last chapter), and will typically flow from a hedonistic sexual relationship. Such a relationship treats persons as objects. The woman, who is often the more sensitive party, feels this more deeply: in short, she feels maltreated and abused. If she then conceives and the man refuses to care for her or to take responsibility for their child, and especially if he abandons her, she feels still further maltreated and abused. Her natural response is to become angry and to assert herself as the sole arbiter of her future: she has the right, she feels, to choose abortion, or pregnancy, childbirth, and the raising of the child, together with the concomitant transformation of her entire life. If, in addition, she is told that abortion is wrong and that she must alone bear the life- transforming consequences of the sexual act, and particularly if she is told this by a male and/or in an unsympathetic manner, she will feel a victim yet again of ‘male domination’ and self-interest and all the more justified in her pro-choice stance. We see, then, how this stance is grounded in the woman’s suffering. We also see the role played by anger (which explains the militant nature of the pro-choice movement) and the principle role played by aggression: the aggressive behaviour of the male leading to the aggressive stance of the female, leading in turn to the supremely aggressive act of abortion.
Aggression leads to aggression, machismo leads to feminism (as Cardinal Ratzinger points out in ‘Human Life under Threat’), conduct unworthy of a man leads to conduct unworthy of a woman. What is required in place of aggression is first that the man love, respect, and honour the woman. She will then respond in like manner. When a woman becomes pregnant and, perhaps because unmarried, becomes confused and afraid, she deserves again to be accorded the same love, respect, and honour. She deserves to be helped to fulfil her deepest needs, namely by being given support and care during pregnancy, childbirth, and the raising of her child.
The shallow response to the woman’s suffering is to advocate and facilitate abortion, to be led by compassion in regard to an evil that one can see to bring about an evil that one cannot see. For abortion does not merely serve to terminate the woman’s immediate suffering but exchanges it for greater suffering and for death: the suffering and death of the child together with the long-term suffering and sometimes even the suicide of the mother.
In short, abortion is wrong, and in the words of Pope John Paul II in ‘Crossing the Threshold of Hope’ (p.205): ‘It is not possible to speak of the right to choose when a clear moral evil is involved, when what is at stake is the commandment ‘Do not kill!’ Rather (p.206) ‘in firmly rejecting ‘pro-choice’ it is necessary to become courageously ‘pro-woman’ promoting a choice that is truly in favour of women… who if they enjoy our support are… capable of heroism’.
The original author of this blog passed away in July of 2016. RIP Father Carota.