Catholics and abortion: The question of priorities (Part II)

Last week, I argued that how Catholics respond to attacks on the lives of the unborn tests whether or not we believe the Lord’s words in Matthew 25.  My comments were in response to the question of whether it is appropriate for American Catholics to prioritize the issue of abortion to the degree that they have.  In today’s post, I will argue that for practical, as well as theological, reasons, it is right for Catholics to make abortion issue number one.

While opposition to abortion has been a part of Christian teaching since the Church first encountered the practice in the pagan world—as seen in the Didache, possibly the earliest non-Biblical source of Christian moral teaching, which states explicitly, “You shall not kill by abortion the fruit of the womb”—the pro-life movement is by no means limited to Catholics, or even Christians.

The basic ethical insight I discussed in last week’s post—that human dignity does not depend on a person’s utility or how we feel about that person—has been adopted as the foundation of our modern system of human rights.  In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson—no lover of orthodox Christianity—declared the right to life to be “self-evident” and “unalienable” because it is derived directly from the Creator.

In this foundational insight, American ideals and Catholic social thought overlap, so it is appropriate that American Catholics have shown particular leadership on the right to life issue.  As one prominent American archbishop put it, abortion is “the preeminent civil rights issue of our day.”  Some, however, such as Commonweal’s George Dennis O’Brien or Newsweek’s Lisa Miller have lambasted bishops who have taken such a stand, often insinuating that they are either gullible Republican dupes or scheming partisans themselves.

I believe such charges are grossly unfair.  Abortion is the most important issue the American Church confronts today, and our bishops are right to treat it as such.

The scale of the problem alone dwarfs other social issues.  Planned Parenthood’s own research arm puts the number of abortions in the United States at over 1.2 million yearly.  Statistics for some parts of the country, such as New York City, where the abortion rate tops 40% of all pregnancies (nearly 90,000 deaths), are even more horrifying.  Miller’s article, written early last year, notes the gravity of having 40 million people without health insurance in the United States—but no one would seriously suggest that 90,000 New Yorkers die every year from lack of health insurance.  In fact, excluding the unborn, not that many New Yorkers die every year, period.

I don’t mean to be overly grisly, but stack up the bodies of those who die from the death penalty every year in this country, the victims of September 11, other victims of terrorism, those who die from gunshot wounds, civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, military casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan, motor vehicle related deaths, and the number of Americans dying of malnutrition—and you won’t approach 1.2 million yearly.

Nor is the last of these, for example, commensurate with the sort of human rights violation legalized abortion represents; to make it so, we would have to imagine laws which allowed individuals to starve to death children who are legally dependent on them for protection.

I realize that such an analogy is so horrifying we recoil from thinking about it.  But what I am suggesting is that because of an unjust system of laws in this country (Roe v. Wade and the Supreme Court decisions that followed it) we are engaged in an institutionalized evil on the scale of the Stalinist purges, the Cambodian killing fields, the slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda, and the Nazi concentration camps.

A part of all of us—and a part of me too—wants to believe that such a horror can’t be true.  A part of me wants to say, “We’re Americans.  We don’t do such things.”  But ask the Cherokees whether Americans are capable of crimes against humanity.  Ask the Poles and the Jews whether sophisticated Western cultures are capable of mass slaughter.  All of history’s greatest crimes were committed by men and women who thought of themselves as good guys and their victims as less than human.

The main difference between what has been happening in clinics across this country for the thirty-eight years since Roe and the crimes of Stalin or Pol Pot or Hutu Power is that the murders committed in such regimes were the result of a systematic government policy, while ours are the product of the free market.  Unfortunately, the free market is far more efficient.

Some will no doubt object that statistics cannot tell the full story, and other less clear-cut factors need to be taken into account when weighing the moral gravity of particular political issues.  However, most other such factors tend to increase the weight of abortion as a social issue rather than decrease it.

If we are serious about the “preferential option for the poor,” the utter defenselessness of the victims of abortion should make us more, rather than less, willing to act in their defense.  If we profess a concern with the “marginalized,” it is hard to imagine anyone more marginalized than a child unable even to cry out on his own behalf, one rejected by parents and society alike.  Furthermore, we cannot limit our consideration of abortion’s victims to the unborn since many—probably most—of the women who procure abortions suffer in ways most of us can hardly imagine for years after their decision.  Turning what ought to be the primal relationship of care and love—the relationship between mother and child—into one of violence cannot help but wound the women involved at the core of their being.

But what is perhaps even more frightening than the suffering of those women who abort their unborn children—toward whom our primary reaction must be compassion—are those who have been rendered morally dead by abortion.  The “I had an abortion” campaign sponsored by Ms. magazine, for example, treats abortion as an act of liberation.  Even more troubling is how little abortion is thought of or even noticed on a daily basis by most Americans, how much we have come to accept this undercurrent of violence as a part of American life. What is most frightening to me about the “culture of death,” to use John Paul II’s phrase, is how cheerfully bourgeois that culture looks.  How much has our acceptance of this massive, pervasive violence dulled our moral sensitivities in ways we do not even appreciate, predisposing us to tolerate all manner of other evils?  As Hannah Arendt pointed out, evil is at its most powerful when it is at its most banal.

Overcoming “the banality of evil” is perhaps the most difficult task in the pro-life struggle, but it is one which America’s Catholic bishops have increasingly embraced.  It is also a largely thankless task because those whose lives these bishops defend are too small and too insignificant to write letters to Newsweek or to dispense honors and accolades in the press.

And yet, I maintain, our bishops are right to lift their voices in defense of the unborn.  Indeed, they must speak out, for they too will stand before Christ on judgment day.


5 Responses to Catholics and abortion: The question of priorities (Part II)

  1. Clark says:

    A very well constructed and emotional argument against abortion. Well done!
    While I believe that abortion should be treated as the central issue to the Church, I am afraid the Church cannot address it with the authority it should until every member of the Church: parishoners, priests and bishops address the “banality of evil” that has crept into our own house. Before we can stand before the world and lead morally, we must atone for the actions of some of the clergy. The bishops must come forward and be open and honest and ask forgiveness for any and all cover-ups of pedophilia.
    For like the parable in Luke 18, we, the church, must humble ourselves. I hope the Jesuits will lead the way.

    1 Timothy 3:5 how can any man who does not understand how to manage his own household take care of the Church of God?

  2. mary2 says:

    un UNBORN cannot die.

    • Anthony Lusvardi, SJ says:


      I’ve delayed responding to this comment because it is so obviously false that I was sure I was not understanding it correctly. Perhaps I am not, and you can correct me.

      You are no doubt familiar with the very sad phenomenon of stillbirths. This is when an unborn child dies in the womb, and then his or her mother gives birth to the body. Usually the child’s death can be detected ahead of time when, for example, the heartbeat stops. This is an example of an unborn child that is dead. An example of an unborn child that is alive is if the pregnancy goes normally, the child grows and develops in the womb, and finally is born shouting and crying. These are two different things.

      What happens in abortion is that a child that is alive (we know that he/she is alive if he/she is growing) is then made dead (through, for example, dismemberment or the use of some chemical poisons). If the unborn could not die, as you say, there would be no point in performing an abortion.

      As I say, perhaps I am misunderstanding your point, and if so, I hope you will correct me.


  3. Qualis Rex says:

    Anton – now you’re putting me in the awkward position of wondering which was better; part I or part II. Although in part II I do have one quibble; the current abortion rates and environment we have is indeed a result of systematic government policy. The US forced sterilization policies in the early part of the last century set the stage for the culture of death to come. The government, has built up a 3rd-rail, namely Planned Parenthood which effectively dominates and even coerces politics in many parts of the country, and often goes unchecked.

    PP has an inherrent “self-preservation” mechanism built into it to ensure it will continue to receive government funds and protection. Like the tobacco industry, it claims to have “branched out” to education, child-welfare and medical aid (they partner with Protestant sects in developing countries such as Ethiopia to convince the local population why they should have abortions…I’m not joking). But their core abortion practice in the US is of course the most lucrative. I could throw out stats such as 64% of women stated they felt pressured to abort, 79% stated they were not given other options by PP, women who abort ar 6 times more likely to commit suicide etc. But the bottom line is this is an organization sponsored (to the tune of $363 MILLION in our tax money a year) and protected by the US government, DESPITE what you rightfully point out about the constitution and the guarantees for all citizens (including unborn).

    On a final note, I will confirm your statement of “the pro-life movement is by no means limited to Catholics, or even Christians.” But I would be very hard-pressed to think of ANY church which has done more or carried the cause to the level of awareness than we have. I don’t think the question is whether or not our bishops should continue to speak out against abortion; I think think the question is why don’t they ALL?

  4. […] argued that for both theological and practical reasons, Catholics should prioritize opposition to abortion above other political issues.  Today […]

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