Lesson 16: Your Responses About Abortion

"Competing I have been impressed with the conversation that has taken place here around abortion. It reminds me of the public discussion fifty years ago when the issue first went public. In those days, many of us were enriched by people freely sharing their insights. I found that happening again as I read your comments.

Let me report what I think I heard. First, people seemed to test any teaching that didn’t align with their personal experience. At least our readers rejected the binary either-or choice between natural law or individual rights which is being forced on us by many politicians and theologians. Our folk called for dealing with the reality of a far more complex decision, based largely on their understanding of events and relationships in their own lives.

I resonate with that, often summarizing the discussion half a century ago with a humorous story that went something like this: Three pastors are discussing whether there should be a law outlawing abortion. The first says he supports such a law, because his church believes abortion kills a living person. The second reports he opposes it, because his church believes a woman has a right to make the decision for herself. And the third claims he will vote against it, because his 15 year-old daughter is pregnant.

I think we all recognize the vulnerability of that ethical stance, but nonetheless see the validity of it at the present time. When the leaders and institutions of our community offer more chaos than order, we are left to our own common sense for making the best possible decisions in light of the information available to us and our sense of accountability to God, neighbor, and self.

The second thing I heard was questioning whether the abortion issue is as central to the Gospel as many churches are now making it. People observe that Jesus never said anything about it. I would go even further and ask if any eternal laws are at the heart of the Gospel message. I think Christian decision-making is based on the theological virtues whose beauty is flexibility rather than rigidity. That decision-making is informed by faith in the story of salvation, inspired by hope in the vision of the future promised in that story, and characterized by the caring and sharing of redemptive love. Stories and visions maintain an ambiguity that enables those using faith, hope, and love address the singularity of real life situations. Although the Gospel certainly supports life, it offers no grounds for making abortion a litmus test for judging who follows Jesus.

I also heard responders rejecting any position that regards abortion as murder. In fact, I was criticized for claiming the fetus is a living being, because the critic believed that inferred that all abortions killed a person. The challenge is pertinent when present-day political talk suggests there should be legal penalties for performing or having an abortion. Nonetheless, I continue to regard the fetus as a form of life while remaining convinced we have reason to see qualitative differences between a stem cell and a three month old fetus, between a born child and a fetus, and between a mother and a fetus. Quite frankly, the Genesis creation story includes animal life in this implied spectrum of life. Humans are prohibited from eating animals until God compensates for their weakness in the Noah covenant. Our participants wanted to insist that all life is sacred, but felt speaking against taking life in warfare, capital punishment, and standing your ground is just as critical as opposing abortion.

Calls for that kind of accountability were voiced in a number of the responses. Whether the charge was that old white men have no business telling any woman what to do with their bodies or that compromised institutions have no authority imposing moral laws on others, the implication seemed to be there is something else going on besides teaching a natural law.

My own experience leads me to think this is related to men’s abdication of responsibility. At one time when a woman in my parish became pregnant, inevitably the families of the man and woman gathered in my office to discuss how they were going to handle “the problem.” I can remember vividly the first time the man’s family refused to take any responsibility. This increasingly became the perspective and eventually neither family used my office for addressing the situation. Because this turning point coincided with the introduction of the anti-abortion issue in public discussion, I find myself looking for a misogynist nuance in the debate.

You might read these responses as support for a pro-choice agenda, however, I did not perceive this. The critiques rather indicated a desire to keep the decisions outside of politics as well as reluctance to support laws that would criminalize abortion. I think people felt a need for a lot more creative discussion before we change things.

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  1. Kerry says:

    Once again, a thoughtful analysis that gives me plenty to think about. I think that the flexibility of virtues you write about here is probably akin to what Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas call ‘prudence,’ and its a virtue – the queen of virtues, according to Thomas – that in fact enables us to make reasonable moral decisions in the first place. Thanks, Fritz.

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