Sunday, February 27, 2005

JCecil on an Abortion Legislation Compromise

Joe Cecil of In Today's News has a post on a compromise to the abortion issue. I was typing up a response in his comment box, but then it was getting too long, so I decided to put my thoughts here.

I'm not responding to everything in the post, or making a statement on my position on the issue. I am pro-choice, I think the later the abortion the higher the burden of availability and that to effectively and truthfully even begin to address the issue, you have to approach it from the demand-side, i.e, why are women having abortions in the first place.

But in regard to Joe's post, go read it first, and here are a couple of points that I note:

Pro Choicers are not necessarily basing their arguments in favor of choice on the issue of personhood as Joe appears to assume. That may be the argument for some, but many others are well aware that there is a person in there. The fact is that everyone knows that at some point in the equation the fetus is a person, any statement to the contrary by anyone is just quibbles. So the issue is not so linear as to when we can all agree on when personhood is achieved. The issue is not about justifying or advocating abortion, but about having the freedom to make that tragic choice when all options have been considered. So my point is that Pro choicers are not saying abortion is good, but that sometimes people are reduced or forced into that choice and it is a tragic choice because they are aware that a human being's life is being ended.

I remember in my fervent pro-life days, five of us enlightened guys were debating the issue with two unelightened ladies. One point they kept making over and over was what if you can't care for the child and it is going to suffer? To which we replied, "So you want to kill the child because you can't care for it?" Their answer in unison was an emphatic, "Yes"!

Now that threw me off kilter majorly. One of our arguments in the pro-life thing was that the only reason that people could support choice was that they dehumanized the unborn child or that if they didn't then they were cold heart evil people. Well we all knew these ladies very well that they were normal good, grade A egg types. So much for that argument. From then on, something bothered me, and it was that they were seeing something that I wasn't. For one, they did not view the issue as involving a monadic abstract "life" distinct from everything and everyone else. This brings me to another issue.

The other issue is that this whole debate has ceased to be about "life" itself. The term effectively means nothing anymore. There is no such thing as "life." There are living organism, living persons, etc, but no such thing as life, except of course, when we start speaking in the spiritual sense of God's zoe "In Him was life (zoe)." There is no life there are only people.

One significant contribution of Gaudium et Spes in Vatican II was that it refurbished the definition of what it meant to be human and made in God's image from the traditional staid viewpoint. Traditionally, as human beings, we said that we are made in God's image because we have a will and intellect. GS agreed with that but added a third characteristic that is no less important.

But God did not create man as a solitary, for from the beginning "male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27). Their companionship produces the primary form of interpersonal communion. For by his innermost nature man is a social being, and unless he relates himself to others he can neither live nor develop his potential. [GS 12]

The public and social dimension of our existence is not simply a cultural accident, it is essential to be being human is. The individual attributes of being human are no more important than the social dimensions of our nature. The whole discussion of "life" issues has been reduced to an abstract and incomplete notion of human beings. Thus, it becomes then about fighting for malnourished principles and definitions and less about fighting for persons.

The aforementioned lively discussion with the ladies opened my eyes to the fact that their notion of life hinged, not on mere existence, but on human dignity defined in fuller terms of living with dignity as a human. The pro-life movement is concerned primarily and solely about simple physical existence. It is enough that a baby is born, that's pro-life. It matters little, if at all, that the child is born into abject poverty, has nothing to look forward to but being sexually abused, extreme hunger, disease, drugs, etc. That's a separate issue for pro-lifers. Those are issues that can be turned over to the social justic committee. But these ladies brought home to me the fact that life is more than simply existing.

My experience with those ladies also highligthed a key turing point for me. In my days in the pro-life movement and it is the case now, the boilerplate context is that choice is about convenience. That is, a woman wakes up some morning, has coffee and bagels with friends, decides that she is no longer interested in her baby, gets an abortion at 2 pm in time to make the movies by 5:30 pm. It was then I realized that people who advocate choice are not doing this because they enjoy seeing babies die. It first hit me then that these people care and are doing what they do because they believe it is the right and caring thing to do. These ladies said they would have an abortion if they felt that hope was lacking for their baby. That was not concvenience, that was love from their veiwpoint.

Now, I know about all that "where there is life there is hope" plattitude stuff and everyone has examples of how people rise from impossible situations to a life of dignity. That is not the point. Such heart warming stories mean nothing to the millions of children who go to bed extremely hungry and cold every night; or to those born into slavery, servitued, or faminine, or war, etc. For every heart warming story of success, there are a million tragic stories of people whose lives were hell. (One reason why I like the book of Ecclesiastes, it doesn't mince words about the fundamental absurdity and injustice of existence in this world. Say all you want, in the final analysis, "vanity of vanity all is vanity" or in other words, crap.) As much as like to hope so, "it" doesn't always work out.

The pro-life movement thrives on a few key things, one such thing is the abstraction of "life" and an abstract stripped idea of personhood, i.e, "life" is simply physically existing. The pro-choice movement counters with a concrete realism, i.e, that abortion is a tragedy, but the fact is that to respect what it means to be human, there are a lot of moving parts that have to move in unison. That is more complicated task and one that the pro-life movement has shown no interest in.


Blogger Jcecil3 said...


I want to be charitable in saying this, but I simply am at a loss for words. With all due respect to you as a person, your argument for the pro-choice position strikes me as completely absurd.

You correctly point out that the Church added a dimension to its teaching on the meaning of human personhood in GS, where we image God not only as individuals with mind and will, but as relational beings - social beings.

I refer precisely to this notion of personhood in the argument that personhood can be determined at implantaion, when the unborn child has definitely established a relationship with the mother. It is the unborn child who is in control of this relationship. The unborn child is sending the signals to the mother that cause morning sickness, etc....

Up to the point of your quotation of GS I was following you.

But where your argument turns to what appears to be complete absurdity is that you are basically saying that there is justification for killing not only an innocent human being, but an innocent human person!

I believe that's simply an indefensible position.

You explicitly admit that pro-choicers, including yourself, will admit that the unborn is a human person, but that there are instances where killing an innocent human person when that person's life will be impoverished to such a degree as to lack human dignity is a moral imperative.

You accuse pro-lifers of merely protecting the child until it is born, and then turning the baby over to the social justice committee. I am on the social justice committee, and Catholics have often been at the forefront of social justice efforts in this country.

Furthermore, even conservative pro-life Republicans in my parish are very committed to works of charity.

Your comment is simply a false projection made by many pro-choicers who don't spend any time with pro-lifers to see how we live. As a Catholic who does spend some time with us, you certainly know better. I'll accept the criticism that we can do more, but to say we do nothing is simply a falsehood.

But aside from what pro-lifers do or do not do to improve the life of people after birth, you are arguing that it is acceptable in certain instances to kill an innocent human person regardless of whether that person is born or unborn.

You even admit that you posed the question to pro-choicers in your pro-life days, and you were shocked when they responded there may be instances where this is just. You should have been shocked, and I am shocked to hear you repeat such an absurd agrument as though it has merit.

You decided that since these people were decent "grade A eggs" they must see something you don't.


That's where you went wrong. These people may be decent "grade A eggs", but even saints make mistakes, and we are all sinners except for Jesus and Mary. I can love the person and condemn the sin. They do not see something I don't see, but they fail to see something I see.

It is always and everwhere evil to kill an innocent human person.

It is precisely because it is always and everwhere wrong to kill an innocent human person that I can say George W. Bush's war in Iraq is evil.

The Iraqi's were innocent of aggression against the United States, and it was therefore wrong to kill any of them. Your line of reasoning makes Bush's war a just war. The Iraqi's were better off dead than living under Saddam's brutal, impoverishing and dehumanizing regime. You've seen defenders of the neocns make exactly that argument on my blog.

The Pope says it is always and everywhere evil to kill an innocent human being - which is stricter than saying it is evil to kill an innocent human person.

It may be possible that not all human beings are human persons. I don't hold such a position, but I admit it is possible that I am mistaken, and some human beings are not human persons in God's eyes. But I refuse to bend any further. Innocent human persons can never be legitimately killed once we agree personhood has been established.

Once we admit personhood, it absolutely must be considered the gravest evil by civil society to kill that being.

Note that I am saying by civil society. I honestly don't know if God might judge the intentions you speak of mercifully. God is so merciful that I would not be surprised if he did. But I am not arguing theologically whether an act is forgivable. I am arguing the basis of civil law. Civil law cannot allow the intentional killing of human persons under any circumstances.

Civil law is meaningless the moment we start saying that we can kill human persons out of some moral imperative. It's not just the unborn, but the handicapped, the mentally ill, criminals, the elderly, the poor, and anyone those in power decide are "less fortunate". Heck, under your line of argument, I can assissinate the President if I believe it would make the country better off.

Where exactly does that line of reasoning end?

A criminal defends himself in court saying, "I killed the store clerk because I needed the money to feed my daughter and prevent her life from becoming dehumanizing. The clerk was a mean bastard anyway"

If we do not admit that human persons should be protected by law, and that one can kill another innocent human person out of a sense of moral imperative, we might as well throw the entire idea of civil law out the window and become anarchists and extreme libertarians - or take the thinking to the extreme and do some social engineering to eliminate poverty.

It is precisely this thinking - that we can decide which human persons should live or die - that leads to the taliban, the nazis, the communists, OR the anarchy that gives rise to warlords running countries like Somalia, etc...

It doesn't lead to it in the slippery slope type of fashion. The very moment you admit that a single innocent human person can be killed out of moral concern, you are already buying into the full philosophy of these groups lock, stock and barrel. You may limit the harm more than they, but you have fully and entirely embraced their most basic philosophical assumption.

It is imperative that society agree that it is always and everywhere wrong to kill an innocent human person. We can quibble over who is a person or not, but once we admit a person is there, you cannot kill that person arbitrarily based on your own subjective biases about what is a good life.

You admit that there are all sorts of stories of people rising up through difficult circumstances, and argue that there are counter examples. So what?

That's not an argument I find even emotionally appealing. It's not even a Christian argument. It is anti-Christian.

It would be abhorrent to think that I can simply walk around shooting street prostitutes and homeless drug addicts because I find their life-style so degrading that it isn't worth living. I can't solve the pain of children physicically and sexually absued by their guardians by putting a bullet in the head of the child. I can't eliminate inner-city poverty by blowing up the neigborhood or marching its inhabitants into gas chambers.

To twist the Church's teaching on human dignity into a justification for killing a person living in degrading conditions is an evil ideology. I am not saying you are an evil person - nor are your "grade A egg" friends. You are the image of God with human dignity - but your mistaken ideology is evil. Intentional killing of the innocent can never be the answer to suffering.

That really should be the end of the discussion, and I find it shocking and nearly incomprehensible that you would propose that there might be instances where killing an innocent human person known to be a human person should be legal.

It was not that you failed to see something valuable in the pro-choice position. Rather, they failed to see something valuable in the pro-life position. Apparently, you lost sight of it as well.


11:25 AM  
Blogger Ono said...


You are using words "acceptable" and "justified" in terms of my views on choice and abortion. I don't think you'll see me use those words. If you can point out where I use these words, I'd appreciate it.

If you want to dialog with pro-choicers, If you are really interested in dialog with them, then you have to understand what it is they are thinking and not what you think they think or what you want them to think. And from how I see it, for the majority of pro-choicers, the personhood issue is not the problem.

On abortion, they'd admit to you readily that it is a tragedy, that it is wrong, that it is not a good thing, that a life is lost, etc, but they still do it and fight for choice. Why? Because they are evil people?

And yes, there is something they see, which pro-lifers must see if there is going to be any dialog. If someone fights tooth and nail for choice because her sister died or was harmed in back alley botched abortion, then you can't discount that. That is a viewpoint that she is seeing. I remember talking with a Jesuit friend of mine who told me he was pro-choice because his mother died due to some circumstances (I don't know what). But he was seeing something, that went beyond platitudes about "life." It was personal and it cannot be discounted. And my point is this, that pro-choicers bring the concrete into the discussion and no solution would be satisfactory that doesn't begin to factor in the concrete human lives involved.

You have to assume the best in people, Joe. You have to assume that they are not evil and that they take no pleasure in abortions. If you do that, then it leads to the question of what is pressuring them to do something that is completely unnatural. If you assume that people are somehow are indifferent to the loss of life in abortions, then you are proclaiming them evil.

I choose to believe that people are good and want to do the right thing. If people have abortions, I choose to believe that it is because they feel forced into doing so. And further, I believe that since people are basically good, give them a reason to do good and they will. Thus any response to the abortion issue has to come from a place of com-passion, sympathy, and empathy. You have to know where they are coming from and feel what they feel.

Your post was about dialoging with pro-choicers, and you won't accomplish that if you don't diagnose where they are coming from correctly or if you defacto proclaim them/us evil/mistaken, wrong/ justifying killing, etc.

Think about it, there is no basis for dialog if you've decided that the other's position is evil.

One other area that I see a difference in our views is the issue of secular law and Catholic morality. I gather that your position is that secular law must mirror or be the secular equivalent of Catholic morality, i.e., natural law. For me this is a key point. Legality and morality are two separate things and we have to be careful to keep them apart or we run into problems.

Keeping abortion legal is not saying it is moral, but that its legal is necessary. The law cannot play a zero sum game between mothers and their children. The law can't protect children at all cost regardless of the mother's health or well being. It also goes the other way too, the law can't be all for the mother and not for the child. But to get to protecting the unborn, you are going to have to first protect the mothers and that redounds to the benefit of the child.

As to the rest of your comment, I think you didn't read my post close enough, or you've set up a straw man and your examples don't apply to anything I've said.

You say, "To twist the Church's teaching on human dignity into a justification for killing a person living in degrading conditions is an evil ideology."

I don't even know where something like that would come from, Joe. If you are going to say things like that, you've got to be a little more precise. You've taken my discussion of the legality of pro choice into justification for killing people living in degrading conditions?

Final comment, this is the crux of your comment:

"You explicitly admit that pro-choicers, including yourself, will admit that the unborn is a human person, but that there are instances where killing an innocent human person when that person's life will be impoverished to such a degree as to lack human dignity is a moral imperative. "

Can you tell me where I say an abortion is a moral imperative under certain conditions?

3:46 PM  
Blogger Jcecil3 said...


I re-read your post, and where I may have misunderstood you is that in the second paragraph, you explicitly say "I am pro-choice", and then when you go on to describe the position you outline, it begins with "Pro Choicers are..." and continues to state this over and over.

Naturally, I assumed that you were stating your own position, since you use the same word to describe yourself as the position you are outlining.

In your comment, you bring out better what you are talking about when you say that some pro-choicers are dealing with a concrete and personal issue - such as your friend who knows a person who died in a botched back-alley abortion.

That really is a different argument that anything I addressed in the post above, and it is a different argument than the position you outlined originally - where two women said they would terminate the life of a child even after it was born if they thought the life of the child was likely to be dehumanizing.

Your point on labelling a position "evil" without taking more time to understand it is well taken. I have told people that when we deal with pro-choicers face-to-face, we should spend more time listening than talking. This is a little harder to do in written medium.

That said, the core of my position is that killing an innocent human person should be unthinkable - closed to discussion.

The language of calling an act "intrinsically evil" is not a judgment of a person, and I'm willing to consider a different term if it will make my position more clear. What I am trying to say is not that people are evil, but that certain actions should be considered completely off limits for consideration - not in a literal sense of saying we can't talk through the issue - but in a pracitcal sense of knowing that we treading in very dangerous water to even consider such a grave matter. They are acts that have appear to have no true moral justification in the final analysis.

I am not saying we don't listen to concrete people experience and address their concrete pain.

Indeed, since most abortions really occur in the first trimester, my argument for a compromise established at the point of viability would not likely lead to an increase in back-alley abortions - and I stated in the post explicitly that I am open to later abortions where the life of the mother is directly threatened, which alleviate further concerns.

Plus, in arguing for doctor administration of RU-486, I am as much seeking to protect the woman as discourage the procedure, and I explicitly stated this.

You may be right that pro-lifers need to do a better job of listening to pro-choicers, but I am trying to say the opposite is also true. When pro-choicers (yourself included) imply in any way that it is morally justified to kill an innocent human PERSON, you have to expect that you're going to lose our attention. That is precisely the point at which we refuse to cede any ground.

If your argument is not really that it is justified to kill human persons, but instead is an argument of personal pain, be forthcoming in expressing the pain. If your argument is concrete, as you say, then tell the conrete story rather than arguing in the abstract for a position that strikes us as an evil ideology.

As a side note, I wrote a letter to John Kerry around June telling him exactly this. I advised him that if we wanted to deflate the abortion issue, he should tell an honest personal story about a situation that made him decide abortion should remain legal.

Such an argument may not ultimately change the mind of a pro-lifer, but it may helpo us see the person rather than being forced to judge an abstract position we already have examined and found seriously wanting on moral grounds.


9:47 AM  

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