In his first major interview as pope and in his papacy as a whole, Pope Francis is giving us a unique opportunity to hit the reset button on our approach to abortion. He is rejecting the culture war mentality of many members of the hierarchy. At the same time, he has shown no intention to change the Church’s doctrine on this issue. Despite conflicting opinions on the right and the left, this isn’t an irreconcilable paradox. Rather, he is showing that there is an opportunity for both pro-life and pro-choice people of good will to leave our fortified castles and start working together in the “field hospitals” that surround us:
“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.”
For the pro-life movement, which has focused most of its energies on seeking legal restrictions on abortion, this is an invitation to reexamine its deepest foundations. The most solid foundation is not that abortion is legal, or that it is condemned by Humanae Vitae, or even that it is a sin. Rather, the pro-life movement should be primarily rooted in the belief that God’s fundamental desire is that all should have life and have it in abundance.
Stemming from this fundamental belief in the dignity of human life, the biggest problem seems to be the disturbing frequency of abortion, rather than the legality or number of restrictions placed on abortion. From this perspective, working with avowedly pro-choice people on areas of common cause to reduce the incidence of abortion can and should be seen as pro-life activity. Of course some will view this as getting our hands dirty, but this is precisely what the Good Samaritan did. He got his hands dirty and saved a life. Who were the Samaritans? A despised group that Jews were urged by their leaders to avoid at all costs.
Today, too often, pro-lifers grossly mischaracterize those with pro-choice beliefs. They are vilified as dangerous, since they are only interested in ensuring that abortion is as widely available as possible. As a women’s college graduate and civil rights lawyer, I am privileged to know countless pro-choice men and women who center their lives on the promotion of women’s dignity, who get into the trenches and live on the peripheries, and spend most of their talent and treasure on work far removed from abortion activism. I recognize with gratitude the accomplishments of many people in this group have played a role in achieving:
- In just a generation, they helped establish that women are entitled to equal protection under the Constitution;
- They have helped drag “domestic violence” out of the shadows and silence, showing us that it isn’t a private matter, but an unacceptable crime;
- Many are consistently strong advocates for people with disabilities to live their lives with autonomy, dignity, and respect, e.g., not seeking to “cure” autism, respecting deaf culture, and recognizing the desires and dreams of people with Down syndrome.
- Many lend support to countless other efforts to improve the lives of individuals and communities, pursuing greater economic, immigrant, racial, and environmental justice;
- Many know how to engage with, learn from, accompany, and be accompanied by women and men throughout the world,, often placing service to others above material wealth.
And they also happen to support access to safe and legal abortions.
They do so for many different reasons—some because abortion is simply not a moral issue for them. Some support it because they feel that each woman is in the best position to make her own decision, based on her own religious and ethical beliefs, as illustrated by the first abortion case the Supreme Court agreed to hear, Struck v. Secretary of Defense. In this case, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the ACLU represented a Catholic Air Force Captain challenging a policy that required single women to abort or be discharged (adoption wasn’t permitted). Ginsburg was prepared to argue that Captain Struck had the right to follow the dictates of her faith, which made abortion impossible, but the Air Force settled before she had the opportunity to do so.
Some support continued legalization because they do not believe that prohibition or further restrictions are an effective, let alone the most effective, way to lower the abortion rate. Throughout history, women have had abortions regardless of its legality—it is not a new problem. Some remember what it was like before Roe v. Wade and have seen too many women suffer or die from unsafe clandestine abortions. Others see a disturbing lack of correlation between strict abortion laws and low abortion rates. As an illustration, despite having some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the hemisphere, between 20% and 40% of pregnancies in Argentina end in abortion, and 30% of maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortions, which is about triple the world average. In the United States, about 18% of pregnancies end in abortion.
It is ridiculous to pretend that a huge stumbling block between the pro-choice community and Catholic doctrine doesn’t exist. But pro-life Catholics should not think that by working alongside pro-choice advocates, their ultimate doctrinal position on abortion will somehow be called into question. Rather, Catholic pro-life activists should be willing to energetically work with pro-choice activists when their interests coincide, as they very often do.
Both pro-life and pro-choice advocates should work together for the following specific policy changes, which have enjoyed a history of support from many pro-choice advocates, as well as many in the pro-life camp:
1. Make sure that detained women, whether in civil immigration detention, awaiting trial, or serving their sentences, are not shackled when they give birth. There is now pending legislation to stop this practice in DC.
2. By passing the Rape Survivor Child Custody Act, ensure that the approximately 32,000 women who become pregnant due to rape each year do not need to have anything to do with their rapist if they decide to raise their child.
3. Ensure that all pregnant workers have access to accommodations, such as not being required to lift more than 20 pounds (especially when previous heavy lifting may have caused a miscarriage) or using the bathroom when needed. The courts have so twisted and distorted the Pregnancy Discrimination Act that the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is now necessary.
There is a very real possibility that working together will do more to reduce the incidence of abortion than the current culture war strategy. While the intent of pro-choice advocates may never be expressed as an effort to reduce the incidence of abortion, nevertheless their good intent to further the dignity of marginalized women may have just that effect.
Pro-life extremists need to end what Pope Francis rightly called an “obsession.” For decades, they have been partners with many pro-choice extremists in creating a Manichean war zone in which doctrinal purity is prized above all else, even over the very goals that they claim to embrace—life in abundance, and the dignity of women. They have commandeered resources for this zero-sum game—resources that could have been spent in improving the conditions of life for all women so that abortion becomes much less common. They have made it dangerous for the plurality of Americans who are morally uncomfortable with abortion but are against further restriction of abortion to step forward into this ideological wasteland.
Pro-life and pro-choice advocates should start working together and getting to know each other and working towards understanding the experiences and beliefs that have brought them to their respective positions without needing to agree with one another—in order to start transforming this battlefield into a field hospital that we can all enter. Here we will find a middle ground, rather than being forced into one camp or another. As a result, there is a huge opportunity for all men and women of good will to put their deepest held beliefs into action without needing to compromise those beliefs.