How We Talk About Abortion

I doubt anyone reading this would argue with me when I say abortion is the central, pivotal issue at the heart of the divide in America today. In recent weeks, with different states passing various abortion bans as test strikes against a new Supreme Court, the magma that simmers uneasily beneath all our toxic discourse has erupted.

Current discussions are excruciating for someone like me, who believes we as Christians have too long taken a facile approach to this issue: A child is a child, a life is a life, end of discussion. Any protest issued by the pro-choice movement does not require answer, because it can’t possibly outweigh that central, fundamental tenet.

Well, a life is a life; it’s true. It’s not that the core belief is wrong. But I heard a quote recently. I haven’t been able to verify it, but it resonates as true to what we as Catholics believe about God:

When God sees sin, he sees wounds.

(For what it’s worth, I heard it attributed to Julian of Norwich.)

What I hear, in the hysteria of those who are pro-choice, is pain.

The pain of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. The pain of discrimination. A thousand pinprick wounds (and plenty of traumatic ones, too). The pain of deep wounds not healed. People who encounter a hardline “life is sacred, and there’s no more to talk about” stance—a stance which fails to address their pain—will experience a further ripping of wounds they might not even recognize they have. Wounds they have no idea how to heal, because the God that could heal them has been too often represented by people who don’t acknowledge their pain, and in some cases are the cause of it. Which means they dig down and become even more entrenched and unable to hear.

We are not changing hearts when we focus our efforts in this way. And if we want to create a culture of life, we have to change hearts.

So how do we change hearts? I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and I’ve realized that not one of the moments of conversion in my life ever happened because I was scolded, hammered with a truth I wasn’t ready to receive, or told my concerns were irrelevant. It always happened slowly, organically, through insights that grew from truths I already recognized.

If we want to change hearts, we have to learn to speak in such a way that the people who need to hear the message are actually able to receive it.

If we who believe in the sanctity of life can only answer the sincere, heartfelt anguish of people who are pro-choice with a “mic drop” argument that means nothing to them (no matter how true it is), then we are tone deaf. We are noisy gongs, clanging. We are without love.

So the next question is: what pain, what concerns, of the pro-choice movement are we ignoring, to the detriment of our goal of creating a culture of life?

My spiritual director once said that the intersection of faith and politics is a mess, because it’s like a bowl of spaghetti. Tug on one thread/issue and you dislodge dozens of others. Abortion simmers beneath everything else because it’s connected to almost everything.

An author in the National Review recently wrote that something she wrote years ago has been quoted both pro-choice and pro-life writers: “No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.”

This resonates with both sides because it’s true. Women really don’t go around looking for excuses to kill their children. They seek abortion because they truly feel they have no other choice.

Now why would that be?

It can be because they’re in abusive relationships, and they simply feel they’re not capable of bearing one more burden. Or because they are in poverty, and can’t bear one more burden. And yes, a child is a burden. A joyful burden, we hope, but a burden nonetheless. We all complain about parenthood too much to pretend otherwise.

It can be because health care (before and after ACA) is astronomically expensive and handled by private companies in a callous and punitive manner, in which profit counts more than the good of the customer.

It can be because mothers know the system is stacked against them. If they don’t have a support network, how can they care for a child and also work?

It can be because schools in poor areas are a pale shadow of what more affluent families (i.e., us) demand as a given. Or because discrimination still exists, in ways we can’t fathom, because we won’t accept the word of those who experience it, preferring to think they’re overreacting.

The upshot is that women seeking abortion feel—with reason—that they are simply birthing a child into a desperate life of discrimination and struggle and pain.

And again, we know any life is better than no life. But is that facile response going to cut it when we face God? I can’t help thinking God’s going to say, “Thank you for working so hard to protect the unborn ‘least of these,’ but what did you do for all those OTHER ‘least of these’?”

The upshot is: it’s not that we’re wrong to say the baby’s right to life outweighs all other concerns. Of course it does.

But that doesn’t erase the need to address all those other concerns. And my entire life, the prolife movement has been singlemindedly focused on the legal question of abortion, while actively working against attempts to address these other issues at the level of society.

I have more to say about this, but this post is too long already, so I’ll close for today and pick up again tomorrow.

Note: Part 2 is here, and is significantly shorter!

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