Common Ground on Abortion

by David P. Gushee

In 2010 I spoke at an ambitious conference at Princeton University on abortion. It was the brainchild of a friend of mine, Dr. Charles Camosy, a young Catholic theologian at Fordham University. In the end it brought together an amazingly diverse array of scholars ranging from John Finnis of Notre Dame to Peter Singer of Princeton, with an equally diverse array of attendees ranging from abortion providers to ardently anti-abortion Catholic priests.

The fact that such diverse people could manage to gather in the same room without fisticuffs was an accomplishment in itself. To the extent that this civility was the goal of the conference, it succeeded in its aims. Not that civility went unchallenged–indeed, the oft-stated ground rules were periodically breached. This proved to me that one cannot simply demand a kind of civil discourse and expect that people will be able to manage it without either training in such conversation or ongoing participation in communities that practice it.

One cannot simply demand a kind of civil discourse and expect that people will be able to manage it without either training in such conversation or ongoing participation in communities that practice it.

I found myself among the most visible pro-life leaders at the conference. This startled me. It is not a public self-identification or role that I have courted. I have mainly worked on other issues and have not shared the spirit or the vision of the nation’s most visible and strident pro-life organizations.

But from the moment of the opening plenary I was placed in the position of having to articulate what I believe and why in front of an audience of hundreds, with maybe thousands more on the internet. It was striking to me that, despite my current professional distance from a pro-life subculture, I found myself articulating an uncompromising pro-life position when the responsibility fell upon me to do so. Then in the dialogue and question period, in which I was being pressed by pro-choice interlocutors to acknowledge the rightness of their concerns and views, I found myself unable to do so in good conscience. I actually thought most of their arguments dissolved on contact.

woman sad_207779008The ground rules of the event require me not to quote the views of others by name, so I won’t do so. But let’s just say I was struck by the weakness of the positions taken by those on the pro-choice side.

I was directly confronted with the argument that individual fetal life has little or no value and no particular moral status. I can’t agree.

I was asked to affirm that abortion can be a good thing. I was only able to say that it might be viewed as the least bad option by a woman in a particular crisis situation.

I was asked to concur with the view that even when poor women choose abortion (70 percent of abortions are “chosen” by women who live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line) it is a positive expression of their moral agency. I instead am more deeply convinced than ever that the disproportionate resort to abortion among the poor reflects and deepens their entrapment in situations of powerlessness.

I was laughed off when I claimed that abortion places on women the burdens of the sexual revolution’s “liberation.” But as a man I totally and viscerally understand that the availability of abortion and the leverage a man has to demand it of “his” lover enables us to exploit our access to women’s bodies without having to pay the ultimate price if it results in an unwanted pregnancy. The pro-choice side can talk about women’s moral agency all day long, but moral decision making happens in contexts of power. To the extent that a man has power or leverage in a relationship with a woman, he can affect or sometimes even direct her decision to have an abortion.

I am more deeply convinced than ever that the disproportionate resort to abortion among the poor reflects and deepens their entrapment in situations of powerlessness.

Is there the possibility of common ground on abortion? There seems to be common ground on issues related to reducing the need for abortion on the demand side, and perhaps also on helping pregnant women to have the best care possible so that they would have healthy pregnancies and access to the resources necessary to keep their babies or give them up for adoption.

But even this common ground is narrow and contested. This is because among some ardent pro-choicers, even to try to work for a demand-side reduction of abortions “stigmatizes” abortion. Pro-choice advocates who work for this common ground therefore come under fire from their own pro-choice colleagues.

At the conference, I called abortion a tragic matter for all involved. Even that characterization was challenged. But it is indeed a tragedy that one out of five pregnancies in our country ends in a woman “choosing” to contract with a doctor to destroy the life developing within her. I say now what I said then: This is not the kind of world we ought to want. We can do better. We must do better.

David P. Gushee is director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, Atlanta, Ga., where he is also a professor of Christian ethics. He is the author of The Sacredness of Human Life (Eerdmans, 2013), reviewed here.

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