Church teaching on the dignity of women changed my mind about criminalizing abortion
It was a hermetic argument that said: Abortion is a violation of the universal moral law without exception against the direct taking of innocent life. This moral law should be reflected as much as possible in civil law. Any invocation of a right to violate such a moral and civil law is absurd. The case against legal abortion is definitive of the meaning of the Catholic faith.
Following this logic, in 1980 and 1984 I voted for Ronald Reagan for president primarily because of his ability to appoint justices to the Supreme Court of the United States who would overthrow deer v. Wadethe 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to choose an abortion.
Forty years later, I don’t think that way anymore. When the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision eliminating the right to choose an abortion was announced on June 24, I read it and found myself in complete agreement with Chief Justice John Roberts, who said: “The opinion of the Court and dissent testify to an implacable absence of doubt on the legal issue which I cannot share.”
To be sure, matters of the heart factored in the shift in my thinking: a failed marriage; listening at length to complex stories of sex and suffering; weeks spent at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker working with the unforeseen vulnerabilities of Skid Row residents. These experiences shifted my heart from the comfortable expectations of my suburban upbringing to a raw world unable to hide its dramas of grace and sin. The change in my thinking about the law and abortion was born out of these experiences.
One change outweighed all others: the inclusion of all the implications of the dignity of women in my moral reflections on the issue. I never doubted the right to life of the foetus. But two implications of women’s dignity have been particularly formative in broadening my understanding of the range of values at stake in abortion rights and abortion: women’s full moral capacity and their right to bodily integrity.
The moral agency of pregnant women
In his 1995 encyclical Vitae Evangelium, Pope John Paul II has declared that no one can appeal to the authority of conscience to justify abortion since it is never permitted to violate the universal moral law and without exception against the direct taking of life innocent. This way of presenting things was perfectly in line with my thinking in the early 1980s. But I began to find the argument incomplete and even unintentionally obscure: I could see the role of the fetus, but what was the role of the pregnant woman in argument?
Either women seemed entirely absent from these arguments, which instead focused entirely on the right to life of the fetus, or women were seen as present but thoughtless individuals whose bodies were scenes of legal struggle contested by other people. , or pregnant women were rightly seen as objects of compassion but not seen as full-fledged moral agents capable of deciding such an intimate matter for themselves.
A concise and powerful statement by Sr. Teresa Forcades, a Catalan Benedictine, convinced me of the incompleteness of such views. In 2009, Forcades spoke out in a television interview in favor of the mother’s “right to decide” in matters of civil law and abortion. In response, the Vatican demanded his public affirmation of the Church’s moral doctrine. In turn, Forcades published a public statement arguing that the question of law and abortion should rightly be considered in Catholic thought as a clash of absolutes: the absolute of the right to life and the absolute of the right to self-determination before God of any pregnant woman.
“Self-determination”, she argued, is a “fundamental right which protects human dignity and absolutely and under no circumstances prohibits a person from being used as an object…the right to self-determination is the right to spiritual life”. But she also argued: “No one, neither the state, nor the Church, nor the mother, has the right to violate the right to life of the fetus.
Forcades’ argument has the merit of naming in Catholic terms the real difficulty we encounter with the law and abortion. This is not the conflict I imagined 40 years ago between truth tellers and freedom-loving relativists. Instead, it is a conflict of absolute goods. Seeing things in such a light helps to highlight a woman’s right to exercise agency — or, in Forcades terminology, self-determination — especially when faced with a difficult pregnancy. Forty years ago, the moral law in these matters seemed to me universal and without exception. Thinking now about the dignity of pregnant women manifested in their moral agency, I think there must be exceptions.
The right to bodily integrity
Few slogans have spurred my past pro-life energies more than “my body, my choice.” In the slogan, I read the relativist story of our time, that in the name of a material reality like the body, everything is permitted. I also felt a sense of union with the Catholic Church in the United States in thinking that our battle against abortion was precisely against the pro-choice absolutism that the slogan represented.
But over time, I started to think differently about the slogan. First, it became clear that most pro-choice people weren’t the slogan-wielding absolutists of my past culture war fantasies. And, secondly, I began to reflect on the continuing importance of the body in Catholic moral thought and therefore to wonder whether, even in the name of the right to life, is it nevertheless an injustice to use coercive force? of the law to compel pregnant women to use their bodies in a manner prescribed by others?
Recently writing in America, theologian Kathleen Bonnette called for more attention in Catholic thought on the right and abortion to the right to bodily integrity of pregnant women. Drawing on the writings of Pope John XXIII, she explained that law means “the recognition that our bodies are ours, that they matter, and that we have the right to determine what or who has access to them.”
As with Forcades’ affirmation of the right to self-determination, Bonnette’s insightful argument on the right to bodily integrity names a moral fact too often absent from Catholic considerations of abortion. Her argument also invites us to focus on the many ways in which the integrity of women’s bodies is threatened by sexual assault and rape, by pregnancy itself and especially life-threatening pregnancies, and by a lack outrageous and often racialized medical care for pregnant and poor women after childbirth.
My Catholic absolutism of the 1980s wanted civil law to restrict abortion as much as possible because only the right to life of the fetus mattered. But that’s too simple: it only asserts one injustice at play in these matters. It would be better, says Bonnette, to also recognize a painful and unavoidable paradox: that by their coercive nature the laws which aim to limit the injustice of abortion can also violate the bodily integrity of women. Bonnette says civil law can still restrict abortion. But she also insists that, out of respect for the bodily integrity of women, the Church should turn more to methods of persuasion. Bonnet is right. The Catholic approach to abortion has relied too heavily on the law.
In the 1980s, my Catholic case against abortion was airtight. The only things missing were the pregnant women involved in the case.