By Frank Wessling
President Barack Obama spoke an important truth during his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame on May 17. Referring to the controversy in this country over legalized abortion, he said, “At some level, the views of the two sides are irreconcilable.”
Yes, they are. The reason is that they exist in different universes and do not meet.
The pro-life view looks through a basic biological life lens. For many pro-lifers that lens is also colored in biblical truth. The pro-choice view sees political and gender equality categories. And both sides fear the consequences of admitting value to the other’s way of seeing, although that fear is more acute on the pro-choice side: admit full human dignity to the fetus and the game is up.
A radical pro-life position imagines a perfect world of women and men relating with equal responsibility; the radical pro-choice side adopts a posture of suspicion and gives all human reproductive choice to women alone. In the middle is a muddle of conflicting and shifting attitudes among Americans that reflect a general awareness of some value on each side.
Radicals on the pro-choice side would like abortion on demand as a mere medical option available to women. More moderate people in the “choice” camp simply favor a legal regime that allows the option while granting that some moral value belongs to the fetus. The pro-life side would like abortion treated as a moral issue demanding acceptance of all human life with virtually no exception.
Opinion surveys show that most Americans ignore the logical gap between pro-life and pro-choice stances. They feel themselves standing with one foot on each side. Most people recognize the fetus as developing human life that requires a moral response. And most also understand something of the desperation of women pregnant against their wishes and/or without the human or financial resources for imagining a decent life of motherhood. Most of us don’t want to add burdens or penalties in such situations.
Women especially feel the fundamental responsibility that pregnancy means for them and contrast it with the way men are able to avoid responsibility. A woman can’t escape consequences of some kind from pregnancy; a man can. In this imbalance, the law becomes a natural force of redress for women: their word is given power.
Given this reality, it is remarkable that most women lean pro-life. They know what pregnancy is. They feel the first pulses of new life. They know that their bodies are vessels of nurture for new life.
Still, a majority of women, like a majority of all Americans, do not want abortion outlawed. Some limits, OK; absolute denial, no.
Some of our common schizophrenia on abortion comes from an attitude that we can’t manage the sexual drive; therefore the ultimate backup protection of abortion is needed for mistakes and failures.
In so many ways the nation lives with contradiction on the topic of abortion. We know that abortion at any stage takes a life. We also value our liberty so highly that we will tolerate the taking of such lives one by one but not allow it to be called killing — and certainly not “murder.”
President Obama reached out at Notre Dame asking for a common effort to reduce abortion through social and educational supports for women. Our social safety net could certainly be improved, taking poverty off the table as a reason for abortion. And that can be enough in many cases for courage and hope to win over despair. But it doesn’t touch our permissive attitudes about sex or heal the split personality we call pro-life and pro-choice.
The pro-life view stands ultimately on a hope-saturated faith. We believe in life overcoming death in all forms, and therefore do not dwell on limits. Every pregnancy is Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus, carrying transcendent hope even amid material deprivation. Every pregnancy reawakens ultimate compassion and a woman begins to lay down her life for the sake of another. Men are involved in the creation as partners, not in sex primarily, but in a love which defines and shapes the relationship for mutual flourishing.
This is all part of what we might call the law of heaven. Our mission is less to make it the law of the United States than to live it so faithfully ourselves that the choice for life is seen to be as natural as breathing.