Few things divide us as emotionally and decisively as does the issue of abortion. Any doubts I might have had about that were put to rest last week when I attended a conference given by a Catholic theologian, Marjorie Maguire, who spoke out in favor of abortion by demand. Perhaps there were only about 100 people there, but the whole world might have been present. In that small group, everything showed up – the magnitude of this issue, the deep emotions, the pathos, the anger, the woundedness, the righteousness, the hopelessness of the division. It was a microcosm of the church and the world on this issue. Whoever cares was represented.
There were militants present for whom abortion on demand is the issue, the inalienable right of women. The wounds contingent upon a past and present sexism and oppression, for them, crystallized around this issue: “Abortion is our right – anyone who denies us this choice is sexist, oppressive, non-compassionate, the enemy!” Present, too, were the wounded, the women who have had abortions and those who are struggling with that choice. Never far from tears, this group sits quietly, afraid, confused about guilt, feeling bitterly alone in their choice. Then there were the vocal pro-life advocates, who speak and shout out a pain that comes from the deep belief that abortion is the callous taking of human life. This group doesn’t sit quietly. For them, abortion is so intolerable that it demands that body and soul be thrown in front of its perpetrators, regardless of consequence. I sat with a more silent group of pro-lifers. We sat, my friends and I, muzzled, feeling guilty about our silence, but not knowing what to do. We believe that abortion is wrong, but are not sure what concretely, barring prayer, can be done in a situation such as this public forum. What will help and what will hurt? Are we being respectful or just too chicken to risk ourselves? We left the hall in pain.
Finally, there was Marjorie Maguire herself, a perplexing anomaly – pro-choice, but antiabortion; a Catholic, but strongly against the official Catholic position on abortion; feminine, respectful, insightful, intelligent, compassionate at points, yet given to displaying a surprising callousness and narrowness on other key points (e.g., “If I conceived a defective child I would abort” … as if only the healthy and the whole have a right to live.) I left the hall silent, guilty. I speak now, to assuage my guilt and to vent the moral spleen. In fairness, it must be admitted that Dr. Maguire said many meaningful, profound and challenging things. Among other things, I was impressed that she was not speaking out of hatred, out of wound. She refused to ridicule, didn’t play for cheap applause, and refused consistently to appeal to the baser and crueler instincts of her audience. This she might have done; the opportunities were there.
Insightfully, she pinpointed the deepest reasons for abortion, namely, sexism, sexual irresponsibility, ignorance and selfishness within our culture as a whole. The woman who stands at the reception desk at a Morgentaler clinic is merely the inevitable product, and victim, of a culture such as ours. She is the tip of the cone of sexism and irresponsibility. She is the one who deserves our compassion, and we are the ones who deserve to bear the guilt.
And, in the end, Maguire said that abortion is always wrong, always a negativity. But I was less impressed after that. The bottom line was that she argued for abortion on demand, submitting “if someone depends upon someone else’s body for life, that someone does not have an inalienable right to life.” To illustrate that, she used the analogy of someone being asked to donate an organ for a transplant. Imagine that there was somewhere on a computer, precise information about your blood type, organ types, etc. One day you receive a phone call telling you that the computer has matched your organ type to someone in need of a transplant.You are asked to donate one of your bodily organs for transplant. Now, to donate such an organ, at great physical cost to yourself, is an heroic and generous act. But no court may demand that you do it. It must be your choice. So, too, for abortion, she argued. An unwanted fetus demands your body and your commitment to come to term. No court should be able to demand that you donate your body. That must be a free choice. Unfortunately, if that were true, then, I submit, newborn babies also have no inalienable right to live. Like an unborn fetus, they, too, demand upon someone else’s body to survive. This could be viewed as an unfair imposition upon a woman’s rights.
Her views on when a fetus becomes a person are interesting, nuanced and too complex to be responsibly discussed in a short article. She made me think; e.g., “If a fetus is a person already from the moment of conception, then God is the great abortionist since there are many more spontaneous abort ns than there are therapeutic ones.” Ultimately, however, my judgement on her position is negative. Her compassion is too selective. It does not embrace equally the strong and the handicapped. It shows a preference for the former. For all of us, ultimately, the hermeneutics we use for discerning values and goodness are something higher than logic. Love is the eye. We discern and choose value by looking at the lives of those we most admire and feel most confident to entrust ourselves to. In the end, and I am sure this is also true for Marjorie Maguire, we feel the most trust for those who have the most compassion for the weak and the unwhole.
For this reason, I do not place my trust with those who would argue for abortion on demand.