The political slurry in which we find ourselves in the final weeks of this campaign season has lots of ingredients. But as in past years, one constant is abortion. It figures prominently, if not always explicitly, in the presidential campaign as well as in the debate about the next Supreme Court justice.
The Rev. John Vogler sparked a lively debate in the opinion pages of the Post-Dispatch when, in a Sept. 17 letter, he argued that “pro-life” must mean more than “pro-life in the womb.” I agree with him. But I disagree with subsequent writers who said that those who oppose abortion are imposing their religious beliefs on others. I also disagree with another writer who said that abortion is not a moral issue.
The issue is far more complicated than that.
Some things, such as the divinity of Jesus, God’s forgiveness of sins and the existence of heaven, are religious questions. They only make sense to people of faith who assent to them by saying: I believe this is true.
Abortion is important to believers, but it is not just a religious issue. Rather, it raises three questions that are fundamental to human existence: What constitutes human life? When does personal human life begin? And how much protection does nascent human life deserve? Any decision we make that involves justice, truth-telling, public safety, even economics, is based on some assumptions about the answer to these questions. They must be considered by every rational person.
The reason the abortion debate is so intractable is that we have no public consensus about these questions. Catholics (and many others) assume that the fertilized ovum is a person from the moment of conception. Many pro-choice advocates dispute this, but they don’t offer an alternative. Is it a mass of cells, a non-person, a pre-person, or what? Roe v. Wade represents a compromise of sorts by allowing abortion during the first trimester, when the embryo does not apparently have the qualities of a person, but restricting it later when the fetus begins to look more like a child.
Abortion opponents — even those whose position is influenced by religious belief — have a constitutional right to articulate their views and to bring them into the public debate. But we must remember that we live in a pluralistic society. Politics is the art of the possible, and civil law is essentially pragmatic. Its purpose is public order, so it often has to make compromises. Both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas said that not everything that is immoral should necessarily be illegal. Public law has to have enough support for it to be enforceable.
We may be firm in our conviction about the personhood of embryonic life, but we may not get 100% of what we want. If our conviction is not shared by enough other citizens to sway the law in our favor, we may have to live with current law and use persuasion to build a broader consensus that can support a change in the law. This requires more patience than the quick fix of a judicial decision. But if our understanding of the person is a reasonable conclusion based on scientific facts and not a religious mystery, it is not only possible but much more durable in the long run.
Those who support abortion rights must also exercise some restraint. All of us believe that free choices made after careful reflection are a fundamental human capability. But a fully human choice is not an indifferent selection of one neutral option over another. It is not just freedom from but freedom to, because it strives for the best good possible. Moral choices are creative acts in which we become the best persons we can be. So the choice to have an abortion — or not — is a moral choice. It is personal, but not private. We can’t put it behind a curtain and say that this choice has no moral content.
Whether we are religious or not, the important choices we make are moral choices.
Vogler gave sound advice. We must expand our agenda to build respect for all life. Even if we do not agree on the full extent and nature of human personhood, we can agree on a great deal about what it means to be human. Humans need respect, freedom, friendship, education, health care and culture to achieve full personhood. If we can work together toward these things, the sharp edges of the abortion debate would seem much less daunting.
(This column originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on September 29, 2020.)