It’s time to reframe the abortion debate. We’re trapped in the tyranny of a binary choice: one side sees baby killers; the other patriarchal dictators who want to control women’s bodies. This diametrically opposed pro-life/pro-choice discourse is a closed loop.
I’m a millennial, raised in San Francisco. “Pro-choice” and “reproductive rights” might as well have been my lullabies. At 15, I rushed to my nearest Planned Parenthood health center to get birth control pills. I wasn’t sexually active and I hadn’t even had my first period yet, but I proudly pocketed it as a souvenir of my personal choice.
In our catchphrase country, complexity is like dirty dishwater – opaque and best avoided. However, following the Supreme Court decision to strike down Roe v Wade, that’s exactly what we need. The majority of Americans refuse to think in such absolutes when it comes to abortion. Most of us tend to say “it depends”.
We need a common framework that is broad enough to get to the heart of the abortion debate: what does it mean to be a human being with dignity?
Throughout my adulthood, the pro-choice/pro-life binary gave me a comfortable footing in the abortion debate and a ready-made enemy to address. That changed when I met Sister Teresa Forcades, a theologian, Catholic nun, and former doctor based in Barcelona who campaigns for abortion rights.
Her vocal opposition to the Church’s stance on abortion, same-sex partners and women’s ordination has earned her the nickname of Europe’s most radical nun. Christian fundamentalist news sites have dubbed them “The Abortion Nun” and “The Nun of the Devil.”
In 2009, the Vatican sent a letter urging her to retract her abortion views and be disciplined. Instead, she responded with a theological argument for reproductive rights that was articulated so rigorously that it silenced her Catholic cohort, and 13 years later the Vatican is yet to respond. But she won’t be called Pro-Choice. She says this dichotomy limits the ability to simultaneously believe in the sanctity of life and the right to abortion.
Your reasoning is deceptively simple. The essence of the classic pro-life argument is that the mother who terminates a pregnancy is choosing to kill her child and must be compelled not to. But take another example: a father whose child needs a kidney transplant to survive. She asked, “Is the Church willing to force the father to give the kidney to the child under penalty of imprisonment or excommunication?” It’s not the church.
“It will not make the father feel that all the wrath of God will fall upon him unless he offers a little bit of his body to save his child’s life. No, it doesn’t.” Such a practice could ideologically justify all manner of abuses, such as “sacrificing one person to save a few others by distributing that person’s organs.”
Your argument makes sense, but it’s the simplest detail that struck me the most: the man’s body. According to the Catholic Church, a man is not required to give his child a kidney, but a woman (in the grip of a life-threatening pregnancy) must surrender her body to the fetus. This role reversal and subtle push at double standards add a refreshing push to feminism to the debate – one that the original Roe vs. Wade decision never quite delivered.
The Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling was based on a pregnant person’s constitutional “right to privacy,” which protects that person’s right to vote.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that a person should never be an instrument for another, that violates our dignity. For example, turning a human into an organ-building machine. Likewise, Forcades says, prohibiting abortion turns a pregnant woman into an instrument of human reproduction and violates the very thing that makes us human.
When I met her, Forcades said to me: “Human dignity is something that the Church has defended for centuries; sometimes alone in very difficult contexts.”
What happens when a pregnant woman’s dignity, or her very survival, is in direct conflict with the dignity of the life she carries? Is a mother’s life more or less valuable than the child who depends on her for survival? And, just as important, is the church or state ethically equipped to make that decision?
It is clear that such a conversation without guard rails is not about finding answers. It’s about provoking more questions. We must not delude ourselves that dialogue will lead to greater shared truths or even commonalities. Nor should we feel compelled to simply sideline things with the liberal catchphrase ‘everyone is entitled to their own opinion’.
A break with binary should instead be seen as an invitation to be uncomfortable – permission to say, “It’s complicated.”
Linda Freund is an independent journalist based in Spain. This article was produced with support from the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, the John Templeton Foundation, and the Templeton Religion Trust
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/what-i-learned-after-meeting-the-nun-of-the-devil-in-the-white-heat-of-the-abortion-rights-battle-41888745.html What I learned after meeting the ‘devil’s nun’ in the white heat of the abortion rights fight