No easy, quick-fix solutions to abortion issues
The stories of Sophie Horak and Albert Brooks are agonizing, haunting tales that refute the suggestion that there is an easy solution, a quick fix, to the complex biomedical ethical questions of the day.
Is there any point, then, in wrestling once more with such intractable questions? Why trudge again through this awful, divisive abortion terrain? Catholics have earned credentials in confronting this issue. And Catholics, whatever their stance, have paid a price for their convictions -- in the divisions that have rent our community and even in the derision often experienced in the public square.
Abortion offends our deepest Catholic instincts. We have a sacramental view of the world, of life. We are pro-life. Increasingly, Catholics have a special credibility in speaking out on abortion because we have not made an easy accommodation with the culture on this issue.
Differ as we might on how to deal with the issue, there is something deep in us that says abortion has both private and communal dimensions. Whatever our positions on the legal and political battles surrounding abortion, few would disagree that the sheer number of procedures is troubling. If we stop for a moment's contemplation in the heat of the political battle, the nagging suspicion lurks that an industry has grown up to satisfy a carefree, no ill-effects demand that has a coarsening effect on our lives and culture.
Despite these complex feelings about abortion -- an unease shared by the general populace -- Horak and Brooks painfully remind us why we, as a church, have been unable to come to any solid agreement on how to deal with these matters in law.
A point we have made numerous times before in this space bears repeating: The more church officials insist on dealing in absolutes, whether in the moral or political arena, and in linking up with specific political agendas, the faster their credibility and moral authority gets eroded.
The U.S. bishops, for more than 23 years, have insisted on joining forces with whatever political party or candidate has promised them a vote against abortion. In doing so, in many cases, they have had to abandon much of the rest of the church's moral and social agenda. The bishops, meanwhile, have gained next to nothing for their expenditures of political capital. Their strategy, unproductive and isolating, has backed the church into a corner.
The political hard-liners are bolstered these days by the seemingly constant drumming by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, most recently warning of the threat of growing "relativism" in moral decision-making. Ratzinger would have us believe the only Christian choice available is between a host of moral absolutes on the one hand and complete moral relativism on the other. His position would have ill-served the bishops in other circumstances.
When the U.S. bishops wrote their peace pastoral, they were knee-deep in relativism as they deployed the most subtly nuanced moral categories in dealing with the reality of nuclear brinkmanship -- a reality that held the possibility of destroying life as we know it. Likewise, the bishops went to incredible lengths to squeeze themselves far enough beyond any obstacles put up by the just war concept -- the last instance being the Persian Gulf War -- to give civic leaders a green light in their military pursuits.
They spoke forcefully to those in power, but they were unwilling to hold either the state or individuals to an absolute standard. If our religious leaders can jump through such a variety of hoops to mollify the demons of war, certainly they can grant women caught in extreme circumstances equal access to nuanced moral argument.
The tragedy of the current church position on abortion is that it not only is politically self-defeating and uncompromising, but it has also stripped Catholic theology of nuance, virtually disallowing the use of human reason, if the theologians and ethicists quoted in our account are to be believed.
Said ethicist James F. Drane: "Law has to address the reality in which we live, and nobody who knows anything about good law thinks you could legislate a complete pro-life policy." People perceive a need to move toward the center. At the same time, Horak, he said, is up against a new church politics, not an old church theology. On either side of the abortion issue, the public debate consists of "more slogans than possibilities for public policy."
It is the limitations of law as a means of dealing with these matters -- and the concurrent stripping of complexity from our theological thinking -- that may well be adding to the paralysis in the public policy arena.
Legally driven absolutes have failed to sway the moral debate. Catholics remain deeply divided, with surveys showing Catholics seeking abortions in the same percentage as women of other faiths and denominations.
The paralysis might explain why some well-intentioned people on both sides of the issue are working against the odds to seek common ground. Even as staunch an abortion opponent as William Bennet, former official with the Bush and Reagan administrations, has counseled that the antiabortion movement, while not abandoning principle, should be willing to accommodate a wider range of views. "I do believe," he told a meeting of the Catholic Campaign for America last November, "that reasonable people of goodwill can and do disagree on the means to that end" of working to cut the number of abortions performed.
The two cases cited could be viewed as extreme cases, exceptions to the usual reasons for opposing abortion. But it is the exeptions so many of us are personally acquainted with that militate against the consensus needed for law.
As Bennett and others contend, much more could be done to diminish the number of abortions in this country, but it would mean backing away from the slogans and quick absolutes. It would require making room for dialogue and imaginative responses. An enormous task remains ahead for each of us and collectively for our churches if we are to wear a worthy pro-life mantle.
National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 1996