Last week, three items came across my desk that each, in their own way, shone a light on the debate between the pro-life and pro-choice groups, and the light shone indicated that the debate could scarcely be more muddled. But, it is muddled in a particular way, and whichever side of the debate best charts a path through the adumbrations will likely move the discussion in the way people on each side desire.
The first item did not even intend to touch on the abortion issue at all. PrioritiesUSA is a Super PAC supporting Hillary Clinton. They released an ad attacking her opponent, Donald Trump, because he had made fun of a reporter, Serge Kovaleski, who suffers from a physical disability, arthrogryposis. The ad features a couple, Chris and Lauren Glaros, discussing their daughter Grace who was born with spina bifida. Chris begins by recalling being in the room when the ultrasound indicated their child had a physical disability. The parents say that their daughter is "a total blessing in our lives" and that "she brings out the goodness in each person." After a clip of Trump mocking the reporter, the parents quite rightly point out that the children in Grace's school know that they should never, ever mock someone with a physical disability. Here is the video:
You wonder if it dawned on the team that produced this video that it worked especially well because the Glaroses had named their daughter Grace, that it would not have been as poignant if she had been named Sally or Madge. You wonder, too, if the strategists at PrioritiesUSA had consulted their candidate's schedule the week the ad was released, and noted that she would be speaking at a Planned Parenthood convention. You do not have to wonder that the irony was lost on the people who run the Super PAC: The same week that they were rightly saying it is morally wrong to mock a person with a disability, Clinton was praising the work of the organization that is more responsible than any other for killing people with disabilities before they are born.
The first lesson here is that our culture has found it easy, even obligatory, to look away from the moral status of the unborn. The second, more hopeful lesson, came when Chris Glaros mentioned the word "ultrasound." Technology is with those of us who argue that the humanity of the unborn child is a reality that cannot be denied. The first generation of humans who have seen their own ultrasounds are now registering to vote. I am not saying that they will instantly or easily or even definitely join the pro-life cause. I am saying that a central necessity of the pro-choice argument, the denial of the humanity of the unborn child, will become harder and harder to sustain.
The second item was a full page ad in last Tuesday's Washington Post entitled "Real conversation about the status of women must include abortion." The ad was timed to coincide with a White House "United State of Women Summit." The ad stated "Abortion is not an explicit priority of the summit. This is a mistake. Access to abortion is critical for women's dignity, equality, and justice. A woman needs to be able to decide whether and when to have children to be equal and have equal opportunity. It is really that simple." Yes, it is that simple, although not in the way the sponsors of the ad intended.
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You would think a true feminist would be concerned to eliminate those barriers to equal opportunity that impact all women, including the ones who want to be moms. You would think that the sponsors of the ad would acknowledge that there are other means by which women are "able to decide whether and when to have children." You would think the groups in question would know that their ad conflates state restrictions on abortion with the cases of women and girls raped in conflicts overseas in a way that is not only confusing morally but logically. It is also shocking that one of the sponsors is Amnesty International which, otherwise undertakes such important work. Now, not one red cent to Amnesty International.
There is a very important lesson here for those of us who wish success to the pro-life cause: A significant number of women believe that their personal dignity and freedom is wrapped up with the availability of legal abortion. We can never address the one without addressing the other and we will never succeed until women are free to pursue their vocations in life whether or not they are pregnant. Until the pro-life cause is stamped thoroughly as a pro-women cause, it will never succeed.
The third item came when a friend mentioned that Melinda Gates had announced a couple years back that the Gates Foundation would not fund abortion in any of their development aid. I vaguely remembered this, but very vaguely, and so I googled it. You will find that after the original news stories about the decision by the Gates Foundation to not fund abortions, and Gates' contrasting abortion with women's health care in very explicit ways. Gates got beat up by both pro-life and pro-choice groups. The pro-life groups noted that Gates continues to support contraception and to fund projects that promote contraception with groups like Planned Parenthood, and money is fungible, so there is nothing to the Gates' decision. The pro-choice advocates condemned Gates for stigmatizing abortion and failing to rank it among the most important types of health care. Which is it?
The money-is-fungible argument is not wrong, but it demands a Jansenistic focus on divorcing oneself from the contaminating influences of the world. It inflates the theological notions of "scandal" and "cooperation with evil" to such a degree that they put a damper on any and collaboration with anyone who does not 100-percent agree with the church -- better to say, agree with the church on sexual matters, because we all know plenty of pro-life advocates dissent from the church's teaching on social justice. The idea that abortion is no different from other types of maternal health care flies in the face of millennia of cultural and legal norms. As well, conflating abortion with health care requires ignoring the modern, scientific willingness to face precisely how much violence some abortions entail. The pro-choice groups resemble no one so much as those who deny climate change when they make the case that an abortion is no different, really, from having an appendectomy.
If I had been working at the bishops' conference when Gates made her announcement, I would have gotten on the next flight to Seattle and thanked her. She can validate a belief about abortion in ways no man can. And, whatever your thoughts about contraception, there is no denying that the Gates family, unlike so many zillionaires in the past and present, have decided to put their enormous wealth at the service of the poorest people on the planet. You may or may not quibble with this program they fund or that one, but the project itself is quite stunning. Louis XIV built Versailles. John D. Rockefeller bought the presidency of William McKinley. Donald Trump ... don’t get me started. The Gates seek to help the poorest people on the planet.
The lesson here is that the pro-life community needs to stop shooting itself in the foot by deploying technical theological concepts like scandal and cooperation with evil to frustrate ever working with people who don't buy into everything the church has to say about procreation. Indeed, we need to find better labels for the concepts "scandal" and "cooperation with evil" which, when taken out of their technical theological sense, are offensive and harsh in common language. The Gates' work is not a scandal in the common sense of the word, and collaborating with them is not cooperating with evil as if they were neo-Stalinists. We need better language to discuss the manner in which a Catholic can cooperate with someone whose views are different from our own about what does and does not constitute a sin.
The pro-life cause needs to free itself from the approach advocated by LifeSiteNews, American Life League, etc., in which they show no patience or understanding for those who do not see the issues as clearly as they think they do and who evidence a greater concern for their own "contamination" than they do for persuading people why the church is right to uphold the dignity and inviolability of the unborn. The first and third cases above show that there are people who are sympathetic to pro-life arguments -- in the first case without even realizing it. The second case shows the necessity of understanding and empathizing with women for whom an unplanned pregnancy is a hurdle not a blessing, and it shows, too, the extreme nature of the pro-choice groups at this moment in time. The medicine of mercy, gentle persuasion, courageous witness and empathy for those who disagree, these will do more for the pro-life cause than the hurling of condemnations and nastiness.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]