On abortion, it's time to get past polarization, author argues

There are two groups of people. They stand facing each other. One holds signs that say, “Keep abortion legal” and “My body, my choice.” The other has ones that read, “Defend life” and “Stop abortion now.” People are pointing their fingers at one another. They’re chanting slogans. Some are just yelling.

It’s an image that reflects something almost taken for granted: In the abortion debate there is no middle ground, no room for discussion between those who call themselves “pro-life” and “pro-choice.”

George Dennis O’Brien, author of The Church and Abortion: A Catholic Dissent, seems to think otherwise. O’Brien, a philosophy professor and former president of both the University of Rochester and Bucknell University, has a simple message to both sides: Start talking.

O’Brien, who, as the subtitle suggests, is a Catholic, directs his message most squarely at the staunchest of the non-talkers in the debate: the U.S. Catholic bishops.

For NCR's interview with O'Brien, see: Abortion policy and legal, moral realities

In this short, easy-to-read book (there’s not too much professor-speak here), O’Brien delves into the ramifications of the bishops’ position on the issue and argues their single-minded devotion to the overturning of Roe v. Wade is impractical, shortsighted, and has caused a rift in political discourse that gets in the way of the cause and misleads Catholics.

“The bishops urge an end to abortion -- they urge it with passion -- but they have been either unable or unwilling to examine the means by which this end might be accomplished. Means have to be ‘realistic,’ ” writes O’Brien in the book’s opening chapter. “If the aim is to prohibit or severely restrict abortions, what means would be truly effective?”

That question frames the author’s quest in the book, which is by turns an open letter to the bishops and a deep look at legal, moral and biblical understandings of the human person.

To be sure, those understandings will not please all.

One flash point in particular is O’Brien’s lengthy explanation for why he thinks “one cannot categorically label the fetus a person” and give it the same moral weight as its mother.

Relying on St. Thomas Aquinas for justification, the philosophy professor bases his conclusion on his deduction that although we can’t be sure of the exact time humans receive souls, it’s definitely far after the moment of conception.

Yet, O’Brien argues, whatever you think about the specifics, it’s time to get past the polarization. That argument is the focus of the book’s afterword, which is addressed to activists and bishops.

The message? Go ahead. Argue. Have at it. Just remember the goal. It’s not about winning. It’s about finding practical ways to reduce abortions.


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