The Other I

May 8, 2012

Reflections on abortion

I am too old for the question of abortion to be one which I will face personally.  And the terminated pregnancies which I have experienced were not chosen.

However, in the face of the increasing number of states in America which are trying to outlaw abortion outright under any circumstances, I have been thinking about why I disagree  with what is essentially the Roman Catholic position that abortion is always murder, and therefore never justified.  Since murder is wrong, Catholics are taught that they have an obligation to stop what they see as the mass murders of abortion, whether or not the persons involved in the act believe it is.  The obligation is as great as it would be to stop the mass murders of Jews or the mentally retarded or ethnic groups who may be considered to be sub-human.

I’ve asked several people whose values I respect for their take on this question.  The answers I found most enlightening are from Tony Equale whose blog I also read regularly.  I don’t claim they are original, but these are the conclusions which I myself have now reached.

First of all, I think sex is not part of the natural order purely for the sake of procreation.  Nor is it purely for the sake of pleasure.  Some 2 million years ago, humans evolved in which it was no longer apparent when the female was fertile.  The result of this was greater equality between the sexes, less competition, and a more influential and long-term role for fathers during what became the long years of human childhood.  So in my opinion, natural law dictates that the purpose of human sexual intercourse is not simply procreation, but the maintenance of a loving,  stable relationship between the parents which greatly facilitates the raising their offspring. (Paradoxically, sexual relationships between people who have no intention of having children together is often a learning experience which leads to a maturity which is of great benefit to us all.  Even to those of us who are no longer children.)

So I don’t think we humans have evolved in such a way that we benefit from reducing sex to no more than a passing pleasure with no inter-personal consequences.  But sex isn’t just about having children either.

So what about abortion?  Catholics believe that what makes a human being a person is the addition of a spiritual soul to the material body.  It is the soul that makes the person and is put there by God in a deliberate act.  It is not clear to theologians when the soul is combined with the physical body, and so the church argues that we must assume it is from the very moment of conception.

But must we?  Does this make sense?  Let’s think about it.  The church teaches that God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing.  Yet it also teaches that this God inserts a living soul into the body of human beings conceived under the most terrible circumstances.  Perhaps the woman was raped.  Perhaps it was a young girl impregnated by her father.  Perhaps the foetus will be born under circumstances where the child will be abandoned, starved, abused, severely deformed, in extreme pain.  Perhaps the pregnancy will kill the mother through no fault of her own, leaving other children motherless.  According to the church, this all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God going to make this egg which has been penetrated by a sperm a person, come hell or high water.

No.  I don’t believe it.  This is a contradiction in terms.  If a human being were to behave in such a fashion, would impose this kind of suffering on another human being when he had the knowledge and power not to do so, we would never call it loving.  We might even call it evil.  We certainly would not tell everyone to go and do likewise.

Roman Catholics believe that abortion must be treated as murder because it is the willful termination of the life of an innocent person.

I don’t think it necessarily is.  I don’t think we are dealing with a person in the early days of pregnancy.  It is a potential person, which is something entirely different. Just as an acorn is not an oak tree but a potential tree, just as a seed is not an apple but only carries that potential, the foetus is not a person with all the rights of personhood.

But there’s a second issue, and that revolves around the times when the church, and indeed society, condone the murder of persons.  We can kill another person in war, to protect our own lives or the life of someone else.  Sometimes we are faced with the terrible and difficult decision of having to choose who should die, rather than if anyone should die.  Even if one believes that abortion always results in the death of an innocent unborn foetus, there are conditions under which I believe it is justified.

Is abortion simple?  rarely.  Does it have consequences?  inevitably.  Do I think it should be treated as a birth control method when other methods are available?  no.

But there are times when abortion is the brave, the courageous, the moral choice.


  1. This post reminds me of your “still thinking like a Catholic” post!
    I know what I would think in an ideal world – but as you say/imply – it isn’t ideal. I think that extreme laws are unhelpful – abortions would still go ahead – law or no law – and those who would be looking for abortions in this way would likely be vulnerable and damaged individuals.
    I think that disapproval of abortion is one thing – but to foist my ethics onto another seems… suspect. So saying, people look to the “rights” of the unborm child. In a secular society it is hard to see where such children get their “rights” from.
    What I think is that society should be so supportive of people who have unwanted pregnancies that it would be the norm to keep the child to term and adopted.
    Back to my ideal world.
    Laws should be made to deal with reality, rather than idealism.
    The Catholic church can say what it likes to Catholics.


    Comment by sanstorm — May 8, 2012 @ 5:25 pm | Reply

    • Oh yes, I can still think like a Catholic! which is exactly what I’ve been trying to do in order to understand in the first place and then clarify why I disagree with this classic Catholic position on abortion. It resides deep in the Catholic psyche and is rarely tackled by ex-Catholics.

      Like you, I think the real, as opposed to the ideal, world often poses us with anguishing decisions. To impose an a-priori decision on everybody, whatever their beliefs, can only make a difficult decision harder. And perhaps make the outcome worse too.

      Catholics often like to say that sex is sacred – a turn-off, if ever I heard one and one that I find almost revolting. But I guess I do still think enough like a Catholic to think that treating sex like candy, like a superficial pleasure that causes no harm if we all wouldn’t get so uptight about it is also corrosive. It’s about two people (not including children and family), and so demands that each respect the other rather than treating them like disposable toys.

      Thank you for your own comments on this febrile subject. They are a breath of fresh air. Terry


      Comment by Terry Sissons — May 8, 2012 @ 8:16 pm | Reply

  2. what is reflection on aborted fetus


    Comment by wasbgbtsezzhz — February 9, 2016 @ 8:08 am | Reply

    • If I understand your question accurately – and I may not – you are assuming that an aborted fetus is a full-fledged, rather than a potential – person. Not everyone, including not all theologians, agree that this is so, and there is much discussion about just when the fetus should be according the rights and protections given to any human person.

      There is also a second question which rarely has an easy answer under any circumstances, and that is: when one must chose between saving the life of two different people, how does one make a moral choice? This situation not only occurs in the case of a pregnant in relation to a fetus, but in terms of two people whom we all accept are fully human. Should women and children be saved first? Always?

      Not many Roman Catholics are aware of this, but St. Thomas Acquinas asked whether one should save the life of the mother or that of the unborn child if that appeared to be the choice. He argued that the moral choice could very well be to save the life of the mother who herself may be needed for the care of her other children.

      This is an extraordinarily difficult area, and one about which we may not agree. But I think that we would probably agree that it is an important question about which feelings in our society run deep.

      Thank you for your comment. I would be interested to hearing more of your thoughts on this subject.


      Comment by theotheri — February 9, 2016 @ 12:38 pm | Reply

  3. I find your discussion below sort of curious because it seems to be no different from the “if God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing, why is there evil in the world” question (take the actions of Hitler for example). As I recall, the evil in this world is the result of our free will, and God’s direct individual intervention into His creation (other than to hold it lovingly in existence) is quite rare. Your imagining of God intervening into the ensoulment timing of all of the situations described seems unlikely to me. And despite how agonizing it has to be to have a severely deformed, life-limited child, I have heard testimony from a number of couples of the blessings received in those circumstances. The extreme pain issue should be properly addressed by doctors although a teeny child suffering that king of pain for any amount of time would be beyond distressing for all concerned. I address a couple of other of your situations below the quote from your post.

    “But must we? Does this make sense? Let’s think about it. The church teaches that God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing. Yet it also teaches that this God inserts a living soul into the body of human beings conceived under the most terrible circumstances. Perhaps the woman was raped. Perhaps it was a young girl impregnated by her father. Perhaps the foetus will be born under circumstances where the child will be abandoned, starved, abused, severely deformed, in extreme pain. Perhaps the pregnancy will kill the mother through no fault of her own, leaving other children motherless. According to the church, this all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God going to make this egg which has been penetrated by a sperm a person, come hell or high water.’

    Just a couple of other thoughts:

    1) In consultation with a Catholic ethicist, I asked what could be done if a woman’s pregnancy was at, say 15 weeks, and her blood pressure has gone so high that a stroke and even death could be imminent for the mother what would the Church allow?. He said that they should deliver the baby. I protested that the baby would surely die. He said that the goal is to preserve both mother and baby, but in the case I stated, the inevitable death of the baby was an unintended effect of the delivery required to save the woman’s life, and thus not an abortion. I wish that more people could make such a reasonable explanation of the mother/baby death risk dilemma. [Although I’ve read a couple of things on Pro-Life sites that seem to take a harder line than that.]

    2) On the timing of when the developing baby is a person–just a personal story. In 1992, I was working pastoral care in a maternity ward. I came in to visit with one of the pregnant women who was being kept in the hospital because her water broke at the 23rd week mark. She was in tears as she had spiked a fever (at the 24th week gestation), and she said that they were going to have to deliver the baby. She had little hope. I watched the 1.3-pound baby eventually leave the hospital at 4 pounds (she came back 6 months later–child still fine), That would have been unthinkable perhaps 10 years prior. I don’t know how much progress has been made in neo-natal intensive care in the past 24 years but I’d imagine there would be some. Bottom Line: Babies are surviving with shorter and shorter gestation times. They have all the DNA they need when the egg is fertilized; all they need is an environment and nutrients in order to grow. For me, that’s a pretty good argument for personhood at conception. That said, those of us who believe that need to do all we can to support moms/families in challenging situations and do all we can to insure adoptions where necessary. I know of several Pro-Life groups that do just that, but my guess would be that we could use more.

    Thanks for letting me share.


    Comment by Mary Kay H' — January 8, 2017 @ 10:41 am | Reply

    • ​Thank you once again for your long and thoughtful comments. I would like to explain a little more clearly the issues about which we disagree.

      The first is your assumption that the Church teaches that evil is solely the result of our free will, and before Adam & Eve ate the forbidden fruit, we were all perfectly happy. Actually, that is not the position held by all theologians, including Thomas of Aquinas. The Church does not teach that natural disasters or inevitable human ignorance are the result of evil. But the Church does teach that God intervenes directly in this world, rather frequently actually. The number of miracles recognized by the Church are by definition beyond the natural law. That’s what a miracle is.​

      In terms of the timing of God’s ensoulement of the individual, Aquinas argued that we can’t know when it occurs, and so must assume it is from the time of conception. He also argued, though, that when we are faced with an apparent choice between the life of the mother and of the child, it is often the moral choice to choose that of the mother.

      Actually, I myself do not believe that Plato was right when he argued we had souls separate from our bodies. Plato, as you probably know, living several years BC, but his view was accepted at the time as the most scientific explanation of human live and consciousness and so was adopted by the Christian church by about the 3rd century AD. Of course there is a difference between a corpse and a living person, but I believe the difference between mind and body is comparable to (maybe even an aspect of) the difference between mass and energy. That is something Einstein gave us some insight into barely a century ago. How mind and body specifically reflect energy and mass remains possibly the greatest scientific question of our time.

      ​I totally appreciate that I may not be right about this. It is only a best-guess assumption on my part. But so is the belief in a separate soul. My objection to a great deal of the legislation against abortion is that the soul is based on a religious belief. In a country that separates the state and church, legislation based on religious belief is unconstitutional.

      Having said this, let me reiterate again as I have in my post and comment above that I am emphatically not an enthusiast for abortion. I think we need to take sexual intercourse much more seriously than we take having a glass of wine or bar of candy. And abortion is frequently both physically as well as psychologically damaging.

      You obviously have thought about this issue as much as I have. I would very much like to hear your further thoughts.


      Comment by theotheri — January 8, 2017 @ 4:42 pm | Reply

      • Thanks so much for your prompt response. I still have much to chew on and will respond to more later, but I’d like to comment on a few things (and please excuse my paragraph numbering–I did way too much technical writing):

        1) And perhaps the most important–it is SO refreshing to be able to have a discussion online without fear of being vilified or dismissed out-of-hand (at least by the host ). Facebook is a terrible place to discuss things that matter and I’ve given up trying to. Thank you very much for providing the forum!

        2) I am a believer in miracles and have no trouble believing that there have been many. I just have trouble believing in ongoing intervention in timing of ensoulment. However, given that I received a inner locution at a time I really needed it, perhaps I shouldn’t doubt the idea of God intervening as you had suggested (obviously, any assumptions we make of God’s ability to do anything (outside of things that would go against His very nature) are limited by our own nature).

        3) I couldn’t agree more that we need to take sexual intercourse much more seriously. It was once pointed out to me that, once a couple embarks on an intense physical relationship, emotional development of the relationship grinds to a halt (or at least a slowdown). And from my personal experience, I’d say that’s largely true. [Not to mention the consequences of feeling total rejection upon splitting up or the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy or worse yet, and abortion.]

        4) I just realized that I may have made two issues equivalent that may NOT be equivalent: ensoulment and “personhood”. Furthermore, I seem to remember that treating body and soul as separate entities (a duality, if you will), is the sort of thing that led to extreme ascetic practices and some demonizing of the body. That would lead me to believe that the more integrated we are with respect to body and soul (as long as we are alive on this earth), the healthier we are. How that plays into timing of ensoulment versus legal personhood, I have no idea whatsoever right now. What we mean by personhood seems to be what matters legally, not necessarily when we have a soul (an entity which more and more people in the U.S. would dismiss). So I’m not sure where that leaves us.

        You have officially made my head hurt. Thanks, I think. Seriously, I look forward to our further exchange on this as I continue to ponder. I also appreciate the chance to understand the “how” and “why” of how other folks think on this lightning-hot topic.


        Comment by Mary Kay H' — January 9, 2017 @ 9:45 pm | Reply

  4. And I couldn’t agree more with you that having a discussion live or on-line in which the use of personal attacks takes the place of seriously trying to explore a subject as serious as abortion is useless at best. In fact, I think it is usually even destructive. On the few occasions in which comments have been made either of my blogs, I have either deleted the comment or asked the person who made the comment to rewrite it.

    Miracles: we can’t know whether any event is a miracle or is simply something that at this point we can’t explain. In some cultures, situations, or times, it is not called a miracle but magic. When I say I don’t believe in miracles, it is no more a position that can be defended by evidence than is the belief that miracles — ie: a suspension of natural law — do occur.

    Ah, personhood and ensoulment — that really might be the core of issue surrounding abortion and why feelings about it are so strong — because ensoulment is an act of faith, to which millions of people are profoundly committed. But because it is an act of faith, it is, by definition, not something can can be proved or disproved. The church teaches it is a gift.

    But that does make the whole question of “personhood” subject to the same unresolvable debate. If one believes in ensoulment, then whenever that occurs, one is talking about a person, though, as Thomas Acquinas pointed out, we do not know when that ensoulment actually occurs. Governments in which religious freedom is enshrined have looked at both philosophy and science to try to decide when a fertilized egg achieves personhood with human rights. This is most often the point at which a brain has formed, which, interestingly, is the same definition most often used to define death. That still leaves the question of those situations where one must choose between the life of the mother or the unborn child.

    I join you with an official head ache.


    Comment by theotheri — January 12, 2017 @ 9:28 pm | Reply

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