The debate over legal abortion has gone global. It has been global for a long time, truth be told, but events in recent weeks have brought the longstanding fact into sharp focus. They have also reframed the debate.
Charlie Camosy – a Fordham University theology professor and pro-life advocate – thinks the time is ripe for a new approach – one that frankly recognizes abortion as the quintessence of the “throwaway culture” that has so frequently been the object of Pope Francis’s eloquent denunciations – and he wants Pope Francis to lead the effort himself.
“I urge you to bring your forceful defense of prenatal children into a more central place of your pontificate,” Camosy wrote in an open letter published by the Public Discourse heading into the weekend. “It is time to stand up firmly and forcefully for their dignity,” Camosy also wrote, “in a culture that increasingly sees them as disposable things that can be violently discarded.”
Pope Francis has never made a secret of his opposition to abortion. He has frequently compared the practice to hiring a hitman, and has made clear that his own opposition to abortion and the Church’s principled stance are both buttressed by faith, though they are rooted in reason, confirmed by science, and vindicated by common sense.
Speaking to Italy’s Tg5 earlier this month, Pope Francis said he always poses two questions to people who raise the issue of abortion with him: “Do I have the right to do this?” is the first. “Is it right to cancel a human life to solve a problem, any problem?” is the second.
He also reiterated his now-famous “hit man” remark: “Is it okay to hire a sicario to solve a problem?”
Deploying an argument with which seasoned pro-life advocates are familiar, Pope Francis said science has an answer to the first question: “It is a human life.” He explained that this fact quickly becomes inescapably evident even to the scientifically untrained. “By the third or at most fourth week of gestation,” Pope Francis said, “all the organs of the new human being are there,” i.e., “in the womb of the mother.”
We know – at least broadly and generally, though always without shadow of doubt – what the gestating organism is at any point, starting from conception.
In the Tg5 interview, Pope Francis tied the treatment of children and the elderly to the “throwaway culture” against which he has also frequently spoken with powerful eloquence. “Children do not produce and are discarded,” he said. “The elderly do not produce and are discarded,” he continued. “Discard the sick,” he offered, “or hasten death when it is terminal.”
“Discard,” he said, “so that it is more comfortable for us and does not bring us so many problems,” a prosaic extension of Our Ford’s chilling maxim: “Better to end than mend.”
Pope Francis has urged Christians, other believers, and all persons of good will to work together, so that the truth of our common claim regarding human dignity might become transparent in the order of society. Those calls have resonated with elites and committed Christians, alike. His ultimate diagnosis and rationale: not so much – especially with the former.
Again, it’s not that Pope Francis can be reasonably accused of soft-pedaling the issue or downplaying the importance of opposing abortion. “Our defense of the innocent unborn,” he wrote in Gaudete et exsultate, “needs to be clear, firm and passionate.” He went on to say: “[A]t stake is the dignity of a human life, which is always sacred and demands love for each person, regardless of his or her stage of development.”
Pope Francis followed that statement (in paragraph 101 of the document) with another (in paragraph 102), to the effect that Christians are called to care for the least of the brethren, and suffering migrants are among those least. The official English translation, at a crucial point, also put the word “grave” in scare-quotes:
We often hear it said that, with respect to relativism and the flaws of our present world, the situation of migrants, for example, is a lesser issue. Some Catholics consider it a secondary issue compared to the “grave” bioethical questions. That a politician looking for votes might say such a thing is understandable, but not a Christian, for whom the only proper attitude is to stand in the shoes of those brothers and sisters of ours who risk their lives to offer a future to their children.
Press outfits in the secular mainstream declared that Pope Francis had committed the Church to a sort of moral equivalence between the issues of migration and abortion. Pope Francis had done nothing of the sort – not in any pertinent sense – but only had only restated a commonplace: that baptismal faith and the certainty of final judgment together put very specific duties on Christians. While that is a terrifying prospect, it is also a statement on the order of, “The sun rises in the east.”
Meanwhile, the pro-life movement is at a crossroads in the United States and around the world.
Though Camosy’s open letter does not take it as an explicit theme, observers across the spectrum of opinion have noted for some time that committed pro-lifers are divided: between those who focus on making (or keeping) abortion illegal, and those who want to eliminate it by expanding care for vulnerable mothers. People in both camps are also working – quietly, more often than not, and tirelessly – to care for mothers and their babies. Despite the evident complementarity of the twin efforts, pro-lifers continue to find ways to denigrate and despise each other, destroying the needful unity of witness before it can emerge and make itself felt.
Pope Francis is not responsible for this lamentable state of affairs, but he has appeared willing to tolerate it.
“[Pope Francis] was clearly involved behind the scenes in his home country: writing letters, for instance, to pro-life women’s groups than he knew would be made public,” Camosy told the Catholic Herald via email. “But I was frustrated that he wasn’t more forceful and upfront about standing up clearly for prenatal justice,” Camosy also said:
I thought, “Well, maybe his calculation is that being forceful and upfront isn’t going to have the results he wants. Maybe he thought it would do more harm than good.” But the results are in: The behind-the-scenes approach is failing. It failed in Ireland. It failed in Argentina. It is failing in the United States. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Pope Francis is uniquely positioned to speak out clearly and directly on this issue and be heard in ways other figures in the Church are not.
Eight years has been enough time to bring about the new balance he sought. Now is the time to uphold the other side of the balance and bring prenatal justice into the center of his pontificate.
It’s a point that hits home, quite frankly – and literally: “As you noted in the letters you sent to pro-life women and others in the white-hot [Argentinian] debate,” Camosy wrote in his open letter, “the scientifically correct position here is that there are two human lives to consider, not one.”
Camosy went on to quote Argentina’s health minister, Ginés González García, who “spoke truths he did not understand” when he spoke in favor of the push from Argentina’s president Alberto Fernández to legalize abortion: “Here there are not two lives,” Gonzalez said. “There’s clearly a single person and the other is a phenomenon.”
“If it were not like that,” García went on to say, “we would be facing the greatest universal genocide, [because] more than half the civilized world allows it.”
In the Catholic Herald, Camosy has called that appalling statement “the quiet part” of the “pro-choice” position, and credits García for his frankness in framing the issue:
Indeed, [García’s] statement reveals one of the most important structural problems of the abortion debate. Those who engage the issue honestly enough to see the implications of the pro-life position quickly see that it is orders of magnitude easier on one’s mental health to take a pro-choice position, when compared to facing the reality that the “greatest universal genocide” is indeed permitted (and in some cases even embraced as a positive good) by most of the developed world.
In the United States, we have witnessed the real-time shift in recent years, from a view of abortion as a tragic necessity, to one that sees abortion not only as a fundamental and integral part of women’s personal autonomy – a basic right – but an incontestable good.
US President Joseph R. Biden put the weight of his office behind the message on Friday – the anniversary of the 1973 US Supreme Court decision that made abortion legal throughout the United States – again claiming that abortion is “health care” sic et simpliciter: “In the past four years, reproductive health, including the right to choose, has been under relentless and extreme attack,” Biden and his Vice President, Kamala Harris said.
Right or wrong, the question their framing of the issue posed is precisely the one Pope Francis and Dr. García were willing to answer: Choose what? Pope Francis and Dr. García answered the question. Biden and Harris studiously avoided answering it.
Only Pope Francis’s answer provides a reason sufficient to justify those parts of Biden’s and Harris’s commitment – also renewed in their Roe anniversary message – which are otherwise condivisible: “[T]o work to eliminate maternal and infant health disparities,” and “[to] support families economically so that all parents can raise their families with dignity.”
Some Catholics will continue working to foster social conditions in which women feel less pressure to abort their babies. Others will continue to be engaged primarily in work to keep abortion illegal or make it illegal again. These are not separate tasks, but two moments of a single project.
“It is time,” Camosy said, “for a new strategy in defense of prenatal justice.”
On Camosy’s view, Pope Francis has an extraordinary opportunity: “You are now perfectly positioned,” he wrote, “to insist that prenatal children must be treated the same as other children under law as a matter of justice, but also to show how this is consistent with (not opposed to) treating women as the equals of men.”
He suggested that Pope Francis might lead global campaigns calling for “increased health care, childcare, familial support, protection from violence, and education for women—while at the same time calling for equal protection of the law for their children, regardless of age.”
“This,” he wrote, “would be a dramatic strike for the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which prioritizes both women and children over and against the destructive left-right political polarization that asks us to choose between them.”
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