Roe v. Wade v. Civility

With the 42nd anniversary of Roe v. Wade ruling approaching, perhaps it is time for human civility to enter the dialogue.

As thousands gather again this year at the March for Life in Washington, Americans remain divided over abortion and our body politic is fractured by rancorous debates over health care reform. Surely, cynics threw in the towel long ago. Is there any hope for those who still believe in common ground, civil dialogue and bipartisan efforts to address the most contentious issues facing our nation?

Few rulings in American history reverberated across the political and cultural landscape with such seismic impact as the Roe v. Wade decision. Hailed as a historic breakthrough for women’s rights by some, others blasted the decision as a grave affront to the sacred dignity of human life. Decades passed, ideologies hardened and bumper-sticker slogans ruled the day. The abortion culture wars rewarded the shrillest voices and became a potent “wedge issue” for politicians seeking a push in the polls.

Despite significant challenges to finding common ground that remain today, a new generation of Catholics and evangelicals reject the confrontational battles of the past. We are pushing for more productive bipartisan coalitions to help reduce the number of abortions by preventing unintended pregnancies and encouraging robust policies that support pregnant women. A 2008 poll conducted by Public Religion Research, sponsored by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Faith in Public Life and Sojourners, found that 81 percent of Catholics and 83 percent of all voters want elected officials to back policies that help prevent unintended pregnancies, expand adoption opportunities and increase economic support for vulnerable women. In Congress, this holistic agenda is reflected in proposals such as the Pregnant Women Support Act as well as the Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, a bill co-sponsored by pro-life Rep. Tim Ryan and pro-choice Rep. Rosa DeLauro. While these efforts will not magically erase the bitterness and division over abortion, they offer hope for new coalitions and fresh solutions.

It is also critical that we move beyond the false divide between “pro-life” and “social justice” advocacy. Ensuring that women and families have access to quality health care will make abortions less likely and save thousands of lives every year. A recent study from researchers at Harvard Medical School estimated that 40,000 Americans die each year because they lack health care. The abortion rate for women living in poverty is more than four times higher than for those earning 300 percent above the poverty line. At a time of economic crisis, any serious effort to prevent abortions must find pragmatic solutions to difficult socioeconomic realities. The Senate health-care proposal provides significant support for pregnant women, including $250 million over 10 years for pregnant and parenting teens.

Let’s also remember that Catholic social teaching is clear that seeking peace, caring for the poor and most vulnerable, “promoting the common good in all its forms” — in the words of Pope Benedict XVI — are all nonnegotiable. Catholicism is not a single-issue religion, and no political party has a monopoly on moral values. Access to quality health care, fighting global poverty and taking seriously the threats of climate change are all fundamental life issues.

Some religious leaders and pro-life organizations must also reassess their rhetoric and extreme tactics if they expect to persuade the public. Listen to Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas speaking at a Gospel of Life Convention last year:

“We are at war! Harsh as this may sound it is true — but it is not new. This war to which I refer did not begin in just the last several months, although new battles are underway – and they bring an intensity and urgency to our efforts that may rival any time in the past. But it is correct to acknowledge that you and I are warriors – members of the Church on earth -often called the Church militant.”

This proverbial call to arms alienates all but the already converted choir and is even jarring to many who view abortion as a moral tragedy. When Sen. Ted Kennedy died in August of 2009, the American Life League – a group that bills itself as a “Catholic pro-life education organization – fired off a shameless e-mail to supporters asking them to buy “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy” signs. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston faced such venomous criticism after he participated in Sen. Kennedy’s funeral Mass that he offered these sobering words to elements of the pro-life movement who believe their cause is best served by shrill attacks:

“At times, even in the Church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another. These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church. If any cause is motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness, it will be doomed to marginalization and failure.”

Just days after Barack Obama’s election, Bishop Blase Cupich of South Dakota cautioned his fellow bishops lining up to denounce the president’s views on abortion at a national meeting in Baltimore that “a prophecy of denunciation quickly wears thin.” Six months later, the University of Notre Dame became the epicenter of anti-abortion protests after the president accepted an invitation to give the commencement address. Many Catholic bishops criticized the decision to invite the president. Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue who has called the president an “agent of death,” led a protest that included an airplane flying graphic images of an aborted fetus. Standing before graduates, President Obama encouraged a more respectful tone on abortion characterized by “open hearts, open minds and fair-minded words.” He acknowledged the moral dimension of abortion, emphasized support for pregnant women and called for greater access to adoption. An editorial in the Vatican newspaper commended the president for seeking common ground. A few months later, Pope Benedict XVI held a cordial meeting with Obama that was a model for prudent engagement.

Winning hearts and minds in a pluralistic democracy of contested values demands more than fist-shaking denunciations. It requires people of faith to bring reason and civility to the always imperfect task of translating moral absolutes into the messy reality of legislating. If those on opposing sides of this polarizing issue embrace a spirit of greater humility, compassion and critical introspection, enemies become potential allies and old assumptions begin to fade. Comprehensive efforts to reduce abortions are a cause for hope that the pro-life and pro-choice communities should embrace. After more than three decades of political paralysis and legal gridlock, the time has come to break new ground.

Image by Anna Levinzon

John Gehring
Written by

  • PSolus

    The problem with the ant-abortion movement is that it is a group of people trying to enforce their religious beliefs on other people who do not share those religious beliefs.It is tantamount to the government forcing all males to be circumcised because a small percentage of the population thinks that their creator commanded that all males be circumcised.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    CONTINUED:Allowing the bishops to wield power over Capitol Hill has proven dangerous this time, and it could prove dangerous again. Just imagine for a moment what health care will look like when the bishops are finished. There will be absolutely no access to abortion–even in cases of rape or incest. There will be no IVF. No contraception. No treatment for ectopic pregnancy or medical anomalies during pregnancy. No respect for your advance medical directives and no use of cures gained through embryonic stem-cell research. There will be nothing that doesn’t meet the litmus tests prescribed by a small group of men who don’t represent American Catholics, let alone the American people.As the final negotiations take place on the health care reform bill, policymakers can consider the desires of the USCCB. However, they should only consider these desires alongside the opinions and needs of the American Catholics and the American people. If the policymakers, as well as the bishops, put politics aside for just a moment and considered the plight of many American citizens, I am confident that the need for women to access safe and affordable abortion would quickly be included in health care reform as was agreed when Congress began the debate. When the final bill reaches the president’s desk, I hope it does.Jon O’Brien is president of Catholics for Choice.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    ACTUAllY WORTH READINGCatholic bishops too powerful?By Jon O’BrienIt’s rarely a pretty sight when the internal workings of the political process in Washington DC are held up to the light. But what has happened during the health care debate has been uglier than normal.At the outset, a truce of sorts was declared. Pro-choice and anti-choice advocates had a tacit agreement that they would not use the debate over health care reform to further their own agendas. The agreement seemed to be holding until the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) decided it was not happy with the status quo and pressured Congress to further restrict access to abortion. Then, as the saying goes, all hell broke loose.On many issues, including social justice, care for immigrants and the affordability of health coverage, the USCCB maintains sound positions. However, rather than using its political capital to ensure these issues were included in health care reform, the USCCB chose to hold the health care debate hostage over accessibility to abortion care for American women.Hours before the House of Representatives was scheduled to hold a final vote on a health care bill that, according to the Democratic leadership, would not to include any last minute amendments, the USCCB’s lobbyists swooped in and said they would not support any bill that did impose further restrictions on federal funding for abortion. Using a Catholic Democrat from Michigan, Representative Bart Stupak, to advance their cause, the bishops forced an anti-choice amendment to be added to the final bill. Rather than politely agreeing to disagree with the bishops and whipping members of the Democratic caucus to support the (pro-choice) party platform, the Democratic leadership caved and allowed an amendment that may severely impact the ability of many millions of women to purchase insurance coverage for a legal medical procedure.As the day’s negotiations stretched into the evening, we began to learn the full extent of the bishops’ attempts to influence the debate. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick phoned Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi from Rome to urge the inclusion of the Stupak anti-choice language. Another legislator was reportedly contacted by as many as three bishops. According to the Associated Press, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley previously raised the matter with President Barack Obama while standing near the altar at Senator Edward Kennedy’s funeral Mass in September. Before the vote and since, the bishops have sent letters to Congress and instructed parishes to drum up opposition to coverage for abortion. Their lobbyists were even allowed in closed-door sessions with the House Leadership on the day of the final House floor vote. In these meetings and conversations, the USCCB was threatening to bring the whole bill down unless their demands were met.

  • Farnaz1Mansouri1

    CONTINUED:Eventually, the Nelson amendment was voted down, 54 to 45, and compromise introduced by Senator Bob Casey was added to the bill, without the support of the bishops.In a previous piece in On Faith, Sister Mary Ann Walsh noted correctly that serious problems are created when “the gamesmanship in Congress relates more to politics than health.” Well, Congress is a political body but, as a representative of the USCCB, Sister Walsh should ensure that her own organization pays heed to that concern. In this process, the US bishops have been more focused on playing politics than the health and well-being of women.In the politics-health dichotomy that Sr. Walsh suggests, an overwhelming majority of Americans stand on the side of health. After all, they know it is women, especially poor women, who will suffer most if the restrictions on abortion are increased in the final health care reform bill. Sr. Walsh laments an imagined outcome where doctors will be required to perform abortions over their personal objections to the procedure. Not a single voice in this debate is requesting this provision in health care reform. In reality, what the USCCB is demanding is a restriction of the rights of patients who know they need an abortion, and the rights of doctors who want to provide this legal medical procedure. This is hardly a respect for the conscience of patients and doctors that the USCCB purports to uphold. Again, it’s politics trumping health care in the bishops’ demands.

  • ccnl1


  • pkrumpe

    Are you (psolus) suggesting that a basic human right to life is solely a religious, or Biblical concept? Comparing the taking of a life to circumcision is a bit of a stretch (save that argument for when we begin to compel women to have abortions and forced sterilization…you might have some liberty concerns at that point, as well). While circumcision might have some arguable benefits (as well as downsides), it is hardly thought to be a foundational human good on its own. In most cases, pressure to circumcise has been a religious concept (you are correct there), carried into cultural norm over time. Not so with the preservation of human life. Life is a basic human right, a basic good in the hearts and minds of those well beyond the constraints of my, or any other, religion. Admittedly, my ultimate view of the value and meaning of life is informed by my beliefs, but these are not the sole purveyors of the idea that protection of human life is a general good.Is there no basic good achieved by sustaining a persistent value of human life other than adherence to a religious code that many find distasteful?From the other direction, is there any inherent, “areligious” good in the extinguishing of a pre-born life?I suspect there are plenty of people (maybe even most?) who would say they value human life regardless of their religious conviction. Certainly, the most persistent supporters seem to come by their conviction from a religious perspective. But when it comes to your (or my) life, or the life of a family member, I suspect most of us are pro-life at our core simply because it is good and right. In that case, supporting the taking of life through the everyday practice of abortion is simply inconsistent. (and I am sure that those of us on the “other” side have our own inconsistencies as well… hypocrisy is an ugly, but persistent component of human nature, owned neither by one side of the argument nor the other).

  • ccnl1

    Abortion boils down to one simple question, when does human life begin? And one paramount observation/law: There is basic human morality that goes beyond the OT and NT. A fetus dies without nourishment. A baby dies without nourishment. There is no difference.And once again, some observations about abortion:Commandments/rules have evolved with mankind’s evolution from the ape i.e. Thou shalt not kill/murder!!It is obvious that intercourse and other sexual activities are out of control with over one million abortions and 19 million cases of STDs per year in the USA alone. “Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain a major public health challenge in the United States. While substantial progress has been made in preventing, diagnosing, and treating certain STDs in recent years, CDC estimates that approximately 19 million new infections occur each year, almost half of them among young people ages 15 to 24.1 In addition to the physical and psychological consequences of STDs, these diseases also exact a tremendous economic toll. Direct medical costs associated with STDs in the United States are estimated at up to $14.7 billion annually in 2006 dollars.” Might a list of those having an STD posted on the Internet help? Sounds good to me!!!! Said names would remain until the STD has been eliminated with verification by a doctor. Lists of sexual predators are on-line. Is there a difference between these individuals and those having a STD having sexual relations while infected???Hmmm, so a growing baby is considered by some to be nothing more than an infection? Talk about having no respect for life!!!!! And Nature or Nature’s God is the #1 taker of everyone’s life. That gives some rational for killing the unborn or those suffering from dementia, mental disease or Alzheimer’s or anyone who might inconvenience your life??? We constantly battle the forces of nature. We do not succumb to these forces by eliminating defenseless children!!!!!

  • hohandy1

    “Comparing the taking of a life to circumcision is a bit of a stretch”Not a stretch at all – both are religious-commanded ideas. A few fertilized cells completely dependent to survive on a parasitic relationship with a host body is NOT human life regardless of what your religion tells you. Don’t replace science and fact with your religious dogma and then force us to build the laws defining our rights about it – we don’t all share your religious beliefs or its dictates.

  • PSolus

    “Are you (psolus) suggesting that a basic human right to life is solely a religious, or Biblical concept?”No. I stated that the problem with the ant-abortion movement is that it is a group of people trying to enforce their religious beliefs on other people who do not share those religious beliefs.

  • shewholives

    Thank you farnaz1mansouri1 for that article. The Catholic Church needs its tax exempt status pulled out from under their misogynist, pedophile arses.

  • ThomasBaum

    hohandy1You wrote, “A few fertilized cells completely dependent to survive on a parasitic relationship with a host body is NOT human life regardless of what your religion tells you.”You might have the “few” part wrong but didn’t we all start out that way?Do you also consider humans to have a “parasitic relationship” with the planet earth?If one does not suck up the air, water, food from planet earth then one would cease to “live”, does this constitute us having a “parasitic relationship” with earth.You also wrote, “Don’t replace science and fact”Isn’t it “science and fact” along with modern technology that has shown that many of the “parasites”, as you refer to humanity since we were all “parasites”, in your opinion, at one time, are sliced and diced and vacumned out of a women’s body when that “parasite” could live without it’s “parasitic relationship”?All of life is interdependent on other life, does this, in your opinion, mean that life is “parasitic” or maybe that all of life is in this together?Do you have any idea of when you changed from a “parasite” in a “parasitic relationship” into a “human life”?Once you “changed” then your “dependency” went from what your Mom supplied to what the earth supplied, did it not?So did you change from being a “parasite” in a “parasitic relationship” into something else or did the “parasitic relationship” just change its appearance?Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • ccnl1

    Hmmm, “Catholics for Choice”? Do they lobby??Yes, indeed!From their online IRS Form 990: expenditures on lobbying 2004-2007, $1,322,992 (latest numbers available)And what does the leader of this wing of the Immoral Majority pull down as a salary?For Frances Kissling in 2006, $471,460 – not bad for promoting the killing of the unborn!!!

  • khote14

    It really doesn’t matter what the pro-lifers think, does it. They argue that this is a christian nation, because of how many christians there are.Until that time when you can become the majority, you can scream and stamp your foot and spew your religious nonsense all over the place, and it’s just too bad.Deal with it.

  • ccnl1

    Hmmm, “So this is a pro-choice nation, because there are more pro-choice people than there are pro-life.”Said comment should read, “So this is an Immoral Majority nation because there are more people who have no respect for life than those who do. “The numbers-The fastest growing USA voting bloc: The 70+ million “Roe vs. Wade mothers and fathers” of aborted womb-babies” whose ranks grow by two million per year.2008 presidential popular vote:69,456,897 votes for BO, 59,934,814 votes for JM.Of course, we now have a new Senator from Massachusetts. His views on life in the human womb:”He has stated that Roe v. Wade is settled law, and that he does not plan to seek to overturn it. He is against partial-birth abortions, also known as intact dilation and extraction, and has spoken in favor of parental consent[2] for minors who seek an abortion. He said he would not use abortion as a litmus test in Supreme Court confirmations.[2] He opposes federal funding for elective abortions in accordance with the Hyde Amendment.[7]He voted for a bill which required emergency rooms to provide contraceptives to rape victims after his exemption amendment failed,[34] but still supports religious hospitals in refusing to provide emergency contraception. Brown was quoted as saying, “That’s really up to the hospital. There are many, many hospitals that can deal with that situation.”[47][48]

  • Athena4

    Obviously, there is no civility in the abortion debate. Reference the other abortion thread, where someone is calling for the death penalty for women who have had abortions.

  • ccnl1

    And to think a spotted owl gets more protection than a growing human being!!!

  • uncivil

    Women need to treat every stranger they sleep with as if he has AIDS. He wears a condom. No ifs, ands or buts. I don’t care if he’s George Clooney. And you, the woman, take advantage of the modern birth control/protection methods that are available to you. Of course this assumes that you are not drunk/stoned when you have unprotected sex with the man of your dreams.

  • uncivil

    OOPS. I’m soooooo sorry. I forgot that Catholics don’t like birth control. Let’s keep on having unwanted babies! We can never have enough!

  • grdankl

    Response to John O’Brien/Farnaz1Mansour1 and PSOLUS: This isn’t primarily a matter of politics. It is a matter of world-view. This means it is a matter of which view of the world (hypothesis) best explains the “data” we see in our day-to-day lives. Is it secularism/atheism, Eastern religions, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, all of the above? That is, which of these best accounts for the uniqueness of human beings and our intrinsic orientation toward some sort of morality (called “moral motions” by Francis Schaeffer)?