-- How do you think through the moral and spiritual aspects of abortion?
I can remember, as a second grader in Catholic school in Decatur, Illinois, being shown the Lennart Nilsson photos of developing human embryos/ fetuses. I knew, from that point, that these were human beings. I was once an embryo and a fetus. I would expect my life to be protected.
Through my grade-school and high-school years, I was aware of public debate on a right to abortion. As a sophomore at Catholic high school in Decatur, we discussed these matters in religion classes. I certainly was not prepared for the Roe v. Wade decision. I looked upon this decision as a denial of the obvious truth of the unborn child's humanity and of the need to protect the child's humanity/ personhood in law.
At the time, I was an editorial cartoonist for a local weekly newspaper. I don't believe that my post-Roe v. Wade cartoon was published. I'll describe it to you. Sitting in front of the Supreme Court building are Dred Scott and a fetus. Each of them is tagged "not a person." Dred says to the fetus, "You too, huh?" (I was influenced by a story from what was then called National Catholic News Service [now Catholic News Service] in which an interviewee made the point that the Supreme Court had gotten personhood wrong in the case of Dred Scott, and that, as the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution had been a definitive answer to the Supreme Court on slavery, so a constitutional amendment would some day correct the Supreme Court on the natural rights of the unborn.)
In my junior and senior years of high school, I came to a decision to study for the priesthood of my diocese. I was motivated by the obvious need of our local church for priests, and also by my learning, in a religion class on social justice, about the Catholic Church's upholding of the rights of workers. My father was a UAW member working at the Decatur Caterpillar plant. (It was strange that only in my eleventh year of Catholic school did I make this connection.) My concern about the injustice of abortion was a theme as well. I volunteered to staff our local Right to Life organization's booth at the county fair, which displayed models of human embryos/ fetuses in various stages of development. I also wore a right-to-life bracelet similar to the POW bracelets popular in the late Vietnam era.
In recent years, my mother has repeated to me her conviction -- held by HER mother, as a result of witnessing a situation in which attempts were made to save a mother and fetus, but both died -- that a right to abortion is a necessary legal protection.
In the thirty-three years since I graduated from high school and entered the seminary, I have not been an activist in regard to these matters. I guess that the truth has sunk in that recognition of a right to abortion is not going to go away in my lifetime. As someone who hears sacramental confessions, I have found myself developing empathy for those who have chosen abortion. I rarely preach on the issue of abortion. During the 2004 presidential campaign, I gave what I considered a highly nuanced homily on these matters which drew expressions of appreciation especially from women in my congregation. I find my local right-to-life organization stuck in the naive belief that voting for X is right and that voting for Y is wrong. I find myself placing my trust in the idea that, at some point beyond my lifetime, there will be an evolution in outlooks on these matters which will lead to recognition of the rights of the unborn. Ultimately I understand "personhood" as meaning recognizing a human being as an end in him/herself and never as a means to someone else's ends or as a thing to be discarded. The 14th amendment to our Constitution declares birth to be the event which confers personhood. I hope and pray that we will progress beyond this to recognize a right to life of those not yet born.
-- What would you genuinely like to understand about the perspective of people who feel differently?
I have been involved in local interfaith activity for over 20 years, and I am aware that in much of Judaism there is a tendency not to recognize a right to life of the unborn. I say "much" of Judaism because I imagine that I need an opportunity to understand a multiplicity of viewpoints in Judaism and their origins. I am best acquainted with the outlook of one particular local rabbi, who asserts that there is no right to life before birth. I need to see the connections between the faith tradition of Judaism and this conviction.
I need to understand non-Catholic fellow Christians as well. Is it enough to say that abortion is always a tragedy but that there is no problem with protecting it in law?
Apart from any specific religious or interreligious context, I guess I need a deeper appreciation of how the rights of men and women in sexual relationship are observed or abused. My pastoral experience has helped me to see that men and women in sexual relationships engage in a great deal of abuse of one another. How can these sexual relationships be evaluated with a view toward enhancing the dignity of the man, the woman, and any child which may result from their union? Perhaps ultimately, this concern would lead to something which is very much against the grain of the American legal system: a certain recognition of intersubjective rights in addition to individual rights. Is it possible to think along these lines?
-- What would you like them to understand about you?
My stance on these matters is based on my considering it an objective truth that human life is present in someone yet to be born. I feel that this truth simply cannot be overlooked. If one professes that no one knows (or can know) when human life begins, I would expect that one must presume (err?) in favor of life.
I have long been troubled, particularly as a very public person in a very prominent church, by the dismissal of my convictions as my (often characterized "private") religious belief, impinging not at all upon what anyone else may think. Ultimately my convictions come from reason, which I trust I share with others. It happens that my reasonable conviction converges quite neatly with the ethical teachings of Catholic Christianity, which refers largely to a natural-law interpretation of ethics -- ultimately, an interpretation based on reason and not on religious revelation.
-- If the phrases "pro-life" and "pro-choice" are limiting and polarizing, can you imagine new frames of reference for new and better conversations?
Maybe "women's rights" and "child's rights"? Can we talk about an intersubjectivity of rights among the man, the woman, and the child?
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