I can count the number of times I’ve cried over the past decade on one hand, so I was surprised when I found tears rolling down my face during Sunday Mass recently. It was the day before the annual March for Life and my priest was talking about the inherent dignity of every person, particularly unborn children. He called on all of us to pray and march for children who had been aborted and for their parents. And I just couldn’t hold it together.
I lost a sibling more than 20 years ago to an abortion.
Not a potential brother or sister. An actual brother or sister. This was the first time I’d really focused on my sibling’s loss, rather than me and my own loss.
A few years ago my mother told me that she had became pregnant again after I was born. Apparently, I was a very difficult child and she was afraid that if her next child was angelic, she would love me less and treat us differently. So she and my Dad chose an abortion instead. Beyond those small details my mother offered very cautiously, I knew nothing.
After that recent Sunday Mass I called my Dad and told him it would help me grieve and pray for my sibling if I knew the year the abortion had taken place. Knowing the what, where, when, why and how had helped him cope with loss when people close to him had died, I told him. He said I was raising a “dynamite” issue and said that there was a difference between people and a “pile of cells.”
Dad got increasingly frustrated, repeating that he wasn’t going to answer my question. When I asked him if avoiding my question was more important to him than helping me with something very painful, he told me “you’re just going to have to deal with it.”
His tone, agitation and comments about the explosiveness of this issue suggested to me that he wasn’t completely convinced that a collection of cells was all that was involved twenty something years ago.
I took Monday off for the March and the special Mass. I prepared for Mass by praying the rosary with a close friend. Our prayer felt especially significant this day not only because the rosary honors Mary, the model of motherhood, but also because my friend and prayer partner was born to a mother who had not had an abortion and instead let her be placed with a family for adoption.
Some fellow parishioners and I shivered together in the cold and on the wet ground on the Mall in Washington DC for the next two hours, listening to a slew of speakers. A group of Bishops led us in a final prayer and we then began to shuffle toward the Supreme Court Building, where abortion had been legalized 34 years earlier on this day.
Many of my non-Catholic friends—and even some Catholic ones—believe this is an issue of freedom, choice and privacy for women, not a matter of life and protecting children.
I sympathize with their motives and used to share their beliefs.
There is a long and shameful history, across culture and religion, of women’s freedoms being violated. Eighty seven years after winning the legal right to vote, American women have unprecedented economic, political, social and cultural choices. Yet many still face discrimination in the workplace, political arena and home. According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “In the United States every year, about 1.5 million women…are raped or physically assaulted by an intimate partner,” twice the rate of these same kind of attacks on men.
Until about five years ago, I saw opposition to abortion as an attempt to hurt and control women, comparable to all those other areas. I was convinced that women had the moral right to abortion and must have the privacy, choice, laws, freedom and facilities to make that right real. I thought abortion was a litmus test of reason and rights for women. I told people who disagreed with me that they were anti-women.
Several years before I joined the Church in 2005 though my views began to change after a friend pushed me to pause and ask myself: When does life begin? Or, when might life begin? He pointed out that everything should be based on the answers to those questions. I think I’d avoided asking those questions because the answers I found might have gotten in the way of my long-time preferences and presumptions. The more I thought about it, the more the temple of arguments that I had built over 25 years began to crack and eventually collapsed.
Friends have complained to me that people opposed to abortion seem to care only or mostly about abortion and not enough about other issues. They add that they’re tired of the official Church talking so much about abortion. Unfortunately the Church’s broader social teaching is often overlooked.
In addition to abortion, Catholic social teaching also calls us to respond to the needs of other people who are weak and at risk, like people living with poverty, hunger, violence, preventable disease, homelessness, infirmity, discrimination and more. We are also called to change the underlying causes for those conditions. As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops articulated in their reflection “Sharing Catholic Social Teaching,” Catholic social teaching is very clear: “Every human being is created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family. Every person, from the moment of conception to natural death, has inherent dignity and a right to life consistent with that dignity. Human dignity comes from God, not from any human quality or accomplishment.”
The Bishops also point out “Catholic teaching proclaims that a basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring.” Is there anyone more vulnerable and at risk than an unborn child?