This past January 22 was the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the legalization of abortion in the United States. There aren’t very many other days in the United States that manifest such division. I can’t think of any other anniversary that has consistently been celebrated with public demonstrations of opposing beliefs and emotions. Some, including such high profile figures as Alan Keyes, have compared the abortion debate in this country to the debate regarding slavery in the 19th century. That’s a pretty serious comparison considering that that debate was resolved by a civil war.
The latest Gallup Poll conducted between May 7 and May 10, 2009, found that for the first time since this question was first posed in a Gallup Poll in 1995 more Americans (51 percent) consider themselves to be “pro-life” than “pro-choice” (42 percent) with respect to the abortion issue. While I am heartened by the information, I don’t have the same optimism that some pro-life groups have that this will suddenly change the law. And, whether it’s rooted in my own cynicism or in my basic distrust of politics, I don’t think that simply “voting pro-life” will do the trick either.
Before I go any further, let me insert a disclaimer. I personally can never vote for a pro-choice candidate when a comparable pro-life candidate is also running. However, I have lived through the presidency of three pro-life presidents, as well as a Republican-led Congress. As far as abortion is concerned, not much has changed. With a track record like that, I can understand my peers who don’t get the logic behind voting for pro-life candidates as the answer to the abortion debate.
Changing the reality regardless of Roe v. Wade
While Catholics receive information from their bishops urging them to vote pro-life, I don’t ever remember hearing with as much emphasis other ways that we can help to change the reality of abortion beyond simply trying to overturn Roe v Wade. Have you?
What would happen if every one of us were involved, if every one of us made it our responsibility to change the reality of abortion, regardless of whether Roe v. Wade is overturned?
This question has been nagging me ever since my brother, Dominic, and his wife, Cynthia, took in a young woman with a brand new baby. Cynthia befriended her while volunteering at a local home for unwed mothers; but once she gave birth to her daughter, the young mother had nowhere else to go. Dominic and Cynthia were newly married — and they took her in. When they looked for a different apartment, and later for a house, they looked for one that had adequate room for themselves, their guest and her baby. For the last three years, they have provided a home for her and her daughter. It was a delight for me to hear the little 3-year-old girl ask Cynthia if she could call my nieces and nephews her cousins too. Not only have she and her mother been given a place to stay, they have a new “family” of sorts as well.
It is estimated that 43 percent of all women have had at least one abortion by the age of 45. That means almost half of all women have had an abortion. Every year in the U.S., 1.37 million abortions occur. That translates into about 3,700 per day. A little over half of these abortions are performed on women under the age of 25. African-American women are three times, and Latina women two times, more likely than white women to have an abortion. The majority of abortions are undergone by women who are not married at the time of the abortion (80 percent), and who identify themselves as Christian (Protestant 37.4 percent, Catholic 31.3 percent, Evangelical 18 percent).
According to an article that appeared in the Medical Science Monitor in 2004, an incredible 64 percent of women report being pressured into having an abortion. The Guttmacher Institute, a division of Planned Parenthood, published the most important reasons women choose to have abortions in the September 2005 issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. These reasons are:
Reason for abortion 25% Not ready to have a child; want to postpone childbearing 23% Not afford to care for a child 19% Completed childbearing; have other responsibilities 8% Relationship issues/single mom 7% Not mature enough/too young 4% Child would interfere with personal goals such as education or career 4% Problems with the mother’s physical health 3% Possible health problems of baby .5% Rape/husband, partner, or parent wants the abortion/desire to conceal pregnancy 6% Other
“While the percentages above reflect the most important reason, most women cited more than one reason. The most common theme when several reasons were cited was the claim of not being able to afford the child. A high percentage of women (74 percent) also cited concerns about how the baby would change their lives. Relationship issues were cited as high as 48% of the time.” (Source: http://www.wrtl.org/abortion/whywomenhaveabortions.aspx.)
Behind the numbers
We are repeatedly reminded that every statistic represents millions of babies, but it is important to keep in mind that they represent millions of women as well. These women are our mothers, daughters, sisters, granddaughters, sisters-in-law, etc., and every one of them has their own unique story to tell. One trip to the section of the site afterabortion.org about research being conducted on the post-abortion effects on women is enough to dispel the myth that abortion provides women with an easy out. Besides the numerous physical issues resulting from abortion, a high percentage of women undergo multiple psychological problems including guilt, nervous disorders, sleep disturbance, regret and, in some cases, serious psychiatric conditions.
So my question is: How can we not get directly involved in this issue? Do we have conversations with girlfriends, daughters, granddaughters, etc., regarding the possibility that, sometime in their life, they may be in a situation where they might consider having an abortion? Have we told our friends that we will support them, help them out, etc., so that they know have a friend to turn to should they be pressured from other significant people in their lives?
The only message I was given growing up was that if I ever came home pregnant before I was married, I would be kicked out of the house. I have no idea what I would have done had I ever found myself in that situation. But I thank God every day that I did not have to confront that nightmare.
With 80 percent of Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinics in minority neighborhoods, it is compelling to keep in mind that most women must also pass a church on their way to have their abortion. I wonder what the symbol of that church building is communicating to each of those women? If the message that young girls and women heard at church was that if they ever faced an unplanned pregnancy, there was someone they could turn to for help — not for moral condemnation — I have a funny feeling they would naturally remember that message when passing by a church.
Googling “The Catholic Church and abortion” yields one site after another proclaiming the Church’s doctrine: that abortion is a “grave offense” and that anyone who procures an abortion is automatically excommunicated. One priest has gone so far as to publish that a confessor — when counseling a woman who confesses the sin of abortion — must make it clear to her that she bears full moral responsibility for the abortion. How will this encourage a woman contemplating abortion to come to us for help — when all she’s heard is condemnation?
How can the Church’s teaching be presented in a balanced way?
How can the presentation of the Church’s teaching be balanced so that women would be more likely to come to us when faced with the prospect of an unplanned pregnancy?
Asserting that the woman who procures an abortion does bear moral responsibility could be balanced with the truth put so well by John Paul II in The Gospel of Life (no. 59) that there are many people responsible: the father of the child, parents, other family members, friends, legislators, doctors, nurses, etc.
What if, rather than the doctrine, the care and concern of the Church for a woman contemplating abortion were the starting point for every homily, every “Catholic” television or radio program, blog, etc.?
As long as our most concerted effort is focused on electing all the right pro-life candidates, the reality of abortion in the United States will not significantly change. But what would happen if the 51% of Americans who have now identified themselves as pro-life decide to become pro-active in the lives of the actual women they know who are pregnant and need help? What would happen if every parish bulletin listed the contact person for any woman who was pregnant and scared (and if that person were visible within the church community)? What if our focus changed from a debate about the constitutionality of abortion — which requires very little personal sacrifice on our part — to directly helping the women who may potentially have an abortion? What would happen if all of us were to recognize that we too may bear responsibility for someone who has chosen to have an abortion because all that a woman heard from us was our view about abortion itself and not about the woman caught in the middle? How will we get involved?