abortion

Why Abortion Still Matters--and Why I Am Pro-Choice

Yesterday the Oklahoma Legislature passed another anti-abortion bill. This one attempts to end abortions by allowing felony charges to be brought against doctors who perform them and revocation of their licenses.

For more than forty years, America has wrestled with this issue. For more than thirty of those years I have been a Catholic priest committed to my church’s teachings in the abstract, while engaging a pastoral response for specific circumstances. I was satisfied with my position, comfortable in my conviction. Certain that no one wantonly desires an abortion, I was pro-life (in all its stages)
and pro-choice. But I have grown increasingly troubled with that balance as unforeseen consequences of the anti-abortion movement have taken hold.

Oklahoma State Senator Nathan Dahm, who authored the bill, attempted to present himself as a defender of rights and stated, “Those rights begin at conception.” That is a philosophical position that cannot be proved and one that is patently contrary to U.S. law as determined in Roe v Wade.

As I look backward, I observe that in typical American fashion we, as a society, have skirted honest debate regarding abortion—at least anything meaningful. There have been no discussions to explain to Senator Dahm why his position is philosophically (and religiously) untenable. For most of us our minds are made up and there is nothing to discuss. We prefer to sequester our thoughts and marshal our forces as if we are at war with one another.

During the 1990s, it was difficult to drive more than ten miles without seeing a bumper sticker righteously screaming “Abortion is Murder” (Forgive the mixed metaphor). The sticker was simple, if not simplistic, for if ever a slogan skewed the truth, that was the one. On one end of the reality spectrum it played into popular imagination. One could visualize the termination of a living fetus suddenly rendered dead by another’s hands. But it clouded vision on the other end of the spectrum—the birth of a child into poverty, disease and destitution with no societal attention or concern for its plight. That, too, is murder, though it is not so easy to envision. And it carries with it even greater social ills.

The myopically obsessive focus on abortion, including actions by the U.S. Catholic bishops, turned millions of people into one-issue voters, enabling many an otherwise incompetent person to be propelled to public office. For two generations one needed only state his or her opposition to abortion and election was all but assured. I guess as a priest I can’t help but call to mind the biblical adage “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity” (Proverbs 22:8). As a result of these elections we are now reaping a whirlwind of calamity.

In many state legislatures, and even within Congress, Americans have elected representatives with no concept of a common good; legislators with no compassion for the poor or empathy for the infirm; no concern for the displaced or mercy for the alien. These are issues of great import in both the Old and New Testaments. “You shall not oppress an alien; you well know how it feels to be an alien; since you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). When the arrogant and self-righteous challenged Jesus about his association with sinners he responded, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.” Then he concluded with the stinging indictment, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’” (Matthew 9:12 &13).

This is the same Bible that right-wing elected officials claim is so dear to them and upon which most of them take their oaths. These legislators do not call out the best in us for there seems little that is Godly or biblical in them. They are driven by something else and in the process turn each of us into
someone else. We are increasingly becoming a self-centered and self-serving people, unconcerned about the burdens we place on others, whether pregnant women, immigrants or the poor. America has become a country misled not by the left, but by the right. Not by those who defend personal freedoms, but by those who take them away. But there may be hope.

After forty-plus years the truth about abortion might just be emerging into focus. The facts speak something very different from what we hear in state legislatures and the halls of congress. Abortion in the United States has actually been on the decline since 1997. In 2012 there were 486,837 less abortions than in 1997. At least part of that downturn can be attributed to easier access to contraceptives. Why, then, would anti-abortion legislators want to restrict that, too? There are a number of answers.

The first is that this is really about sex. In the 1960 film “Inherit the Wind,” modestly based on the 1925 Scopes trial, the prosecuting attorney is asked about the Biblical evaluation of sex. His response? “It is considered original sin.” That is a level of ignorance that can only be found in right wing circles, and it seems as though they have not come very far in ninety years.

There is also a second conclusion. Opposition to abortion, whether genuine or merely perceived, has been but an instrument for many to obtain power. And history has repeatedly demonstrated how difficult it is to relinquish that. From one state to the next, elected officials are not content merely to force women to bring their pregnancies to term. They also want to restrict access to contraceptives, forcing women to get pregnant in the first place. And knowing full well that the wealthy will always be able either to obtain abortions or avoid the need, these elected officials target minorities and the poor and they have quite successfully managed to malign and denigrate them—the very people God chose as his own; the people Jesus frequently chose to spend time with. There is a pattern here. The same legislatures that assiduously pass burdensome anti-abortion laws also seek to exclude millions from medical coverage and food subsidies. As has been noted by others, the anti-abortion movement is not pro-life. It is, at best, pro-birth.

Should we choose honesty in this discussion, the anti-abortion laws have another intent that is beyond the birth of a baby. It is to keep women poor and disenfranchised, to strip them of their freedom and opportunities for advancement in education, employment, status—essentially all aspects of life. The extreme anti-abortion laws being advocated in various states are misogynistic and ultimately a modern form of slavery. Women become property to be owned and controlled with the result that these laws contribute to the income inequality that is so central in our current election cycle.

Finally, the third conclusion is the most insidious of all. The conservative legislatures that were created by the anti-abortion movement have cannibalistically turned on the very people they are forcing into existence by stripping them of their right to vote. Lest anyone think this is a non-sequitur, it cannot be mere coincidence that the states enacting voter restriction laws are the same ones that elected their officials with the singular qualification that they opposed abortion.

Forty-three years after Roe v Wade I still believe that no one actually
wants an abortion. But I believe it is sometimes necessary and I am convinced that every woman should have the right to choose—informed by her beliefs, unencumbered by either church or state. As a priest I think, sadly, that the Catholic bishops were wrong to focus so narrowly on abortion and to encourage the election of officials whose social policies are so far removed from Gospel values.

Today I am no longer concerned about balance. I now nuance my position on a life continuum. I am pro-choice precisely because I am pro-life.
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The Democratic Party Platform

It is to be expected that certain religious leaders, specifically certain Catholic bishops, would find fault with the Democratic Party Platform. However, once again, the response is over the top. Bishop Tomas Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois is the latest culprit in attempts to distort Catholic teaching and manipulate the electorate. His letter in the Bishop’s Column of Catholic Times is a case in point.

It is not easy to know where to begin a response. One of the problems I have with these kinds of statements/articles, is that they are deceptive and manipulative. In that, they are also dishonest. Although the bishop claims that he is not attempting to tell people who to vote for, that is exactly his purpose. He exposes his true intent when he refers to President Obama as "The Leader". That is not even a remotely subtle reference to the head of North Korea. It is more even shameful than the attacks claiming that President Obama is a Muslim, or not a U.S. citizen. More shameful because of its subterfuge.

In addressing the original exclusion of the word "God" from the Democratic Party Platform, the bishop implies, as did many pundits, that the exclusion was itself apostasy by the Democratic Party. From my personal perspective, God should never have been removed in the first place. Still, the bishop's implication is simply not true. There is a growing number of agnostic/atheist citizens in this country. Belief in God is a personal choice that people should be free to make. So is non-belief. It is one thing for people to reference God in speech (it seems that every candidate running for office must conclude with "God bless the United States of America"). It is quite another for a party to write into its platform a belief system that excludes a significant part of the populace. The conservative media response, as well as that of Bishop Paprocki, was debunked by Shakespeare years ago in the words of Macbeth, "...it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

The bishop then moves to his two real concerns: abortion and same-sex marriage. The reasoning here does more than defy logic. It consigns logic to a world of oblivion. He is also wrong on the facts.

In the case of abortion, he writes that the 1992 platform said that abortion should be "safe, legal and rare". It did not. The first mention of abortion in the 1992 platform occurs in the section titled "Affordable Health Care". There, the platform reads: "...provide for the full range of reproductive choice—education, counseling, access to contraceptives, and the right to a safe, legal abortion." Later, in the section titled "Choice", the document reads "The goal of our nation must be to make abortion less necessary, not more difficult or more dangerous." The 2012 platform reads: "The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe V. Wade and a woman's right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay". That language of ability to pay was also used in  the 1992 platform: "Democrats stand behind the right of every woman to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, regardless of ability to pay, and support a national law to protect that right." Very disingenuously, the bishop suggests that the Democratic Party Platform for 2012 changes its position on abortion from 1992. It does not and he is wrong.

The bishop attempts to link abortion and same sex marriage in the same category, namely, "intrinsic evil". It is almost tedious to have to pick apart the arguments of the bishop. They are presented in a manner that skews truth and defies argument. But argue we must. Again we are confronted with implication. The bishop suggests that abortion is an "intrinsic evil". If so, that would lead to the conclusion that it can never be justified. However, even official Catholic teaching allows for what is called a "therapeutic" abortion. It is rare, and it deals with intentionality, but the very term is an acknowledgement that the Church allows for abortions in extremely rare cases. I do not intend to equivocate. The issue of a woman's right to choose is far more extensive than a therapeutic abortion. Certainly one can approve of the latter while objecting to the former. But honesty would suggest that the argument cannot rest on "intrinsic evil".

As for same sex marriage, there is no legitimate argument for linking it to abortion as an intrinsic evil. The theological arguments favoring same sex marriage clearly prevent it from being considered intrinsically evil. Scriptural scholarship demonstrates that there is no true prohibition against same sex activity. It also lends support to the idea of same sex marriage.

Almost as disconcerting as his deliberately dishonest arguments about abortion and same sex marriage, is the bishop's offhanded dismissal of other issues that are at least as morally significant. In a truly cavalier choice of words, Paprocki writes of the Republican Party Platform: "One might argue for different methods in the platform to address the needs of the poor, to feed the hungry and to solve the challenges of immigration, but these are prudential judgments about the most effective means of achieving morally desirable ends, not intrinsic evils." What a striking lack of vision and failure of leadership!

If addressing the needs of the poor does not constitute a measure of intrinsic good and evil, the bishop might want to revisit his Bible, specifically the 25th chapter of Matthew's Gospel. In the last judgment scene, Jesus identifies a single criterion for admission to the kingdom. It is not how many times one went to church, nor how often one prayed. It is not even who we loved. The only criterion for judging one worthy of the kingdom is how we treat each other. For it is in the hungry, the thirsty, the alien, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned that we find Jesus, himself.

I wish I could look for better leadership among the country's Catholic bishops. Sadly, however, in the last 30 years we have seen a disastrous decline in the intellectual competence and moral integrity of the U.S. Bishops. Their myopic approach to abortion and homosexuality have left them rudderless as an institution and their leadership morally bankrupt. It has also made it possible to unmask their true intent, regardless of what they say.

Bishop Paprocki claims that he is meeting his responsibilities by writing the article. That to do otherwise would be to abdicate his duty. The truth is a touch more sinister. The factual errors and deliberate intent of the article is itself an abdication of his duty. His true goal is to convince people to vote Republican. In truth, whichever candidates a person votes for is truly and irrevocably a personal decision, and it should not be influenced or directed by fanatical religious leaders who threaten one with the loss of eternal salvation. How pathetic!
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The Pros and Cons of Vatican Condoms

The Vatican does not really make condoms, that is just intended to be a catchy title. However, the Vatican has made an issue over them for years. Now Pope Benedict XVI has modified the Church's teaching on the use of condoms. This is a modest and significantly restricted change that applies only to preventing the spread of AIDS by people who are HIV-positive. So, before anyone starts talking about seismic or cosmic movement in Church teaching, it would be good to keep a few things in mind.

First of all, Rome is the eternal city. Originally, this was not a reference to the Church. The phrase is a secular one reflecting Rome's ancient history, and its rise as a great empire that, for nearly a thousand years, extended its reach and exerted its power throughout the Western world. There is, however, another way of understanding the phrase "eternal city" and this one is church-specific. I suppose it is pure poetry that Rome should be the center of power and authority in the Catholic Church, for there is no organization in the world that moves slower than the Vatican. It could be argued that a stopped clock moves more quickly.

Second, for many years the rest of the world has recognized and embraced the effectiveness of condoms in reducing the transmission of AIDS. The Pope's statement simply indicates that the slow-moving Catholic Church has finally caught up. Of course, it is also possible that Pope Benedict is redressing the embarrassment of his 2009 statement that rather than preventing the spread of HIV, the distribution of condoms "increases the problem". Regardless, this change in Catholic Church teaching acknowledges that the use of condoms plays a role in eliminating the spread of HIV (and, consequently, other sexually transmitted diseases).

Third, while this modified position on condoms applies to anyone who is infected with HIV, it in no way changes the Church's fundamental opposition to artificial means of birth control. For example, under this new teaching, a husband or wife who is infected with HIV can make use of condoms to prevent spreading the disease to his/her partner, but not to avoid getting pregnant. Apparently, the sound of splitting hairs is just as loud whether or not you are in the forest. After all, even the Church believes in regulating birth, and some of the reasons for choosing contraception are as profound as those for combatting AIDS.

Therefore, in examining the pros of the Pope's new condemn teaching, we should dismiss outright the question of contraception since this new position does not affect that Church teaching. It does not need to anyway, for it is a non-starter. The teaching itself is irrelevant, and this is not an attempt to be insolent. Rather, it is a recognition that the vast majority of Catholics do not adhere to the prohibition against contraception. While It might be difficult for traditionalists to comprehend, there is a foundational principle in Canon Law that no law can take effect unless and until it is accepted by the faithful at large. Although this is a legal precept, the principle applies equally to moral teaching. If the majority of the Church does not accept a teaching, then the teaching holds no sway. A continued harping on contraception by the Pope, or anyone else for that matter, is merely an exercise in futility.

Underlying the new teaching on condoms is a reaffirmation of this principle. The vast majority of people, Catholics included, have not accepted the Church's prohibition on the use of condoms. Instead, they have witnessed the effectiveness of condoms in the fight against AIDS and the spread of HIV. Until now the Church's resistance has rested in part, on its opposition to homosexual activity. With this new position, the Church admits the findings of the scientific world and places the future of the human race above a questionable stance on homosexuality. And since condoms are used the world over, the Pope is simply bringing the Church's teaching into harmony with reality.

This teaching also represents an assent to the work of theologians. For the sake of argument, only, let us grant the Church's teaching on both contraception and homosexuality. At long last Pope Benedict has admitted what theologians have been saying for years, namely, that the use of condoms to prevent the spread of a deadly disease is a lesser evil than either artificial birth control or homosexual acts. Remarkable, and rather naive, is the way that Benedict uses intentionality. If a person infected with HIV uses a condom to reduce the risk of transmitting the disease, this is an acceptable moral choice. The deeper reality, of course, is that people in the Church have been using condoms both to combat AIDS and to prevent conception. An insightful interpretation of Benedict's new teaching is that it endorses the first use and implicitly acknowledges the second.

Another, and I'm quite certain unintended, pro of this new teaching is that Benedict has loosed the bonds that for decades have twisted moral theology into a game of mental and verbal gymnastics. Church teaching has long held that it is never permissible to do evil in order to achieve good, so theologians developed the highly creative concept known as "double effect". A classic example is abortion. According to Catholic teaching, one cannot kill a fetus in order to save the life of the mother, because one cannot directly choose evil to accomplish good. However, if doctors were to remove a cancerous uterus from a pregnant woman, that would be acceptable, since the resulting abortion would not be intended. It would be a byproduct of a therapeutic surgery to remove the cancer.

This is more than just academic. As absurd as it sounds, and is, last May, Bishop Olmstead of Phoenix, AZ, confirmed the excommunication of Sr. Margaret McBride who had approved an abortion for a woman 11 weeks pregnant. The abortion was necessary to save the life of the mother. Unlike the therapeutic abortion mentioned above, this one did not involve a life-saving surgery other than the abortion itself. Rather, the doctors believed that neither the mother nor the child would survive the pregnancy. Sr. McBride made a morally correct choice in spite of what ultra-conservative Catholics might think. Her situation gave organizations like "The American Catholic" a raison d'etre. They are, however, wrong.

The absurdity of allowing two lives to end by doing nothing almost speaks for itself. Bishop Olmstead's position was "the end does not justify the means". Perhaps, perhaps not. Choosing not to act in this case seems more like moral cowardice. Claiming to stand on principle is sometimes just a cover for cowering beneath a blanket.

As I said, Benedict almost certainly did not intend to open these floodgates, but if the Church takes its own teaching about sex (both heterosexuality and homosexuality) seriously, then the Pope has admitted that a person can choose evil to accomplish a greater good. Clearly, there is a difference in degree between sexual activity and abortion, but on the simplest of plains, evil is evil. Mind you, I do not grant the Church's position on either contraception or homosexuality and do not see evil in either one. I am merely trying to demonstrate that the position taken by Benedict is not consistent with the idea that one cannot choose evil to achieve good. Perhaps we are witnessing seismic and cosmic changes after all.

As for the cons, well come to think of it, there aren't any--unless you subscribe to "The American Catholic" or belong to some other ultra-conservative band. Even then, the consistent conservative position has generally been to bow to authority and accept whatever the Pope says. Needless to say, it is more than a little ironic to watch these same conservative Catholics reject any teaching they consider too liberal--and they will almost certainly object to this new condom teaching. It is not truth that they cling to so tenaciously. It is their narrow perspective of what truth is.

The real world test, however, will come not in the local dioceses and parishes, but in the supermarket. How quickly will marketing executives capitalize and re-brand their products? The next time you're out shopping, don't be surprised to see newly packaged condoms sporting the slogan: "Vatican seal of approval"!
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U.S. Judge rules against Obama stem cell policy

Yesterday federal district Judge Royce C. Lamberth, ruled that President Obama's 2009 executive order expanding stem cell research violated a federal ban on the destruction of such embryos. Whether or not the ruling by Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth is good law, is for legal scholars and appellate judges to determine. It is rooted in the Dickey-Wicker amendment (an appropriations bill rider) that Congress passed in 1995 and continues to renew annually. Generally speaking, it prohibits the use of federal funds for research on human embryos that will be destroyed.

The underlying problem is the amendment itself, and how it came to be law and continues to be renewed. Stem cell research has become another missile in the abortion war. Most of those who oppose abortion also oppose stem cell research due to the destruction of the embryos which they consider to be tantamount to abortion. At issue is a serious lack of scientific, philosophical and even theological knowledge. On this front, even some religious organizations, such as the Catholic Church, widely miss the mark. To be fair, there has been little attempt to address the real issue of human life and the embryo.

Theology is a proper discipline in its own right. However, when a theological subject intersects with other disciplines, it must consider what the empirical sciences contribute to the discussion. Unfortunately, in the United States today, many people seem to think that their "faith," whatever it is, trumps everything else. This explains the relatively uninformed (at least unenlightened) approach to evolution among those who want the Biblical myth of creation taught as a competing understanding of creation.

In the case of stem cell research, a strong argument can be made for the fact the human life begins at conception. Nonetheless, the real issue should be personhood, and that simply cannot be claimed to exist at conception. This is not simply a semantic distinction. Scientifically, we know that a fertilized egg can split into identical twins up to 14 days after conception, on rare occasions even later. That would suggest that from day 14 both medical science and theology can agree that the embryo is a human person, at least insofar as the process of individuation is complete. Prior to that time there may be human life, but there is no sustaining argument for calling it a person. This should raise some question about the wisdom and even legitimacy of the Dickey-Wicker amendment, since laws should be enacted to protect persons, not some ethereal concept of human life.

Since scientists want the stem cells much earlier than 14 days, with 5-7 days being optimal, the process of individuation should silence the anti-abortion lobby. But this is the United States, and at this time in our history, people prefer to remain in the dark regarding real science. Perhaps part of the blame rests with elements within the government that have advanced what has been called "junk science" to the fore. Science and religion are not, or should not be, competing disciplines. It is possible for them to work together in the areas of human life where they intersect. For now, however, we are likely to continue to be led by people who refuse to let die a now tired cliché: "My mind's made up--don't confuse me with the facts."
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