It’s time to reimagine the debate around abortion. We’re trapped in the tyranny of a binary choice: one side sees baby murderers; the other patriarchal dictators who want to control women’s bodies. This diametrically opposed pro-life/pro-choice discourse is a closed loop.
I’m a millennial raised in San Francisco. “Pro-choice” and “reproductive rights” might as well have been my lullabies. At 15, I darted over to my nearest Planned Parenthood health centre to get birth control pills. I wasn’t sexually active and I hadn’t even had my first period, but I pocketed them with pride – a souvenir of personal choice.
In our catchphrase country, complexity is like dirty dishwater – opaque and best avoided. However, after the Supreme Court decision to strike down Roe v Wade, it’s precisely what we need. The majority of Americans refuse to think in such absolutes when it comes to abortion. Most of us are more inclined to say “it depends”.
We need a common framework broad enough to get to the heart of the abortion debate: what does it mean to be a human with dignity?
For me, throughout adulthood, the pro-choice/pro-life binary gave me a comfortable foothold in the abortion debate and a prefabricated enemy to address. That changed when I met Sister Teresa Forcades, a theologian, Catholic nun and former medical doctor based in Barcelona who supports abortion rights.
Her vocal opposition to the church’s stance on abortion, same-sex partners and women’s ordination has earned her the moniker of Europe’s most radical nun. Christian fundamentalist news sites have dubbed her “The Abortion Nun” and “The Nun of the Devil”.
In 2009, the Vatican sent a letter demanding she withdraw her abortion views and be disciplined. Instead, she replied with a theological argument for reproductive rights so rigorously articulated that it silenced her Catholic cohort, and 13 years later the Vatican is yet to respond. But she won’t be called pro-choice. She says this binary limits the possibility she can simultaneously believe in the sanctity of life and abortion rights.
Her argument is deceptively simple. The essence of the classic pro-life argument is the mother who aborts a pregnancy is choosing to kill her child and must be forced not to. But take another example: a father whose child needs a kidney transplant to survive. She asked: “Is the church ready to force the father under punishment of imprisonment, or excommunication, to give the kidney to the child? The church is not.
“It will not make the father feel the whole rage of God is going to fall on him if he does not offer a little bit of his body to save the life of his child. No, it’s not doing it.” Such a practice could ideologically justify all kinds of abuses such as “sacrificing one person for the sake of saving a few others by distributing that person’s organs”.
Her argument is sound, but it’s the simplest detail that struck me most: the man’s body. According to the Catholic Church, a man doesn’t have to give a kidney to his child, yet a woman (in the grip of a life-threatening pregnancy) must surrender her body to the foetus. This role reversal and subtle push against double standards add a refreshing jolt of feminism to the debate – one the original Roe v Wade decision never quite delivered.
The 1973 Supreme Court ruling hinged on a pregnant person’s constitutional “right to privacy”, which protects that individual’s right to choose.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant said a human being should never be an instrument for somebody else, as that runs against our dignity. Turning a man into a machine for organ-making, for example. Likewise, Forcades says, banning abortion turns a pregnant woman into an instrument of human reproduction, violating the very thing that makes us human.
When I met her, Forcades told me: “The dignity of the person is something the church has been defending for centuries; sometimes alone in very difficult contexts.”
What happens when a pregnant woman’s dignity, or very survival, is in direct conflict with the dignity of the life she carries? Is a mother’s life more or less valuable than the child who relies on her for survival? And, just as importantly, is the church or state ethically equipped to make this decision?
Clearly, entering such a conversation, free of guardrails, isn’t about finding answers. It’s about provoking more questions. We mustn’t dupe ourselves into thinking that dialogue will lead to larger shared truths or even common ground. Nor should we feel compelled to just brush things to their neat corners with the liberal catchphrase: “Everyone has a right to their own opinion.”
A break from the binary should, instead, be seen as an invitation to be uncomfortable – the permission to say: “It’s complicated.”
Linda Freund is an independent journalist based in Spain. This article was produced with the support of the Centre for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, the John Templeton Foundation and Templeton Religion Trust