To be clear at the outset, I write as someone who opposes abortion. Now that Roe v. Wade has been overruled, we need to address the new reality we are facing. As a start, it will help to back away from seeing the situation as a conflict between pro-life and pro-abortion positions. There are better ways to eliminate abortion than by condemning people who disagree with one’s position. The truth is that most Americans want to make abortions both unnecessary and undesirable. My purpose here is to describe the diversity of issues involved in understanding and eliminating the causes of abortion.
Most of the people who are classified as being pro-abortion are actually pro-choice. They want the women and men involved in possible pregnancies to be the ones making the decision. They do not want legislators or ministers making decisions for them. This is especially relevant for single women. The celibate male episcopacy of the Catholic Church has had control of making the important decisions in the church relating to universal church law. This is one aspect of what is commonly understood as clericalism.
Other clergy and lay women and men only have the freedom to offer recommendations to the Catholic hierarchy. However, if lay women and men were treated as equals in the church with a share in decision-making, they would be more willing to enter into dialogue regarding many issues, including the painful consequences of unwanted pregnancies.
Beginning of Human Life
On a more fundamental level, the church hierarchy might gain greater acceptance and respect if they were open to a serious conversation regarding the beginning of human life. Church officials insist that human life begins at the moment of conception and must be defended from that moment. They base their position on an understanding of natural law that is rooted in divine providence. Working in dialogue with leaders in science, theology, and other religions, church leaders might be moved to consider whether the initially united sperm and ovum deserve the same moral rights as a more developed human life within the womb. This dialogue could lead to a greater appreciation of the plight and decisions facing women with unplanned pregnancies, either through rape, incest, or other reasons.
Another aspect of the complex issue related to the inception and development of human life concerns the regulation of births. A way to reduce significantly, if not eliminate the desire for abortions, is to develop more effective means of educating men and women regarding non-abortive forms of birth control.
Too many members of the Catholic Church are unaware that Pope John XXIII established a Pontifical Commission on Birth Control in 1963, reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1964. That commission included cardinals, bishops, other clergy, theologians, physicians, and married couples. After several years of study, the commission concluded that the Catholic Church could change its teaching and declare that artificial contraception was not immoral. The commission sent a report to that effect to Pope Paul VI in 1966. It was the only official report of the commission.
Unfortunately, a few dissenters composed another report and informed Pope Paul VI of their convictions. They declared that changing the teaching on birth control would call into question the teaching authority of previous popes, not only on artificial birth control but on other issues as well. Influenced by this intervention, Pope Paul VI disregarded the conclusion of his own papal commission and wrote Humanae Vitae; that encyclical forbade all forms of birth control except abstinence during women’s fertile periods.
Had Pope Paul VI accepted the conclusion of his commission, which included faithful married couples who know more about sexual activity than celibate men, the Catholic Church could have been in the forefront promoting non-abortive forms of contraception, not only for Catholics but for all women and men.
Yet another aspect of the complex issue relating to human life and abortion deals with sex education. The Catholic Church, as well as other religions and governments, would benefit by supporting thorough and practical teaching regarding sexual activity in all schools from junior high level onward. This teaching needs to include very specific guidelines such as encouraging any female who has been sexually assaulted to report her situation immediately to police. Women who have been sexually assaulted can be examined medically and protected from even the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy. Unfortunately, this instruction is necessary because women are often embarrassed and ashamed of such reporting, even thinking that they are the persons responsible for what happened.
Dignity and Equality of Women
Such a practical approach involves a better appreciation of women in church and society. Catholic Church leaders and those of other churches and religions must promote the dignity and equality of women in our society. If church leaders show by actions as well as by words that women are equal to men in church and in society, there is greater likelihood that women will be more inclined to accept that reality. That will eventually lead to women being open to considering the views of male church leaders as they form their consciences. Women may also be more inclined to see that men will support them when they choose to pursue motherhood as a worthy dimension of their lives.
Still another fundamental aspect in this complex issue related to human life and abortion has to do with sexuality. The Catholic Church, including its leaders, must address the true meaning of human sexuality. Sadly, for many reasons, including the scandals in the church over pedophilia and their cover-up, there is little respect for what Catholic Church leaders teach about sexuality. This includes not only abortion, but also LGBTQ+ rights, transgender issues, and even concerns of divorced and remarried women and men. When church leaders welcome an open dialogue with members of the medical, scientific, and scholarly community, there will be the possibility of a more credible understanding of sexuality from a faith-based as well as scientific perspective.
Conclusion: Acknowledging Complexity
From all that I have written, I hope it is clear that we need to acknowledge the complexity of the many interrelated issues involved in discussing abortion. We will never reduce or eliminate abortions if we simply declare that “life begins at conception” and never address the many other issues involved. As a church we must be willing to address all the issues together. Only then can we come to a better appreciation of sexuality in its complexity, the relationship between women and men as equal partners, the development of new human life, and the role of church leadership in the life of all people. May the day come when church leaders and others agree to this serious conversation. May we be open to one another and to the inspiration of a loving God as we seek to make abortion unwanted and stand united to promote life.
Fr. Louis Arceneaux has been a priest in the Congregation of the Mission since 1966. After studying and later gaining a doctorate in theology at San Anselmo in Rome, he taught theology and served in seminary formation for 15 years before moving on to other pastoral ministry, including parish ministry, retreats, and promotion of peace and justice. He is presently on the leadership team of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests and helped develop their proposal for renewal of seminary formation.