In our heterogeneous, relentlessly secularizing culture, increasingly fewer of us inhabit the same moral universe. Those of us who share a traditional abhorrence of killing the unborn find ourselves speaking mainly to each other. The fallacies of “a woman’s right to choose” dominate pop culture and public policy. The burden of persuasion remains with the pro-life movement. And it is all uphill.
Over the past month or so, the press carried two separate articles spotlighting opposite sides of the abortion debate. The most recent, datelined London, described the judicial reasoning behind a court-mandated abortion despite a pregnant woman’s wish to keep her child. The story parallels and, at the same time, inverts Pope Francis’ widely covered address at the end of May to attendees at a Vatican-sponsored anti-abortion conference.
At the center of both stories was a mentally deficient woman. In both situations that deficiency served the judges’ conflicting convictions. The decisions were antithetical, but taken together they illustrate the frailty of pro-life arguments in a culture that mistakes progressive politics for morality. However much we might deplore one ruling and applaud the other, there is no comfort in papal utterances that fail to persuade beyond the choir.
Court-Mandated Abortion on Unwilling Mother
Begin in London. The May 21 ruling, covered first by British media and the Catholic News Agency, hinged on the rhetoric of choice. An ugly decision, its inhumanity fed on the falsity of pro-choice euphemism and came cloaked in the language of compassion. Justice Nathalie Lieven divined that “termination” was in the woman’s “best interest.”
Pro-choice advocates had posed the case as a threat to the options of “the many women who willingly choose to end their pregnancies.” This particular doomed child was 22 weeks in the womb and with no sign of impairment. Still, the absolutism of rights discourse prevailed.
It is the genius of ideology to render facts irrelevant. Here, facts included the pregnant woman’s mother, a former midwife, who sued to save the child and wanted to care for it. No matter. As an abortion-rights spokeswoman declared, to permit this one baby to live was “to attack a woman’s right to choose.”
In effect, a female judge extinguished an individual woman’s choice in order to safeguard “a woman’s right to choose” in the sacred abstract. Her reasoning bears analogy to the logic behind that infamous quote from the 1968 Tet Offensive: “It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it.”
That destructive logic is reinforced by politicians, celebrities, and entertainment venues as a guiding moral principle. We do not yet have a Disney princess who has had an abortion. But she is not far off.
Killing Is Okay If I Hire Someone Else to Do It
Backspace to the Vatican conference in May. Pope Francis’ stern recitation of the Catholic Church’s condemnation of abortion under any circumstances was widely reported. Not only the Catholic press, but also major national media, seized on his most quotable line: “Is it licit to eliminate a life to solve a problem? Is it permissible to hire a hit man to solve a problem?”
Relating abortion to contract killing was a stark reminder of what abortion entails. It illustrates why it was considered a crime until 1973. If only Francis had stopped at that. Instead, he followed with a facile recollection that lent tooth to feminist charges that strictures against abortion derive from patriarchal oblivion. Or callousness.
The hit man reference made livelier press than Francis’ sunny flashback, which was largely ignored. Sandro Magister’s blog, Settimo Cielo, did broadcast the papal anecdote, but only in Italian. It is worth reading in full.
I am reminded of a story that I met in my other diocese. There was a 15-year-old girl who became pregnant and her parents went to the judge to ask for permission to abort. The judge, a truly upright man, studied it and said: ‘I want to interrogate the child.’ ‘But she has Down syndrome. She doesn’t understand…’ ‘No no, let her come.’ So the 15-year-old girl went. She sat there, started talking to the judge and he said to her: ‘But do you know what happens to you?’ ‘Yes, I am sick.’ ‘Ah, what is your illness?’ ‘They told me I have an animal inside that eats my stomach, and for this they have to do an intervention.’ ‘No…you don’t have a worm that eats your stomach. Do you know what you have there? A child!’ And the Down syndrome girl [la ragazza down] said: ‘Oh, how nice!’ With this, the judge did not authorize the abortion. Mom wants it. The years have passed. A baby girl was born. She studied, grew up, became a lawyer. Since that little girl understood her story because they told her, every birthday day she called the judge to thank him for the gift of birth. The things of life. The judge is dead and now she has become a promoter of justice. But look what a beautiful thing! Abortion is never the answer that women and families seek.
I wince at that anecdote. The brutish impregnation of a developmentally and intellectually diminished girl is far larger than a mere problem. By showcasing a teenager with sorely limited understanding of her condition and its consequences, Francis drops a sentimental veil over the revulsion, fear, and humiliation of sexual assault made all the more anguished by pregnancy.
The story floats airily above recognition of soul-murdering repercussions that can stalk a fully cognizant young victim of sexual assault into her adulthood. Its detachment is of dubious benefit to the pro-life movement.
How this 15-year-old girl became pregnant goes unmentioned. Clearly, whether violence played a role or not, the girl’s incapacity had been preyed upon. She showed no grasp of pregnancy, or the cruelty implicit in her situation. She only knew, as young girls do, that babies are “nice.” As told, this gave the judge no reason to pause. Her insufficiency was as useful to his purposes as to the man who had violated her.
Should Abortion Depend on a Mother’s Choice?
Mom wants it. A deceptive phrase. Given the inadequate level of understanding on display before the judge, the girl can scarcely be said to have chosen motherhood. It is reasonable to think her parents, heartache notwithstanding, raised her baby. They, not the judge, provided resources for the child, protected and counseled her, taught her to function. The biological mother was likely present more as a playmate than a parent.
Please understand; I do not mean to say that the Italian jurist made the wrong decision. Possibly his talk with the girl had been more nuanced than the version Francis recited. Perhaps the papal rendition was a calumny of simplification. I mean only to suggest that the account, taken at face value, undermines pro-life positions. By rinsing in rosewater any tragic dimension to pregnancy wreaked on a girl through violence or misuse, it stokes the bitterness of women susceptible to feminist mantras of male dominance.
A cognitively impaired teenager is hardly a convincing emblem of the courage to refuse abortion. Moreover, blunt repetition of censure is not an argument. Fiat does not convince. Neither does a cloudless anecdote insensitive to the sorrow of a situation fraught with difficulty. There do exist hard cases, formidable ones that resist easy application of predetermined judgment. Some diffidence is due to the grievous reality that right answers sometimes evade right formulas.
Complicating the Tale
If I am leery of the pope’s happy tale of abortion averted, it is because I am also reminded of a story. In a 2016 interview with Corriere della Sera, Pope Francis lauded Italy’s most notorious hit man—Emma Bonino—as “among the greats of today’s Italy.”
His praise was not for her triumphant history as an abortionist and abortion-rights activist, or her fanatical embrace of a stew of left-wing causes—from abolition of the armed forces to same-sex marriage and transgenderism. It was her militancy on behalf of mass migration from Africa that raised her into the pantheon of European statesmen.
In the interview, Francis likened her achievement as Italy’s foreign minister (2013-14) to that of such “great forgotten figures” as Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman. Charged with ethical import, the accolade was unnecessary, provocative, and pastorally puzzling.
Viewed in relation to Bonino’s advocacy of mass migration—a goal Francis championed—her lethal campaign against the unborn was discountable. The woman’s substantial contribution to Italy’s demographic decline could be sealed off, removed from the dock in service to the pope’s politics. Relativity reigned.
Francis’ praise for Bonino lingers on Catholic ears. It blurs the consciences of women struggling to keep their bearings amid the wreckage of the moral traditions the woman gladly undermined. And it prompts questions about the sincerity of his pro-life declarations. By contrast, London’s Justice Lieven ruled unambiguously in concert with the assumptions of the pro-choice camp. Anna Bonino would approve.