Abortion and Moral Consensus: Beyond Solomon’s Choice

by Madonna Kolbenschlag

Dr. Kolbenschlag is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 20, 1985, pp. 179-183. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Some churchmen and politicians are so intransigent on the issue of abortion, over which men have no physical control, and so tolerant of killing in war, over which men have always had control.

Indeed, Geraldine Ferraro’s candidacy as the first woman running for vice-president on a major party ticket flushed out the power issues that divide the American public: to use George Bush’s elegant phrase, we are preoccupied with "kicking ass," whether it is in domestic relations or in Central America; we resist the demands of the exploited for power-sharing and comparable pay, whether in the global economy or in the male establishment at home; above all, we are divided over the issue of whether women are to be granted reproductive autonomy.

The smog generated by the debate over "religion and politics" obscured the fundamental anxiety that lay beneath all the sniping, posturing and manipulating: anxiety over patriarchal power’s waning influence in our national life, whether as U.S. hegemony abroad, or as family "headship" and male entitlement in our domestic institutions. In this collective smog the abortion issue acts as a kind of volatile precipitant, causing all the various elements of angst in church, state and society to condense and focus themselves with a terrible intensity. Geraldine Ferraro caught a good deal of the fallout. More recently, 24 nuns have been threatened with dismissal from their religious orders if they do not retract their support for a statement on "Pluralism and Abortion" that appeared during the election campaign.

The persistence and coherence of this angst and its potential for divisiveness and violence have been demonstrated by the recent wave of attacks on abortion clinics, as well as by the waning prospects for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Those who are most opposed to the prochoice position and to the ERA seem to be those who have the most to lose from the empowerment of women, either psychologically and politically, or in terms of authority or financial resources. Thus, for many men there is a consistency between their privileged position in the family and society and the value placed on fetal life, over which they have no intrinsic control. This may help to explain the curious contradiction in the views expressed by some churchmen and politicians who are so intransigent on the issue of abortion, over which men have no physical control, and so tolerant of killing in war, over which men have always had control.

Many women who espouse the prolife position do so, at least in part, because they have internalized patriarchal values and depend on the sense of identity and worth that comes from having accepted "woman’s place" in society. Thus, the polarization between the prolife and prochoice groups results in different value languages that allow no compromise. Because the two positions are so invested with the strong emotions aroused by power relations, there is little likelihood that rational argument can change them.

Carol Gilligan’s study of the differences in the ways whereby men and women reach moral decisions suggests another reason for intransigence on this issue (In a Different Voice [Harvard University Press, 1982]). Typically but not exclusively, for men the frame of reference of moral decision-making lies in the primacy of principle, in the values of truth and fairness -- inevitably a perspective that focuses on people’s rights. For women, the frame of reference is decidedly relational, lying in the primacy of the values of caring for and of not hurting others -- a perspective rooted in particularity and contextuality.

Thus, the matrices in which moral and political attitudes are embedded tend to be skewed by gender-related values. Our public discourse is dominated by a male-enculturated point of view that is characteristically abstract or morally solipsistic. Gilligan suggests that women, far more than men, invest ethical decisions with more particularity and with a better sense of their effects and consequences.

The male perspective, based on principles and rights, informs both the dominant prolife and prochoice views, both of which protect male hegemony, but in different ways. As a result, it is likely that the two sides on the abortion issue will remain intransigent and deadlocked indefinitely, like two bucks with their antlers intertwined. And in the impasse, other issues -- child care, research on contraception, sex education and, increasingly, the specter of reproductive technology -- are neglected or distorted. The prospect of what some have called "the colonization of the womb" and the enormity of the problems looming on the horizon should stir us all to outrage at the concentration of so much energy and so many resources, so much sound and fury, on the abortion issue. It reminds one of those who, after World War II and Hiroshima and Nagasaki, were still arguing over whether or not submarine warfare was moral.

Ten years ago Margaret Fancy, an ethicist at Yale Divinity School, attempted to inject some clarity into the escalating polarization in political discourse on the abortion issue when she called attention to the "bad faith" evidenced on both sides. I would like to expand her application of that notion -- limited as it was by the 1974 social context -- and apply it to the present moment and to the factions now arrayed in opposite camps. By "bad faith" I mean that Sartrean sense of self-righteousness, self-projection and non-engagement which promotes exclusivism and intransigence. All manifestations of bad faith are alike in that they are characterized by absolutism. This is not to question the "good faith" that also exists on both sides: the sincerity of their claims and the validity of their issues.

Several ethical norms are currently shaping our attitudes toward abortion. One might be called the individualistic norm, a view that is typical of early liberal and radical feminism. It is fundamentally prochoice. Until now this perspective has treated women’s autonomy as an absolute value. Political hardliners still use the pro-choice position as a litmus test for judging political candidates. The bad faith that can infect holders of this position becomes apparent when feminist cries of "femicide" and "previctimization" over the selective destruction of female embryos curiously lapse into silence at the random destruction of embryos (abortion on demand) or at multiple abortions (abortion as a contraceptive).

This rights-based ethic is being challenged by the growing recognition among feminists that the notion of "choice" may be a myth; that not only social attitudes but public policies that promote so-called "free choice" can be subtly coercive. For example, does Medicaid funding give some women only one option? Has the easy access to abortion clinics compromised conscience formation? Similarly, to the extent that the idea of choice promotes unrestricted experimentation on genetic material and on fertility mechanisms, it may actually work against the good of women and of future generations. Reproductive freedom must increasingly be considered from the perspective of the long-term consequences of uncontrolled medical experimentation.

Ironically, much of this rethinking has been precipitated by recent expositions of the prochoice argument coming in the wake of mature feminist scholarship. Beverly Harrison’s Our Right to Choose (Beacon, 1983), for example, is an excellent defense of the position that people have an inalienable right to make intentional choices concerning their reproductive lives. The right to choose abortion is grounded in claims to moral agency and bodily and psychic integrity. Harrison’s view assumes a world of rational choice and volitional privilege.

The flaw in her argument is perhaps more one of bad anthropology or psychology than of bad faith. It leaves no room for the unexpected, for serendipity, for mystery, ambivalence or transformation. Some women do change their minds about whether or not they wish to carry a pregnancy to full term. Many "unwanted" children do become "wanted." If for women reproductive behavior is, finally, an issue of control and intentional management, then we would seem to be mimicking the male culture’s instrumental relationship to nature. Furthermore, Harrison’s perspective seems to skirt consideration of the legitimate interests and claims of the body politic. It is an elitist argument, one that ignores people’s limitations and the complexity of their lives. Nevertheless, her ethic is the best current defense of each woman’s intrinsic right to moral agency in her reproductive life and, especially, in the process of forming intimate attachments and relationships -- since a woman’s willingness and ability to nurture a child is the ultimate issue in the decision about whether or not to have one.

Another ethical perspective on abortion might be described as the altruistic norm, clearly represented on the political spectrum by the prolife contingent. The most visible and articulate proponents of this view are the Catholic Church’s magisterium and the religious New Right. They treat all fetal life -- early and late -- as possessing absolute value and full human rights. The bad faith that has come to characterize this perspective is clearly evident in the role that many prolife advocates have played in a confrontational, often obstructionist, single-issue politics, often bordering on fanaticism and ignoring the wider spectrum of prolife issues.

Although the Catholic hierarchy has attempted to redress this imbalance, bad faith also plagues its position. The church’s stand on abortion is a "moral teaching" -- it is not a doctrine of faith. The church has at times changed its moral teachings -- for example, it condemned slavery after having accepted it for centuries. Its traditional teaching on abortion and contraception has by no means been marked by consistency.

Nevertheless, the church currently persists in treating the prohibition of abortion as if it were a fundamental Christian doctrine. It places an absolute value on fetal life as full human life from the moment of conception. Yet in its own definitive formulation of the issue in the 1974 declaration by the Sacred Congregation, it acknowledged the impossibility of determining the precise moment of "ensoulment." The declaration states that while there is no certainty, the possibility that the fetus might be ensouled precludes risking an act that might be homicide.

Carol Tauer, a philosopher at Minnesota’s St. Catherine’s College, has recently challenged the moral logic of this declaration, as well as of the current pastoral teachings on abortion, in an incisive and thorough analysis of the tradition of probabilism -- a theory of practical decision-making that is accepted in Catholic moral teaching. She points out that the church is at odds with its traditional way of making moral determinations, whether in questions of fact or of law (Theological Studies, June 1984).

That the embryo does not progress to individuation before the fourth week, as embryological research on twinning and recombination has proven, is crucial to determining whether or not it should be treated as a person. Similarly, our knowledge of cortical development provides sound biological as well as philosophical reasons for treating hominization as delayed. (Some opinions mark the tenth week as the onset of true hominization.) Tauer notes that in the earliest tradition of the church, abortion was not considered homicide until the fetus was "formed." She concludes by invoking the probabilistic criterion that the "rights of an uncertain subject are automatically uncertain rights," and, therefore, for all practical purposes do not exist -- or at least do not have the same status as the rights of those unequivocally recognized as persons. In any case, current embryological research now allows us to draw moral hypotheses with much more precision than we could in 1974.

Why is the Catholic Church so reluctant to follow its own tradition of moral logic and allow the benefit of a doubt in early abortions? As Lisa Cahill, Joan Timmerman and other theologians suggest, its position may have as much to do with mistaken analogies as with logic. For example, the church’s teachings on abortion and on sexual morality in general seem to have been contaminated by the mythology of the "sacredness of sperm," which dates back at least as far as Aristotle and is known to have persisted through the 19th century in the United States. Theologians also point out that, in contrast to the church’s teachings on social ethics and justice, its stands on sexual morality have been governed more by absolute abstract norms than by references to the human condition and experience. Here again, one notes the absence of woman’s moral perspective, with its sensitivity and proximity to contextuality and consequences. Another evidence of bad faith has been the Catholic hierarchy’s failure to emphasize contraceptive options and education. Their lingering proscription of contraception inevitably trivializes abortion.

In the absence of any consensus about abortion, a third ethical norm may prevail by default: the therapeutic/technological norm. This inexorable force, driven by the desire for profit and control, could result in the medicalization and commercialization of human reproduction. Paradoxically, the new technology makes women vulnerable to exploitation at the same time that it promises them the illusion of choice. Sperm banks, frozen embryos, artificial placentas and surrogate mothers are opening a breach between women and their reproductive processes -- a breach that makes women extremely vulnerable to exploitation. Lawyers, physicians, legislators, counselors, consultants, matchmakers, middlemen, marketing strategists, entrepreneurs and opportunists are already rushing in. One manager of a "bionetics" company in California has suggested that Mexican and Central American women would be ideal, low-cost "host mothers." In some Third World countries, sex-selection techniques already are resulting in the mass destruction of female embryos. Elsewhere, drug companies and genetic engineering firms are engaged in "ova snatching," embryo transfer techniques, transnucleation and ectogenesis. The potential for the exploitation of such technologies begins to acquire almost surreal proportions.

Another new medical development may provide an ambiguous solution to the abortion dilemma: home health-care kits for diagnosing and treating oneself have been welcomed as an antidote to "medicalization." It is anticipated that a low-priced suppository or pill that can induce abortion in the early weeks of pregnancy will soon be available. If such a product is marketed, it is likely to become a popular form of contraceptive -- not only discouraging research on other contraceptives, but making abortion a completely privatized and commercialized act.

Neither a narrowly conceived prochoice nor a prolife agenda can provide an adequate standard for the future. Neither the imperial self nor the imperialism of dogma and sanction (law) can solve the abortion dilemma. A responsible new ethic must certainly take into account the primacy of personal conscience and of women’s experience, as well as the effects and consequences of reproductive choices on the common good. Perhaps, for want of a better term, it might be described as an "ethic of cocreation." Such an ethic would assume that we exist as individuals only within larger life systems. These constitute concentric envelopes of responsibility. Our relationships to the earth, to our culture and to our families of origin are not intentional -- we did not choose our planet, our civilization or our ancestry. But this absence of choice does not excuse us from taking responsibility for all that these areas encompass. An ethic of cocreation would counterbalance our tendency to a rationalistic and individualistic bias. It would make us more open to exigency and to the unpredictable -- to creation as surprise. It would also help us to regard death, imperfection and dissolution as normal phenomena in the continuum of life. At the same time, it must be based on the moral agency and autonomy of women, the primary guardians of life for the species. For too long we have had to make either-or choices about whether to regard the fetus as a person or a nonperson. Could we not assign, instead, a unique value to this nascent human life, without criminalizing and traumatizing those who, caught in overwhelming predicaments, choose not to carry it to term?

Marking the boundaries of the onset of personhood in fetal life is, in a sense, a superficial aspect of the abortion debate. What is at stake is a post-Enlightenment, rights-based ethic that tends to objectify fetal life at a very early stage, reducing the abortion dilemma to a conflict of rights -- some favoring those of the fetus, some favoring those of the woman. A truly Catholic ethic might show more respect for the symbiotic nature of very early uterine life by regarding a woman and her fetus as a single organism, with one informing consciousness -- that of the woman. Our tolerance for such ambiguity seems to diminish as our culture’s tendency to objectify everything accelerates.

A truly Catholic ethos emphasizes the sacrality of matter and substance; it nuances everything, from our understanding of the Eucharist to sexual experience. As Americans in a pluralistic society, however, we must create a milieu for moral decision-making that is somewhere between value conferred by intention or relation alone, and the abstract mystical fetishism that deifies the substance of human life in and of itself. This is not to understate in any way the dignity and value of human life, indeed of all life forms.

For women making decisions about having abortions, moral agency is often a luxury canceled out by social, economic and psychological suffering. Clearly, assuring women’s moral freedom and establishing a social policy that provides them with real options so that they can take responsibility for life and make authentic decisions of conscience ought to be the priority for both the prolife and the prochoice groups.

We should be grateful that the Catholic Church, among others, continues to preach the protection of innocent and defenseless life. On the other hand, we should be outraged that some of the Catholic hierarchy are so recalcitrant that they continue to harass conscientious men and women who support prochoice public policies, and so squinting in their vision that they may oppose the ERA simply because the amendment might allow women the right to choose abortions. It is too bad that so much of the energy of one of the greatest engines of conscientization the world has ever known -- the Catholic Church -- should be spent on regulating women’s anatomy instead of promoting their autonomy and empowerment as moral persons.

Ironically, it is the Catholic tradition that today proclaims so forcefully the epistemological privilege of the poor. In the many senses in which the gospel speaks of the poor -- materially deprived, disempowered, marginated, overburdened, helpless -- women often have been the poorest of all. Their experiences and perspectives, therefore, have a special claim on our attention. Women’s experience will be the hermeneutic of the future. Solomon’s wisdom is worth remembering: let those who are most intimately affected by the consequences of a decision make that decision.