Is the Post-abortion Strategy a Moral Strategy?
by David C. Reardon, Ph.D.
Many committed pro-lifers are convinced that it is both strategically and morally wrong to concentrate the public’s attention on anyone other than abortion’s primary victim, the unborn child. This is a legitimate concern which should be carefully examined. Can we pursue a pro-woman/pro-life strategy without compromising our moral opposition to abortion? Or more specifically, is it right to focus our efforts on the women, men, and siblings who are being hurt by abortion? Or do we have an obligation to focus on the fact that children are being killed by abortion?
The Natural Order of Things
We begin with a very simple observation. In God’s ordering of creation, it is only the mother who can nurture her unborn child. All that the rest of us can do, then, is to nurture the mother. To help a child, we must help the child’s mother.
There is nothing startling about this observation. Crisis pregnancy centers have known this truth, and have been living it out it for decades. But we must explore this insight a little deeper to understand all that it can teach us.
God has created a connection between a mother and her children that is so deeply personal and intimate that the welfare of each is dependent on the other. As every mother knows from personal experience, this interdependence is for both good and ill. When a mother’s children are joyful, their joy lifts her heart. When they are troubled by sorrow, their sorrows weigh on her as well. This principle can be summed up in the following truism: One cannot help a child without helping the mother; one cannot hurt a child without hurting the mother.
This is why, from a natural law perspective, we can know in advance that abortion is inherently harmful to women. It is simply impossible to rip a child from the womb of a mother without tearing out a part of the woman herself–a part of her heart, a part of her joy, a part of her maternity.
If there is a single principle, then, which lies at the heart of the pro-woman/pro-life agenda, it would have to be this: the best interests of the child and the mother are always joined. This is true even if the mother does not initially realize it, and even if she needs a tremendous amount of love and help to see it. Thus, the only way that we can help either the mother or her child, is to help both. Conversely, if we hurt either, we hurt both.
This is not an optional truth. It is God’s ordering of creation. This principle is so important that I must repeat it again: Only the mother can nurture her unborn child. All that the rest of us can do is to nurture and protect the mother.
Saving the unborn, then, is a natural byproduct of helping women. Conversely, we can never hope to succeed in our efforts to protect the unborn without first and foremost protecting women. Brute force bans on abortion may help prevent most abortions, but they will not create a pro-life society. But helping mothers through an aggressive defense of women’s legitimate rights will. It is perhaps in this very same sense that Pope John Paul II has insisted, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, that it is necessary for those who oppose abortion to become “courageously ‘pro-woman,’ promoting a choice that is truly in favor of women. It is precisely the woman, in fact, who pays the highest price, not only for her motherhood, but even more for its destruction, for the suppression of the life of the child who has been conceived. The only honest stance…is that of radical solidarity with the woman.” [Italics added.]
Learning Our Lessons, Too
Many pro-lifers scratch their heads in confusion, wondering how God could have allowed this to go on so long? So many millions have died, and we seem no closer to converting our nation than we were twenty years ago. When will God stop this holocaust?
This is an important question. As Christians we believe that from every evil happening God can resurrect something good — at the very least repentance and a change of spirit, and often much more. And with the terrible onslaught of abortion which is occurring, we must pray with hope that there is an awful lot of good which God intends to resurrect from this great evil. Greater respect for the unborn and the sanctity of life is one lesson which our society is certainly intended to learn, but it is by no means the only lesson we are meant to learn.
I believe that at least some of us are so focused on what others need to learn that we are neglecting to see what God may be asking us to learn. In short, before we can help others to see we may still need to extract a plank or two from our own eyes. I honestly believe that, short of Christ’s return, God will not bring an end to the abortion holocaust until Christians learn all that they are meant to learn, namely: greater compassion for sinners.
There is no denying the fact that in previous decades righteous and judgmental Christians discriminated against and shamed women who were pregnant out-of-wedlock. And it is equally true that this condemning attitude shamed, and continues to shame, many women into seeking abortions. For this, we too share in the guilt of abortion. Pro-lifers have clearly done a tremendous job in the last two decades in promoting a more charitable understanding of women who are pregnant out of wedlock. But there is clearly much more that must be done. Churches, families, friends, and employers must make even greater efforts to be supportive of every pregnant woman or single parent, no matter how the child was conceived.
During the last twenty years, Christians have truly come a long way in learning this first lesson. But it is doubtful that we would have learned it if we had not been shocked into greater compassion for young pregnant women out of our concern for their unborn children who are threatened by abortion. Nonetheless, the witnessing work of our many crisis pregnancy centers and the compassion of so many parents toward their single mother/daughters is evidence that this lesson is being learned.
As a Christian community, however, we are not as far along in learning the lesson of compassion toward those who have actually been involved in abortion. Many good-hearted people continue to recoil in horror at anyone who could “kill their baby.” They wonder, what kind of monster could do such a thing? For many, judgmentalism comes much easier than compassion because they lack insight into the tremendous pressures and feelings of despair which lead to abortion.
This is the second lesson which we must learn from the abortion holocaust before we can expect to conquer it. We must learn that abortion is an act of despair. It is not something women do with vindictive hearts. More often than not, it is something they do only when they feel trapped and helpless. Thus, the old adage “hate the sin, but love the sinner” is especially important with regard to abortion. Without ever approving of abortion as a “good” thing, we must learn how refrain from condemning and judging the women and men who have been involved in it. Judging them will not free them from the shame and guilt they already feel. Instead, we must concentrate on sharing with them the hope of God’s great mercy. To do this effectively we must give them more than our words; we must give them our hearts.
Who Can Best Speak for the Unborn?
The middle majority of Americans tolerate abortion because they are uneasy pragmatists. While they firmly believe that abortion is the killing of a human being, they also believe it is sometimes necessary and almost always beneficial to the woman.
Because the middle majority is uncomfortable with the truth about abortion, they have a psychological need to push out of their minds any arguments or evidence on behalf of the unborn. Indeed, when presented with evidence, such as pictures of the unborn, whether charmingly angelic or horridly dismembered, they are likely to resent pro-lifers for rubbing their noses into a truth which they already know but have deliberately chosen to ignore. Indeed, one drawback of such pictures is that they may actually serve to increase the middle majority’s calloused attitude by forcing them to repeatedly exercise their pattern of denial.
In other words, when hearts are closed, pounding heads with proofs of the unborn child’s humanity is ineffective. The truth must enter in a round about way. This way is through the testimony of women who grieve over their lost children. Since the middle majority is open to the concerns of women, they will empathize with the grief of post-aborted women, and in so doing they will be drawn into implicitly acknowledging the unborn for whom the tears are wept.
Clearly, the most powerful witnesses for the humanity of the unborn are not scientists, but mothers who mourn. All can see that these mothers weep not over the destruction of “products of conception” but over the deaths of their children. While pictures of aborted babies may increase the resentment of the middle majority, the tearful stories of women who have paid the terrible price of abortion open eyes and hearts. Wherever facts of fetal biology will not change hearts, facts of familial relationship will: “It was my innocent little daughter who died that day!”
In this very real way, the issue of the unborn child’s human rights is not replaced by a focus on post-abortion issues, it is subsumed into it. In the final analysis, the humanity of the unborn child is revealed to be the only explanation for why abortion causes women so much grief and suffering.
Thus, for those of us who have not had an abortion, the best way that we can draw attention to the humanity of the unborn is by drawing attention to the testimony of those who can speak of this loss from personal experience. By our advocacy for women’s rights, we draw attention to wounded mothers. By our hushing the din of our own cries on behalf of the unborn, we are allowing the grief-filled voices of the unborn’s mothers and fathers to be heard by all. We are not leaving the unborn voiceless; we are offering their parents the chance to be heard. Who is more entitled to speak for their children than they?
Looking at this same issue from another perspective, we must remember that the interests of a mother and her child are permanently intertwined. This means that the morality of abortion is built right into the psychological effects of abortion. Everyone knows there is no psychological trauma associated with the discarding of menses. But the discarding of an unborn child’s life? That is inherently traumatic.(1)
Therefore, when we are talking about the psychological complications of abortion, we are implicitly talking about the physical and behavioral symptoms of a moral problem. By focusing public attention on the symptoms of post-abortion trauma we will inevitably draw the middle majority back to understanding the cause of the problem: the injustice of killing unborn children and the guilt of weakness and betrayal which haunts the mother’s heart.
With much less ferocity, this same guilt is gnawing at the hearts of the middle majority of Americans who know the truth but have chosen to ignore it. In helping them to recognize the psychological suffering abortion causes women, we will lead them to rediscover the horror of abortion for themselves.
A Pro-Life Lesson Plan
The discussion above is not meant to imply that appeals on behalf of the unborn are never effective. The fact that the middle majority is uneasy with abortion can be used to our advantage. My point, however, is that we are misusing our resources when we press this advantage first. Our first order of business must be shaking their belief that abortion helps women.
The importance of this order cannot be overstated. It is only after the dangers of abortion for women are fully understood by the middle majority, much less pro-abortion activists, that we can even begin to open their minds and hearts to the unborn child. If women are not being helped, they will ask themselves, then why are we killing their babies?
The pro-abortion movement was born in a social vision which separated the mother’s interests from her unborn baby’s. If their interests are separate, than there is the potential for conflict between the woman’s rights and her unborn child’s rights, one of which must prevail.
We cannot accept any part of this reasoning. We must reject every ideology which frames the abortion issue as one of a mother versus her child. We are both pro-woman and pro-child. We believe that we can and should help both the mother and her child. We believe that the legalization of abortion was not an advance for women’s rights, but an advance for social engineers and others who are exploiting women in times of personal crisis.
Teaching Morality By Teaching Science
Believers know that God’s moral law is given to us not to enslave us, or even to take the fun out of life. It is given to us as a path toward true happiness. Christians rightly anticipate, then, that any advantage gained through violation of the moral law is always temporary; it will invariably be supplanted by alienation and suffering.
This insight gives us an alternative way of evangelizing. Whenever we cannot convince others to acknowledge a moral truth for the love of God, our second best option is to appeal to their self interests. If an act is indeed against God’s moral law, it will be found to be injurious to our happiness. Thus, if our faith is true, we would expect to find compelling evidence which demonstrates that acts such as abortion, fornication, and pornography, lead in the end not to happiness and freedom, but to sorrow and enslavement. By finding this evidence, and sharing it with others, we bear witness to the protective good of God’s law in a way which even unbelievers must respect.
Research and education about the dangers of abortion, then, are not just grist for political reform, but also leaven for spiritual reform. As people become more aware of all the hardships abortion causes to women, men, siblings and society, they will begin to respect the wisdom of God’s law. They will begin to think: “Maybe all these religious folk weren’t so crazy after all. If they were right about this, when every other power in society said they were wrong, maybe they’re right about other things, too.”
This approach also recognizes another fundamental aspect of human nature: where there is not love of God, there is love of self. As a corollary to this truth, we should also recognize that wherever there is only self-love, appeals to self-sacrifice will fail and only appeals to self-preservation can possibly succeed. Often our warnings will be rejected. But even in these cases, by giving the warning we are planting the seeds for repentance and belief when they inevitably hit bottom. This is another reason why we should never be focused on condemning those who are considering or have had abortions. Instead we should be focused on warning them and offering them mercy.
Both Pure and Pragmatic
Before leaving the issue of the moral imperative behind this strategy, some notice should be given to how other strategic issues have divided the pro-life movement in the past. These previous moral conflicts have led to destructive infighting and a waste of resources fighting allies rather than opponents. It is my belief that this pro-woman/pro-life strategy can help to heal the ideological divisions which have developed, restore unity, and provide a guiding vision for our movement.
In the last twenty years the pro-life movement has been split by the very serious moral question regarding what type of laws should be sought. The key issue is whether pro-lifers can morally pursue legislation which would allow exceptions for the “hard cases,” such as in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape and incest, or pregnancies where there is a suspected fetal malformation. These “hard cases” are the ones for which the middle majority of Americans most support access to abortion.
Seeking to capitalize on the opinion of the middle majority, pro-life “pragmatists” support an incremental approach to outlawing abortion by allowing abortion in these “hard cases.” Such laws would save 95 percent of all the children being killed by abortion, they say. We must save as many as we can, as soon as we can, and go back to tighten the laws later.
“Purists” object that by allowing exceptions in “special circumstances” we are abandoning our claim that all human life is sacred. We are, in essence, agreeing that some lives are more sacred than others, or at least that if the woman’s hardship is great enough, then the sacrifice of her child is justified, or at least tolerable. But if it is justified under any single circumstance, why not some other compelling circumstance? In essence, by wavering from our stand on behalf of an absolute right to life, we are lending moral credence to the claims of the other side. Instead of debating about the fundamental principle the sacredness of human life, we will end up in negotiating about who can be killed and under what circumstances.
For the record, I side with the purists. But I also sympathize with the pragmatists. Pragmatists desperately want to save lives now. If we can save some by drafting laws which match the profile of public opinion polls, they think, we must do so. But this approach has many pitfalls. First, any exception will be exploited to provide far more abortions than legitimately fit into the allowed category. Second, passing a partial ban will dissipate the drive for a ban on the remaining categories. Third, this approach really does nothing toward making abortion unthinkable, it only makes the remaining abortions more politically tolerable. Indeed, the incremental approach actually reinforces the public view that abortion can be beneficial to women, at least in these “hard cases.”
This is one reason why I maintain that the pro-woman/pro-life strategy is a superior approach. It is pragmatic, meaning achievable, but is also pure in that it does not differentiate between cases. Indeed, if anything, it would tend to place an abortionist who performs an abortion in a “hard case,” such as rape or potential fetal malformation, at greater risk of punishment. Why? Because all the available research indicates that women who abort for these “hard cases” are at highest risk of suffering psychological problems post-abortion. Indeed, in the pro-woman approach, the inevitable debate over the “hard cases” will provide an excellent opportunity to educate legislators and the public about post-abortion psychological sequelae in general. Rather than run from the debate over these “hard cases,” we must learn how to use this debate to our advantage.
In short, the pro-woman/pro-life strategy which we have been advocating is results oriented. It is pragmatic. But it is also free of compromise. Because we know that every abortion hurts a woman, as well as her child, we can defend every unborn child by defending the best interests of the mother, knowing that their best interests are never served by abortion. Out of ignorance or despair, a woman may believe that abortion will help her more than it will hurt her, but we know, from both experience and faith, that it will not. Our job is to ensure that she is freed from ignorance and helped to find hope. When we succeed in this, it is then that we will have a society which is both pro-woman and pro-life.
Originally published in the PostAbortion Review 3(3) Summer 1995. Copyright 1995 The Elliot Institute.
NOTES1. See the testimony of Dr. Julius Fogel, a psychiatrist and abortionist who has done over 20,000 abortions. According to Fogel, “Every woman — whatever her age, background or sexuality — has a trauma at destroying a pregnancy . . . This is a part of her own life. She destroys a pregnancy, she is destroying herself . . I know that as a psychiatrist.” (cited in Aborted Women, Silent No More, p. 141.)