an epitaph for justice


Abortion has become a litmus test of political and moral fealty. The pro-choice argument is that abortion has been a critical tool in equality for women and that women should have sovereignty over their own bodies and livelihoods. The anti-abortion argument is primarily that life begins at conception and thus nothing intentional should be done to harm that life. But to be pro-life is to understand the importance of the life of the woman, the unborn child, and the child outside of the womb.

Before further discussion, let us first frame abortion only in the context of consensual sex. The challenges that arise out of rape and incest deserve their own dialogue. An additional filter to apply is where the life of the woman is at stake, as there are confounding ethical considerations.

To break down human reproduction into three rough categories, we would have Conception, Pregnancy, and Birth. Everyone would agree that stopping conception would not end life while terminating a birth would. In the US, we have legal means for non-abortive contraceptives (e.g., condoms or diaphragms). We also have legal means to terminate parental rights, whether by a parent (see Safe Harbor laws) or by the state to protect a child (such as with foster care). The only question that remains is about pregnancy.

The US legal framework of Roe v. Wade limited abortion to until viability outside of the womb — as in when a child might survive independently without the woman. This, of course, was not an attempt to answer the question of when life began, but to set a boundary of when the state might intervene to protect the life of an unborn child. As technology has continued to develop, this line of viability has continued to be pushed back (somewhere around 24 weeks out of 40). If we had the technology for an artificial womb from conception to birth, the legal framework for abortion would instantly collapse. Without such technology however, in believing that life begins at conception invariably means in forcing some women to carry a life to birth.

The moral and legal arguments for abortion that focus on burdens of parenthood are, as Justice Barrett pointed out, primarily resolved with the ability for people to terminate parental rights and place the responsibility to the state. However, it is important to note that many people who want to be, are willing, or even already are parents may also choose to terminate a pregnancy due to sex or ability selection. Few people likely think that sex selective abortions are a moral good or should have legal standing. Selection of keeping a pregnancy where the child has presumed disabilities is a unique case as there may be significant financial, emotional, and social costs to raising a child. It is important to note that prenatal testing is notoriously inaccurate outside of a few specific genetic disorders. Additionally, the state does not discriminate based off of any ability in taking responsibility of a child. Thus, even in the case of a child with disabilities, burden of parenthood is an insufficient reason for abortion. While it is imperative that we order our societies for people of all abilities to thrive and for all parents to feel like they can support their children of all abilities, addressing the burdens of parenthood also deserves its now discussion.

What remains unaddressed is the burden on women with pregnancies, which can be broken down into three major categories: Economic, Life Change, and Shame.

  1. Economic: For many women, pregnancy can have a huge impact on their jobs, whether due to leave or performance ratings, or finances, through hospital visits.
  2. Life Change: While pregnancy is a temporary state, pregnant women undergo many physical, biological, emotional, and social changes to carry a child.
  3. Shame: Finally, pregnancy may be a shameful event, even in the context of consensual sex. Shame of giving up a child may even be a reason for choosing abortion instead.

How do we address these burdens?

For the first two, these can be addressed within legal frameworks. Job concerns could be addressed with policies such as paid family leave and stronger enforcements against job discrimination. Additionally, guaranteed free maternal healthcare would also address any financial concerns with visiting a hospital. Abortion as a solution to economic burden is sorely lacking as this is also a burden faced by women who do want to carry pregnancy to birth. The focus should be on ensuring all pregnant women have economic protections. Furthermore, if we believe that the life of the child and the life of the woman are equally valid, it should be our duty to ensure that pregnant woman have as much resources they need to care for themselves and the unborn child, whether that be physically, emotionally, or spiritually. Existing programs in the US, such as WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) provide some food assistance but should be entitled to all women who are pregnant, regardless of income or status. Additionally, acknowledging the burden to women would also mean providing above and beyond just basic needs. For example, if we believed that all women who are pregnant should carry the child to term, one policy may be to give pregnant women regular payments paid via payroll taxes above any existing entitlements.

Shame, however, this can only be overcome through cultural change. The amount of judgement reserved for pregnancy outside of wedlock in conservative Christian circles is simply bonkers and antithetical to promoting life and caring for both the woman and child. The act of ending a life to reduce or avoid shame of giving up a child for adoption or to the care of the state is morally fraught. How do we choose life above shame?

When, Mary, Mother of God, was pregnant with Jesus, St. Joseph had an initial reaction of shame. But, his vocation was to take that shame upon himself and love Jesus as his own. With a mother born without shame and a father who learned to carry it, Jesus recognized and taught the power of choosing life above shame — the father of the Prodigal Son is open in celebrating the Prodigal Son and his return despite the immense shame he has caused to the father. Jesus on the Cross chose life above shame, being willing to take on all of our shame in order that we might have life. As a society, as a human family, we must celebrate life regardless of any associated shame and seek to carry the shame of others.