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Abortion: Sophie's Choice

Abortion is the loudest, most contentious topic in American politics and culture today. For the American Catholic Church, abortion has become the one topic that is indisputable - that brooks no conversation. The magnitude of this issue, the deep emotions, anger, and righteousness that swirls around abortion seems to have created a hopeless divide between the “pro-choice” and the “pro-life” movements.

But, as Dr. Tricia Bruce of Notre Dame University’s McGrath Institute for Church Life discovered, a majority of Americans do not share wholeheartedly the resolute opinions reflected on the billboards, bumper stickers, protest signs or memes produced by either side of the abortion debate.

Personal relationships alter attitudes toward abortion, as do experiences with infertility, pregnancy, miscarriage, adoption, and abortion itself. Bruce writes:

Abortion is a subject that people acknowledge but generally avoid. It is polarized, stigmatized, shamed, hidden. And, for many, deeply personal.

We need a different kind of abortion conversation - one where we provisionally set aside both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels, and the perceptions both carry, and try to listen to one another.

Abortion is framed today as a matter of justice and rights, pitting a child’s right to be born against a woman’s right to autonomy and bodily integrity. Confining the abortion debate to the “rights” arguments does not adequately capture the moral dilemmas of pregnant women who sometimes face no-win circumstances over which they have little control.

In William Styron’s novel, Sophie’s Choice (1979), Nazi soldiers force Sophie to choose between deciding which of her two children to save. If she does not choose one, she will lose them both. In this cruel situation, Sophie must choose certain death for at least one of her children. Sophie experiences a true moral dilemma; a decision not to meet her responsibility as the ultimate protector of one of her children.

Although many women with unwanted pregnancies bear more responsibility than Sophie bore in her situation, the woman with an unwanted pregnancy still experiences a “Sophie’s Choice” – a decision not to meet her responsibility as the protector of last-resort for the child she sees herself having to give up.

Like Sophie, unwanted pregnancy often happens in constrained circumstances that allow for limited choices - none of which adhere to the Christian ideal. The dilemma is how to balance a woman’s obligations to the child who may be born with a variety of other factors: her obligations to other children, economic straits, pressure from parents, husbands or lovers, maternal health issues, etc. By default, she must make a decision that, in a perfect world, she would not have to make at all.

In our imperfect world there are underlying prejudices towards women with unwanted pregnancies. Some still hold onto the idea that unplanned or unwanted pregnancies are the fault of the women who experience them, and therefore, the anguish of the pregnancy is a natural consequence of their carelessness. But as Cristina L.H. Traina, professor and Chair of Religious Studies at Northwestern University argues: This reasoning is faulty for several reasons. First, women do not fully control their sexuality. Second, pregnancy is unlike any other ‘natural consequence’ in that it produces a human life, a life that cannot be reduced to a means to another’s punishment. Finally, pregnancy is a consequence that women cannot avoid, but which men need to deal with only if they choose to do so.

Another underlying prejudice held toward women in unwanted pregnancies is the way our culture sees them as “choice-makers.” If a woman has the “free-choice” to abort, then the choice-maker who chooses to give birth and raise her child is expected to take the responsibility and bear the burdens that result from making such a choice.

As long as women who “choose” to give birth are understood as “free” to end their pregnancies, American culture can continue to overlook the need to provide them the support they need to live out that choice.

We do not as yet inhabit a world that adequately supports motherhood, parenthood and childcare. In his book, Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation, Charles Camosy proposes a new federal law he calls the Mother and Prenatal Child Protection Act (MPCPC). Camosy believes that the MPCPA would protect and support the basic civil rights of pregnant women by passing, at the federal level, several provisions from New York’s failed “Women’s Equality Act,” which would protect the civil rights of both mother and child.

Speaking against abortion, it has been said that no one should be denied access to the great feast of life.

The rebuttal to that statement is that life isn’t always a feast, especially for the child born to a woman who is incapable of taking care of a child. And yet, who knows what treasures life may hold even for such a child as this, or what a treasure such a child as this might grow up to become? To bear a child even under the best of circumstances, or to abort a child even under the worst, are decisions with incalculable reprecussions.

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