It has become almost axiomatic that one cannot be both liberal and against abortion. That view, however, should be questioned.
Being pro-life, especially when that life is poor, powerless and marginalized, is fundamental, of course, to a Catholic worldview. I don’t think it is just a Catholic thing, however; it is very much a liberal thing, in tune with the deepest instincts of a liberal philosophy. The fact that the two are not generally associated might be less a matter of rational consistency than the political way the categories of pro-choice and pro-life have been constructed over the last half-century.
Two observations help illustrate this connection: one about storytelling; the other about empathy.
Stories play a powerful role in shaping our perceptions of what is true and good. Stories help us organize the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of our world (to use William James’ words) into something meaningful. Whether they are stories about our personal histories, our culture or our nation, they help us make sense of things and to decide which raw facts merit our attention and which ones should remain as background noise.
While these stories serve us well in making sense of a complex world, we can also use them to hide uncomfortable truths from ourselves. The danger is especially true when dealing with the “other,” that is, the person who is different from us – made different by the divides of race, gender, sexual orientation, culture, nationality or religion. The narratives we use to interpret our world can allow us to limit the moral demands made on us by other people. They re-narrate the “other” into something or someone who no longer challenges our behavior or stings our conscience.
The (African) “other” is animalistic, primitive and needs the domesticating tutoring of civilization; the (female) “other” is emotional, irrational, fragile and needs the rational leadership and virile protection of the male; the (gay) “other” is lustful, narcissistic and devoid of moral sentiment; the (immigrant) “other” is violator of the rule of order, illegal, culturally disruptive and a threat to working citizens; the (unborn) “other” is an “it,” a thing, non-human, undeserving of basic protection.
This is where empathy, a key virtue of a liberal worldview, comes into play. The instinct to empathize with the other pierces through these stories and their self-serving distortions. It helps us see the other on his or her own terms and not through some distorting narrative. It is an instinct that has given liberals a keen awareness of the plight of suffering humanity and the motivation to respond to it.
My claim is that empathy should help us pierce the self-serving stories our culture uses to obscure the unborn, so that we genuinely can see the unborn – the astoundingly new genetic life that appears in that first moment, the brain waves at 40 days, the heart pumping blood at six weeks, the hands moving at eight weeks, the instinct to grab at nine weeks.
It is not too surprising, however, that liberals embraced the pro-choice position. The empathetic instinct helped liberals recognize the anguished suffering of many pregnant women as they found themselves abandoned into a socially imposed demonization. It does not help that many anti-abortionists cloaked themselves in religious self-righteousness while doing little to ease the heavy burden borne by these women. The anti-abortion rights position came to be associated with a heartless, misogynist Christianity, and the abortion rights position came to be seen as advancing women’s liberation.
For me the properly liberal position is a pro-life one. I say this even while acknowledging the suffering incurred by pregnant women and how unfairly distributed those costs sometimes are. The genuinely “pro-human” stance, however, entails choices that are often costly, perhaps more so than we want to acknowledge.
A commitment to the dignity and goodness of every human life creates significant burdens and responsibilities, and these burdens fall unevenly and unfairly on private individuals caring for those they love. The challenges of pregnancy are distinctive, of course, in that the link between the unborn child and mother is more immediate and non-negotiable than that of other parenting relationships. However, though many disagree with me on this point, I do not believe that the distinctive inflexibility of this link changes the moral status and rights of unborn human life or our responsibilities to it.
People disagree on the morality of abortion, but I do not believe those differences are due to some divide between conservative-religious and liberal-secular. My pro-life position is no more or less religious than that of any secular liberal eager to attend to the voiceless and the weak in society. What characterizes all these cases is an advocacy for care, guided by empathy for all those who bear the human countenance. It is not just a Catholic thing; it is properly a liberal thing.
Fr. Christopher Steck, S.J. is an associate professor in the theology department.
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