Liberal Christians try to Nuance Abortion

Planned Parenthood has been exposed to the American public as a monstrous organization that egregiously trespasses on human rights. Videos released by the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) show Planned Parenthood officials negotiating prices for fetal organs, and discussing the means by which they cover up their illegal activities. We actually see small body parts “prepared for procurement,” and CMP investigator David Daleiden claims that further footage (whose release has been blocked by a temporary court injunction) reveals that StemExpress, Planned Parenthood’s organ-purchasing partner, sometimes receives intact, already-born infants to be used for research.

It’s an ugly picture. In the wake of all this horror, we’ve heard some of the usual waffling from Christians with liberal political instincts. They wish to regard themselves as conscientious and humane, but they aren’t eager to be identified with the pro-life movement. Writing at Patheos, Ellen Painter Dollar ruminated for awhile on the mixed motivations of Planned Parenthood workers. (She’s upset that pro-life condemnations of Planned Parenthood are “dehumanizing” to personal friends who work there.) On social media, Rachel Held Evans agonized in characteristic fashion over her “classic stuck-in-the-middle” dilemma: she values the unborn, but aren’t pro-lifers awfully obtuse about contraceptives, social programs, abstinence education and so forth?

The refrain is a familiar one. Liberal Catholics played it ad nauseum in the lead-up to the 2008 election. Instead of banning abortion, shouldn’t we do the things that “really help” to reduce the need? Like sterilizing people (temporarily or permanently), so that they can have empty sex to their hearts’ content? Or rescuing them from poverty, so that they feel equal to childrearing?

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It’s a beguiling line of argument because so often, this kind of reasoning is absolutely correct. In a conversation about taxes, health care, poverty relief, guns, immigration, crime control or a spectacular array of foreign policy concerns, I would happily agree that prudential reasoning is invaluable. Moral concerns are certainly relevant, but we should not allow cogent reasoning to be swamped by torrents of untrained moral outrage. Our policies should reflect a sober appreciation of real-world circumstances.

Abortion is different. It is not first and foremost a policy issue. Here, the moral problem stands in the foreground, and the prudential calculations properly recede. That is partly, of course, because the immediate and direct ramifications are so grave. Literally thousands of lives hang in the balance. This has been America’s most polarizing moral issue for four decades because it puts flesh (literally) on one of our society’s deepest moral problems.

We find ourselves presented with The Unexpected Child. He is a precious human being, made in God’s own image, designed to reason and to love. He is also a tremendous burden. All children are a tremendous burden. The great good of his life can thus be realized only if someone shoulders that momentous weight.

Sometimes the burden is dropped in the laps of people who don’t wish to carry it. Many resent the imposition; they didn’t mean to volunteer for this. Thus, the unexpected child forces us to decide: will we order our lives around natural law and natural obligation? Or will we free ourselves from the bonds of nature, for the sake of personal autonomy?

We spend a good part of our lives trying to soften this choice. Sometimes that’s reasonable enough; after all, it is good to fulfill our personal potential so far as circumstances allow. Living in a rich and diverse society, we tend to feel that personal fulfillment is our birthright. We’re Americans, after all! We believe in the pursuit of happiness!

It turns out, though, that nature cannot be bought. A woman becomes pregnant, and the hard choice is flung back in our faces. Here’s a baby. His parents don’t want him. Shall we help kill him, or demand at least the minimum sacrifice that would enable him to live?

Choose ye this day whom ye will serve: the God without, or the god within. This really is the question. It is harsh and uncompromising, and we shouldn’t try to pretend otherwise. Natural obligation can be very hard, but the consequences of denying it are hideous, as the Center for Medical Progress has recently shown us.

None of the solutions presented by our “reasonable moderates” are really solutions at all. Contraceptives could rain from the skies, and the unexpected child would still be among us. We could sprout a hundred new social programs and he would still be burdensome. It’s telling that the people who promote contraceptives and social programs as “the real solution” to abortion are often quite dishonest about the true efficacy of these measures. Contraceptives don’t really hand women the keys to their fertility, and no social program can make childrearing easy. Worst of all, both measures predictably undercut the attitudes and social structures that would prepare us to welcome and embrace the Unexpected Child.

People who think they have reasonable, moderate views on abortion should consider how honest they are really being with themselves. This choice is starker than they want to believe. If we accept the bonds of natural obligation as binding, then people will sometimes be pressed into service without their consent. If we don’t, we will sometimes find it “necessary” to kill our own children. No amount of social tinkering will make this problem go away.

Abortion, as we have recently seen, is horrific. Most horrific of all perhaps is the toll it takes on those who persuade themselves that it is “necessary” and immerse themselves in Planned Parenthood’s ethos of death. The CMP has recently given us a grisly glimpse into that world, and most of us are rightly repulsed. It is not pro-lifers who dehumanize Dollar’s clinic-working friends. The choice to work in a facility where live human infants are dissected and sold for parts cannot but have an effect on one’s soul.

It has an effect on the soul of our nation as well, and that battle is still raging. A society that regards the killing of its children as necessary will suffer the consequences. There will be limits on what such a society can achieve or become. How much can any of us ask of one another in a world where even the sacred bond between mother and child can be severed at our convenience? What ideals can we reasonably claim to hold, in light of that gaping omission?

It’s understandable that some would want to bury these stark realities in comfortable layers of nuance. This, however, is no time for the “wisdom of the wise.” Do we wish to be the sort of society that kills our own children? This is the question at hand.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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