Can an Anti-Abortionist be Honest: A Reply to Danie Maguire

Making the rounds in the mails recently was a packet of materials from a group calling itself the Catholic Committee on Pluralism and Abortion. Among other goals, this group seeks to mobilize Catholics against legislation which would restrict abortion. Included in the materials is a passionate defense of the moral permissibility of abortion by moral theologian Daniel Maguire. Entitled “Abortion: A Question of Catholic Honesty” (which originally appeared in the Sept. 14-21 Christian Century), the article is note-worthy for falling victim to the very vice Maguire accuses the U.S. Catholic bishops of displaying: failure to imagine the other side. It is worth examining Maguire’s essay to see why this is so.

Daniel Maguire invites us to become righteously angry at the Catholic bishops of the United States for their “abhorrent” moral position on abortion. He cites an inexcusable inconsistency in moral sensitivity among the bishops who exercised great care and patience in preparing their statement on world peace, but who simply refuse to hear argument on abortion. He accuses the bishops of a sexism that borders on a hatred of women. He points out “foundational defects” in the traditional Catholic arguments against abortion. He blasts the bishops’ position for an anti-democratic insensitivity to individual freedom of conscience. In sum, he thinks the bishops are simply refusing to listen.

It ought to be general practice, especially in matters of public moral controversy, that the participants in the debate imaginatively sympathize with the existential situations of honest partners in the discussion. It would seem to sin against charity to make the same response to the advocacy of abortion for a fourteen year old rape victim as we would to the advocacy of abortion for a twenty five year old woman in a personally and economically stable marriage who wanted to enjoy the winter skiing in the Alps. On the other hand, it is likewise illegitimate to pretend that every woman who wants an abortion has fully and carefully considered the moral values and comes to her conclusion with a pure conscience. If the bishops seem guilty of the first failure, taking an inflexible tone, Maguire seems guilty of the second failure, lumping all cases into the favored kind.

In the end, however, it is perhaps neither the heart-rending pity we feel for the young rape victim nor the indignation at the callous egotism of the twenty five year old would -be mother that should decide our final recommendation on the morality of abortion. The question is one of the status and rights of the fetus, vs. the status and rights of the mother, the father, and perhaps, society in general. It is not my intention here to argue the substantive issues of the morality or immorality of abortion. But Maguire needs to be criticized for an intolerant righteousness which he imputes to the bishops but exhibits himself.

Maguire bases his criticism of the bishops (their legalism, sexism, insensitivity) upon the inconsistency he sees in their moral thinking. First, he indicates that they have been models of tolerance in the nuclear war debate. And second, he cites Catholic moral theology in the doctrine of “probabilism” as evidence that the bishops’ position is not even authentically tied to the tradition of the Church. It is, perhaps, a sociological oddity that the United States hierarchy (not the paradigm case of conservatism in the Church) would come to such unanimity with regard to their position on the morality of abortion. After all, the “from conception” view is an historically late development in Catholic circles, and it arises during times when the population is burgeoning and medical advances have made abortion relatively safe. But unless one wants to argue that bishops (and the rest of us as well) form their consciences according to an historical determinism which would make the arguer’s opinion worth just a little (though just as much) as the bishops’, we must try to treat the opinion as rational. We argue, criticize and complain about others only if we think they might be able to see things differently and change their views in the light of the evidence we present to them. In other words, whatever the sociology and psychology of the bishops’ opinion, we have first to see what good reason there might be in it to account for the rather brusque dogmatism of their statements.

With a little reflection, this is not too difficult to explain. But before I present that reflection, we need to remember one distinction that the bishops are always tempted to forget, and Maguire never makes clear either: the distinction between the sin and the sinner. It is only on this distinction that “probabilism” can find a firm foothold. The doctrine of probabilism never maintained that there was no right and wrong on matters of moral disagreement, but only that it was morally permissible to follow your conscience when it was informed but not in agreement with the more official view. Indeed, the doctrine recognized that it was wrong not to follow your conscience, if informed, and if to follow the official view was to violate your conscience. (As an aside here, we might consider how rare it is that a person would think it immoral not to have an abortion.) But allowing a place in charity for the persons who make moral judgments does not require allowing a place in ethics for the judgments they make. When the Playboy philosophy appeared with its denigration of women and its deflation of love, we could hardly have maintained that this was a viable sexual morality in spite of the fact that it was in varying degrees practiced by many people. Our charity finds its locus in persons not philosophies, so it is not objectionable to say that we should treat moral judgment or opinion with ruthlessness, admitting, of course, that the separation between persons and judgments is a lot harder to make in practice than it is in theory.

Now let us make our little reflection. Suppose someone thought sincerely that the fertilized human egg, from conception, had the moral status of a person. (Never mind for the moment how smart or how dumb such a belief is.) What should we expect this person’s position to be on the morality of abortion? Given that the logic of the position makes killing a fetus equivalent to killing the average citizen, the person must think of the abortion as murder, and condemn it as soundly as she condemns murder. Even though there are mitigating circumstances in cases of ordinary murder so that we might have some sympathy for the wife who kills her egotistical, cruel, false husband and no sympathy for the man who kills his wife for her inheritance, we would condemn each act without reservation. Now many bishops, dumb as one cares to think them, do believe that abortion is murder. (How many bishops and who they are who think this is not important at this point.) Now how could a reasonable person expect that anything less than strong and certain condemnation of the morality of abortion (read “murder”) would come from someone who thinks this way? At one point in the article Maguire says:

Some moral positions are not within the pale of respectability, and we properly use coercion to prohibit them. Refusing to educate children, denying sick children blood transfusions, keeping snakes in a church for faith-testing are not respectable options, and we forbid them.

But he seems oblivious to the fact that it is in this category of vice that many bishops place abortion. In fact, for most of those who believe it murder, abortion would be the most disgraceful of the activities on Maguire’s list. This also shows why the original comparison Maguire makes between the bishops’ position on nuclear war and their position on abortion is ill-considered. The careful listening in the first case and the abrupt closure of debate in the second can be defended because the two cases are incommensurate for the bishops. In the first case, there are doctrines of the “just war” and other competing -goods with which dissenters could argue. But in the other case (provided you think of it as murder) dissenters have nothing to argue with. For example, when Maguire asks what are meant to be rhetorical questions about abortion —

Does it not make the fertilized egg the legal and moral peer of a woman? Indeed, in the moral calculus of those who oppose all abortions, does not the “potential” person outweigh the “actual” person of the woman? Why is the intense concern over the 1.5 million abortions not matched by an equal concern over the male-related causes of these 1.5 million unwanted pregnancies? —

the person who believes abortion to be murder has the obvious answers which, given his conviction that the fetus is a person, makes the question sound ludicrous: “A) Of course. B) You are begging the question since there is no potential/actual distinction in the way you use it, and we are speaking of life itself vs. temporary suffering. C) Because the concern here is for murder rather than the many kinds of cruelties these causes contain.”

Believe it or not (and Maguire would likely be incredulous upon hearing this), we might even think that the bishops’ position on abortion — at least insofar as it is based on the equivalence of abortion and murder — is already a restrained one. For if one lives in a society which legalizes human murder in circumstances where it is easy to commit (1.5 million remember), then it would seem morally responsible to advocate the violent overthrow of the government. We would certainly not pay taxes and support a regime which allowed parents wantonly to kill their children between the ages of four and five. It might be morally obligatory to overthrow such a state. That the bishops are not political revolutionaries is perhaps testimony that they are thinking of the mitigating circumstances which allow sympathy with the “murderers.” But sympathy with the sinners does not require patience with the sin.

In the end, I think, Maguire’s problem is that he has a too relativistic notion of morality. He says:

But what of legislators who personally believe that all abortion is wrong? Those legislators must recognize that it is not their function to impose their own private moral beliefs on pluralistic society.

But this is confused. While there certainly are more important and less important moral beliefs, and a legislator must surely refrain from trying to impose all his moral beliefs (especially those about which there is disagreement) on society, it is also true that to outlaw murder, theft, and slavery because they are plain wrong is not misguided. When the United States outlawed slavery (even though many, including unionists, did not believe it immoral) the legislators were right to impose their morality. The crime was too enormous to allow it to continue. Similarly, when Maguire says, “Prohibition was wrong because it attempted to impose a private moral position on a pluralistic society,” he reemphasizes his relativistic notion of morality. Prohibition was unwise, but it is hardly any more “wrong” than the banning of other addictive and lethal drugs. Prohibition may have been right if it is heinously immoral simply to drink alcohol. But most of us don’t think so. Those who do should probably try to reinstate it.

Maguire thinks “private moral beliefs” is a sensible phrase with a clear meaning. But it is really a paradoxical if not contradictory phrase. Of course as a psychological event, all our beliefs, moral or otherwise, are private. But morality itself, normative as it is, is by its very nature inter- subjective. Perhaps in a certain sense it is intelligible to say “It is wrong for me to run up the stairs of the football stadium since I just left the hospital after my heart attack.” And no one assumes that such a person would be tempted to advocate a law against running up the stairs of football stadiums. But considering the proper generality of moral norms, they apply to everybody. It is absurd to say “It is wrong for me to have an abortion because it is murder, but it might be all right for Betty to have one because she doesn’t think it is murder.”

Surely some bishops may take their stand on abortion out of peer pressure; it might be that some bishops take their stand on abortion out of hatred for women. But it is not difficult to understand why even the severity of the statement is humanly defensible.


  • Edward G. Lawry

    In 1984, Edward G. Lawry was associate professor of philosophy at Oklahoma State University.

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