On Abortion

This weekend will mark the
March for Life for 2006. Remembering that this is still the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, the Methodist bishop Timothy W. Whitaker said the following at the 2005 March:

I used to think that being a Christian in America is easy. I thought it would be hard to be a Christian in a country dominated by other religions or in a Communist country where atheism was avowed by the state, but I thought it was easy to be a Christian here. Now I realize that practicing the Christian life in America has its own difficulties. The seductions of American life may seem more subtle, but they are real and dangerous. In America, both the culture and the state view persons as autonomous individuals who have private rights to live as they choose. But we who are Christians have a different anthropology: we view persons as community members who are made in the image of the Triune God and who have both rights and responsibilities. Therefore, we cannot endorse a women’s right to abort an unborn child as a morally neutral decision, because we understand that the child also has a right to live, and that the community has a responsibility to care for this child if the mother is unable to rear him/her.

How can we persuade others that unborn children really are “community members”? I would like to reflect on the continuing tragedy of abortion in light of the “different anthropology” of love, the subject of Pope Benedict’s forthcoming encyclical. The following thoughts will be drawn from a recent article by Mark Robert Wynn on the thought of the philosopher Raimond Gaita. We’ll begin with an anecdote from Gaita about a person called M who is grieving for a recently deceased child:

M was watching a television documentary on the Vietnam War which showed the grief of Vietnamese women whose children were killed in bombing raids. At first she responded as though she and the Vietnamese women shared a common affliction. Within minutes, however, she drew back and said, “But it is different for them. They can simply have more.” … M did not mean that whereas she was sterile they were not. Nor did she mean that as a matter of fact Vietnamese tended to have many children. Hers was not an anthropological observation. She meant that they could replace their dead children more or less as we replace dead pets.

The story is chilling but realistic. M acknowledges that the Vietnamese are reflective and self-conscious, that they have a capacity for pleasure and pain, happiness and suffering; yet she still does not see them as “community members” bearing full moral significance. As Wynn says, M still does not see that “they might be wronged as ‘we’ are wronged.”
Gaita gives us another example of the fragility of our common idea of “community.” He had earlier worked as a ward-assistant in a psychiatric hospital alongside psychiatrists who would claim that their patients were fully their equals. And then a nun visited the ward:

In her middle years, only her vivacity made an impression on me until she talked to the patients. Then everything in her demeanor towards them – the way she spoke to them, her facial expressions, the inflexions of her body – contrasted with and showed up the behavior of those noble psychiatrists. She showed that they were, despite their best efforts, condescending, as I too had been. She thereby revealed that even such patients were, as the psychiatrists and I had sincerely and generously professed, the equals of those who wanted to help them; but she also revealed that in our hearts we did not believe this.

The nun revealed to Gaita that we can only really claim others as full members of the human community when we can see them as intelligibly the objects of someone’s love. Gaita writes about the nun and the psychiatric ward, “If I am asked what I mean when I say that even such people as were patients in that ward are fully our equals, I can only say that the quality of her love proved that they are rightly the objects of our non-condescending treatment, that we should do all in our power to respond in that way.” Gaita has similarly noted that prisoners are most easily rendered “morally invisible” to their captors if they are deprived of visits from loved ones. He does not mean to suggest that the value of the mentally ill or prisoners is merely a projection; Gaita writes that he felt that the nun’s behavior towards the patients “was directly shaped by the reality which it revealed.” The love of another is revelatory of that person’s status as a “community member.” This means that we need saints – a Mother Teresa or a more anonymous nun in the psychiatric ward – to prevent a horrific contraction in the boundaries of whom we can consider as belonging to our human community.It might seem easier to argue that the marginalized are “community members” based on a more abstract description of the unborn or the mentally ill – a legal definition or a scientific one. We might imagine this to be more foolproof. But the M story clearly shows us that someone can ascribe to another all the properties that philosophers consider relevant to being a person, but, in the absence of a visible “moral response” showing the “preciousness” of that person, then go on to dismiss their moral significance. In his An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, Cardinal John Henry Newman distinguished between “notional” and “real” assents – the “notional” assents are weakly intellectual, but “real” assents depend upon relevant and concrete affectively laden experience. The Cardinal writes that “great truths, practical or ethical float on the surface of society, admitted by all, valued by few.” Giving an example, he continues, “The iniquity, for instance, of the slave-trade ought to have been acknowledged by all men from the first; it was acknowledged by many, but it needed an organized agitation, with tracts and speeches innumerable, so to affect the imagination of men as to make their acknowledgment of that iniquitousness operative.” The iniquity of the slave-trade awaited a “real” assent before the practice was ended. So, we need more than rational negotiators for the “notional”; we need to see responses of a particular expressive depth – the purity of a nun’s love – for our imaginations to be moved.Let’s look at abortion. Gaita has written, Wynn tells us, about “how a women’s attitude towards her unborn child might be conditioned by the love she sees another woman show for her (the second woman’s) unborn child.” Everything depends on whether the mother can see her unborn child as intelligibly the object of love, whether immediately or initially through the purity of another’s love. In the end, Gaita writes, “It is important that the child grows in its mother’s body, that her body changes with its growth and that these changes can appear to us as beautiful, for this provides a focus for love’s tenderness without which there could be no love.” But there is an evident danger – the absence of such a focus for love’s tenderness. Gaita writes, “A foetus growing in a glass jar on her mantelpiece with many of its ‘morally relevant empirical properties’ in plain view, could not be an object of her love, for her love could find no tender expression (which is not to say that a serious concern for it could find no serious expression).” It is possible, Gaita suggests, that a community might not be able to fashion a language of love for certain unborn children – that we might not be able to even imagine the saint who could discover the “foetus in a jar” to be an object of love. “Our sense of the preciousness of other people is connected with their power to affect us in ways we cannot fathom,” but have certain others (the so-called “difficult cases”) simply lost this sort of power? If this is so, we might find it very hard to move others towards a “real” assent to the humanity of these people.

I wonder if this is a sign of the limits of our capacities to imagine human sympathetic imagination (even that of a holy person) and that Raimond Gaita’s ethic needs a theological intensification. But, as Wynn reminds us, even if we should need to speak directly of God’s love, we will not escape the existential thrust of Gaita’s proposal. Gaita writes, “The movement from speaking of life as a gift to speaking of it as God’s gift must be a movement of the same kind as led someone to speaking of life as a gift” (his italics). The movement cannot be “notional.” But this is not impossible. “In Your light, we see light” (Ps 36:9). In the most recent Commonweal, John Garvey appealed to Julian of Norwich’s striking vision of wonder at the existence of reality as God’s gift, experienced even amidst the plague and warfare of the troubled fourteenth century:

Also in this he showed a little thing the quantity of a hazel nut lying in the palm of my hand, as it had seemed to me, This little thing that is made that is beneath our Lady Saint Mary, God showed me as little as it had been a hazel nut, and to my understanding, and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with the eye of my understanding and thought, “What may this be?” And it was generally answered thus, “It is all that is made.” I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nought for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding, “It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it.” And so all things have their beginning being by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties: The first is that God made it; The second that God loves it; The third that God keeps it.

As we pray for an end to abortion, we might ask ourselves if the Church helps form saints through whose love unborn children can be seen to be intelligible as objects of love. We might ask ourselves if the Church shapes a language through which our realization of God’s gift of life becomes so real that we can rely on it even during those “difficult cases” when we cannot rely on ourselves. The status of many of our “community members who are made in the image of the Triune God” might finally depend upon whether we are really able to see that God made them, God loves them, and God keeps them as human beings, even when we would not.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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