Today is, as the title of this post would suggest, Respect Life Sunday. Please read the USCCB’s Statement. I’d also like to invite you to meditate on an article by the well-known and provocative theologian Stanley Hauerwas entitled, “Abortion, Theologically Understood,” originally a presentation delivered before the 1990 North Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Professor Hauerwas began by quoting a sermon originally delivered by the Presbyterian minister Terry Hamilton on Matthew 25. Reverend Hamilton made three points –
1. The Gospel favors both women and children, who have very often found themselves among the “least of these.” No biblical approach can frame these two groups, women and children, “as enemies of one another.”
2. “Women I know, and those I know about, have had abortions for two basic reasons: the fear that they cannot handle the financial and physical demands of the child, and the fear that having the child will destroy relationships that are important to them.” Their abortions were not an exercise of free choice, but the lack of any choice at all, because these women would have had to bear the sole responsibility of raising the child themselves.
3. Rev. Hamilton quotes the question asked to the congregation by the Presbyterian Book of Order during a baptism, “Do you, the members of this congregation, in the name of the whole Church of Christ, undertake the responsibility for the continued Christian nurture of this person, promising to be an example of the new life in Christ and to pray for him or her in this new life?” He says, “We make this promise because we know that no adult belongs to himself or herself, and that no child belongs to his or her parents, but that every person is a child of God. Because of that, every young one is our child, the church’s child to care for. This is not an option. It is a responsibility.” This responsibility exists, one supposes, even before it is confirmed in the sacrament of baptism. Thus, the Church must react to the problem of abortion primarily by being the Church and living out the Gospel through the planned support and care of women and infants or by cultivating the virtues that would lead it to spontaneously react with real compassion to particular situations that will inevitably arise.
Abortion is a multifaceted problem. It certainly is a legal problem that forces us to ask, “What sort of society are we?” But I think that Haeuerwas would suggest that it might first be a theological problem that forces us to ask, “Well, what sort of church are we, whose members and neighbors often find themselves compelled to choose abortion?” (There has been, after all, a disturbing “Catholic Abortion Paradox.”) We cannot answer the theological problem by simply solving the legal problem. Even if abortion should happen to be significantly restricted, Hauerwas would still remind us of “the fallacy of a key presumption of many Christians in this society–namely, that what Christians believe about the moral life is what any right-thinking person, whether he or she is Christian or not, also believes.” While we might hope that any right-thinking person, made uncomfortable with the grisly physical details of abortion, would find life “important” and worth defending at certain costs (often, it must be said, to be endured by certain women, conveniently made once more to be the “least of these”), one has to be more than just “right-thinking” to go so far as to claim that “we ought to live in a profound awe of the other’s existence, knowing in the other we find God,” and then to act accordingly – even if it means significant personal sacrifice. That challenging claim is both necessary and the irreplaceable theological witness of the Church.
The difference between Christian and merely “right-thinking” approaches to morality, especially regarding abortion, appears quite clearly when Hauerwas discusses why anyone would want to have kids in the first place (the emphases will be mine). You can tell me if it seems overdrawn (a case can be made, as with most Hauerwas writings, that it is).
There is one other issue that I think is worth highlighting. It concerns how abortion in our society has dramatically affected the practice of having children. In discussions about abortion, one often hears that no “unwanted child” ought to be born. But I can think of no greater burden than having to be a wanted child.
When I taught the marriage course at Notre Dame, the parents of my students wanted me to teach their kids what the parents did not want them to do. The kids, on the other hand, approached the course from the perspective of whether or not they should feel guilty for what they had already done. Not wanting to privilege either approach, I started the course with the question, What reason would you give for you or someone else wanting to have a child?” And you would get answers like, “Well, children are fun.” In that case I would ask them to think about their brothers and/or sisters. Another answer was, “Children are a hedge against loneliness.” Then I recommended getting a dog. Also I would note that if they really wanted to feel lonely, they should think about someone they raised turning out to be a stranger. Another student reply was, “Kids are a manifestation of our love.” “Well,” I responded, “what happens when your love changes and you are still stuck with them?” I would get all kinds of answers like these from my students. But, in effect, these answers show that people today do not know why they are having children.
It happened three or four times that someone in the class, usually a young woman, would raise her hand and say, “I do not want to talk about this anymore.” What this means is that they know that they are going to have children, and yet they do not have the slightest idea why. And they do not want it examined. You can talk in your classes about whether God exists all semester and no one cares, because it does not seem to make any difference. But having children makes a difference, and the students are frightened that they do not know about these matters.
Then they would come up with that one big answer that sounds good. They would say, “We want to have children in order to make the world a better place.” And by that, they think that they ought to have a perfect child. And then you get into the notion that you can have a child only if you have everything set–that is, if you are in a good “relationship,” if you have your finances in good shape, the house, and so on. As a result, of course, we absolutely destroy our children, so to speak, because we do not know how to appreciate their differences.
Now who knows what we could possibly want when we “want a child”? The idea of want in that context is about as silly as the idea that we can marry the right person. That just does not happen. Wanting a child is particularly troubling as it finally results in a deep distrust of mentally and physically handicapped children. The crucial question for us as Christians is what kind of people we need to be to be capable of welcoming children into this world, some of whom may be born disabled and even die.
Too often we assume compassion means preventing suffering and think that we ought to prevent suffering even if it means eliminating the sufferer. In the abortion debate, the church’s fundamental challenge is to challenge this ethics of compassion. There is no more fundamental issue than that. People who defend abortion defend it in the name of compassion. “We do not want any unwanted children born into the world,” they say. But Christians are people who believe that any compassion that is not formed by the truthful worship of the true God cannot help but be accursed. That is the fundamental challenge that Christians must make to this world. It is not going to be easy.