The whole truth about abortion

Discussing abortion seems to make it difficult for people to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In last month’s number of The Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan tries to tell the truth about abortion in an article titled, “The Things We Can’t Face: What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Abortion.”

In fact, the on-line version of that piece is titled, “The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate.” But even she can’t quite pull off a fully balanced discussion.

As a rule, I like Caitlin Flanagan’s writing. It is lucid, linear, sensible, incisive, and often witty. In this piece, she evokes both the horror of illegal “Lysol” abortions, which often ended in gruesome deaths of both mother and baby, and the delicate wonder of fetal humanity, so evident in the new 3-D ultrasounds. So far, so good.

Flanagan also summarizes the polemical situation with characteristic concision: “The argument for abortion, if made honestly, requires many words…. The argument against it doesn’t take even a single word. The argument against it is a picture.”

She also warns, however, that “no matter what the law says, women will continue to get abortions…. Women have been willing to risk death to get an abortion.”

Here, alas, the discussion falters. For having been remarkably even-handed almost to the end, she concludes with an anecdote that decisively tilts the table. It’s the story of a husband who brought to a hospital his wife who had undergone an illegal abortion and was now dying from the procedure. He risked arrest in hopes of saving her life, but then, a widower, had to return to “tell his children that their mother was never coming home again.”

That’s heart-wrenching. But it’s also only one possible story. Another is that the abortion was successful, the mother survived, and husband and wife instead go home together…to tell their remaining children that their baby brother or sister is now gone. Why doesn’t Flanagan balance the anecdotes?

Indeed, the problem shows up earlier in the article, as it does in every prochoice argument I’ve ever read. I call it “The Missing Person Problem.” Having straightforwardly, even eloquently, acknowledged the human reality of the unborn child, when Flanagan sums up the argument for abortion it is made entirely and exclusively in terms of saving the mother.

“The argument for abortion…must evoke the recent past, the dire consequences to women of making a very simple medical procedure illegal.” But what about the dire consequences to the missing person, the baby?

It turns out, however, that I am being a bit too hard on Caitlin Flanagan. She does later say what few, few, few prochoicers will say: “We accepted that we might lose that growing baby, but we were not also going to lose that woman.”

Leaving aside the temporizing adjective “growing”—why not just “baby”?—Flanagan is all too right about the choice facing many women. And here is where I leave off criticizing prochoicers, especially those trying hard to be truthful, and I turn to my own prolife crowd.

We need to change the choice. It cannot be Mom versus Baby—except, of course, in the most dire of medical emergencies. Here are three other choices we need to champion instead.

  1. Contraception. A new initiative in Texas is aiming to help women prevent the abortion choice by offering contraception in new Christian pregnancy centres. Yet the director of one such centre wrote to me for help in making the case for such work among Christians.

You’d think that Christians—or, at least, those who do not hew to the Roman Catholic line about so-called natural family planning—would be entirely in favour of any healthy and legal means of preventing unwanted pregnancies (without use of abortifacients, of course). And many of us are.

But some Christians are so upset about appearing to sanction fornication and adultery that they resist making contraceptive technologies widely available. (Indeed, this attitude has interfered with condom distribution in the face of HIV/AIDS as well.) And to them I have one thing to say:

A person can recover, by God’s grace, from committing fornication or adultery. A baby cannot recover from abortion.

  1. Fostering and Adoption. Prolifers have come a long way in providing care for expectant mothers and the babies they feel they must give up to others. Prochoicers sometimes still talk as if we care only about the unborn child, but more than a century of homes for unwed mothers and adoption agencies gives the lie to that charge.

Still, there is so much more that must be done. The foster care system in most places is so frightening and adoption by good parents still so unlikely that the woman facing an  unwanted pregnancy might think her unborn child is better off dead. We have to make that patently untrue by making more and better pathways for her baby.

  1. Welfare. Mothers must be relieved of the choice of aborting their children in order to care properly for those they have—or to simply finish school or otherwise carry on a decent, productive life. The choice must never be between a lifetime of poverty and a bad afternoon in an abortion clinic.

Yes, we don’t want to facilitate illicit sex. Yes, we don’t want to signal indifference to promiscuity. Yes, we don’t want to encourage laziness. But who really thinks the Church is in danger of being misunderstood on these issues? Isn’t the greater problem that the Church is being understood as only selectively compassionate and practically foolish?

In sum, if we truly believe that abortion is the killing of a baby and that it is so wrong and so harmful as to warrant criminal prosecution, then we must do everything we can to make sure it doesn’t happen. Making it illegal would actually be relatively easy. And it certainly isn’t love. (“We won’t actually help you avoid abortion by constructing proper options. We’ll just forbid it.”)

These solutions are what we have to talk about when we talk about abortion. Only thus will we tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help us God.

And I dare to hope Caitlin Flanagan would agree.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).