Abortion is the great moral issue of our time. More than anything else, it underlies our nation’s present polarization and acrimony. It should never have been made legal to take the life of an innocent human being. We should be fighting the evil of abortion with everything we have.
It is therefore crucial that we understand the spiritual nature of the abortion “war” and the harm done by belligerence and negativity, however well intentioned.
The true pro-life objectives are the universal recognition that all human beings are infinitely valuable, and the establishment of laws, institutions, and behavior that reflect this recognition. Though the fight for legal restrictions on abortion is important, focusing on it single-mindedly in the political arena can lead to grievous losses in the battle for hearts and minds. The tragic case of Ireland shows how readily laws can be undone if they cease to reflect a society’s moral understanding.
The pro-life movement has pivoted before, as when we turned away from obstructive protests and toward peaceful prayer vigils, pregnancy resource centers that care for new mothers, and other organizations focused on helping women choose life. Now that Roe v. Wade is on the brink of being overturned—something that everyone expects, and that some pro-choicers have almost come to desire—it is especially important to highlight our positive message and work to heal our nation’s wounds.
Understand the Impossibility of a Supply-Side-Only Solution
If it were possible to end abortion by eliminating abortion facilities, then the obvious pro-life strategy would be to do so by any licit means. Unfortunately, history shows that women have been finding ways to end their pregnancies since ancient times, either by themselves or with help from others. In his important book Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade, Daniel K. Williams demonstrates the sensitivity of abortion rates to economic pressure. During the Great Depression, when abortion was illegal everywhere in the world and often fatal to the mother, Williams reports that hundreds of thousands of American women each year nevertheless had abortions, and thousands died. In El Salvador today, where abortion is completely illegal, chemical abortion continues unabated.
In fact, surgical abortion is becoming obsolete. Last year, over 40 percent of abortions in America were chemical, a number that has climbed even more in recent months since the COVID-driven explosion in telemedicine has made a trip to the clinic unnecessary. There is actually no need for a teledoctor at all. One can simply google “where do I get the abortion pill,” fill out a trivial online questionnaire, pay $95, and take care of the “problem” without anyone knowing.
Stopping the production of abortion drugs is not an attainable goal either. Misoprostol, which induces miscarriage up to 90 percent of the time, is an important anti-ulcer drug. Trying to solve the problem by eliminating this abortifacient would be like trying to win the War on Drugs by banning medical syringes.
For all the money, time, and energy expended on limiting abortion access, the reality is that women have the ability to procure chemical abortions whether or not they are legal, and that ability will only increase as time goes on. This means we need to be far more intentional about reducing the demand for abortion, even as we continue to work to restrict the supply.
Break the Deadly Addiction to Tribal Warfare
In recent years, tribal warfare, which maximizes discord, has become the norm in our culture. Its rules are now familiar. Our tribe pinpoints and amplifies the enemy tribe’s most egregious defects, taking that part for the whole; we assume the goodwill of our tribe while denying its possibility in the other; we lump all members of the enemy tribe together and brand them with a dehumanizing label; we blame the enemy tribe for everything that goes wrong, taking no responsibility ourselves; we judge quickly and punch back with cutting public remarks. In short, rather than attempt to understand our fellow citizens, we lob verbal grenades at them.
The pro-life movement must resist the temptation to indulge in the poisonous pleasures of tribal warfare. In particular, we should be acutely aware of the damage done to our cause by “limbic arousal,” the psycho-physiological reaction to perceived danger. Activating the limbic system, which overrides the slower, more rational processing by the frontal cortex, can be essential to survival in life-threatening scenarios; there is nothing to be gained by attempting to empathize or reason with a charging lion. But if we are trying to persuade vulnerable women in difficult situations to carry their babies to term—or for that matter, trying to persuade anyone to do anything—the last thing we want is to trigger a defense mechanism.
In most cases, abortion is a response to fear. The fears that women in unintended pregnancies face are manifold and real: shame, rejection, physical suffering, entanglement with undesirable or even abusive partners, or derailment of their education or career. They may fear being an inadequate parent, having special-needs children, or robbing the children they already have of scarce resources. Adoption carries its own set of fears: fears of censure from one’s family and peers, of guilt over abandoning one’s child, and of the pain of seeing him or her raised by others.
If our tone of voice infuriates people and hardens their hearts, driving them to treat killing our own young as no big deal or even as a positive good, this will literally bring about the death of children by increasing chemical abortions and galvanizing resistance to legal changes. The Shout Your Abortion phenomenon is a gruesome example of what can happen when the painful emotion of fear is transmuted into rage-fueled hilarity.
Commit to the Hard Work of Conversation and Cooperation
Most pro-choicers are keenly attuned to the suffering of women and are earnest in their moral commitment. Many acknowledge the analogy with slavery, but interpret it the opposite way: pro-lifers are like the southern slaveholders, patriarchal bullies who want to control other people’s bodies, and therefore women have a moral duty to fight for their own and others’ freedom by righteous resistance to this control.
A robust solution to the problems that create the demand for abortion will need to harness this compassion and thirst for justice, not dismiss or deride it. The approach I recommend is simple, if not always easy: assume that your opponents are people of goodwill with reasons for their beliefs, and talk to them.
For me, that experience has been life-changing. After reading her New York Times op-ed on “The Women the Abortion War Leaves Out,” I reached out to Michelle Oberman, a pro-choice feminist law professor with expertise in abortion-related issues. Despite our continuing disagreements, we have been friends ever since. Our public work includes a joint book review and appearances together at Santa Clara University and the Vita et Veritas conference at Yale, where Michelle made history as the first pro-choice feminist to speak at a pro-life event. We began our first conversation by asking each other, “Why do you hold the beliefs you do?” Curiosity is an antidote to judgment. Though we may never agree about when personhood begins, and thus about whether abortion is morally licit, we have had searching discussions about the challenges facing modern women—from the poorest and most marginalized, to those who, like ourselves, have the privilege of balancing motherhood with a vocation outside the home.
Pro-choice advocates will never agree with pro-lifers about limiting abortion access. But even as we continue to do that important work, we should also strive to reach across the divide whenever possible. For example, on the factors that drive abortion demand, interesting and productive interactions become possible, and a surprising amount of common ground emerges. Improving workplace accommodations for pregnant women, meeting diaper need, and supporting adoption are just a few of the ventures in which pro-lifers and pro-choicers can productively collaborate, rebuilding trust and healing the relationships that tribal warfare has battered.
Addressing the difficult problem of abortion demand will require constructive, forthright discussions about balancing competing goods: How should academia, businesses, and other institutions accommodate parents and children? What should national, state, and local governments provide directly, and what they should enable smaller social units to do? What are the best ways to help expectant mothers, especially those who, like most women who seek abortions, have children already? These are the kinds of questions our elected representatives should be asking, and the fruitfulness of their conversations will depend on their ability and willingness to listen, to find common ground wherever possible, and to refrain from inflammatory words.
It is natural to be depressed about the Democratic Party’s recent slide into a more extreme position on abortion. I certainly am. Nevertheless, whatever happens in November, we should try to have real conversations across the partisan divide rather than behave like a charging lion, which brings out the worst in everyone. The best way to foster the Culture of Life is to engage our neighbors in charity as they strive to implement some aspects of Catholic social teaching, while we pray that their hearts will be moved to embrace them all.
Try a New Prayer
People of faith, and especially Christians, have always been the key soldiers in the war against abortion. A deeper understanding of the Incarnation can help to refresh our imagination and inspire a new and powerful prayer.
At the central moment of human history, the Creator of the universe became a human being. With Mary’s fiat, her free consent to God’s proposal of marriage on behalf of us all, heaven and earth were united and the Word was made flesh, as choirs of angels exploded into a Hallelujah chorus. The great secret is that the same heavenly choirs explode into joyful song when every human being bursts into life. The just-conceived person, fresh from God’s fingers, may actually be closest to his heart.
A defining paradox of the Gospel is that the most vulnerable are the most blessed. God’s strength is made perfect in weakness; he has revealed the truth to babies and concealed it from the wise. The Holy Spirit, the love that breathes eternally between the Father and the Son and overflows into the creation of the world, is the Giver of Life. Conception itself is the very image of God, who is endlessly creative love. The purpose of human sexuality is to point us toward that divine truth. As an icon of the suffering of the innocent, the baby who dies right after conception most powerfully embodies the mystery of the Cross, the only satisfying solution to the problem of evil.
If you are serious about repairing the world, here is a simple, practical plan of action. The hundreds of millions of children sacrificed through abortion are among our greatest intercessors—an army of holy innocents vastly outnumbering that of the visible martyrs. Get on your knees and beg them to pray for a massive change of heart in our society, for the victory of the Culture of Life, and for the healing of the body of Christ.