Protecting vulnerable lives

January 1, 2021 -- Susanne R Janssen

Protecting vulnerable lives
An interview with theologian Dana Dillon about a consistent life ethic

By Susanne Janssen

According to Pew Research, the religiously unaffiliated in the U.S. population now stands at 26%, up from 17% in 2009. More and more people do not have a Christian view of life as a gift, but were exposed to a secular sexual education that views abortion as a normal medical procedure. For someone who has the pro-life cause at heart, is there a way to find common ground?

I think one of the best things to do in any situation where people are seeing things in fundamentally different ways is to consider deeply what good end (even if it is only an apparent good) the other side is seeking. In this case, it is the good of the woman who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy.

And this, of course, is something every pro-lifer should want, too. An ethics professor of mine once pointed out that abortion is an extreme expression of the many, many ways that our society tends to marginalize both women and children.

So I think that pro-lifers can and should be working for policies and programs that make it easier for women and children — and especially women with children — to flourish.

If Roe vs. Wade were overturned, would it make a big difference in promoting a “culture of life?”  Can a change of a law alter the mind set of people who consider abortion a right?

I think that law always matters in shaping a culture’s sense of right and wrong. But it’s important to remember that overturning Roe vs. Wade would make it permissible for state legislatures to pass laws regulating and restricting abortions, so the debates would likely continue.

Laws can change minds, but this country has been deeply divided on these questions for quite some time. Pro-lifers who have refused for nearly half a century to have their minds changed by the legalization of abortion in 1973 should not expect pro-choice folks to change their minds quickly.

How do we define the start of life? How did the definition of the beginning of a human being change from the moment of conception to that of birth?

Catholic teaching is clear that life begins at conception and continues until natural death. In earlier times, there was a sense of life beginning at “quickening,” when the baby first moved in the mother’s womb.

One of the very interesting dynamics of our contemporary history is that, as science has advanced and we get more knowledge of the beginnings of life and more ways of glimpsing into the womb, it seems clearer and clearer how fully human the pre-born baby is so early in the pregnancy.

I don’t think we have really shifted from the idea of conception to the idea of birth, except in the specific case of conversations related to abortion. In most states, someone who kills a pre-born child (say, by injuring the mother in an assault or in a vehicular accident) can face charges of manslaughter. Other aspects of law (such as inheritance law) treat pre-born children as persons.

It is really only in the case where the woman chooses not to treat her pre-born child as a child with rights that this is allowed. If the mother demands that the law treat her child as a person, it is generally done.

Today, there is great emphasis on individual rights. An unwanted pregnancy or a life with limitations and suffering could seem meaningless and therefore undesirable. Wouldn’t a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion become a slippery slope to the right to terminate the life of a person who is disabled, or the right of a terminally ill patient to choose assisted suicide? This seems logical for those who follow a utilitarian perspective. How can we promote the intrinsic dignity and value of life?

I think it’s crucial to resist individualism by cultivating a sense of the common good. In Catholic social thought, the person is understood — made in the image of God who is persons-in-communion — as intrinsically social. This means that my good, your good, and the good of all are inherently connected to one another.

In other words, the common good is attained through the flourishing of all and the flourishing of each. The good of all and the good of each are not in competition with one another; rather each plays a part in constituting the other.

This is very different from the approach of utilitarianism, which seeks the greatest good simply for the greatest number.

Instead, in seeking the common good, my reaching my own good, my own fullest flourishing depends on you reaching yours and on all our neighbors (and even enemies!) reaching theirs.

Catholic social thought also draws from liberation theology and the biblical witness to suggest that the best way to know if we are moving authentically toward the common good is to ask how those Christ describes as “the least of these” are doing (Mt 25).

Building on that, we might want to reflect on our communities and ask: where are human dignity and the sacredness of life most threatened? What can we do to protect it in those spaces?

Life is often so vulnerable at its beginning and its end, but also among the sick, those with disabilities, those living in poverty, those discriminated against because of race, gender, sexual orientation or other differences or identities.

It is when life and dignity are most vulnerable, most threatened, most questioned that it is most important for us to act in solidarity with Christ in “the least of these.”

What are meaningful ways in which abortion could be prevented and made unnecessary? Is there room for a compromise that could be supported by people from pro-life and pro-choice persuasions?

I think there are very good arguments for a compromise that would outlaw abortions after a certain point in the pregnancy (usually 12- 20) weeks, with rare exceptions (such as a medical threat to the mother’s life). I think that it’s even more promising to imagine common ground work toward policies such as paid parental/maternity leave, funded and subsidized childcare, even more radical moves like providing every child (or even every person) a basic income.

I would truly encourage voters for whom abortion is a primary issue to really push their candidates for elected office to work on these kinds of programs and policies.

What are pro-life issues that fall through the cracks? Can we have a consistent pro-life stance also regarding migration, care for the elderly?

I think it’s really important to aim for a consistent life ethic and for that ethic to be always expanding and becoming more inclusive. And we should probably acknowledge that it is rare (if ever!) that a candidate, party, or policy perfectly embodies either consistency or expansiveness. We will find ourselves compromising in all kinds of ways.

I think it’s pro-life to fight diseases like cancer and Parkinson’s. But sometimes you’ll find that some of the agencies that fund these fights (and to which you might donate) support research that relies on embryonic stem cells or has partnerships with abortion-rights organizations.

Maybe it’s best not to give to those organizations. But maybe you want to be a part of them and try to shape the conversation about their commitments and invite them into deeper consistency.

When people say, “if you’re really pro-life, shouldn’t you also be for the lives of _____?” a pro-lifer probably ought to be prepared to say yes, no matter what the blank holds. I’ve seen far too many pro-lifers responding to such concerns with a justification for a more primary focus on the pre-born than on whatever the blank holds (Black lives, immigrant lives, women’s lives). A consistent life ethic demands a response of “Yes, those lives matter, too.”

Listening and learning the threats they see to those lives, and what actions and policies can make real change is a key part of expanding our own vision of what issues (and lives!) are falling through the cracks. It’s also (perhaps) an opening to invite these other conversation partners into a more consistent life ethic as well.

Dr. Dana L. Dillon, PhD, is Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College, Rhode Island, where she teaches classes in theology, especially moral theology, Catholic social thought, and political theology.


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