'Free choice' has its consequences

  • May 28, 2009
{mosimage}Years ago, in the 1960s and ’70s, friends met in my parents’ living room. They were reflecting prayerfully on the legalization of abortion — then in its early stages in Canada — and forming a pro-life group because they considered abortion an unthinkable answer to social problems. Long before ultrasound, in-vitro surgery and other developments gave supporting evidence, they were sure a human person exists from the moment of conception. They felt “not speaking” and thereby sanctioning the conditional legalization of abortion (1969) would slide us towards a culture of death.

They spoke, and their pro-life descendants are still trying to speak, but with voices muffled at times, impaired by connotations of “pro-life” as narrow-minded, anti-woman, blind, hate-filled, uneducated and so on. Whatever the origins of those connotations, however inaccurate they may be, they have their effect. Many find abortion abhorrent but would never associate themselves with “the pro-life movement.”

How can Catholics speak to each other on this volatile subject? Division and hostility persist, even among us who follow Christ.

It may seem archaic to speak just about abortion, which is but one aspect of the “culture of death,” as John Paul II astutely labelled ours and as the pro-life group foresaw we might become. Today there are other beginning-of-life issues and many other social justice issues. Abortion, however, remains a foundational aspect of our society, hidden in plain sight.

But it’s difficult not to speak, because of Eleanor, who 30 years later suffers the pain of having aborted her baby. In an impossible situation, she had an abortion, poor and alone — no friends, no family, no baby’s father, nobody in hospital giving comfort or assistance. Hers was no “free choice.” That day remains a day of anguish in her memory. But she has named her baby, prayed for forgiveness and healing, accepted the sadness that will never leave. “All things are possible for God” (Ephesians 3).

It’s difficult not to speak because of Patricia, Catherine, Anita, all women I know who’ve had legal abortions, suffered through the event and suppressed the suffering, carried the burden silently and often unconsciously. The last thing I would say about their situations is “free choice.” It wasn’t a choice, and it wasn’t free. It was the way they could find, the way they felt they could take. And it had consequences.

There are consequences also for forgetting the bigger picture. Pro-life means caring for the child not only in the womb but also after birth, for the life of the woman carrying that child, of the man who helped give that life, of the society that often fails to carry life and seeks death as though it were a solution. Words — especially uncomfortable, prophetic words — must be accompanied by actions on behalf of those who suffer.  

“Pro-life” means we need to look at the bigger picture. Inevitably, this bares the vastness of human sinfulness, from which there’s no exit. Unless there’s Christ to free us. But walking with Him isn’t the “wide and easy path.”

Remember the story of Pentecost? An astonishing transformation occurred: people who’d abandoned Christ in fear stood up before crowds to proclaim Him Saviour. It’s extraordinary that they found courage in place of self-preservation. And that they declared God’s mercy, after being exposed at Gethsemane and Calvary to the human capacity for evil (including their own), stripped, howling, unleashed before them as never before in world history. Seeing the bigger picture wasn’t pleasant: humans wielding power and even death against one another and against the mercy of God. The disciples likely spent the next two days in their own tombs, in a dark place we can imagine tasting ourselves. How could they speak after that?

On the third day, everything changed. The bigger bigger picture was opened to them: by the holes in the hands and feet of the risen Christ, by the revelation of life beyond death, mercy beyond sin, forgiveness beyond anger. How could they not speak after that?

How can we not speak, we who love Christ? How can we speak and act, with the mercy and forgiveness we received through Christ’s gift? “If you want peace,” Paul VI urged in the days when abortion was becoming socially acceptable, “work for justice.” Today we might add: “If you want life, work for justice.” Recognizing abortion as a false remedy to real social ills, the Catholic Church is in a position to be prophetic, to garner action on behalf of life and of justice.

At Pentecost, the disciples learned to speak the language the world could hear. For us, this may be the language of justice.

Transformation does happen, as Pentecost proves. People do learn to hear one another, when the Spirit of God is in their midst. They can become one in Christ without losing their uniqueness, as the birth of the church at Pentecost reveals. It’s not easy to learn to speak together, but it’s world changing when we let the Spirit teach us.