At a recent panel on the Dobbs decision, Professor Roberto Dell’Oro, director of Loyola Marymount University’s Bioethics Institute, defended legalized abortion through the first trimester, identifying the ability to feel pain as the “threshold beyond which freedom to choose cannot legally go.” In his online talk, Dell’Oro offers an “outline of his personal position on abortion,” while failing to clarify that his opinion represents a dramatic departure from the teachings of the Catholic Church.
As a former student of the professor in question, a Catholic, and a woman to whom abortion is routinely sold as “essential” to my “freedom” and “moral agency,” I reject as unreasonable Dell’Oro’s arguments. I offer here a rebuttal that, by contrast, aims to think with the Church, that stands on a more authentically Catholic understanding of freedom, and that presents a vision of women’s autonomy that empowers rather than infantilizes them.
Social solidarity for the unborn
The high point of Dell’Oro’s reflections is his call for “social solidarity toward prenatal life.” The purpose of the law is not merely to restrain individuals from harming one another; it also has a positive function. In the past, the law has made way for a deeper sense of mutual responsibility for one another, allowing for full integration of the disabled, providing stipulations for medical and maternity leave, etc. Analogously, Dell’Oro argues, the law ought to “help foster a sense of care for the bond of reciprocity between . . . mother and child.” These points arise from and intersect with Catholic teaching, and so on these we can agree—right up until he calls for a “compromise” between women’s autonomy and said solidarity toward prenatal life, for there can be no “compromise” that ends in the destruction of either party.
Can there be a legal right to do something seriously unjust to vulnerable human beings?
Dell’Oro departs from Catholic moral teaching when he asserts the possibility of legalizing abortion. A just society need not legally prohibit all immoral acts. There can be good reason to legally permit things like lying or being mean to your mother, for example. Abortion is unlike these legally permissible activities in that it violates the most basic of human rights. A misrepresentation of the truth and an unkindness to a parent do not belong in the same moral realm as something seriously unjust like the deprivation of life, upon which the possibility for the exercise of all other rights is grounded. If someone kills you or me, that person deprives us of our chance to enjoy future goods. We won’t make new friends, see beautiful sunsets, or gain new insights. The same thing is true of killing a human being after birth or before birth. Infanticide and abortion deprive individuals of their chance to enjoy the goods of life. Taking away an individual’s life takes away all his or her other rights. It is seriously unjust. And a just society does not legally permit serious injustices against vulnerable human beings.
While Dell’Oro posits the ability to feel pain as the criterion for instituting a legal limit, he makes no attempt to articulate why that should be so. As the bestselling book The Ethics of Abortion points out, “Sentience is a poor marker of personhood because it could exclude beings that are obviously persons (such as temporarily unconscious newborns), it includes beings that are obviously not persons (such as insects), and could not secure the fundamental equality of persons even among adult, rationally functioning human beings, since such human beings differ rather radically in terms of sensitivity to pleasure and pain.” Dell’Oro’s assertion that pain could serve as the threshold for a legal limit for abortion fails both because it paradoxically proves too much and too little simultaneously. This legal threshold has no basis at all in Catholic social teaching and no basis at all in reason.
Not every choice offers freedom
Dell’Oro claims that the Dobbs decision “rejects any space of personal liberty for women,” and that women’s “right to choose” is necessary to “affirm their place in American society.” It seems that Dell’Oro has bought into the fiction perpetuated by Planned Parenthood and corporate America that women’s flourishing is incompatible with their reproductive capacities and the moral responsibilities entailed therein.
The view that abortion offers women more freedom by increasing the number of options available to them is incompatible with a proper understanding of freedom. Unlike our culture’s emphasis on a “freedom of indifference,” which equates freedom with autonomy and having as many choices as possible, “freedom for excellence” entails the understanding that the person who is most free is she who can most easily choose the good. Any number of immoral choices cannot be said to increase freedom, because these damage our character and weaken our will. True freedom corresponds to that which is good, and so, the act of willing an immoral option always renders us less free.
Using the language of a woman’s “right” to choose as a euphemism for a woman’s “right” to abort, however limited, is incompatible with Catholic thought. Women ought to and do have many legitimate rights in American society. Women can choose whom to vote for, whether to pursue education and/or the career of their choice, whether and whom to marry. Women have the right to open bank accounts, to own property, operate businesses, etc. The agency to end the lives of their unborn children cannot be among those “rights” that women (or men) are owed in a just society.
A just society can never be one that relies on the oppression of one class to ensure the flourishing of another. If the disposal of some unborn children is indeed necessary for women’s flourishing as Dell’Oro appears to claim, the problem then lies with American society and the structures of injustice which, though markedly improved in the last century, continue to oppress women by pitting them against their own biological capacities and the children whom they bear.
Women deserve better than abortion.
Aside from the fact that abortion is physically and psychologically harmful to women—even in “hard cases” such as when the fetus is diagnosed with life-limiting conditions—the idea that women’s “place in American society” can be found only by the freedom to decide whether and when to eliminate their own children is maddening.
Dell’Oro speaks of the removal of abortion rights as “imposing” a choice of pregnancy on women. This view is infantilizing to women and, again, incompatible with a proper understanding of the human person; any argument about the morality of abortion that attempts to isolate it from the larger framework of sexual ethics inevitably infantilizes women by failing to account for their full moral agency.
Women have the right to choose when they have sex and with whom. The only way in which a woman finds herself pregnant outside of the framework of sexual ethics is as a victim of rape. As to those cases, we owe women far better solutions than abortion.
Sex is a biological reality, entailing consequences from which it can never completely be severed. That fact that women shoulder the lion’s share of childbearing is a further aspect of that biological reality. We must stop pretending that contraception “levels the playing field” for men and women to enjoy sex without consequences in equal measure. The “progress” secured by the Sexual Revolution has allowed men to shrug off their responsibilities with even greater ease, and, while more choices have admittedly opened to women, these advances have come at the expense of making their children more vulnerable to destruction at their own hands.
Is this flourishing? Is it progress? As C.S. Lewis reflects:
“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”
Can we imagine a society that manages to preserve space for women’s participation that doesn’t call for the sacrifice of our children—via abortion or limiting births or abstaining from parenthood altogether? What elements constitute genuine flourishing for women? How do we uphold the dignity of both mother and child, refusing to compromise one for the other? How can we help women who are exploited and coerced, face sexual violence, or who for reasons of poverty or medical limitations fear pregnancy and childbearing as threats they must flee?
These are the ongoing questions that ought to comprise Catholic thought and scholarship on abortion. As to the question of whether abortion should be legal at any point for any reason? We do not need a panel on that. A simple “no” should suffice.