This is the second set of reflections on the recent Supreme Court decision by feminist ethicists. The first set of three by Emily Reimer-Barry, Shawnee M. Daniels-Sykes, and Cristina Traina can be found here.
Besides its obvious legal effects, Supreme Court’s Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health decision has exposed longstanding political and religious failures that legal abortion has not solved and abortion bans are likely to worsen. These failures deserve extended reflection of the kind normally found in this blog. However, the theological ethicists whose work appears below have intentionally chosen to provide our initial reactions in short, provocative essays that we hope will catalyze new conversations about how to respond to them. We bring resources from different corners of the Catholic and theoretical landscape, write in a variety of authorial voices, and draw in distinctive ways on experience, a mainstay of feminist/womanist/mujerista/latina Catholic theology. We do not mean them to be exhaustive; for instance, one might explicitly include reproductive justice and consistent ethic of life frameworks. We also do not mean them to be fully developed arguments; they are quick takes intended to jump-start readers’ thinking by illuminating old questions from less familiar Catholic angles as well as raising new ones.
Remember Mary Daly?
Meg Stapleton Smith
When Mary Daly would speak or write about the topic of abortion, she would begin with the following “statistic”:“100 percent of the bishops who oppose the repeal of anti-abortion laws are men and 100 percent of the people who have abortions are women.” Of course, this is an over-simplification because there are trans and non-binary individuals who have abortions. Still, her provocative opening statement highlights her broader concern about abortion – namely, that when it comes to church teachings on gender, sex, and sexuality, there is an “aroma of hypocrisy” and a “record of contradictions” (The Church and the Second Sex [CSS], 74-117; Gyn/Ecology, 261).
For Daly, the core of the hypocrisy is this: the church claims to be rooted in radical inclusivity, but its sexual doctrines inculcate guilt and inferiority. It is a form of Orwellian doublethink, she asserts, to preach about justice and compassionate welcome while upholding teachings that sustain alienation, marginalization, and create inner fragmentation (Pure Lust, ix). There is a problem with a church that preaches about the virtues of justice, prudence, faith, and love, but that is not also committed to the interrogation of traditional morality that is necessary for authentic justice to reign. We need to believe in the “aggressive and creative virtues,” in order to create an “alternative to the hypocrisy-condoning situation fostered by [the church’s] one-sided and un-realistic ethic” (Beyond God the Father (BGF), 101).
Daly contends, when it comes to abortion, there is an “irrational refusal to recognize any moral ambiguity” (CSS, 135). She writes:
At this moment in history the abortion issue has become a focal point for a dramatic conflict between the ethic of patriarchal authoritarianism and the ethic of courage to confront ambiguity… Essentially women are saying that because there is ambiguity surrounding the whole question and because sexually hierarchical society is stacked against women, abortion is not appropriately a manner of criminal lawBGF, 110.
For Daly, embracing ambiguity as a moral imperative demands that the Catholic Church respect a woman’s conscience –that “secret core and sanctuary” in which she calls out to God from the depths of her own experiences. As Daly said in a 1986 interview with U.S. Catholic, if there is a grave moral problem when it comes to abortion, it is about whether the hierarchy can respect its own teaching on the “sovereignty of the individual’s conscience.”
This is why I love Mary Daly’s work. Even though Daly “walked out” of the Roman Catholic Church, she remained committed to a vision of the Thomistic virtues and to key Catholic theological ideals, such asthe role of conscience in moral decision making. Daly uses the very tools of the tradition to not onlytear into the edifice of Christianity’s complicity in forces of domination, but also liberate those who have been oppressed by that complicity. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I think that Daly is more of a Thomist than most U.S. Catholic Bishops.
Daly provides an avenue for framing conversations on abortion in a church community: “A community that is the expression of authentic spiritual consciousness, that is, a living, healing, prophetic religious community, would not cut off the possibility for women to make free and courageous decisions” (BGF, 112). Importantly, she continues, the prophetic religious community must remember that access to abortion is not the “final triumph” in embracing an ethic of courage. For Daly, an ethic of courage would move us beyond the confines of patriarchal theology and encourage us to embrace the ambiguity of abortion. Ultimately, the goal is not justice within an inequitable status quo, but the far more demanding struggle of bringing about a transformation of consciousness that allows for new ways of being in relationship with the Divine and invites us into the potential of our flourishing.
A Consistent Ethic of Life in Context
Elsie M. Miranda
Since the Civil War, US law has greatly expanded the legal rights and protections implied by inherent human dignity. Now, they are contracting. Access to voice and vote, education, employment, and healthcare as well as the fundamental right to self-determination are all eroding, in many cases because of recent US Supreme Court decisions. Christianity, on the other hand, dates back to the 1st C. when God chose to become incarnate. As a being, God was born of a woman, who said “Yes.” Jesus, the Messianic figure, would eventually embrace death so that others may live. His life mission was encapsulated in the Paschal Mystery, the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of the body—these are fundamental elements of life from which all human beings are invited to share in God’s incarnation, from which inherent dignity derives, and from which the Catholic Church raises up a consistent ethic of life.
Children, however, are the most vulnerable human beings among us. In the US, the CDC asserts that more than 25% of girls are victims of sexual assault or violence before the age of 18, and 91% of the assailants of child sexual abuse (CSA) are persons whom the children know (trusted family members or friends). Despite the harrowing statistics, we do not find the outrage befitting a moral and just society, when the perpetrators of sexual violence act with impunity. Civil society fails to enact laws to protect children and support educational efforts to prevent abuse, and the Church fails to adequately connect sexual violence with an ethics of life.
On June 25, 2022, hours after Roe v Wade was overturned, a 10 year old girl who had been raped six weeks prior by an unnamed perpetrator sought to terminate her pregnancy, but the new legal landscape prevented the child from terminating the pregnancy in Ohio. This prompted her legal guardian to take her across state lines to Indiana where she was able to terminate the pregnancy, following the advice of her doctor.
While this case made national headlines, the moral outcry was focused on abortion law, not child rape. There was little indignation at the psychological and emotional distress or the physical dangers imposed on this child if she were forced to carry the pregnancy to term.
In this case, as in countless others where pregnancy is a life-threatening risk, access to an abortion is a right to life issue. However, some political and religious conservatives fail to defend the value of life holistically. To do so requires the application of a consistent life ethic, founded on a theology of the incarnation wherein the inherent dignity of all life is considered in the application of moral and legal decisions. To negate this process can be interpreted as an assault on the inherent dignity and rights of persons.
For example, the implications of denying women access to medical procedures that would terminate a pregnancy in the case of rape or incest or in order to save a mother’s life in the case of ectopic pregnancy or miscarriage are inconsistent with a right to life ethic. Understood proportionately and applied consistently, discerning right action as a whole life issue often involves choosing the lesser of two evils.
In some circumstances U.S. society already accepts an ethic of proportionality as a given. Consider the Uvalde, TX school shooting: although police officers arrived at Robb Elementary school within minutes of the perpetrator’s assault on innocent children, fully armed men in tactical gear waited in the hallway for over 45 minutes for the order to move in – and the order never came. Instead, Border Patrol agents arrived on the scene, assessed the situation, opened the classroom door, killed the gunman and ended the ordeal within minutes. One life was taken to save the lives of others.
If civil society is capable of applying an ethic of proportionality in the case of a violent attack on a school, what prevents the application of the same ethic in the case of pregnancy? How can I join my voice in a collective moral outcry, rooted in the incarnation of Christ, that advocates for a consistent ethic of life, for all God’s children?
I graduated from a conservative Catholic high school in 2010. Most of the teachers and administrators were friendly and kind, as one is practically required to be in the Midwest. They were the type of conservative Catholics who would have insisted that their Catholicism was simply the right one and who offered students extra credit to pray in front of Planned Parenthood during the lunch period (I took them up on it once). In the wake of Barack Obama’s election, an already very active Right to Life movement gained new vigor over concerns that citizens would be forced to fund abortions under the new healthcare policy being drafted. The possibility of civil disobedience by refusing to pay taxes was mentioned. The importance of healthcare as integral to the common good was not.
These days I understand my former school system as a part of something much larger. Frankly, I feel rather used by the whole scheme. I was sent out into the world, finally old enough to vote, instilled with the message that abortion was the ‘preeminent’ (read: singularly important) political issue. I was ready to further a political goal that had been in the making since before I was born and unequipped with any tools that might help me understand the many nuances, complexities, and sensitivities of the issue. The U.S. Catholic hierarchy has deeply betrayed not only the people who can become pregnant in the U.S., but its own people in the Catholic church, by making sure that I was one of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, in this regard.
The rhetoric surrounding abortion in the Catholic church, especially in the U.S., should be unexpected within a tradition that has a robust body of thought on conscience formation amidst the messiness of the world. As Christine Gudorf and others have pointed out, the USCCB uses persuasive argumentation against killing innocent life in combat, but the USCCB does not advocate for such action to be made illegal, nor does it hold that individual combatants should necessarily be held morally culpable. The U.S. bishops also advocate for ethical principles of economics while purposefully avoiding support for any particular economic system over another. Further, magisterial teaching leaves the choice of whether to have children (or rather, whether to become pregnant) up to the conscientious deliberation of couples in light of their stage of life, their social and financial stability, and the broader conditions of the world.
The U.S. Catholic leadership thus has precedents it could have used to approach the imperfect realities that accompany abortion. However, by insisting on a hard-line stance against abortion, the U.S. hierarchy, drawing on magisterial narratives, has diminished the capability of Catholics to recognize the complex realities that surround abortion. In this way, the hierarchy neglects its duty to help Catholics form their consciences in a way that can truthfully engage those realities. Abortion holds ethical implications that should be carefully and thoughtfully approached. But instead, when pregnant people and their partners find themselves faced with difficult choices like life-threatening circumstances or unviable pregnancies, they will also find that the Church has given them few tools to think through these messy decisions in ethical terms. This is what spiritual betrayal looks like.
I have no silver lining to offer, only lament. It did not have to be this way. Catholics who may face difficult issues surrounding pregnancy should be able to discern and choose our own lives, and to feel confident that we have made a sound ethical decision in doing so. But here we are, in a place where I fear for my friends who could get pregnant in red states, where I need to direct my attention toward those with few resources who will undoubtedly be the ones to bear the burden yet again, and where I wait with dread for the first stories of unnecessary tragedy to emerge.