Recently some members of a church based youth group I am involved with suggested that we, as a group, go join an overnight prayer vigil outside an abortion clinic. This brought out strong reactions from some members who were against such action with the expected return reaction from those who were opposed to abortion. After some discussion a compromise was reached, thanks to the commitment of mutual love and
respect at the heart of the group involved. The group decided that it would be a personal decision for each member as to whether they wanted to be involved with the vigil, but not classed as a compulsory group activity, leaving each person to act according to their conscience on the matter.
While I am against abortion, I made the decision not to go myself because of what I perceive as the negative image such actions generate amongst the public. I also feel concern for how such action can negatively affect the mental health of the woman or girl entering the clinic. I fear such action can do more harm than good to the cause.
I struggle to find the best way to respond to this issue in a way that keeps it in the public eye, as I would any justice issue, while avoiding the link to bad publicity anti-abortionists have brought upon the cause using an approach where the ‘end justifies the means’ thereby losing moral integrity in the argument. At times abortion opponents will use outright lies to dissuade women out of seeking a safe and legal abortion. This is particularly damaging because it comes from a group who claim that truth is on their side.
Examples of such claims are:
1. “Abortion Causes Breast Cancer.” Abortion opponents commonly cite this claim, as a means of scaring women out of choosing an abortion. Any current, reliable medical evidence simply doesn’t corroborate a direct link between abortion and breast cancer. In 2003, the National Cancer Institute conducted a workshop with more than 100 of the world’s leading experts on pregnancy and breast cancer risk, and they found that “induced abortion is not linked to an increase in breast cancer risk.” This was corroborated by a 2009 study by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which demonstrated that recent, rigorous, methodologically sound studies display “no causal relationship between induced abortion and a subsequent increase in breast cancer.”
2. “Abortion causes infertility.” Just like the claim about abortion and breast cancer, this argument doesn’t have any legitimate medical basis. According to the Mayo Clinic, if the abortion is performed safely and as long as there has been no adverse reaction to the procedure such as damage being done to the uterus, “abortion isn’t thought to cause fertility issues or complications in subsequent pregnancies.”
3. “Most women regret having an abortion.” Statistically speaking, some women do regret having an abortion. The vast majority, however, don’t cite ‘regret’ as their main emotion after an abortion, but ‘relief.’ A recent study at the University of California, San Francisco found that 90% of women who were able to obtain an abortion reported that they were relieved and those who did cite negative emotions after their abortion didn’t indicate that they felt they had made the wrong choice. This is because the tension and stress that are felt before the abortion procedure is immediately gone once the procedure has taken place. Of course this is usually only an immediate reaction and not a true indication as to how someone might be feeling into the distant future. As a priest I can tell you that I regularly see women of varying ages in the confessional who suffer from guilt for having had an abortion, be it decades ago.
4. “Once a woman sees an image of the fetus from an ultrasound, she won’t want to have an abortion.” This anti-abortion claim helped fuel a wave of paternalistic and invasive forced ultrasound legislation in much of the U.S. According to a recent study featured in the Obstetrics and Gynecology Journal, of the 40 percent of women who chose to view their ultrasound, 98.4 percent still went through with their abortion. Mandated ultrasounds aren’t just intrusive; they’re also ineffective at preventing abortion.
5. “Abortion is psychologically damaging to women.” I guess this depends on what women bring psychologically to the procedure. The whole situation as to why a person would choose to have an abortion is stressful. Abortion opponents frequently use the term, “Post-Abortion Syndrome” (sometimes called “Post-Abortion Stress Syndrome”) as proof that those who undergo an abortion procedure will suffer emotionally and psychologically. This term isn’t recognized by either the American Psychological Association or the American Psychiatric Association. The American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion decisively states that there is “no evidence that having a single abortion causes mental health problems.” But if the person has had a stressful time of things or suffers ongoing guilt for having had an abortion, they could suffer from ‘Post-traumatic stress syndrome.’ The symptoms would be: self-harm, sleeping disorders, substance abuse, repeat pregnancies and repeat abortions.
6. “Abortion endangers women’s health and lives.” Some anti-abortion protesters say that abortion hurts women, that it harms them, that it is unsafe and even “deadly.” There is, of course, always a risk with invasive procedures that involve blood pressure, weight, and the position of the cervix. The truth is, however, that it’s not deadly when it’s safe and legal. How safe is abortion? According the Guttmacher Institute, in the US, the risk of death from a safe and legal abortion is 10 times lower than the risk of death from childbirth. What’s more, the Guttmacher Institute also notes that first trimester abortion is among “the safest medical procedures” and carries less than 0.05 percent risk of major complications that could require hospital care, and the risk of death for an abortion at or before eight weeks is literally one in a million. The real risk of death comes when abortion is unsafe: In 2008, 47,000 deaths from unsafe abortion were reported worldwide, mostly in third world countries.
The new catechism of the Catholic Church states, under the area of guidelines for making moral choices according to conscience, “One may never do evil so that good may result from it.” (#1789). This is because a basic principle of Catholic moral teaching is that ‘the end does not justify the means.’ The worst examples of this in terms of anti-abortion groups, and the reason why I would not be part of a prayer vigil outside an abortion clinic, are the bombing of abortion clinics or the murder of doctors, nurses or patients for performing abortions. While I do believe most who join such prayer vigils today do not fit this category, praying outside an abortion clinic as an act of protest will now be forever linked in the minds of the public with extremist, religiously fanatical and even terrorist violence. Thus, no matter how well behaved, protesters will be automatically looked upon in a negative light.
In my mind there is only one argument we need to use, and what lies at the core of why we protest against abortion, and that is the sanctity of human life. Now I know that the pro-abortion groups would argue that we are talking about a fetus and not a human person. A fetus, so the argument goes, does not have any consciousness whatsoever. It is a developing human being, not a developed one. The fact remains it is a developing human being. It will not change into a fish or a bird or anything else for that matter. To claim it is not a human being is as equally dishonest, in my opinion, as lying to scare women into not having an abortion and lacks moral integrity.
Not wanting to go through with the birth of a child because mental or physical disabilities have been detected prior to birth cannot justify the taking of a human life, just as the termination of a disabled human being after birth is classed as murder.
Another argument for abortion include citing the trauma of a woman who has become pregnant as the result of rape, in which case going through the full term of pregnancy and the birth would cause terrible psychological trauma to the person involved. This is certainly a true statement, and I would be loathed to subject anyone traumatised by rape to further pain. But again the principle of the end justifying the means pulls me up. The one who should be punished for the crime is the perpetrator, not the unborn child, which is still a human being. But what to do in terms of compassion is a serious challenge. Clearly what is needed in this situation is doing all in our power to support such victims, providing them with all the professional and other help they need. After all, if we have done nothing to help them, we certainly cannot judge them. Unconditionally loving and caring for the person, whether they go through an abortion or not is the most Christ-like response we can make. This does not mean we condone the act itself, which we cannot do because it is the taking of a human life. It is also important to keep in perspective that only 1% of women that have conceived through rape have an abortion.
Another strong argument put forward by the proponents of the right of women to choose an abortion is the danger of unsafe illegal backyard abortions, as seen from the figures cited above. This is a powerful argument indeed. We cannot impose our beliefs or standards on another human being, so denying them their freedom of conscience, as the moral tradition of the Catholic Church attests (Catechism #1782). Human beings are what they are. We don’t all think alike. Even though there are laws against illicit recreational drug use, many people continue to buy and use such drugs, proving that the letter of the law is clearly not enough protection. The fact is that if people do not think they are doing wrong in having an abortion, and feel that they cannot or do not want to deal with the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy, they will seek an abortion, legal or otherwise. The most desirable outcome would be that the person, fully understanding the moral implications of the act, would freely choose not to have an abortion.
Therefore, just as people protest to raise awareness against other forms of injustice to human beings, animals or the environment, those of us who see abortion as the taking of a human life have every right, as well as a moral imperative, to protest against it. How best to do this, is the question. There are many forms of affirmative action that can be taken without incurring bad publicity. In my mind these would include letters to the local member expressing concern; taking part in a prayer vigil in a parish; organizing educational opportunities; have the topic covered in high school so that awareness of abortion and its aftermath gives our children a foundation of morality and ethics; and in my case I could include something in a homily.
It is something that I am committed to continue to wrestle with. My hope is that sharing my personal thoughts on the matter in this blog is an avenue by which I make my own protest with integrity.