Many weeks ago, I all but completed a reply to the critique that George McKenna published in the Human Life Review of “Beyond the Stalemate,” my June 21 Commonweal article, on the current state and future prospects of Catholic opposition, moral and legal, to abortion. My article contained a number of pointed criticisms of the organized pro-life movement. So I was not surprised that McKenna’s analysis in the Human Life Review was less than enthusiastic.
I was surprised, however, that it went to such tortuous lengths to misrepresent my article. Why? Why had McKenna, a man not at all foreign to making and understanding distinctions and complexities in argument, so misread me? Puzzling over that has delayed my reply.
What I consider a gross misreading was not, McKenna acknowledges, his initial response.
At first reading, he believed that my approach was similar to the “Lincolnian position” on opposing slavery that McKenna had recommended to abortion opponents in 1995. “Recognizing abortion as a moral wrong,” that approach “warns of the futility of seeking an immediate ban, arguing instead for a pragmatic strategy.” Only upon “successive readings” did McKenna realize what my article was truly saying. Writers generally like to hear that their work has won “successive readings.” In this case I wish McKenna had quit when he was ahead.
It does not matter that McKenna’s critique contains a number of nasty barbs aimed at me and my religious views. What matters is that, while I strongly doubt that Human Life Review readers (or for that matter Commonweal readers) would completely agree with “Beyond the Stalemate” in undistorted form, an open-minded and accurate reading might at least provoke constructive thought. But that would require a return to the central concerns and argument of my article rather than what “successive readings” convinced McKenna I was really up to.
And what was that? My “underlying point,” he claimed, is to propose a “grand bargain” between the species of liberal Catholics he labels Commonweal Catholics and their “pro-choice brethren on the left.” And what were the terms of this “grand bargain,” in McKenna’s view? “We will eschew any more public rhetoric about a ‘moment of conception’—if you will just agree with us that at some point in the pregnancy the occupant of the womb can be called human and thus entitled to the same legal protections we give to the already-born.”
All very interesting. And completely false.
Nowhere in my article did I propose such a “grand bargain,” nor did I have one in mind. Nowhere did I mention “pro-choice brethren on the left,” nor did I entertain any idea of winning over the “activists” McKenna supposes I had in mind. Nowhere did I mention eschewing “public rhetoric about a ‘moment of conception,’” nor did I advise dropping “the public insistence that life begins at conception.”
How did McKenna arrive at his strangely skewed interpretation of what my article was proposing? It wasn’t easy. Instead of taking my words at face value, he turned sleuth. He pursued an elaborate and sometimes quite speculative analysis of who my intended audience was. It couldn’t be the pro-life movement. (“In his article it is always a ‘they’ and . . . never a ‘we.’”) It couldn’t be the Church. (Steinfels is “angry at his Church.”) So it must be “the regular readers of Commonweal.” These, McKenna surmises, are desperate to relieve the tension that abortion has created with their non-religious or even anti-religious reformer friends on the left. Ergo the point of my article must be the “grand bargain.”
A remarkable bubble of speculation about my presumed audience, but let’s prick it with a fact. The original audience I was addressing with my argument was very much a representative of the pro-life movement and very much a representative of the Church. It was, in fact, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. That is correct: Archbishop Chaput.
My Commonweal article was largely derived from a paper I was invited to deliver at a September 2012 Villanova Law School conference on the themes of Archbishop Chaput’s 2008 book, Render Unto Caesar. The archbishop was to deliver the keynote talk not long after I spoke, and although I know well how busy prelates are, I hoped that he might be in attendance to engage my suggestions. As it turned out, he wasn’t, but I also knew, of course, that like-minded people would be, as they were.
McKenna knows from his own experience that it is possible to address more than one audience at a time. So, yes, I was addressing Commonweal Catholics, although not for the reason he imagines. But I was also addressing whoever in the pro-life movement, or among pro-life sympathizers, and whoever in Church leadership, or among Church members, might share my concern that the anti-abortion cause was stalled. I tried to highlight this conviction of a stalemate when I reworked my Villanova paper for Commonweal, replacing some reflections on other aspects of Archbishop Chaput’s book with reflections on public reactions to the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
McKenna unfortunately conceives of the various possible audiences in bloc terms. There is the “pro-life movement.” There is “the Church.” There are “Commonweal Catholics.” There are “pro-choice brethren on the left”—those anti-religious, more or less infanticidal “activists on the other side.” He locates me in relation to each by selectively quoting phrases snatched from very different parts of my article.
Consider his conclusion that I could not be addressing a church audience because I am angry with the Church. Now I don’t deny having been, and on more than one occasion, angry with the Church. Has McKenna ever been angry with the Church? Have the readers of the Human Life Review? A lot better and much holier people than all of us have been angry with the Church.
But what is the evidence for my anger? Steinfels “complains about [the Church’s] ‘all-male clerical leadership,’ its ‘prudery’ and hypocrisy during his childhood, and its continuing ‘male bias.’” Actually I nowhere complain about hypocrisy, and here is the passage from which McKenna has plucked the word “prudery,” a passage meant to disabuse readers of stereotypical suspicions that my anti-abortion convictions might simply be the product of youthful brainwashing: “Growing up Catholic,” I wrote, “I did not hear priests rail against abortion. To the contrary, given the reticence, perhaps I should say prudery, of that environment, the subject was seldom mentioned.” As for the Church’s “all-male clerical leadership,” the phrase appears thousands of words later when I am describing the obstacles the Church faces in advancing its anti-abortion case, including the ease with which it can be dismissed as reflecting “male bias.” Is adverting to these facts really beyond the pale? I do have my complaints about the Church’s all-male clerical leadership, but here I am not complaining. I am merely recognizing realities.
My relationship to the organized pro-life movement is more complicated. That movement is one of many bungalows and a few mansions. Most of them have not been especially welcoming to Catholics like me. Better a trophy atheist like Nat Hentoff than a troublesome Catholic archbishop like Cardinal Bernardin. Contra McKenna, I have not been “disdainful” of the movement. But whatever insufficient and often unavailing efforts I have made as a writer, editor, academic, voter, friend, family member, Catholic, and neighbor in support of unborn lives I have pretty much undertaken as an individual and not as a member of the organized movement. It would not have been honest to write “we” instead of “they” (and McKenna might have been the first to call me out on such dishonesty).
In this respect I am among a great number of pro-life Americans (and Catholics) who keep the pro-life movement at arm’s length, in large part for the reasons set out in my article, including the criticisms that McKenna chooses to abridge and caricature as a “bill of indictment” rather than examine seriously. (For the record, at the Villanova conference a leading spokeswoman for Catholic prolifers acknowledged the validity of many of those criticisms.)
Such people fall outside of McKenna’s tightly defined audiences. So do other people I have long had in mind when pondering this subject. They include individuals who couldn’t be further from anti-religious or dogmatic pro-choice activists but, if they consider themselves pro-choice, do so reluctantly and with a troubled sense that they are not really facing up to moral concerns about fetal life. Many of them are either politically or culturally conservative, sometimes both. Some are Jewish, shaped by a tradition and sensibility that values unborn life but doesn’t grant it, especially in early stages, a moral status equivalent to the newborn’s. Then there are women I know who risked a complete upending of their lives to bear a child despite pressure to seek an abortion—and who nonetheless defend Roe v. Wade. There are pastors who tell me that the Church’s anti-abortion political profile not infrequently undermines their own efforts at pro-life education and counseling. And finally there are Commonweal Catholics. Sure, a few of them may be longing for a separate peace with their pro-choice buddies, but most of them have simply been chafing at the sense that the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel was being obscured by ill-chosen legal and political priorities. In other words, they long thought what Pope Francis has recently said.
So what, with all these kinds of people in mind, was I actually trying to propose rather than McKenna’s imagined “grand bargain”? Apart from my review of the missteps and achievements of the Church and its pro-life allies in this struggle, my article rests on two sets of distinctions. One is the distinction between what can plausibly be prohibited by law and what must remain in the realm of moral persuasion. The other is the distinction between what I believe, as a matter of both philosophical reasoning and religious teaching, is the truth about unborn lives and the protection owed them, on the one hand, and the obscurity and ambiguity that inherently surrounds some aspects of this belief, on the other.
These two distinctions are not extraordinary. What predisposition makes someone of McKenna’s intelligence unable to fathom them or compelled to twist them this way or that until remolded to suit his polemic?
Take my view that there are some things that Catholics and the Church can achieve only by moral argument and witness, and that trying to achieve them by law will become an obstacle to achieving them at all. McKenna remolds this into a “bifurcation,” a retreat to an in-house morality for “ourselves, our family, and close personal (presumably Catholic) friends” while content to “settle” on something else for the diverse, pluralist society. To do this, he has to ignore my specification of “what can be legally established in a diverse, pluralist society” (emphasis added for McKenna). He has to gratuitously add “presumably Catholic” to my reference to friends. (I have many non-Catholic friends, as Mr. McKenna probably does, too, and I had no such limitation in mind.) He has to skip over my statement that even if “the most logical marker (conception)” is not realistic in our society “when it comes to the law” (emphasis again for McKenna), Catholics should nonetheless “continue to insist that unborn lives deserve protection from their beginnings.” And he has to miss the point of my praise of Catholicism’s “heritage of philosophical reasoning” as a resource for “changing the culture.”
To be perfectly clear, I believe that the church and its adherents should try to persuade everyone, Catholic and non-Catholic (although obviously the faithful above all), that human lives, from their earliest formation, deserve to develop and not be extinguished, regardless of what can be written into law.
In the same way, take my position regarding the true moral status of unborn lives, on the one hand, and my perception, on the other hand, of the ambiguity surrounding this status, particularly in early phases of fetal life, in the eyes of others. McKenna constantly blurs what I quite insistently state as my own conviction and what I state are the understandable convictions of others. He doesn’t mention my references to Orthodox Judaism or Christian thinkers who are otherwise quite countercultural. He dwells on my attention to the fetus’s sheer size and declares that I find it “hard to imagine ‘that anything so small can be the bearer of rights that would outweigh the drastic impact that its continued existence might have on the life of its mother or her family.’” No, I don’t find it hard to imagine. I simply find it easy to imagine that others find it hard to imagine. Yes, I do warn that the claim that this tiny entity should have the same moral status as an infant is “counterintuitive” and undercuts many of the analogies that prolifers regularly employ. But McKenna does not mention that I proceed to acknowledge how many once-counterintuitive aspects of reality we have come to accept. Finally he has to work himself up into a full rhetorical sweat: I recognize abortion as killing but am not “quite sure what it is killing.” I want to keep everything “as loosey-goosey as possible.” To my proposed strategy of legally protecting unborn lives “from the point where not one but a whole constellation of converging arguments and intuitions can be brought to bear,” he can only say, “Whatever that means.”
Well, I take the risk of spelling out very specifically what I, for one, think that means—eight weeks of development—and why, because this is a question of political judgment, I’m open to other ideas.
Again, to be perfectly clear, I am not concluding that all the ambiguous, puzzling, counterintuitive, or problematic elements surrounding claims about the moral status of unborn lives in their early stages cannot be overcome. In God’s good time, they may be—by some combination, as I wrote, of “philosophical argument, moral credibility gained on other issues, and communal behavior that proclaims the sanctity of life at every stage.” But I am warning that all those ambiguous, puzzling, counterintuitive, or problematic elements do not spring merely from “ignorance or dogmatism or self-interest or hard-heartedness” in the minds of “prochoice adversaries” or Church opponents but are inherent in “the situation itself.” These elements deeply affect the moral imaginations of all those people I mentioned above, people who are reluctantly pro-choice, or conflicted about abortion yet troubled by banning it, or repelled by a perception of pro-life denial of what they see as obvious complexities. Rather than speaking to the misgivings, doubts, and ambivalence about abortion felt by such people, proposing that virtually all abortion be outlawed from “the moment of conception” stiffens their resistance to reappraisal.
Finally, having imaginatively reworked my article into a proposal for a “grand bargain” between Commonweal Catholics and pro-choice activists, McKenna raises three reasons why it is a “bad bargain.” These are objections of course to what I never said, but perhaps they have at least some relevance to what I did say.
He elaborates the first two reasons with rhetorical questions. If, as I wrote, I see “no philosophical reason to depart from [my] original pro-life position” that human lives even in their earliest development should not be extinguished, why am I “departing from it now?” But I am not departing from it. What I am departing from is the assumption that this philosophical reason is so clear and forceful that, in our society and for any foreseeable future, it can win the day as a matter of law. Trying to do so, I believe, undercuts the effectiveness of the philosophical case even as a moral restraint.
McKenna’s second objection is that my argument “underestimates the dramatic significance of conception. Conception is the big bang . . . . a ‘magic moment,’ and if we . . . belittle the significance of that moment, we start down the familiar slippery slope. Why forbid the killing at eight weeks? Why forbid it at 24 weeks? . . . Why not go all the way with Kermit Gosnell?”
I have no interest in belittling the significance of conception (although growing knowledge about early development may complicate our rendering of it as a “moment”). But the problem today is not keeping from starting down the slippery slope. As I need not remind McKenna, legally we are far down that slope and morally and culturally we have already slipped a long way. The problem is working our way back up.
In that regard, although conception may be the “big bang” for McKenna and me, the burden of my article was to recognize that for many other people who are not morally insensitive or unreasonable, it is something less than that. It is precisely its “dramatic significance,” as distinguished from its moral significance, that we overestimate. We can and should continue to make the case, by reason and by witness that conception is the “big bang,” but I see no reason why we cannot and should not simultaneously say: “OK, we understand how many people may have difficulty in seeing this big bang the way we do and therefore hesitate to engrave it in the law. We would like to persuade them otherwise, especially in terms of their personal moral choices, but meanwhile can’t we at least agree that for purposes of establishing legal protection we will emphasize the accumulation of other ‘bangs’ as well—not only the genetic identity and self-directing development that begins with conception, for example, but also heartbeat, brain waves, full array of incipient organs, responsiveness, human appearance?” Wouldn’t this convergence of bangs big and little be the basis for assembling the truly commanding majority that alone—and I emphasize this—can assure any legal limits to abortion that will be both substantial and lasting? Wouldn’t freeing ourselves from the burden of urging legal coercion regarding stages of fetal life whose moral status is much less open to demonstration actually increase the likelihood that the philosophical and moral case gets a hearing?
I can imagine McKenna immediately replying “no.” Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps I should not conclude anything at all from his statement that my “proposal is futile”—given his fanciful rendering of my proposal as a grand bargain with the most doctrinaire or unthinking pro-choice Democrats. (Rehearse anti-Obama screed here.) The truth is that if I am looking for “takers” in a deal with anyone, it is among the same muddled or ambivalent middle that McKenna and many others have long recognized as critical in the abortion struggle.
Even then, his charge of futility could be right. (Of course it needs also to be measured against the possible futility of the present course.) At the Villanova conference, one respondent shrewdly noted that the kind of concerns about the moral status of the fetus so prominent in my argument were no longer even being contested but simply brushed aside by pro-choice activists, who were defining the question strictly as one of women’s agency. Point well taken, and one that makes all the more serious the tragic chasm that has opened up between the pro-life movement and the world-historical movement for women’s equality with its consequent disruption of traditional gender roles.
My response is that the approach I support, making the early stages of fetal life the focus for moral argument and persuasion and later ones for legal measures, is the very best means to get the human reality of unborn lives back into the debate. In this sense, the “heartbeat” legislation introduced by pro-lifers makes good sense, although the practical problems faced by that campaign would require another article.
If correcting McKenna’s misrepresentations—at least to the point that Human Life Review readers might go directly to my text (https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/beyond-stalemate) and judge for themselves—were my only desire, this reply would have been submitted weeks ago. What has stalled these reflections is my bafflement over what lies behind McKenna’s wildly imaginative and disparaging reconstruction of my argument. Why the acrobatics about my supposed audience? Why the inability or unwillingness to honor my distinction between advocacy for legal protection and advocacy for moral protection? Why the inability or unwillingness to recognize the difference between what I state about my own convictions and what I state about deep-seated obstacles to convincing reasonable others of those convictions?
Was my article’s wording really that cryptic or obscure? Did I accidentally trespass on McKenna’s paradigmatic distinction between Lincoln’s moral absolutism about slavery and his political pragmatism about eliminating it by mounting a treacherous argument that, even at McKenna’s first reading, looked suspiciously similar? Is this some kind of grudge match with Commonweal? Is that all it has taken to throw up this roadblock to serious discussion?
I can’t believe that there isn’t a more fundamental problem, and here is my best effort to locate it. McKenna’s own original thinking about ends and means notwithstanding, he is deeply invested in the present course of the pro-life movement. He is confident that sooner or later it will prevail. If he admits to the present stalemate, and I am not sure that he does, it is still as the prelude to eventual victory. A proposal like mine is dangerously unsettling, all the more so because it comes from a quarter he obviously distrusts.
My own viewpoint is different. Despite the success of the Catholic Church and the pro-life movement in preventing abortion from being “mainstreamed” as merely another unfortunate medical procedure with no particular moral overtones, the current stalemate is at best an ongoing failure. At worst it threatens to erode even that important achievement of keeping abortion morally “apart.” Here and there abortion opponents win a round, but for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And hard as it is for prolifers to absorb, there is a moral component to the pro-choice insistence that abortion should always remain as a resort for women in excruciating circumstances. Perhaps the stalemate, with its post-Roe status quo, will continue. Perhaps, like the conflict over same-sex marriage, it will suddenly tip. If it tips, I doubt it will tip against legal access to abortion, not unless there is a massive change in the culture.
Advocacy for same-sex marriage has succeeded because, with strong support in the cultural elites, it was built on the stories of real people describing their hopes and travails. Abortion supporters have learned that lesson. What is needed is more “coming out.” Exhibit A: the November 16 issue of New York magazine, a barometer of liberal trends if ever there was one. It featured painful stories of “my abortion,” complete with first names and photos of the women who tell them. Of course the full stories are not here; one must read between the lines, especially about the multiple abortions, to register the full toll of betrayed affection and sexual chaos. What is told is sufficiently wrenching. The sense of moral turmoil and loss is palpable, as is the ghost of the “baby,” to quote more than a few of the women. Abortion providers frequently come off badly. But the only things consistently worse than the abortions are (a) boyfriends and (b) prolifers and the restrictions they have championed. The unstated message is powerful: Abortion should be made accessible, acceptable, affordable, untraumatic, uncomplicated, uncontroversial; i.e., it should be “mainstreamed.” Why should Nicole and Dana and Mira and Heather and Charnae and Clio and Rachel and Yolanda and Monica and so many more be subject to these tortures? If such women, like the gay and lesbian members of your immediate family or circle of friends, cease to be anonymous and faceless, their cause will become all the more difficult to resist.
In sum, I do not have confidence that all Catholic prolifers need is principled persistence. They are not winning this debate, and they could yet lose decisively. I think that they should unsparingly examine the strengths and weaknesses of pro-life campaigns to date and seriously consider the wisdom of other strategies, primarily a different vision of what can be realistically accomplished by law, what must be accomplished by moral suasion and example, and the relationship between these two parallel efforts. It is true, as McKenna may worry, that any such self-critique or rethinking could rattle the troops in the field. Is the present impasse serious enough to take that risk? Or are things going well enough that it’s better to cut off any such proposals at the knees? Personally, I think that the impasse is very serious and the value of contemplating alternative approaches like mine is correspondingly high.
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—Peter Steinfels, a former religion reporter and columnist at the New York Times and founding co-director of the Fordham University Center on Religion and Culture, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (2003).