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Avoiding Ethical and Social Conflict About Access to Abortion Care: A Note on Catholic Social Teaching Scholarship from the U.S.A.

Last Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed nearly 50 years of legal precedent by ruling that there is no constitutionally guaranteed formal right to obtain an abortion. In its ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the high court decided that creation and restriction of legal rights pertaining to abortion access will be returned to the jurisdictions of individual states, as had been the country’s legal norm prior to the court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.  By contrast, in Roe v. Wade and in subsequent high court rulings like Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the country’s high court upheld a constitutional right to obtain an abortion while declaring that no state may constitutionally protect the life of a human fetus before “viability,” the time around 24 weeks of gestation after which a fetus may be able to survive outside the womb.  However, on Friday, a majority of judges on the current nine-member court determined that majorities of judges previously constituting this same high court had, over the past five decades, incorrectly interpreted and applied the U.S. Constitution and the country’s evolving legal precedents established by judicial rulings (“common law”).

Legal considerations aside, the effect of this high court ruling will be extensive restrictions on access to abortion care across much of the U.S.A., particularly in U.S. states that are governed and legislatively controlled by the Republican Party.[1]  For example, the court’s decision upholds the legal permissibility of a 2018 law passed by the state of Mississippi to generally prohibit abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy, except “in a medical emergency or in the case of a severe fetal abnormality” (Miss. Code Ann. §41–41–191).  Moreover, though the high court’s majority decision is framed as a victory for democracy, its decision to return abortion rights to “the people’s elected representatives” at the state level comes while effective access to electoral participation is under attack in Republican-controlled states and by many Republican-appointed state and federal judges.[2]

Yesterday, U.S. President Joseph Biden, himself a practicing Catholic and the leader of the Democratic Party, was asked by a journalist to address concerns expressed by heads of state among NATO allied countries, following comments by several who viewed the court’s decision as socially regressive and a blow to women’s fundamental rights.  Biden responded, “The one thing that has been destabilizing is the outrageous behavior of the Supreme Court of the United States and overruling, not only Roe v. Wade, but essentially challenging the right to privacy. We’ve been a leader in the world in terms of personal rights, and privacy rights, and it is a mistake, in my view, for the Supreme Court to do what it did.”  Biden’s focus on rights and global leadership reminds us that abortion is a reality not only rife with important ethical questions pertaining to personal character development and decision-making, but also for civil law and social policy.  Further, Biden underscores that how a country responds to the ethics of abortion care, as issues of law and policy, has implications for a wide array of social concerns.

Surprisingly, a review of the indices of most popular texts about Catholic social teaching written from the U.S. context, whether introductory texts or extended commentaries on CST, indicates that rights and restrictions on abortion care do not receive much analysis.[3]  How can this be, in a country (and church) so preoccupied with and polarized by the politics of abortion?  After all, abortion has been a defining feature of partisan electoral divisions in the U.S.A. since Roe v. Wade, while condemning and restricting access to abortion has been a major focus of the social ministry and political activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.[4]  For me, several questions emerge with regard to prominent Catholic social ethicists (especially men) failing to analyze and critique CST frequently and forcefully within scholarly and popular texts about CST, with regard to reproductive justice in general and access to abortion care in particular:

  • Are prominent Catholic social ethicists from the U.S.A. in silent (though perhaps uncomfortable) agreement with the USCCB’s ethical arguments and level of investment in restricting abortion access, even in cases of grave medical, psychological, and familial need?
  • Have prominent Catholic social ethicists mistakenly believed that there were not credible threats to physical and mental health, reproductive autonomy, medical privacy, and family stability that might warrant more concerted engagement with CST on the topic of abortion access?
  • Might the fact that white men overwhelmingly publish the major introductions and commentaries about CST factor into this silence? This question merits consideration because white men in the U.S.A. are the class of people who most strongly support restrictions on abortion access, who benefit personally or politically from forced birth, and/or who are least harmed by this forced labor.
  • Do prominent Catholic social ethicists sympathetic to abortion rights nevertheless avoid extensive analysis of abortion as a rhetorical tactic to counterbalance perceived episcopal overemphasis on abortion? Has this relative silence proven effective in countering endless claims by Catholic officials and some Catholic scholars that criminalizing abortion ought to be a primary or “non-negotiable” concern for Catholic political practice?
  • Do prominent Catholic social ethicists wish to situate their own ethical visions and priorities firmly within the Catholic tradition, even if this requires downplaying politically salient ethical disagreement with official church teaching? Such downplaying of abortion in CST analyses often requires defining the abortion question “beyond the scope” of Catholic social teaching. However, the average Catholic or member of the public does not easily recognize subtle academic distinctions that might define abortion as a topic beyond the narrow scope of “modern Catholic social teaching.”
  • Do prominent Catholic social ethicists opt for silence due to fear of punitive disciplinary actions by Catholic bishops, or to remain on good terms with Catholic officials and organizational leaders with whom they may collaborate on other important social issues? Whose lives are most injured by this prudential decision for silence?
  • Are prominent Catholic social ethicists who are men uncomfortable writing about “women’s issues,” thereby forcing the crucial labor of defending reproductive justice onto women and genderqueer/nonbinary colleagues?

I raise these challenging questions in a spirit of collective discernment, and with an admission that I myself have not previously published any defense of abortion access in an academic or ecclesial publication.

Finally, contextualizing abortion within U.S. racial politics warrants consideration, in light of longstanding failures of Catholic social teaching and Catholic academic scholarship to sustain struggles for racial justice, as demonstrated in Bryan Massingale’s Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (2010).  In the U.S.A., the broad and influential movement knows as the “Religious Right” or “Christian Right” (as in right-wing politics) came to prominence in its fight against racial desegregation and civil rights in the 1960s and 1970s.  As right-wing evangelical Christians repeated failed in their efforts to preserve the country’s racial hierarchy, amid the evolving racial politics of the Cold War era, their movement shifted its attention to ending abortion access and sought to incorporate support from white Catholics and other sympathetic groups.[5]  Decades later, this movement has consolidated its influence within the Republican Party, and has achieved two primary political goals by securing a like-minded majority on the U.S. Supreme Court and now by ending the constitutionally guaranteed right to obtain an abortion.  Though the Religious Right sought to downplay its earlier and explicit advocacy of systemic racial oppression, its shift toward dismantling abortion access nevertheless expressed its “demographic anxiety” and preoccupation with managing birth and migration rates with an eye to racial demography.[6]  In her book, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (2015), Kelly Brown Douglas details this essential feature of demographic anxiety among white supremacist social architects since the founding of the U.S. settler state.  Amid the racial justice advances of the Cold War era, the Religious Right regarded access to abortion as a threat to future white Anglo dominance in a desegregated and demographically diversifying country.  This view relied upon white people racializing the majority of fetuses aborted in the country as they racialized themselves–as “white”—and developing new strategies to protect against that which represented an existential threat to the identity of the U.S.A., “their” country.

As social ethicists in the U.S. context (and beyond), we must continue to consider the ethics of abortion law and policy in relation to parental and familial wellbeing, reproductive autonomy, and the moral status of human embryos and fetuses.  However, we must also learn to assess these legal and policy questions by analyzing social realities like gendered economic disparities and racial oppression.  This requires more than applying “ethic of life” principles consistently to different “life issues.”  We must go further by analyzing the complex and evolving intersections of social conditions that diminish and destroy life in uniquely gendered, classed, and racially disparate ways.[7]  For example, by attending to intersecting oppressions in the U.S.A., we can more adequately understand connections between seemingly opposed realities like working class women of color (and their families) suffering greater harm and disproportionate vulnerability (relative to their population numbers) from restricted abortion access, even while white women are being forced in a greater aggregate number to bear the demographic futures designed by racist right-wing social architects.  Further, when we attend to the intersections of systemic oppression and other assaults on life, we can connect the dots between realities that elite social architects prefer to narrate as “separate issues” and “negotiable vs. non-negotiable issues.”  We are able to see how the harms of severely restricting abortion access are linked to costly and lethal decades-long militarization of U.S. borders, and undergirded by an increasingly mainstream and lethal “Great Replacement” theory that amplifies white racial paranoia and gun violence.[8]

[1] Bui, Quoctrung, Claire Cain Miller, and Margot Sanger-Katz. “How Abortion Bans Will Ripple across America.” The New York Times, June 24, 2022. The Upshot.§ion=The+Upshot.

[2] “Uncounted: The Crisis of Voter Suppression in America | Brennan Center for Justice.” Accessed July 1, 2022.

[3] For a collection of texts on abortion, reproductive justice, and the Catholic Church published in other genres, see the working bibliography generously compiled by Catholic theological ethicist Emily Reimer-Barry titled, “Working Bibliography: Abortion, Reproductive Justice, and the Catholic Church (Interdisciplinary) | Catholic Moral Theology.” n.d. Accessed July 1, 2022.

[4] “Pro-Life Activities | USCCB.” Accessed July 1, 2022.

[5] Edsall, Thomas B. “Abortion Has Never Been Just about Abortion.” The New York Times, September 15, 2021. Opinion.

[6] DiBranco, Alex. “The Long History of the Anti-Abortion Movement’s Links to White Supremacists.” The Nation, February 5, 2020.

[7] For a helpful introduction to “intersectionality” or the theorizing of intersecting oppressions see Crenshaw, Kimberlé. On Intersectionality: Essential Writings. New York: New Press, 2017.

[8] “Great Replacement” theory is a set of ideas that posit a conspiracy to bring nonwhite individuals into the United States and other so-called “Western” countries to replace white voters and thereby achieve political aims. This view is increasingly disseminated on right-wing political commentary networks like Fox News and One America News Network.  See Jones, Dustin. 2022. “What Is the ‘Great Replacement’ and How Is It Tied to the Buffalo Shooting Suspect?” NPR, May 16, 2022.  See also “Reality Check: ‘Great Replacement’ Theory’s Growing Body Count – CNN Video.” Accessed July 1, 2022.

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