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"Abortion and the Unraveling of American Society"

Archbishop Daniel W. Kucera, O.S.B
Archbishop of Dubuque

CONTENTS

I. Speaking Out Again

II. Why Abortion Is Wrong

III. Other Views Considered

IV. Social Effects of Abortion Policy

V. The Need for Moral Education

VI. Conclusion: An Appeal

I. Speaking Out Again

Among the issues which divide our nation today, that of abortion is surely one of the most troublesome. Almost daily we hear arguments on one side or the other. Crowds demonstrate and politicians debate. Many grow weary of it all, close their ears against the torrent of words and wish the problem would just go away. In such an atmosphere, is it worthwhile to speak out one more time? Will more words make any difference?

But the problem will not go away. We must speak. In fact, the situation grows steadily worse in ways that go beyond the sad fact of abortion itself. Such an important social policy as this cannot have narrowly limited effects. The fact of widespread abortion and the attitudes it encourages have a profound impact on the moral consciousness of our society. We must face that impact and ask just what kind of society we really want. The question is especially urgent as elections approach and we determine who should be entrusted with public office.

Much has already been written from a religious and theological perspective about abortion. These reflections, rather, will focus on abortion as a cancer on American society, eating away at the values and moral principles that have sustained this country for two hundred years. First, however, it will be useful to review briefly the fundamental reasons of opposing abortion in the first place and then address the usual arguments advanced in its favor.

 

II. Why Abortion is Wrong

In the heat of debate since the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, many have lost sight of the conviction which inspired western societies to outlaw this procedure until very recent times. This historic opposition was based on a principle still held with deep sincerity by substantial numbers of American citizens: abortion is wrong because it ends the life of an innocent human being.

Philosophers and theologians, however, do not all agree that the unborn must be classified as human. The Supreme Court cited this division of opinion and concluded that it is beyond the competence of legislators or judge to settle the matter. From this lack of competence, the court drew illogical conclusions. It decided that the preborn child may be treated as non-human and went on to declare that there is actually a right to do so. Common sense, however, would dictate that what is even doubtfully human must be treated as human. Any other course ushers in a host of evil consequences. The court's decision supports the idea that human life is not a continuous reality extending from conception to death. Rather, certain standards must be fulfilled before personhood is recognized and protected by law.

Opposition to this frightening conclusion lies at the basis of all arguments against abortion. Too often, the sincerity and depth of this conviction about the personhood of the unborn is ignored when opposing arguments are put forth. As a result, most "pro-choice" statements are instances of the classic logical error called "begging the question." That which is the very point of the disagreement, whether or not the unborn child is a human person, is assumed to be settled in the negative. On the contrary, we must remember that even the Supreme Court specifically declined to settle it. Acceptance or rejection of any argument on abortion, therefore, still depends upon the answer to the basic questions: is the infant in the womb a human person?

 

III. Other Views Considered

Keeping in mind this most fundamental issue of human life, we now examine the various arguments advanced in favor of the present abortion policy. They may be grouped into several types.

 

A. Arguments About Rights

It is said that abortion is a private matter and that women have a right to that privacy. To this we respond that if the unborn is a human being, then abortion is certainly not a private matter in the sense that only the mother is concerned. It very seriously concerns the child whose life is at stake. Pregnancy is a unique moral situation. Whatever may be its burdensome aspects, they do not justify the violation of an innocent human being's inalienable right to live.

Secondly, abortion is a public matter because the policy which permits it has profound and widespread social effects. Those effects will be treated later at some length. Here it is enough to note that proponents of abortion unwittingly admit its public character when they argue the social advantages of the present policy.

Related to the question of privacy is the assertion that only the pregnant woman has the right to make the "decision." Here the fallacy of "begging the question" is clearest. If what is growing in the womb is human, there is no decision to be made, not by the mother, not by religious leaders, not by politicians, not by anyone. In these circumstances, it is beyond the moral competence of any human being to decide whether or not another shall live.

There is also much discussion of the rights of women to health services and safe medical procedures. These are unquestionable rights, not only of women but of all human beings. They are all too frequently ignored in our own country and around the world. Nevertheless, we may not morally exercise any right to the detriment of the prior rights of others. When individual rights conflict, the resolution must always be in favor of the more fundamental right. The right to life has priority over all others. Even killing in self-defense can only be justified when life itself is threatened under conditions of unjust aggression.

To put the matter in other terms, we must not do evil in order that good may come of it. Privacy, autonomous decision-making and personal health are all human goods. We have the right to pursue them and governments must provide the conditions under which they may be achieved. But to achieve them at the expense of the life of another human being is to use an evil means to accomplish a good end.

 

B. Arguments from Social Utility

The second type of argument focuses on the social advantages of present abortion practices. It is a common contradiction to insist that abortion is a thoroughly private matter and then vehemently defend its usefulness as social policy. In addition to that general comment, specific arguments of this sort merit specific objections.

One such argument asserts that we cannot in any case stop abortions. "They will be performed anyway, no matter what the law says. Why not keep them legal and safe?" Once again, the position makes sense only if we accept the opinion that a child in the womb is not human. There certainly are some behaviors which the state finds it wiser to regulate than to outlaw, even though they may cause considerable damage in society. Alcohol consumption is a case in point. But if the child in the womb is a human person, this approach is clearly unacceptable. We cannot authorize the destruction of innocent human life just because there are those who "will do it anyway." The state cannot be obliged to ensure safe access to a procedure which is destructive of a fundamental right -- a right the state is obliged to protect. Moreover, one of the purposes of law is to educate and inform the public conscience. Since laws enshrine a society's values, we do not rate their wisdom on the basis of whether or not they are universally obeyed.

Still others support abortion as a means of family limitation or population control. Again, the response is obvious. The humanity of the unborn child makes abortion an evil means for achieving these ends, which in themselves are not necessarily or absolutely good ends.

There is another opinion which holds that the abortion policy is beneficial as a means of preventing the birth of unwanted and defective children. Such a notion warrants the strongest possible condemnation. To say that it is better to terminate a child's life than to permit it to live when it may be unwanted or defective, is an argument which would be ludicrous if it were not so cruel and dangerous. It raises the frightening prospect of a society which might soon decide to "perfect" itself by culling human beings like a flock of chickens, based upon whatever qualities are currently deemed useful or fashionable. This is not unduly alarmist. Abortion is already being suggested, both here and abroad, as a means of gender-selection. Indeed, the entire "eugenic" approach leads to a very somber question: how long will it be before some contend that the only difference between a "defective" in the womb and a "defective" in an institution is that the one can be seen and the other cannot? Is society then to decide that all "unwanted" humans may be disposed of?

Still other voices are raised on behalf of the poor. It is said that we must not only keep abortion legal, we must make sure that all have access to it, even at public expense. First of all, even if abortion is held to be a right is by no means clear that governments are required to give positive assistance in the exercise of that "right" nor that those who are in conscience opposed to abortion should be forced to support it through taxation.

Also, this supposed concern for the poor is spurious. We still need to address the necessity of adequate housing, education, healthcare and jobs for millions of citizens. These problems are not solved by championing the "right" of these poor citizens to abort their children. Given the ethnic character of poverty in our nation, the position is at least unconsciously racist.

The issue of poverty brings up an another argument which is not so much a pro-abortion stance as an accusation against pro-life advocates. We are accused of being concerned only with the unborn and of ignoring the needs of those already born. Insofar as this may be true of some who champion the cause of human life it is an accusation not to be taken lightly. Those who struggle on behalf of life must examine their thinking on all social issues and strive for consistency. It is not only possible but mandatory that we be concerned for both the born and the unborn.

 

C. Political Arguments

Some opinions address not so much the abortion issue in itself as the processes involved in the attempt to influence legislation. These are political approaches, in the broad sense of the term.

We hear, for example, that it is impossible or unwise to try to legislate morality. This is simply untrue. A large proportion of the laws of any state are precisely about morality. They forbid this or that act because it is deemed immoral, that is, harmful to persons. Thus murder, theft and various forms of fraud are forbidden because they are wrong. Our claim is that abortion too should be forbidden because it is wrong, that is, harmful to persons.

Very often, when people say you can't legislate morality, they are referring to sexual morality, as if that were the only kind of morality there is. The premise is false in itself because some sexual matters, such as prostitution and pornography, are certainly within the competence of legislators. More importantly, however, the argument is beside the point because abortion is not a sexual issue. It is a matter of justice, a matter of the denial of an essential human right.

In this connection we must also keep in mind the difference between morality and legality. An act is not moral simply because the state permits it. For one thing, the state does not legislate on each and every moral issue. More to the point here, though, is the fact that the permissive laws of a state can sometimes be wrong. Slavery was an instance of this. In our day the prime example is abortion.

Another argument in the political order insists that it would be improper in a democratic society to forbid abortion because such a law would constitute the imposition of private religious views upon an entire population. It would amount to the church imposing its views on non-members. Well-meaning defenders of prenatal life sometimes attempt to counter this view by pointing out that opposition to abortion is spread throughout the population, not confined to one or another church. True as this is, it is not the most complete answer to the charge. It is far more important to deny the charge that respect for the life of the unborn is strictly a religious issue. It does not depend upon any sectarian creed.

We must keep in mind the basic contention: abortion is the killing of an innocent human being. People of all religions and of no religion agree that it is wrong to take the life of the innocent. This is a matter having to do with the ordering of a just society. Given our conviction about the humanity of the unborn, we have not only the right but also the obligation to attempt to see respect for that humanity once more enshrined in law.

Opponents will return to the offensive here and say that all this misses the point. That the embryo or fetus is human, they will say, is a religious belief. No, it isn't. That the preborn infant is human is a conviction that can be drawn from scientific fact and right reason or common sense. It is taught by some churches as a part of their general moral instruction but that does not make it a strictly religious matter, as if it were equivalent to celebrating Christmas or abstaining from meat during Lent. That life as such is to be respected, however, is indeed a tenet of most religions. This is the true explanation for the predominance of believers within the pro-life movement.

There is a more thoughtful argument of the political variety which is based upon the necessity of compromise in a pluralistic society. Since the nation is clearly and strongly divided on this issue, the argument runs, rational compromise is required. In the interest of public order, let those who think abortion is wrong refrain from it and let them give to those who think otherwise the freedom to follow their own consciences. This is the essence of the "pro-choice" approach. Some who hold in principle that abortion is immoral, nevertheless find this a reasonable and realistic solution. It is a formula which has worked well in the history of democratic societies. Unfortunately, it is not an appropriate solution in this case.

"Why not?" we are asked. "Why must you be so uncompromising, so unreasonable?" The answer is to return, tiresome though it may be, to that basic conviction about the life of the unborn child. We are not justified in compromising over the deaths of millions of innocent persons. Lesser goods might be of compromised for the sake of the political order, but not life itself. The very basis of our disagreement prevents a partial or expedient solution. We must continue to demand nothing less than full respect for all human life. Compromise is often prudent and desirable but there are matters we must "go to the wall for." If political realities prevent success, so be it. But integrity itself forbids us to abandon the struggle.

A final political approach disparages what is called "single-issue voting." In response, we may point out that single-issue voting is hardly new and hardly confined to the abortion debate. Of greater importance, though, is the fact that this issue is so fundamental and so far-reaching in its implications that it does qualify as "single." This fact will be examined in detail further on.

 

D. Arguments from Sympathy

These arguments are easily answered in view of the basic conviction about the right the unborn child to continue living. It must be admitted, however, that some of these approaches are very influential because of their emotional impact. They are often embodied in dramatic presentations which arouse great sympathy.

Nearly all these approaches could begin with the phrase, "You'd feel differently if..." That is, if you were the pregnant woman, if you were the parents, if it were your daughter if you were not a celibate clergyman etc. No one denies that one would feel the impact of the abortion issue more strongly at close quarters. Emotions do indeed play a role in our moral judgments. Moreover, the culpability of those who opt for abortion under trying circumstances may be diminished. Nevertheless, it must be repeated over and over again: we may not use the death of another to relieve our own suffering or inconvenience.

The issue of abortion demands not only emotion but a great deal of sober reflection. It is rapidly altering the very self-consciousness of our society, its attitudes and its values. We now turn to this larger social arena.

 

IV. Social Effects of Abortion Policy

What follows is highly critical of attitudes and trends in American society today. It is the duty of a Christian leader to address such issues because the Gospel we believe in commands us to be actively engaged in the search for a just and humane society on this earth. However, these are matters which concern us all, believers and unbelievers alike. It does not require religious faith to discern the many dangerous social tendencies which are fostered or reinforced by the same mentality which tolerates and approves the present abortion policy. Concern for these issues arises not from any sectarian creed but from broad principles of justice and social value.

 

A. Social Policy and Social Attitudes

Like the arguments in favor of abortion and often corresponding closely to them, these distressing tendencies may be grouped into categories. Each category will be addressed in turn. First, though, an underlying premise must be clarified. The assertion that abortion policy is related in one way or another to each of these tendencies rests upon the conviction that a social policy not only reflects but also reinforces existing attitudes and helps create new ones. These attitudes have significant effects beyond the area of individual life encompassed by the policy itself. The more important the policy, the more widespread and profound are its effects. Abortion directly touches upon sexual mores, reproduction, families and, of course, life itself. Attitudes and tendencies surrounding a policy of such gravity must certainly have repercussions throughout the entire social structure.

 

B. Individualism and Social Conscience

Americans traditionally pride themselves on being "rugged individualists." Whatever its origins, this trait has in many ways served us well. It has often been accompanied by such values as responsibility, autonomy and personal productivity. Like all human traits, however, in its extreme form it becomes a severe liability. The line between healthy individualism and self-centeredness is all too easily blurred. One consequence is the steady erosion of the sense of social responsibility. This unhappy development is evident today throughout our social structure.

Some refer to the past ten years as the "me" decade, dominated by the "me" generation. Lonely, self-centered and often violent "heroes" abound in movies and on television. A man in a TV commercial buys a new copier because, he says, he's thinking of "the most important person in my life…me." Take care of yourself, take time for yourself, are you doing enough for YOU? Popular movements, vaguely called "New Age," are elaborate methods to help us leap into "higher" states of isolated consciousness.

Further examples are superfluous. A most fitting image of our society appears in any large city in the late afternoon: thousands of cars crawling or stopped on the freeways, each containing only the driver, burning fuel, polluting the atmosphere, wrapped in frustrated isolation.

In the midst of this, civil libertarians exert great energy in the defense of individual rights. A Supreme Court Justice, now retired, once counseled activists, in view of the increasingly "conservative" complexion of the high court, to turn their attention to state constitutions as untapped sources for the extension of individual liberties, as if the entire purpose of courts and laws were to maximize individual freedom, defined as the absence of social restraint.

What is most insidious about these attitudes is that they contain such a large element of truth. We do need to take care of ourselves. Self-affirmation and a good self-image are essential. Public institutions must not be allowed to oppress the individual. Society must assure a wide range of opportunity for each member. But there is the matter of balance. Laws and institutions are established to mediate between individual rights and the public welfare. Many feel that we are rapidly losing this balance. The sense of social responsibility is in decline. Governments and institutions are thought to exist only to maximize individual advantage while the concept of the common good is ignored.

It would be foolish to assert that an abortion policy is totally responsible for this state of affairs. But thoughtful citizens must ask to what extent that policy grows out of and reinforces our almost pathological individualism. Despite all the rhetoric about health, the poor, rape and incest, it is clear that a substantial percentage of abortions are performed for reasons of personal convenience. What is at stake is often my career, my earning power, my leisure time, my material advantages. It is no accident that the "right" to abortion was found in the right to privacy. To make that dubious connection palatable, abortion advocates have contrived to slice the first few months off the continuum of human development and treat individuals in that stage as non-persons.

 

C. Attitudes to Life

It might seem at first glance that a lessening of respect for life could not be a social tendency linked to abortion since those who support that procedure reject, however mistakenly, the very idea that a human life is involved. This would be a welcome conclusion if it would bear up under close scrutiny. Unfortunately, it does not.

Consider that the rhetoric of "pro-choice" advocates studiously avoids the issue of life. Various subterfuges are used in an attempt to focus on other aspects of the debate which are proclaimed to be the "real" issues. In any argument, when one side pointedly ignores a statement which the other side repeatedly affirms, it is usually evidence of a bad conscience. It is possible that many "pro-choice" people are not really convinced of the non-human character of the unborn child. If this is so, we have a situation of massive self-deception touching on the very sacredness of human life. The willingness to act in such dubious circumstances does not speak well for the future of our nation's respect for life at any stage.

That such doubt must exist flows from the very logic of the situation. Arguments for abortion logically apply throughout the course of pregnancy. It is therefore impossible to see why the termination of a child's life just before delivery differs morally from the same act ten minutes after delivery. Does personhood magically arrive with the severance of the umbilical cord? Reason dictates that if humanity is denied at any given stage in the continuum, we are left to wonder when it does become present. Clearly, once conception has occurred, if we make human personhood dependent upon any qualifications at all, we open up chilling possibilities for the future. The import of this precedent, so thinly disguised with specious arguments, cannot be lost on the general conscience of the public.

There is yet another way in which an abortion mentality works to erode our attitudes toward life. Many of the arguments which claim to champion the poor are "quality-of-life" approaches which embody highly questionable values. Efforts to abolish the suffering caused by poverty must be applauded and supported. But sometimes we hear that if an unborn child will lack certain material advantages, it would be better to prevent that child's birth. Besides its disregard for life as such, this opinion implies that the value of a life is to be measured in material terms. By such standards we would have to conclude that millions of our fellow citizens should never have been born. What does this say about our concept of the purpose of life and our notions of human fulfillment?

This whole complex of attitudes toward life and its purposes can easily lead to programs of eugenics and euthanasia characteristic of tyrannical governments. Indeed, voices in favor of such programs are already heard in our land.

 

D. Escape from Responsibility

Increasingly, our society is encouraging dependence on other agencies as a substitute for conscientious social responsibility in the population at large. The two principal surrogates are technology and government.

Abortion is part of a whole complex of attitudes which fosters dependence upon technology to deliver us from the consequences of our own actions. We need do nothing about pollution of the environment for science will come to our rescue. We can smoke, drink, take drugs, overeat and neglect our health because medicine will take care of us. We can conduct our sex lives without thought or responsibility because when all else fails we can always abort, safely, easily and with public support.

Government, too, can be structured in such a way that it will take care of us when we might otherwise have to take responsibility for own behavior. While the weighty matters of health, education, housing and jobs are neglected, while Congress sits impotent in the face of a crushing national debt, crumbling infrastructure and a deteriorating environment, we grow daily more vociferous in our demand that government provide all of us with the means to avoid the consequences of our own self-indulgence. As such attitudes undermine social institutions we slip toward chaos. The insecurity and fear which accompany a society in chaos will inevitably produce an infantile yearning for a firmer governmental hand. Thus do chaotic societies become fertile ground for the rise of dictatorships, whether of the right or of the left. Freedom understood as unbridled indulgence gives way to that "escape from freedom" which is the pathological desire for order at all costs. Big Brother is in the wings, awaiting our call.

 

E. Political Integrity

Any critique of contemporary American politics must start with the voters. While we demand more and more of government, we refuse to get involved, fail to vote and, when we do vote, consider only our own narrow interests. Such attitudes encourage and support the deterioration of political integrity among officials and candidates.

Seeing these attitudes and wanting to keep their jobs, political candidates are tempted to turn to interest-groups, PACs, and the 20-second sound-byte. The democratic process continues to erode. Government is up for sale to the highest bidder. We look long and hard to find candidates who combine personal integrity, the desire to serve and an understanding of leadership in office. Politicians posture instead of telling the truth and the public becomes yet more cynical about it all.

Abortion policy becomes symptom and symbol of this sorry state of affairs. Good people on both sides of the issue are increasingly aware that their convictions are being cynically manipulated for the sake of votes. Of course, there are candidates and office-holders whose private convictions and public efforts coincide. Whether we agree them or not, we must at least respect these few for their integrity.

Candidates who try to have it both ways say, "I'm personally opposed to abortion but don't want to impose my view on others." The ploy is so transparent that it is amazing how effective it can be. Every such candidate for office should be subjected to one simple question: "Just exactly why are you personally opposed to abortion?" There can be only reason. The infant in the womb is a human being. If the infant in the womb is not a human person, there is no reason on earth to object to aborting it. If, then, you are "personally opposed," you must think that unborn is a human person. In the face of that conviction and in the knowledge that over a million human persons are slaughtered each year, you can only come up with a lame unwillingness to "impose your view"?

Unfortunately, the political scene in the country is becoming a vast patchwork of closed ideologies. Instead of submitting specific issues to tests of reason and compassion, people tend to accept a given "party line" its entirety. Why is it not possible, for example, to be for social welfare, peace and the environment and against abortion? For prenatal life and for the authentic liberation of women?

Here it is appropriate to pause for a word to Catholics. Why do some of us feel that if we are opposed to abortion, we must also espouse every extreme right-wing idea that comes along? And why do some of us work hard for peace, justice and liberation but strangely silent when the topic of abortion arises? Is it so important that our "liberal" or "conservative" friends find our ideological credentials without blemish? Can we not judge issues on their own merits without yielding our minds and hearts to some party line?

 

F. Media and Entertainment

On the topic of abortion, the media of social communication in our society have clearly chosen their stance. By and large, dramatists, reporters, editors, talk-show hosts and even comedians are solidly in the "prochoice" camp. This has several unfortunate results.

First of all, those who question present abortion policy find it nearly impossible to get their message effectively before the public or have it reported objectively. The editorial policy of most newspapers supports abortion. Pundits and opinion-makers rarely question the assumption that our present policies are good for society as a whole. But the matter goes far beyond editorials and opinion columns. A recent study conducted by journalists themselves concluded that, by and large the news media are indeed biased in their reporting on the abortion issue. Supposedly objective reports of meetings, debates and demonstrations are frequently slanted toward the "pro-choice" side. Even the vocabulary of journalists reveals this bias. Those who favor present abortion policies are usually called "pro-choice" while there is a consistent refusal to call their opponents "pro- life." Admittedly, using the terms "pro-abortion" and "pro-life" would indicate the opposite bias, but fairness would dictate that both groups be called by the name they themselves use. This may seem a small matter but, since the terms themselves embody an argument, it is discriminatory to accept the one and not the other. Both sides are clearly "for" one thing and "against" another and wish to be known for the positive aspects of their respective positions.

The situation is similar in the fields of drama and entertainment. Casual remarks or entire dramas may center on the anguish of pregnant women and the "injustice" of denying them the opportunity to escape their suffering through abortion. How often do we see on TV or in films a courageous choice made on behalf of the life of the preborn? How often is the physical and psychological damage of abortion honestly portrayed?

That whole wider complex of attitudes and tendencies described above is also supported and reinforced by the powerful entertainment industry of our nation. Through films, TV shows, commercials and popular songs, we are subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda which glorifies materialism and narcissism. Sex is a commodity used to help sell other commodities. Casual sex without commitment is made the norm and held up for admiration.

Many of the same people who profit from this industry then adopt a self-righteous pose and agitate for contraception and abortion as solutions to the problem of teen-age pregnancy which they themselves help foster.

All attempts to redress this situation are hamstrung by the nearly fanatical American devotion to freedom of expression. The sacredness of that concept and its necessity for a free and democratic society are undeniable. But when will we begin to seek ways to preserve that freedom and at the same time demand some social accountability from those relatively small groups which control nearly all the available means of mass communication?

Recent news stories reveal the contradictions in which we are trapped by our notions of free expression. Detailed and intricate laws ensure that not a single penny of the public treasury is used to promote religion in any way. Children in religious schools must move to "safe" public rooms for remedial reading. Only Santas and reindeer are permitted on public-school bulletin boards during "winter holidays." Yet if someone wishes to degrade human sexuality or ridicule religion and blaspheme its most sacred symbols, not only may he do so in the name of free artistic expression, he may receive a government grant to assist him. Thus, through their taxes, the very people whose most cherished beliefs he assaults are obliged to pay him to do it. Oppose this and you are denounced as favoring censorship. Perhaps we should claim that religion is only a form of artistic expression (many atheists would agree) and ask for government grants to support catechism classes!

In the face of all this, the effort to teach and promote a way of living which will be respectful of human life in all its aspects is a monumental struggle. Individuals, groups and especially churches which are engaged in that struggle are met with the fiercest resistance while their efforts are vilified and condemned. Editorials and opinion columns make sure that Americans maintain their historic fear of the power of the Church while they are lulled into complacency by the very powers which actually control their minds and hearts.

 

V. The Need for Moral Education


The topic of education might well have been placed within the preceding section on dangerous tendencies and attitudes. That our present educational system is failing in many ways is well known. That it particularly falls short in presenting values which might counterbalance the growing individualism and materialism of our society is also apparent. Nevertheless, these failures are not the focus here. It is important instead to reflect upon the potential of education for helping us find solutions to our many social ills.

 

A. Teaching Values

Questions arise about the very nature and possibility of moral education. Can we really teach moral values? How is this to be done? Whose values? How is moral education distinguished from indoctrination? Volumes have been written on such subjects. There is here no intent to present a complete theory of moral education or to endorse specific methodologies. These are matters for concerned experts. However, a few straightforward observations are in order.

It is obviously possible to teach moral values since they are in fact taught. Children are not born with such values as honesty, self-control, industry and the like. The first and best teachers of values are, of course, parents. From this it seems obvious that real-life situations, particularly in the home, provide the best environment for moral education. It is also obvious that the best teaching method is that of modeling or example. To some extent and in various ways other agencies can and do teach moral values: church, school, peers, the communications media. In fact, at certain times in a child's life, such outside agencies exercise greater influence than parents. Here too, the power of example in the midst of actual life is the most effective teacher.

These observations, brief as they are, lead directly to the realization that if society is to change and children are to be taught the value of life in all its aspects, children themselves cannot be the sole targets of such education. The educators must themselves be educated.

 

B. Whose Values?

Whose values are to be taught? Do we really know what's right and what's wrong in the midst of the confusing babble of contrary opinion nourished by our culture? First of all, this appeal to universal relativism is frequently an escape from responsibility. Yes, there are different sets of values in our society. Such differences are the basis of the disagreements detailed above at considerable length. Still, there is broad agreement on the fundamental values necessary for a good and productive life. The problem is that not even these are being effectively taught today.

What values, then, are to be emphasized? Precisely those which will effectively counter the dangerous and anti-social attitudes already described. Social responsibility and the common good over individualism and narcissism. Personal fulfillment through relationships of love and friendship rather than through consumerism and the quest for power. Commitment and devotion over transient relationships which make objects of other persons. Sex as the expression of committed love over sex as commodity or casual recreation.

For example, is it really impossible to teach the value of chastity? Many today, of course, laugh at the very notion. We are told that young people cannot be chaste. Worse by far, they themselves are told that they cannot be chaste! Contraception and abortion are put forth as the only "realistic" assistance in learning how to be responsible sexual beings. How hopeless we are as teachers of moral value! All we can do is talk about "safe sex" and pass out pills and condoms. It is likely that we adults have grown cynical with age and refuse to recognize the idealism and potential of youth when challenged in the name of authentic human values. By way of curious contrast, we are now engaged in a massive drug-education program which focuses not on "safe addiction" but on avoiding that condition in the first place. Why do we assume that our youth can say "no" to drugs but not to sexual intercourse? Do we even try to teach anything other than the mindless sexual behavior they see in films and on TV?

Similar soul-searching must take place with regard to education in all those values which support human life. Nor should we shrink from the task for fear of being accused of "indoctrination." The egregious failure of the once popular "values clarification" process should be a salutary lesson for us. The idea was to present all alternatives and leave the young to make their own choices. There was unjustified optimism that they would naturally make the "right" choices or else the frank assertion that there are no right or wrong choices. When it comes to basic human values, this approach simply will not do. There is nothing wrong with presenting alternatives while clearly pointing out those which favor human life and growth and those which do not. It is all too obvious that while teachers and parents were tip-toeing around the issues, "clarifying" values and avoiding "indoctrination," the producers of films, songs and TV shows had no such scruples. In the end, it is not a question of indoctrinating or not indoctrinating. It is only a question of who will do it.

 

C. Who Teaches, Who Learns?

The first recipients of a more effective moral education must be the members of those very organizations and churches which claim to be pro- life. It can hardly be said that the citizens are free of the excessive individualism, consumerism and irresponsibility so increasingly characteristic of the rest of our society. Very much to the point here is the sad fact that the abortion rate among Catholics is at least as high as it is in the general population. It is imperative that teachers, preachers and parents begin to take a resolute stand against all those attitudes which militate against human life and for all those authentic human values which are so much in danger within the ranks of our own membership. Only when we are seen to be making an honest effort to live up to our own values can we credibly address the moral education of the rest of our society.

When we do attempt to help the larger society establish its pro-life values on a firmer basis, we must still recall that the best method for moral education is example. We must at every opportunity speak out on behalf of human life but we must see to it that our own behavior matches our words. Then let our words flow from calm conviction and from love for our opponents as well as for human beings at all stages of growth.

Armed only with the courage of our convictions, we must confront our nation wit the example of a people dedicated to the promotion of authentic human values while with our minds and voices we continue to follow the advice given to Timothy long ago: "Be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching." (2 Tim. 4:2)

 

VI. Conclusion: An Appeal

Our struggle against the practice of abortion as such must continue, but that is not nearly enough. If abortion policy expresses and reinforces a whole complex of perilous social trends, we must take a resolute stand against them all. It will not do for Christians to oppose this or that aspect of a sick society while endorsing and lending their supports to others.

Broad tendencies require broad remedies. We are called today to nothing less than a counter-cultural revolution. We need individuals and large groups of Christians who will speak out and, above all, live out a consistent ethic opposed to all destructive social tendencies. We must join together to discuss these issues and to support one another in the construction of thoroughly pro-life ways of thinking and behaving. Our very lifestyle must become a radical rejection of self-centeredness, hypocrisy and consumerism.

Historians have noted that the Christian Church seems to flourish in times of persecution, when its members draw together in solidarity against implacable foes. By contrast, when the Church is unopposed or even wielding political power, zeal and devotion grow cold. The present and future struggle for a truly human society promises to be a campaign worthy of our greatest efforts. If we can be faithful to life in the midst of this struggle, history may well rate these times among the Church's finest hours.

A final word to my fellow Catholics. Or ancestors were able to develop and pass on their faith because our country provided them freedom of religion. Now that we have achieved a mature and important status in American society, is it not time to repay the debt? Our gift of gratitude might well be the help we can give in rekindling the moral and spiritual values under which this republic can continue to flourish.

God save the United States of America.

Other Teachings of the Magisterium on Abortion

Priests for Life
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