I never believed the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade. As a Catholic and a lawyer, I felt the decision was fortified by legal precedent, and that even Catholic justices would hesitate to dispatch it for that reason. When news broke on Tuesday that a preliminary Supreme Court opinion portended the end of Roe v. Wade, I was astonished and, like many other Catholic women, I experienced mixed feelings.
Jennifer Worth, the devout Christian whose memoirs served as the basis for the BBC series Call the Midwife, worked for years as a midwife in the impoverished East End of post-World War II London. While Worth was strongly opposed to euthanasia, she said of abortion, “I did not regard it as a moral issue, but as a medical issue. A minority of women will always want an abortion. Therefore it must be done properly.” Indeed, Worth witnessed the consequences of legal restrictions on abortion—women with eight or nine children who nearly hemorrhaged to death after attempting at-home abortions, for example, or young women who attempted home abortions, then had emergency hysterectomies–and risked imprisonment–after being seduced by predatory men. As a woman and as a Christian, I cannot ignore Worth’s perspective.
It’s not only Jennifer Worth who influenced my opinions. A favorite law school professor—who was among the first female law clerks on the Supreme Court—concluded one of my Constitutional law classes by describing how a friend in her undergraduate dormitory woke her up, saying a girl was bleeding to death in the bathroom after performing an abortion on herself, and nobody knew what to do. My professor, who was known as a leader among her peers even then, risked being expelled from school by driving this young woman to the hospital. If it were not for the discretion of the doctors there, both the young woman who nearly bled to death and my law professor could have faced prosecution. My professor’s lived experience affected my perspective on abortion more than any theoretical precepts could.
And yet I am Catholic, and the position of the Catholic Church on abortion is not negotiable. The Church position on abortion is a piece of a comprehensive whole-life ethic that protects human life from natural conception and natural death. While this pro-life ethic has extensive consequences for Catholics, it’s eminently reasonable, and it justifies many of the Church’s other teachings, including its positions on chastity, in-vitro fertilization, and contraception. Catholics are defined—and always have been—by their radical commitment to the sanctity of human life. I’ve tried rejecting the Church’s staunch moral opposition to abortion while accepting the other teachings of the magisterium, but it’s logically untenable. The Church position on abortion is core to the faith, and it informs many other aspects of Catholicism.
So how to reconcile the lived experience of my heroes with the teachings of the Church I love? The recent news about Roe has forced me to try.
I have concluded that, while I agree with stronger legal limitations on abortion than Roe permits, I cannot celebrate the end of Roe because our culture denigrates parenthood and treats healthcare as a luxury good. As many others have stated, wealthy women will never want for abortions. If necessary, they will travel to obtain them. Any ban on abortion will effectively present a financial rather than total bar to the procedure. It is also true that Margaret Sanger and other prominent abortion proponents encouraged abortion for eugenic purposes, lending the institution of American abortion a terrible legacy. Nevertheless, the fact this development will mostly affect the poor and vulnerable should trouble every Catholic mind.
A priest on the Call the Midwife television series said to a young, fictionalized Jennifer Worth, “Poverty isn't bad housing, dirty clothing, families of ten…It's never having been loved, or even respected. Not knowing the difference between love and abuse, a kiss that wasn't down payment on a blow.”
Now that Roe may end, it is time for all of us to consider the weight of those words–and the weight of our responsibilities in light of them.