The highly antagonized debate over abortion in America has found its principal focus on a question of law.

The central question now is this: Shall we have legal barriers that protect the unborn by restraining their mothers’ freedom to abort? But both prolife and prochoice advocates may be seriously misled. Abortion is one of those issues that will never be resolved by law.

Let me make it immediately clear that I wholeheartedly respect and support the prolife movement’s attempt to alter our present abortion laws. At the same time, I believe prolife Christians need to consider more deeply some other necessary changes. The nation’s behavior concerning abortion is a matter of attitude and character, not simply laws.

A practice that is presently engaged in each year by a million and a half women—as is abortion—is not likely to be stopped by a statute. We Christians need to understand why we welcome children, and then we must practice that welcoming in such a way that others, too, will welcome children.

We need also to understand why persons seek abortions and how we can graciously lead them to turn away from abortion.

Abortion And Character

Professionally administered public opinion polls have surveyed the mind of the American nation on the issue from the early 1960s until the present. A decisive majority of the adult American public has persistently believed that abortion should be a crime, with two exceptions: to protect a mother from death or severe injury to her physical health, and when pregnancy has resulted from incest or rape.

A recent round of polls shows that the current law, which has never enjoyed the agreement of more than about 25 percent of the public, is currently unacceptable to the views of 79 percent of those surveyed.

I take it that in the long run the law will follow the rails of public consensus. If and when the matter of abortion is once again released to the political process, and the resulting new laws conform to public opinion as it has been consistently expressed, then abortion will be legally permissible in only about 1 or 2 percent of the millions of cases recorded each year in the United States.

But what exactly will be the effect of such a change in the law? There would surely be a reduction in the body count. Estimates vary enormously about how many abortions were performed before legalization. My own estimate, after repeated study of the documentation, is that abortions have increased approximately three to five times over since Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton in 1973. The coercive force of a restored law would persuade some women to carry their children to term.

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Also, the public debate has raised the issue in people’s consciences as it had not been raised before, and this could deter some women who previously might have sought abortions.

On the other hand, the effect of public permissibility during the years since legalization, and the easy availability of abortion during that time, plus the technical and medical developments that make it a brief and relatively safe procedure for the mother, would all pull in a contrary direction. They would combine to motivate more women than before 1973 to resist the law and have an abortion anyway. I would reckon, then, that the net result of recriminalization might be the salvage of nearly 1 million American infants each year. And that is a result of formidable proportions.

But is it enough? A restoration of legal protection for the unborn might do very little to reach and change the sources that motivate so many women and men today to eliminate their unborn offspring.

Life Expectations

A first motive has been highlighted by California social scientist Kristin Luker. She conducted a series of lengthy interviews with committed activists on either side of the controversy. One of the most salient differences she observed was that prochoice activists expected life not to deal them an unjust hand, and that they must not be expected to carry unwanted burdens too long. The prolife activists, in contrast, understood some hardship as written into the script of life. They saw suffering—even chronic suffering—as something we have no right to expect to avoid or evade by choice.

One of the sources of the widespread readiness to relieve oneself of an unwanted child is precisely an anger at being trapped. The attitude goes beyond the issue of childbearing. As Luker noted, Americans today tend to believe that suffering is something we should not have to endure, whether it be a migraine headache or Parkinson’s disease or an unsatisfactory school board. We expect, more and more, the right to get our way. It may be no coincidence that the profession we turn to for the surest relief is the same profession that staffs abortion clinics.

Christians should respond in a Christian character to the suggestion that the burdensome—whether those unborn or those near the end of a long life—be eliminated. It is our traditional belief that the more helpless someone is, the more we need to help her. The worst crimes or sins are the ones with the most helpless victims. That, however, is not the perspective of the growing readiness today to terminate the lives of the chronically ill or to extinguish the lives of handicapped infants.

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The argument being made consistently for both of these victim groups is that they count for little and that the taxpayer ought to mourn their passing with short sorrow. This is an attitude of soul that the law, by itself, can do little to heal.

Loyalty To Kin

Another motivating attitude associated with the willingness to abort is a readiness to set aside kinship loyalty. The Christian tradition has invited men and women to cleave to one another, for better or for worse, until death. The bond between spouses has been understood as similar to that between parents and children: a tenacious attachment that would forfeit self-satisfaction for the benefit of one’s kinfolk. But many abortion decisions represent a backing away from—and, in quite a few instances, a renunciation of—that kinship bond. A change in the law would do little to touch those sources, those motivations, those deep roots of rejection of the unborn child.

What we need is an insurrection of consciences. We need the startling example of fathers and mothers who nourish their young at high cost. We need a religiously inspired alliance of women and men who know that love of the helpless cannot be coerced but is worthwhile.

Christians believe there is nothing better to do with our lives than to foster life. We are persuaded that we grow precisely by enhancing the growth of others: in particular, those who have most need of us.

Every time you visit a household peopled by children, you are struck by how the children have grown. One is tempted to annoy the children by remarking, “Oh, Rachel, how tall you are!” or “How Bobby has grown!” The fact is, however, that the parents are growing at an even faster rate than the youngsters. We grow by affording growth to others. We have a need to be burdened by people we did not want: boat people, children, ethnic strangers. Our life is drawn out to full measure precisely by having to accommodate ourselves to the uncontrollable needs of others to whom we are committed.

The prochoice movement has echoed the unfortunate priority of our culture: that one always has a right to freedom of choice. The Christian tradition, which fastens its attention more on needs than on choice, finds it amusing that anyone should identify freedom of choice with parenting. What could be a worse warrant for child rearing than an insistence on getting just what you want? What could set you up for a bigger fall than to expect your child to satisfy your roster of hopes? Children exist to destroy hopes—and then to replace them with enhanced hopes.

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If the Christian Scriptures set us up for anything, it is that the Lord does not busy himself to provide us with what we want or expect. He does not answer the questions we ask. For our questions, like our hopes, are too puny, too nearsighted. He ignores them and answers larger questions we never thought to ask. He provides us with things beyond our hopes. Often enough these involve our giving our lives to our neighbors, and the neighbors often enough turn out to be the most unexpected and, frankly, unwelcome people.

The attitudes that cause us to be so reluctant to open our lives to risk and jeopardy by welcoming children, who by their nature arrive without our knowing in advance what claims they will put upon us with their needs—these attitudes are what give us life and growth. Children are the quintessential strangers.

Certainly we should struggle to change the nation’s laws on abortion. But we must also invite men and women into the generosity of character that will induce them to offer a sacrificial welcome for children. This is a quality of character without which we may not find it possible to grow out of our native selfishness into love.

Victims Exploiting Victims

Christians have a perspective all their own in which to see a need for a reform of law and an arousal of conscience on behalf of the unborn. For they have grounds for believing that the perpetrators of this crime are themselves its most costly victims. How often it is that some helpless group is savaged by aggressors who have themselves become victims. They are survivors of outrage, and they now seek to relieve their stress and suffering by turning on others who are weaker still: victims exploiting victims.

Who are those who want to close our gates against the impoverished and threatened refugees? They are those groups who have long been trampled underfoot by our economy, and who fear new rivals just as they glimpse for themselves a hope for betterment and security: victims pushing aside victims.

What is the background of parents who abuse and batter their children? Theirs was a childhood of violence, incest, contempt: victims lashing out at victims. And who are aborting their daughters and sons today? They are women and men who are alienated, abused, poor, who are at a loss to manage their own lives or intimacies: victims destroyed, destroying victims.

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Hate them—hate any of these victimizes—and you are simply cheering on the cycle of abuse and violence. Suppress your rage well enough to look closely and humanely at drug dealers, at rapists, at pathological prison guards, and you may see it there too: the same pathetic look of the battered spirit, wantonly preying on others.

Women who are desperate or autistic enough to destroy their children are among society’s most abused victims. We owe them every help. But a truly compassionate support could never invite them to assuage their own anger by exterminating those more helpless still. It is by breaking the savage cycle of violence that victimization is laid to rest.

When you grasp the uplifted hand to prevent one injured person from striking out at another, you must do so in love, not in anger, for you are asking that person to absorb suffering rather than pass it on to another. And, to be a peacemaker, you must be as ready to sustain as you are to restrain. This far exceeds the work of law and the warrant of justice. You must be more than just to accept injustice and yet deal out justice.

So, while I shall be a resolute ally of those who advocate the reversal of Wade and Bolton, I would also expect them to be the creators of a far more intelligent and far more profound moral discourse than our country has yet enjoyed, and to transform the level of debate as it is carried on in the public forum.

The law by itself is unable to accomplish what the lawmakers have in mind. A transformation of minds, a somersault of values, is needed. The prospect, for those of us who fear we shall destroy ourselves if we stand by and acquiesce in the extermination of the young, is daunting.

We must support the just and dutiful application of coercive power by those who rule. But our firmest reliance must fasten upon the courageous appeal of those whose duty it is to preach. And it is the duty of all Christians, without exception, to preach a welcome for the helpless.

Fr. James T. Burtchaell is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. His books include the acclaimed Rachel Weeping (Harper & Row, 1982) and For Better, For Worse (Paulist Press, 1985). This article is adapted from a speech delivered at a forum sponsored by Americans United for Life.

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Justice Without Conscience Is Dead

Consider a few of the grave frustrations that are usually visited upon any conscientious person who accepts responsibility for the formulation and enforcement of the civil law.

The first frustration is that law cannot reach the roots of civil disorder. What drives a serial killer, draws people to abuse their children, or spawns rape—that pathetic and predatory act of violence? We know only that the sanctions of criminal justice cannot remedy those deep troubles within the human character. The law gives access only to symptoms of disorder, not to the sickness. One’s most urgent efforts in the field of criminal law are sandbag levees against the flood, always likely to wash away at the next mighty surge.

A second frustration is that even when effectively enforced, law’s power to deter is so limited. Interestingly, one of the crimes that most often leads to the sentencing of an offender is murder. About 25 percent of all reported murders in the U.S. actually lead to the conviction of an adult offender. The percentages go down from there. The figure for forcible rape is 16 percent; for theft, 6 percent.

For the responsible administrator of the law, it must be disheartening to see that despite responsible effort, one cannot claim these serious crimes are actually being repressed.

A third frustration is peculiar to our form of government: democracy presumes selfishness, yet requires altruism without being able to provide it. We cannot live together in a free community unless we are willing to inconvenience ourselves for the common good. There can be no peace if we merely coexist as aloof strangers, each one out for his or her own survival. There will be times when each of us could not survive without the readiness of our neighbor to extend himself or herself and help us, to sustain us when we falter, to hold us up to standards when we would otherwise defect.

And yet everything about our laws seems to assume that the average citizen cannot be relied on to forfeit much of his or her own convenience if a neighbor is in the lurch. Merely to observe the criminal law one must be possessed of generosity and social responsibility; yet the law, if it has the bite necessary to do much good, cannot assume good will. It relentlessly demands minimal performance, whatever one’s disposition to care for others.

Fourth, and last, the law seems to require religious conviction as its nearest ally, yet in our democratic tradition has turned its back on faith and faith’s commitments. It is only when people’s hearts and minds are touched and they undergo moral conversion that they can find the motivation to observe the law. And the major force for moral conversion is usually the example and the appeal of a religious community.

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Take, for instance, the progress of civil rights in our country. There were many legal milestones in our faltering journey towards justice for blacks. But is it not truer to say that the great markers along the road were moral and religious ones? The Quakers and the Christian abolitionists in the early nineteenth century accomplished what Jefferson and Madison had not the nerve to do. Martin Luther King, Jr., had an effect upon the nation that went beyond what Abraham Lincoln achieved. There must be religious people still to come who will bring to fruition the legal changes sponsored by Lyndon Johnson.

Sometimes the conscience moves before the law does. Sometimes the conscience is slow to keep up with the law. But without conscience, justice will never be a plentiful yield from just laws. Law does not produce law’s own purpose, which is peace through justice. For justice is a disposition of character, and the law cannot govern character.

The law will always fail if it is unsustained by the common conscience. But that is no reason for repealing the unsuccessful law, because the law has a further purpose: not to transform people, but to declare and disavow publicly what we commonly believe to be unfair or damaging. Laws are part of our public profession of justice. They are what we, as a people, are willing to promise out loud to one another. You probably cannot tell the moral character of a people by reading their laws. But you can learn something about a people’s character by observing what laws they lack.

By James T. Burtchaell.

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