Rev. Christopher Steck, S.J., is an associate professor and department chair in the Department of Theology at Georgetown University, as well as a Jesuit-in-Residence in New South Hall. Before joining the Jesuits in 1983 he worked as a design engineer for Texas Instruments. He writes on theoretical issues in Catholic moral theology.
Being pro-life, especially when that life is powerless and marginalized, is fundamental to the Catholic moral vision. It is also a commitment very much in tune with the deepest instincts of a socially progressive worldview.
I believe that three of the instincts guiding a progressive worldview challenge the dominant pro-choice view of progressives: an awareness of historical strategies to justify oppression, empathy for the suffering of the oppressed other, and a belief that socially-instituted responses can help lessen their suffering.
Progressives recognize how deceptive strategies have been wielded historically to limit the moral demands made on us, especially by the ‘other’—the person who is different from us, made different by the divides of race, gender, sexual orientation, culture, nationality, or religion. We re-narrate the other into someone or something who no longer challenges our behavior or stings our conscience. The recent demonization of immigrants is just one example of re-narrating the other in order to absolve ourselves of responsibilities.
The instinct to empathize with the other helps us pierce through these self-serving distortions and see the other on his or her own terms, not through some imposed narrative. It is an instinct that has given liberals a keen awareness of the plight of suffering humanity and a deep motivation to respond to it.
Finally, for the social progressive, addressing these problems requires social safety nets and legal protections. I am generally sympathetic with those forms of redress; it is why I associate with that rare species, the “whole life” wing of the Democratic Party.
It is not too surprising that social progressives have embraced the pro-choice position. The empathetic instinct that has always helped in recognizing the anguished suffering of others naturally turned to the horrors experienced by many pregnant women as they found themselves abandoned into a socially imposed demonization, re-narrated into irresponsible and self-indulgent agents of their own problems. It does not help that some anti-abortionists have cloaked themselves in religious self-righteousness while doing little to ease the heavy burden borne by these women—witness pro-lifers who are merely “pro-birth” with no offer of social assistance for struggling mothers.
However, when it comes to abortion, the instincts that otherwise guide the progressive outlook are only allowed to challenge one side of our society’s self-exculpating narratives.
Empathy should also help us pierce the self-serving stories that our culture uses to obscure the unborn, so that we genuinely can see, scientifically and morally, the unborn—the astoundingly new genetic life that appears in that first moment, the brain waves at 40 days, the heart pumping blood at six weeks, the hands moving at eight weeks, the instinct to grab at nine weeks. The strategy to justify and defend the oppression of the other almost always entails some form of subjective erasure—some way of socially obscuring the other through strategies of de-humanizing the oppressed, demonizing the victim, and re-narrating the conflict in ways that transform us into agents of goodness and order. We see those strategies operating in responses to the unborn.
The liberal instinct to find social, governmental, and legal solutions to situations of suffering also has limits. The commitment to all life often entails significant and undeserved burdens, falling unevenly on individuals and distributed unfairly among them. The intense bonds of family life make individuals particularly vulnerable to hardships—think, for example, of families caring for developmentally challenged kids. Some instances of good people suffering through underserved plights can only be ameliorated, not be eliminated. The genuinely “pro-human” stance entails social and personal consequences that are often costly, perhaps more so than we want to acknowledge.Government support should be made available to soften those hardships, but it will never completely eliminate them.
We all wish for a deus ex machina solution to tragic burdens, and some believe they have found it in abortion rights. The challenges of pregnancy are distinctive, of course, in that the link between the unborn child and mother is more immediate and inflexible than that of any other parenting relationship. However, I do not believe that the distinctive inflexibility of that connection changes the rights of unborn human lives or our responsibilities to them.
Good and intelligent people disagree on the morality of abortion. What a lot of us do agree on is an advocacy for compassion, guided by empathy for all those who bear the human countenance, especially when inconvenient, powerless, voiceless, and burdensome. My hope is that these commitments can become a common ground for dialogue.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This blog post is a revised version of an article originally published in the Hoya.