Trying to discuss the heart-wrenching realities of abortion can be complicated and confusing. The simple binary of pro- or anti- doesn’t always help. In fact, a Vox poll showed that 38 percent of Americans identified as neither pro-life nor pro-choice. A lot of us struggle to weigh the moral issues at stake in abortion, in part because there’s suffering on all sides of the issue.
It can be difficult to find common ground with anyone who holds different convictions about abortion. But here are some points that might help people on all sides of the debate find some common ground.
1. Reduce the impacts of poverty.
A 2005 study funded by the Guttmacher Institute, a research institution that’s been studying reproductive health since 1968, showed that more than 70 percent of women seeking abortion do so because they cannot afford to raise another child.
In that 2005 Guttmacher study, nearly half of women said their reason for getting an abortion was because they did not want to be a single mother. While it takes two to conceive, the presence of a partner isn’t necessarily guaranteed throughout pregnancy and raising a child.
Other studies show that nearly two-thirds of the women seeking abortions are in low-income households; nearly half are living under the poverty line.
If we believe children are a blessing, we have to also account for the fact that one’s economic status shapes the way this blessing is received. The numbers — along with women’s stories — show that the demand for abortion is often fueled by economic desperation. If we want to speak meaningfully about abortion, we need to discuss its context. For too many women, its context is poverty.
2. Advocate for women’s well-being in the world.
“To a great extent, the level of any civilization is the level of its womanhood,” said Archbishop Fulton Sheen.
If that’s the case, our American society isn’t looking so hot. Maternal mortality rates are three times higher here than those of other North American or European countries; rates of preventable female deaths are twice as high. Black women in the United States are 243 percent more likely to die of complications due to pregnancy or childbirth than white women.
Despite the advances in women’s rights, men still control the lion’s share of political and financial power. Women only make up a quarter of congressional representatives. More women are going to college, but they’re still not breaking through into positions of institutional leadership in medical schools, universities, and C-suite positions.
One of the reasons for this gap is that the job markets are poorly structured to accommodate women. For example, the United States is one of only three member nations in the United Nations that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave by federal law.
Furthermore, we’re seeing an ongoing epidemic of violence against women. One in six women experience stalking; one in five experience sexual assault or rape. And every day, three women are murdered at the hands of a domestic partner.
I edited an informal social media survey of readers at FemCatholic, and results showed that most respondents had negative experiences in sex education — and they’re not alone. Sex education in the United States has been stymied by political lobbying and has left many women feeling ashamed of their bodies and confused about their anatomy.
Sex education has real-world impact. The United States has the highest rates of teen pregnancies among other countries of similar economic development. Researchers attribute some of these pregnancies to the lack of sex education programs throughout the country. And even when sex education is available in schools, as the FemCatholic readers pointed out, it’s often shame-based, confusing, and incomplete. They reported that the focus of sexual education is often on male anatomy and bodily function — women’s bodies are a sidenote.
Our nation falls short of valuing women and protecting them accordingly, from explicit violence against them to the subtle, persistent violence of making their bodies invisible or an afterthought. Women deserve more power in the social institutions that affect their lives.
3. Build strong communities.
Capitalism fractures community. Instead of shopping in our neighborhoods, we order goods on Amazon. Instead of investing in our hometowns, we move to large cities for work. We see refugees forced across borders by wars fueled by greed. Workers are forced to juggle three jobs instead of spending time with their children.
In a society where the dollar runs our day, who is providing solutions for couples scared about their future, or a woman terrified of having a child? Who is providing childcare for mothers working two jobs? Are we building a community that supports those in difficult situations? That work will take small acts of charity as well as systemic change.
Regardless of your stance on abortion, we can all agree that we need to make a society where it is “easier to be good,” as the American radical idealist Peter Maurin put it. Maurin believed we need to change “from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.”
Part of becoming a “go-giver” means reforming our imagination about money, success, and community to embrace the idea that we are called to share all things in common. A more humane, collaborative, and cooperative economic system (like Pope Francis has called us to build) can mean more material support for mothers through every stage of their pregnancy — and through the next 18 years of their child’s growth to adulthood.
4. Stand in solidarity with the most vulnerable.
Our response to suffering is often to keep it at arm’s length because pain makes us feel helpless. We don’t want to make things worse for someone by giving them bad advice or complicating an already messy situation. But solutions to suffering are only found with compassion — suffering with. In fact, our tradition shows us that standing in solidarity with those in pain is a way to encounter God.
This is a pretty revolutionary idea — that we are called to embrace the weakest among us rather than ignore them or cast them out. Rowan Williams, the former head of the Church of England, said that Christianity offers a special dignity to the victim: “It is in the company of the victim, so to speak, that God is to be found, and nowhere else.”
This dignity asks all of us to examine where our solidarity with those in pain falls short. Distance and disaffection are safe — solidarity involves risk, vulnerability, and sticky moral questions. If that means caring for children before they are born, it must also mean caring for them after they are born by supporting childcare, quality public schools, family healthcare, and unemployment benefits for the parents raising them.
Every human life — even lives that seem unwanted or aren’t valued or are told don’t matter — is a gift because it bears inherent dignity and is unique and unrepeatable. And each person should be embraced as valuable, no matter their socioeconomic state, their addictions, mental abilities, or future prospects. Only by embracing one another as uniquely beautiful can we foster a culture of hope and joy.
We live in a society that sometimes makes it impossible to believe that life is a gift. Living on the edge of the climate apocalypse, in a country where inequality and systemic racism keep so many floundering in poverty, where senseless violence in movie theaters or elementary schools can instantly end lives, it’s hard to believe that life is a gift and should fill us with hope.
We have the power to transform the systems of our society so they not only support that claim to hope and joy but to celebrate it. And those on the margins, the most vulnerable, those without a voice — they need us to be the protagonists of that transformation.