In his 1981 How Brave a New World, the highly respected Jesuit moral theologian, Richard McCormick presented “Rules for Abortion Debate” as a response to the 1973 Supreme Court Roe decision legalizing abortion. Some of his rules seem even more significant now after the 2022 Dobbs decision overturned Roe, leaving policy decisions up to individual states.
1. Attempt to identify areas of agreement
In this regard, recent polls show 85% of Americans agree abortion should be legal at least in some circumstances and 90% agree that abortion should not be legal after viability. State legislatures could start to construct workable policies on abortion around fundamental agreements like these.
2. Avoid using slogans
McCormick gives two examples which are still relevant today. The first is calling abortion “murder,” a slogan that Pope Francis used in a recent informal interview, explicitly calling abortion murder. McCormick argues that the word “murder” is a “composite value term” that means morally unjustified killing another person. Calling abortion murder involves a disputed assumption that human life begins at conception. Furthermore, it is totally unnecessary to use that slogan to defend Church opposition to abortion. The other slogan is “a woman has a right to her own body,” even more commonly used today. This slogan has several questionable assumptions: for example, that the fetus is simply part of a woman’s body and that her bodily rights are absolute. Slogans tend to harden entrenched positions; they do not further dialogue or compromise.
3. Distinguish morality and public policy
With the Dobbs decision this distinction takes on added significance. For example, it is possible to view abortion as morally wrong but at the same time to recognize that a total legal prohibition of abortion is not a wise or workable policy in a country so passionately polarized on this issue. Prolife advocates should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
4. Try to identify the core issue at stake
In our post-Dobbs world, the real task is to develop public policies and pass state laws that will allow our diverse society to live in relative peace and harmony. Unfortunately, so far many states have used the new opportunity not to seek consensus or make compromises but to pass extreme legislation. For example, some states have outlawed all abortions, while others encourage total abortion access without some reasonable restrictions that could gain greater public support.
5. Distinguish morality and pastoral care
In practice today, this could encourage prolife advocates who worked hard to overturn Roe to put forth a similar effort to find ways to support pregnant women and new mothers. This might mean accompanying a pregnant unsupported teenager through her pregnancy and after giving birth. It could also mean advocating for greater public assistance for single mothers. Workable public policies will have to consider the rights of both fetal life and pregnant women.
6. Distinguish the pairs right-wrong and good-bad
Catholic theology holds that abortion is objectively wrong and never right. It also recognizes that circumstances and intentions can make a personal decision for abortion subjectively good and not bad, as when a person sincerely follows an erroneous conscience. This distinction can facilitate dialogue. For example, a pro-life advocate can view his pro-choice friend as a good person with good intentions who has made a wrong judgment on the morality of abortion. This sets a framework for continued friendship and honest dialogue.
Which of these rules is most helpful to me in discussing abortion?