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Eugene McCarraher on Abortion

Lately the “culture of death” rhetoric has been heating up among many conservative commentators in reference to the issue of Obama’s lifting the ban on stem cell research. This has become yet another occasion for many to rail against abortion as the great moral evil of our time. Now, I don’t really actually disagree with this, and I’ll have some more words on this shortly, but I think Eugene McCarraher makes the ultimately important point about this sort of reflexive rhetoric of opposition to abortion in an interview from a couple years back in the Other Journal:

As for abortion, I think we have to stop seeing it as the primary culprit in a culture of death. Abortion becomes conceivable as a moral practice once we take individual autonomy as the beau ideal of the self; but to recognize that is, if we’re logical, to indict not only abortion but also our cherished idyll of choice or freedom. But that, then, is to indict capitalism, which employs a similar language of sovereignty both to legitimate itself and to obscure the remarkable lack of creative freedom at work. I know that I’ll catch a lot of hell for saying this, but I think that a lot of opposition to abortion is sheer moral sentimentality which turns the fetus into a fetish. (You’ll notice that I think fetishism of some sort or other is a pretty salient feature of the contemporary American moral imagination.) Many of the same people who oppose abortion are champions of laissez-faire capitalism, and they either don’t see or don’t care to see the linguistic and cultural affinities between themselves and the pro-choice advocates they fight. They’ll retort that capitalism doesn’t kill anyone in its normal operations, but first, that’s just not true—capitalism has never been instituted or maintained anywhere, not even in the North Atlantic, without considerable coercion and violence—and second, it doesn’t matter, because the exercise of market autonomy has devastating effects on individuals and communities regardless of whether or not they wind up dead. (“Yeah, the company cut your medical benefits or cut your job or left your town a mess, but hey, you’re still alive!”) When I say this, a lot of people retort that I’m changing the subject. In one way, yes, I am, but for a reason—because I want them to see that it is the same subject in a different guise. Talking about abortion is a way of not talking about the autonomous individual, the latest ideological guise of libido dominandi, discussion of which would topple quite a few idols and not just reproductive choice.

Long story short, you can’t rail about abortion and in the same breath deploy your theology to legitimate capitalism.


  1. This was a great interview.

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  2. X-Cathedra wrote:

    I completely agree. But the Scylla on the other side of this Charybdis is to eventually tune out even the uncomfortable and imperfect voices of protest who happen to be exactly right about what abortion is. In other words I fear that we will no longer take seriously, and happily dismiss, those who rail against abortion if it so happens that they are capitalist pigs or folks who love modern autonomy; as if this some how undermined the credibility of their opposition (and, slipping along the slope, any opposition at all)

    An example would be when my relatives lambaste those on the far right who love to watch criminals burn and children starve (hyperbole mind you) but love to protect the unborn. As it turns out, they end up using this as an excuse for why we should pay no mind to the abortion issue at all: its opponents are not credible; if I were to become an active protester, I would get sullied by association with them.

    Just saying, while I agree, we must be weary of drifting beyond the balance. I will happily dismiss the voices of the modern autonomy folks the day that they stop being apparently the only ones leading the fight on the ground.

    Pax Christi,

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 8:26 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    XCath, I agree with you. My next post will actually have something to say about this I think. I am in fact pretty troubled with Obama and the stem cell research stuff.

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 8:29 pm | Permalink
  4. adi wrote:

    I have lost confidence that embryos are persons in any significant sense. Surely this can’t be the supreme moral issue of our day. As Christians I think we lose tremendous credibility when we say this since the negative practical effects are so minimal. Invoking the slippery slope looks like unhinged alarmism with so much of deeper concern to the world. Similar embryos are miscarried by the millions daily and they are unnoticed biological refuse. This seems like a theological abstraction being forced on a biological world of fuzzy facts. The vehemence is, it appears, about the rejection of our theology not the embryos.

    Tuesday, March 10, 2009 at 9:57 pm | Permalink
  5. Vinaigrette Girl wrote:

    De-lurking, briefly, to say that as long as the right continue to view women as incompetent to make their own moral choices about whether to terminate a pregnancy, and as long as they continue to regard an embryo or foetus as having more rights than a realised, actual human being, then there will be Christians, like me, who will stand up to them. The issue is whether humans who have a uterus and who are intimately involved with bringing a pregnancy to term are also accorded fully human status with an individual relationship to God, or not.

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    Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 3:41 am | Permalink
  6. Jonathan wrote:

    Thank you for the post. I think the abundance of anti-abortion rhetoric is the direct result of pastoral practice (even lay-pastoral practice). For example, I am well acquainted with at least two young men whose mothers were strongly urged to abort them during their pregnancies (for health and economic issues). Needless to say, their mothers did not abort them, and now they are in their mid-adolescents. The thought of such young people aborted and kept from living, Spirit-filled community makes me sad. To discard children is to disgrace communities, for children are a grace of God.

    I agree that we need to look at the meta-structure of capitalism. In line with the Scriptures, the war lies in the heavens, with powers and principalities far greater and reaching than abortion. Nevertheless, I would not reduce the anti-abortion rhetoric to fetish. Abortion is, and always will be, the blood of the innocent; and the Holy Spirit will always make known the cries of violence against the innocent. Rather than set aside the rhetoric, let us bring it inline with a fuller, biblical confrontation of powers.

    And at the end of the day, I have no stones to throw, only those with which to beat my own chest. The ultimate evil isn’t capitalism, communism, individualism, materialism, or any other -ism. It’s my sin, your sin, our sin. Our lust, our greed, our idolatry, our failure to love our God. The Father just wants us to love Him, and in that love to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before Him.


    Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 6:32 am | Permalink
  7. X-Cathedra wrote:

    Vinaigrette Girl,

    Thanks for your thoughts. I have to say I disagree with you as strongly as one can and find the positions expressed by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice site to be dangerous and borderline heretical. I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic, but I think it represents a grave grave error. If its really a breakdown here between Roman Catholic and Protestant on how they understand the sanctity of life (a false dichotomy as its portrayed here), well then I gladly side with the “legalistic” Catholics against the reasoning expressed on that page any day.

    The argument seems to be this: the Protestant Christian freedom from legalism means that the right to life of the unborn is not absolute but is conditional upon the free prudential judgments of the mother. But how is this not making the value of the lives of some of God’s creatures completely dependent upon the decisions of others? What if I were to use this kind of argument about slaves: the right to physical, social, and economic freedom is not absolute, not “fetishized,” but rather is “conditioned by the claims of others,” namely the “free” slave owners. Absurd, I know. But that’s the point.

    “The phrase ‘the sacredness of life’ means one thing to Catholic bishops—that the life of the fetus is all-important—but to most people of other Christian denominations it means that there is a presumptive right to life that is not absolute but is conditioned by the claims of others.”

    The issue of the life of the fetus is no more or less important than any other human life: it has the same value, dignity, and rights as any other living human. Why should that be construed as “fetishizing?” The question is whether a mother ever has the “right” to decide to kill another young human being. Why on earth should we accept that the right to life of adults or toddlers is absolute, such that I sin when I choose to murder one; but that with a fetus, somehow its clear that the child as of yet (even though it is a living being and a human) deserves no absolute right to life? What this does is separate the right to life, and the sacredness of life in God’s eyes, from one’s humanity; and grounds it in something else, like the choice of another human being. Why then should we not decide that human beings of a certain color have no absolute right to freedom grounded in their humanity, and ground that freedom in the choice of some other group of humans instead?

    This is perhaps most revealing:
    “For us the right to life and the sacredness of life mean that there should be no absolute or unbreakable rules that take precedence over the lives of existing human persons.”

    The underlying assumption of all of this, which has not been justified and seems patently false, is that fetuses are obviously not living “existing human persons.” But why should I believe this? When do they become existing human persons? Its clear that they exist, they live, and they are of the human species. But is it then Ok to kill them moments before the head passes the cervix?

    The dichotomy between “pro fetus” and “pro woman” is false and laughable. It only makes sense if you acknowledge, without ground, that the woman does have an absolute right to decide whether another young human being lives or dies, a right to murder another human being; and that this right trumps any right to life on the side of the fetus. Why should I recognize such a “right” over any human being? That seems dangerously modern, sinful, and possibly heretical.

    The Catholic “legalism” is by no means anti-woman in denying them a supposed right to kill very young humans, no more so than it would be anti-southern white to deny them the right to enslave African Americans. The dichotomy does not exist.

    Pax Christi,

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  8. parishioner wrote:


    As a Protestant who found that site disturbing, let me ask you this: What do you think of what’s going on in Brazil right now?

    A nine year old girl weighing about 80 pounds began to experience excruciating abdominal pain. Her mother took her to the emergency room, and in the course of running tests they discovered she was four months pregnant with twins. (Turns out her stepfather was abusing her, and they think he’s probably abused her disabled sister as well.) The extreme pain at only four months was caused by her uterus being too small to carry one child, let alone two. Her mother and the doctors (all RC) made the decision to abort.

    The church has now excommunicated the mother, and the doctors, but not the stepfather. They’re not allowed to excommunicate children, or the daughter would have been as well.

    So who will take the little girl to Mass now? Who will explain to her why her mother is being punished and not her stepfather? Which priest, bishop, and cardinal are going to step forward, take her aside and explain that the excruciating pain should not have ended, but multiplied until her death?

    “The pro-life position is really a pro-fetus position, and the pro-choice position is really pro-woman. Those who take the pro-fetus position define the woman in relation to the fetus. They assert the rights of the fetus over the right of the woman to be a moral agent or decision maker with respect to her life, health, and family security.”

    This is repulsive in its reductionism for sure, but it doesn’t take much to imagine where it comes from. The RC church has to find a way to address situations like that in Brazil without excommunication. It doesn’t minister to the child, the parents, or the community. It is a terrible witness to the world, who sees a swift reaction of condemnation instead of heartbroken compassion and loving instruction.

    There will probably never be an end to simplistic reactionary sites given our sinful nature’s love affair with logical fallacies, but the church’s response in Brazil is only feeding them.

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 4:05 pm | Permalink
  9. X-Cathedra wrote:


    I am indeed aware of the tragedy in Brazil: a worst-case-scenario if I ever saw one and a terrible thing I hope no one else has to experience.

    I’m still struggling with it, but here are some thoughts:
    First, I’m not sure why the bishop needed to publicly declare the excommunications, because abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication; that is, an automatic excommunication, as soon as the act is done. In other words, with or without episcopal declaration, those who knowingly end the life of an unborn child excommunicate themselves. So I’m not sure why the bishop had to proceed in the way he did, which from the side of prudence seems only to complicate the matter and confuse and anger many.

    Secondly, I’m not entirely sure if the people involved actually incurred excommunication. The child of course did not, and this is not simply because the Church “isn’t allowed to,” but because the child is incapable of being culpable for such a sin. But it seems likely to me that the mother and even the doctors involved were motivated by an intense fear for the life of the little girl, which constitutes an extenuating circumstance for the will such that they could not be held fully responsible. They also may have acted out of ignorance that such a sin was an excommunicable offense, in which case excommunication would not apply. It seems to me that if ever there was a case that these things could be argued, such is this case.

    It is obvious that the father should be punished in accord with his heinous actions and the Brazilian Church may well have emphasized this. If they did not, that is a serious failure in prudence. And all the mother and doctors would need to do is seek absolution.

    But the real question that troubles me is this: guilt or responsibility aside, the supposed middle ground that people are looking for, to justify the actions of the mother and doctors as morally permissible, is complicated. Because the only way to prevent the great suffering and possible death of the young girl would (apart from miscarriage) involve the murder of very young and innocent human beings: ones who are just as innocent and undeserving as the 9-year old.

    Imagine if, for the sake of argument, twin toddlers were chained to the 9-year old’s leg and they were causing her great suffering and slowly killing her. In fact, they themselves would almost certainly die if nothing was done. The only way to sever the chain is to stab both toddlers in the head or tear their bodies in half. This would save the 9-year old.

    The problem is that even though doing nothing and subjecting the 9 year old to severe bodily damage and probable death is morally repugnant; the alternative necessarily involves murdering two innocent toddlers. Is it ever, even in these terrible circumstances, even if the toddlers would likely die anyway, morally justifiable to murder innocent children?

    That is where I struggle and hope to complicate any who act as if this is a clear-cut case and the Church’s position is by definition ludicrous. For any who believe the life of the fetus is of equal value to the life of a toddler, it should not be so simple.

    Those are just some thoughts. I’d like to hear how others are thinking about it, specifically in what terms they articulate the abortion as justifiable.

    Pax Christi,

    Wednesday, March 11, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink
  10. N. Dan Smith wrote:

    “First, I’m not sure why the bishop needed to publicly declare the excommunications, because abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication; that is, an automatic excommunication, as soon as the act is done. In other words, with or without episcopal declaration, those who knowingly end the life of an unborn child excommunicate themselves.”

    Am I the only one who thinks “self-excommunication” is an oxymoron?

    Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 9:17 am | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    We, in a sense, excommunicate ourselves every time we commit unconfessed and unrepentant sin.

    Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 10:36 am | Permalink
  12. michel f. wrote:


    That is insane. There is a certain threshold that warrants excommunication. Where in the Bible do we see anyone practicing the faith in such a way that they regard every sinful act as cutting themselves off from the community or much less from God. I don’t mean maximalist verses concerning perfection but actual practice of anyone. This would lead to neurosis (witness the Sermon on Mount and teenage boys).

    Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  13. parishioner wrote:


    Perhaps you didn’t notice Hill’s use of the phrase “in a sense.”

    Our sinful acts do separate us from God in the way Hill describes. It is those times when we are not abiding in Jesus. He said “IF you abide in me” because he knew all too well there would times when we wouldn’t and would need to be reconciled. Desiring a tender conscience in which to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit as He leads us to examination and repentance is not the same as neurosis.

    Perhaps you and N. Dan have a different definition of excommunication than does Hill.

    Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  14. parishioner wrote:


    Thanks for honestly sharing your thoughts.

    You’re interested in hearing in what terms people “articulate the abortion as justifiable,” but I’m guessing you’re already aware of what terms are being so used, in addition to being aware of unspeakably selfish grown women already acting as if this girl were their poster child for “reproductive rights.”

    I have to admit I was hoping you would state the dilemma in terms of faith rather than in terms of trying to avoid sin. I’ll try to explain:

    You say, “The problem is that even though doing nothing and subjecting the 9 year old to severe bodily damage and probable death is morally repugnant; the alternative necessarily involves murdering two innocent(s).”

    Is it really the case that “doing nothing” is the alternative the church encourages? Is “do nothing” what is prescribed to women with ectopic pregnancies and families with potentially fatally pregnant 9 year olds?

    I ask because I don’t know, but also because if that’s the answer given it seems . . . inappropriate to people of faith. When Jesus touched dead people and brought them back to life, he was breaking a law that made him “unclean.” He also rebuked the Pharisees repeatedly for caring more about the law than about those for whom the law was given. I’m sure you’re familiar with his telling them man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man. The point I’m trying to make is that if the primary motivation for the instruction of “do nothing” is to avoid personal uncleanness (sin), that’s just selfishness, plain and simple. It seems like instead of “do nothing,” there should at the very least be instruction to those afflicted for how to entrust their lives to God’s hands and how to pray for miraculous healing. (A friend of mine is the acquaintance of someone who is on the prayer team for the Vatican’s Exorcist, and frequently flies there. I’m sure they’ve got all kinds of prayer teams organized–so would the Vatican have moved heaven and earth on behalf of this child and mobilized those gifted to pray for healing if it had been brought to their attention before the abortion?)

    What I’ve just suggested is ludicrous to many, but I’m looking for some kind of rationale from the RC for what they did, just as you’re concerned for those who claim this abortion morally permissible.

    I want to know what the church considers a positive alternative–it’s sickening if all they have to offer is “do nothing or suffer public excommunication.”

    Perhaps you’re right in suggesting that it was the archbishop’s decision in making the excommunications public–rather than offering absolution–that has made this so volatile.

    Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  15. X-Cathedra wrote:


    Of course you are right. “Doing nothing” in the sense that you describe is deeply problematic, and a failure of Christianity. I only meant to imply “doing nothing” in this context as “doing nothing that would involve killing the fetus;” that is, what the average person would describe as “doing nothing” anyway. Certainly I think the Church should and hopefully would have mobilized heaven and earth in prayer for healing. And I don’t mean this too look like one must not even touch the situation for fear of becoming unclean.

    My only point is doing anything short of aborting the children would, in the eyes of most people, look like essentially “doing nothing.” It wouldn’t make it any easier to tell the 9-year old that there’s nothing we can do to stop the fetuses from growing and tearing apart her womb; and praying for her, even praying with her, would not make that decision any more palatable. That is why this is a dilemma.

    So while some of the things you mention are, in my eyes, certainly good alternatives to aborting the children, it is clear that in most people’s eyes that would be tantamount to doing nothing if it did not involve abortion.

    My thought is: even while mobilizing an army of prayer and comfort and care, it seems we must either “do nothing” with regard to the abortion; or murder innocent twins. Is this the case? What are the alternatives?

    Pax Christi,

    Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 3:56 pm | Permalink
  16. parishioner wrote:


    There are no alternatives. I don’t think they can transplant fetuses. Hence the mental and emotional anguish of your struggle. Maybe you should ask your higher clergy the question of alternatives. Is there a policy concerning ectopic pregnancies, for instance? Some chief mucky-muck must have weighed in at some point, and let’s hope he said something other than “prepare to die.”

    Mark 6:4Jesus said to them, “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor.” 5He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. 6And he was amazed at their lack of faith.

    I’m not particularly looking forward to the possibility of everyone hearing on Judgment Day about the miracles Jesus “could not do” in my life because of my lack of faith. I can’t imagine being asked (demanded of?) to have faith for a miracle for a daughter in that condition.

    God have mercy.

    Thursday, March 12, 2009 at 8:13 pm | Permalink
  17. JimCasy wrote:

    I agree with many of the questions you have, but referring to someone’s clergy as “chief mucky-muck” is not helpful.

    Yes, the Catholic Church *does* have a position on ectopic pregnancies, though given your “chief mucky-muck” uncharitable designation of Catholicism, I’m not sure you’ll appreciate its nuance and dismiss it as hair-splitting hypocrisy. Abortion is always considered wrong – always – though an *unintended consequence* of a life-saving procedure may be the death of the fetus. Ectopic pregnancy is one such procedure, where the removal of the fallopian tube would result in death for the fetus, but its death is not the intended consequence of the procedure.

    I cannot tel you why the bishop didn’t think that this situation fit those criteria, but I suspect that neither the mother nor the child are the target of such an action.

    “The church has now excommunicated the mother, and the doctors, but not the stepfather.”

    The step-father is in a state of grave sin, so he’s unable to receive the eucharist as well.

    “So who will take the little girl to Mass now?”

    Hopefully the mother. Excommunication doesn’t mean one shouldn’t go to Mass. It just means one can’t receive the Eucharist and is in need of reconciliation.

    “Who will explain to her why her mother is being punished and not her stepfather?”

    Excommunication isn’t punishment. I think you have some misunderstandings about excommunication. It’s meant to pressure a public and influential sinner back into the fold, as well as to set the record straight among the Church as a whole what the Church’s teaching is. It’s not forever, it doesn’t mean the person ceases to be a Catholic, and it does not mean the person is necessarily condemned (only God knows that). It is an ecclesiastical discipline.

    As for the step-father, without reconciliation, his relationship with the Church has been ruptured, too. It’s a statement of fact, not a sentence of punishment.

    Saturday, April 11, 2009 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

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