“Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me; my LORD has forgotten me.’ Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Isaiah 49:14-15).
This was the first reading which we heard in Mass this week. Oddly enough, the first few times I read over this—or heard it—I mentally rendered the second sentence, “Can a mother forget her infant, by without tenderness for the child in her womb?” Perhaps this is because the tragic topic of abortion has been weighing heavily on my mind of late. In part, this is because of legislative actions being taken at both the state and the national level on this issue right now. On the other hand, the debate has been raging—largely within Catholic circles, though a few non-Catholics have taken interest too—over the recent Live Action stings, and whether or not their tactics—lying to Planned Parenthood employees—are justified or not.
On a national level, the House of Representatives has done the right thing and passed legislation to remove federal funding from Planned Parenthood. This is good, though it is unlikely that much will come of it this time around, since the Senate is for all intents and purposes a partially owned subsidy of Abortion, Inc—and the President is a wholly owned one. More locally—and more likely to see success—is the Texas sonogram bill, which has cleared the house and which the governor has promised to sign. It seems to me that the only real obstacle to this legislation is that the house and senate versions need to be reconciled—one version contains “the usual” exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother, the other does not—which should prove to be a very small obstacle at that.
In following the debates of these two bills, I have heard a number of arguments from both sides. The most powerful of these are quite possibly the non-verbal variety, of happy children and of their parents who, when faced with what they first thought to be adversity in an unexpected pregnancy, made the heroic choice of keeping their children; or of equally happy families made possible by the choice to adopt coupled with the choice to carry a child to term by a mother intending to place the child for adoption.
A stronger argument for life can hardly be made than the joy brought into the world by the birth of a child, indeed the joy brought to the lives of the child’s parents. The only stronger argument is that the child is a human person from the moment of conception—a true argument, though often which the proponents of abortion will skirt. The joy of these families which are formed when a woman says “yes” to her child’s life is practically tangible; it cannot be ignored.
It is perhaps for this reason that many of the remarks of the pro-choice factions are now focusing on the potential that this life may come into the world as a joyless one. A similar argument, inextricable from this argument of the misery of the child’s life (or of the parents’) is the Lebensunwertes Leben (“life-unworthy-of-life”) argument. This is certainly a long-standing argument within the pro-choice movement, having its roots in its intellectual prehistory (e.g. with Thomas Malthus), and indeed with the very founding of Planned Parenthood. Margaret Sanger was not shy about stating and stating quite bluntly that some live were better off never coming into being, let alone being allowed to continue. Sanger herself frequently made statements about how certain “undesirable” populations should not be allowed to “breed.” It was she who said that the most merciful thing a large (or poor) family can do for one of its children is to kill him.
Of course, the argument is often not phrased quite so bluntly (nor so honestly). However, it is a form of this argument which is being trotted out, and often in terms of a life potentially full of suffering (or other “complications”).. We are hearing of, for example, the “unfortunate” case in which a poor women who become pregnant chooses to keep a child which she cannot afford. In discussing the sonogram bill in Texas, Miss Jessi Devenyns of the Daily Texan writes that
If a woman is determined to have an abortion, the likelihood of her changing her mind because she is now forced to listen to her baby’s heartbeat and gaze at in on a fuzzy screen is slim. If, however, she chooses to keep her baby after having her mandated sonogram, there may be complications either later in the pregnancy or after birth....There are always serious negative consequences associated with the proposed law. If a pregnant woman was convinced by the sonogram to keep her child, she may not be able to support it and the child could end up in foster care. The foster care system is maintained by federal taxpayer money, and if there is suddenly an influx of children from unwanted pregnancies into the system it will create a greater burden on an already overstressed system.This is what the apologist and keen social observer Mr Mark Shea has called the “Just enough of me, way too many of you” argument for abortion (or, indeed, euthanasia, population control, eugenics, etc). The general idea is that such a child will do nothing save make his mother miserable, so that she will forever regret her decision to carry him to term (though not, apparently, her decision to engage in the marital act, thereby conceiving him to begin with). It is telling (and even more chilling) that one of the primary arguments leveled against the sonogram bill is that viewing a sonogram might cause the woman to change her mind and keep the baby—as if this choice for life is itself a bad thing. Such rhetoric does, however, suggest that the ultimate choice is not, in fact, simply up to “the woman, her doctor, and her god” (or some combination of these with her family).
This is effectively the old “life unworthy of life” argument, but in new clothes. Rather than being called “unworthy of life,” it is presumed that any child being born in these circumstances will be so miserable that it would be better for him (or, more frequently, for her) that he never be born. It would at the very least be better for the mother or perhaps the parents taken together that the child not be born. This, at least, is the reasoning behind appeals to the possibility that a woman who chooses to bring a child to term would be making a mistake, and that she would regret this mistake later in life. More troubling still is that such language actually borders on admitting that the unborn entity is, in fact, a separate human life, and that he is nevertheless denied its rights in favor of the mother’s (or even his) potential future sorrows or regrets.
Leaving this particular point aside for a moment, it is worth noting the sheer numbers involved. Whereas the pro-choice side has been able to produce quite a few testimonies—rarely of women who regret keeping their child, but rather mostly from women who state that they do not regret their abortions—the pro-life side has thousands or even millions of testimonies to the contrary. I have seen dozens (if not more) post-abortive women who have later regretted the decision at any given rally for life. A few more attend the various prayer-vigils held for life around the country. There are more still who come to the local crisis pregnancy centers distraught, seeking counseling for abortions past, sometimes while struggling with a new unplanned pregnancy. As one counselor stated at the pro-life rally in Austin two years ago, Planned Parenthood and their ilk are free to claim that women don’t suffer from abortions, because they haven’t really seen that suffering. It is quite often the crisis pregnancy centers which are left to “pick up the pieces” of emotional baggage from an abortion, often years after the fact.
Regret—or, more properly, remorse—is a thing which is ultimately either experienced or suppressed in a person who has what Professor J Budzisewski calls “guilty knowledge.” In his What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, Dr Budziszewski writes that
Remorse may fade, but it may also grow. In some people it increases gradually, with age and maturity; something which did not bother me in thoughtless youth may bother me a great deal when I have had greater experience of life. In some it lies fallow for a while, then suddenly appears. I thought I had left it behind, but I had not; it enters my mind all at once, raw, unbidden, demanding service. The reappearance may be periodic—say on the anniversary of the deed. Or it may be occasional, when I come across things that remind me of it. A birth announcement. A letter from my parents. A scent of perfume, or of antiseptic.In his first lecture to the Catholic Longhorns for Life, given in the spring of 2007, Dr Budziszewski told the audience gathered that he had witnessed this time and again when talking to men as a counselor at a crisis pregnancy center. His wife, who volunteers more regularly, had witness this even more among women, and often in manners missed by the “scientific” studies. How so? The women being interviewed would often try not to admit remorse, or to suppress it. On the other hand, a “pregnant silence” (pardon the pun) would often lead to a pained confession. “Have you experienced an negative effects of your abortion?” “No.” Silence, silence, silence. “Well, except for the usual.” This is how many a conversation has gone.
But the most dreadful way that remorse grows is by repetition of the deed, and the bitter fact is that although our efforts to dull the ache by not thinking about it may work after their fashion, they also make repetition more likely.
Alas, remorse itself is but one thing experienced by those with guilty knowledge. Budziszewski calls remorse one of the five Furies of the conscience, and the smallest and weakest Fury at that:
Remorse is the least of the Furies. No one always feels remorse for doing wrong; some people never do. Yet even when remorse is absent, guilty knowledge generates objective needs for confession, atonement, reconciliation, and justification. These other Furies are the greater sisters of remorse: inflexible, inexorable, and relentless, demanding satisfaction even when mere feelings are suppressed, fade away, or never come. And so it is that conscience operates not only [as teacher and accuser]…but also in a harrowing third [mode]: The avenger, which punishes the soul who does wrong but who refuses to read the indictment.
Conscience is therefore teacher, judge, or executioner, depending on the mode in which it works: cautionary, accusatory, or avenging.
How the avenging mode works is not difficult to grasp. The normal outlet of remorse is to flee from wrong; of the need for confession, to admit what one has done; of atonement, to pay the debt; of reconciliation, to restore the bonds one has broken; and of justification, to get back in the right. But if the Furies are denied their payment in wonted coin, they exact it in whatever coin comes nearest, driving the wrongdoer’s life further out of kilter. We flee not from wrong, but from thinking about it. We compulsively confess every detail of our story, except the moral. We punish ourselves again and again, offering every sacrifice except the one demanded. We simulate the restoration of broken intimacy, by seeking companions as guilty as ourselves. And we seek not to become just, but the justify ourselves.Catholics will no doubt recognize the Furies listed by Dr Budziszewski—at the time an evangelical Christian—as the same elements found in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Indeed, they will also recognize the wisdom of what he says—witness, for example, the tell-all diaries and broadcasts (e.g. Jerry Springer, Oprah, etc), the full-page ads taken out by post-abortive women saying “we do not regret our abortions; the rhetoric of choice, which at times addresses whether or not an unborn child is in fact human but more often looks for excuses to kill him anyway, whether for concern of the environment or for the poor; the post-abortive women who encourage their friends, to the point of pressuring them, to also get abortions.
Most importantly, perhaps, many of the most militantly pro-choice decry any admission of guilt, regret, or remorse from women who have procured abortions (let alone from any man who might pressure her to do this). They try to treat it like a mere ploy by pro-lifers, despite the admission of said remorse by even a few still pro-choice women.
It is worth taking a moment now to say something about those who are affected by a decision to “choose life.” There are two sets of people to consider here: the parents who choose life, and the children themselves who are allowed to live. The argument used by proponents of abortion is that these parents and especially these children will be more miserable as a result of this decision, that they will regret it at least as much, and possibly more than, those who choose abortion. The children themselves will be miserable enough that it would be better that they had not been born, and the parents would be similarly less well-off.
As for the children in this case, there is a reasonably easy index which can be used to gauge whether or not they think their lives are worth living. After all, if the actual survivors of abortion—those whose parents chose life as well as those whose parents didn’t and yet who survived anyway—find their own lives worth living, then it is hardly an act of compassion on the part of the proponents of abortion to tell them otherwise.
The philosopher Professor Peter Kreeft has suggested a reasonably good index of the “happiness” of life, and one which is quite self-determined. Suicide is the ultimate indicator of whether a person thinks that his life is still worth living, and, as it turns out, it is no more prevalent among the poor than among the rich (see the report by Emile Durkheim, which found virtually no correlation between economic class and the prevalence of suicide; the report is summarized here). It is, in fact, arguably more prevalent among the rich, at least in-as-much-as, according to the World Health Organization, the suicide rates are relatively higher in wealthy countries than in poor ones. As Dr Kreeft put it,
I was dumbfounded to read a cover article in Time devoted to the question: Why is everything getting better? Why is life so good today? Why does everybody feel so satisfied about the quality of life? Time never questioned the assumption, it just wondered why the music on the Titanic sounded so nice.
It turned out, on reading the article, that every single aspect of life that was mentioned, every single reason for life getting better, was economic. People are richer. End of discussion.
Perhaps Time is just Playboy with clothes on. For one kind of playboy, the world is one great big whorehouse. For another kind, it’s one great big piggy bank. For both, things are getting better and better.
There is a scientific refutation of the Pig Philosophy: the statistical fact that suicide, the most in-your-face index of unhappiness, is directly proportionate to wealth. The richer you are, the richer your family is, and the richer your country is, the more likely it is that you will find life so good that you will choose to blow your brains apart.
There is, in other words, little to indicate that being born to poor parents makes a person more likely to find life to be not worth living. Of course, the real motives for ending this so-called “Lebensunwertes Leben” are often a been more sinister; recall Miss Devenyns’ statement that “The foster care system is maintained by federal taxpayer money, and if there is suddenly an influx of children from unwanted pregnancies into the system it will create a greater burden on an already overstressed system.” In other words, I’ll pay for your abortion, but not your child care. This is usually the sentiment of the dead-beat dad who, having sired a child, does not want to accept the responsibility to care for him, albeit now transposed onto the role of the taxpayer. Moreover, the majority of abortions occur in middle-class and upper-class families, which can certainly afford to raise the child; for them, abortion is largely a matter of convenience, whatever excuse they might otherwise give.
What of the parents—be it a single mother or a pair together—who say “yes” to life? A handful perhaps do then convince themselves that this was the wrong decision, though of course there is a very long wait for those seeking adoptions, implying that there are no shortage of good families who would be happy to raise the child as their own. A woman who chooses to carry her baby to term is not necessarily choosing to raise the child as well. In a sense, the woman who carries her child to term can bring the joy of a child to the home of parents who otherwise would not know this joy, via the act of adoption.
As for those women (or couples) who choose to bring the child to term and raise him themselves, they may certainly suffer a few set-backs in the short term. Parenting does, after all, offer a chance to take up one’s cross daily. But the suffering or frustration which comes with raising a child—whether he was initially intended or no—does not take away from the joy which could only have been brought into the household by that child, the joy which comes of receiving the child as a unique gift bestowed on the parents, whether as a surprise or the answer to long-prayed petitions. That there are many people who remain selfish even as parents does not detract from the many more who selflessly embrace the trials of parenting, and so are rewarded by the countless more joys which they experience as a result.
Limited as my exposure is to mothers who have faced so-called “crisis pregnancies,” every one of them whom I have met has said that she had no regrets in choosing life. Those I know who have worked more closely with these women have told me time and again that although making the choice for life was often uncertain, they somehow knew that it was the right decision, and that they have had both peace of mind and joy of life as a result. I have no data to cite comparing the eventual attitudes of couples who accepted their children as gifts—planned or otherwise—and those who would accept children only on their own (“pre-planned”) terms. I would venture to guess, though, that the parents of unplanned children are at least as much at peace with their decision to bear and raise those children as those whose children were supposedly planned and “wanted” to begin with. Indeed, I would venture to say that the “unplanned” or “unwanted” children who were humbly embraced as gifts brought perhaps more joy to the lives of their parents than those children who were “added” to the family as a sort of decorative afterthought: “wanted,” “planned,” and relatively convenient. Which is not to detract from the lives of these latter people, many of whom are my friends; rather, it is worth noting that the unplanned “surprise” children are just as capable of bringing joy into the world as the planned ones.
All children can and indeed will bring certain trials into the lives of their parents—this is something which Christians especially should accept. After all, even Our LORD brought with Him certain trials to the lives of his parents (see The Seven Sorrows of Our Lady, and of Saint Joseph), and He was without sin, being perfect, God. But even non-Christians who have themselves been parents can acknowledge that all children bring with them certain trials and sorrows. This is a part of the responsibility of parenting. To demand that every child be “planned” or “wanted” (or, to put it bluntly, that every child be convenient) is to steel oneself against this reality of raising children. To accept lovingly even the unplanned child is to acknowledge that being a parent means putting another ahead of oneself—as, indeed, is done in a truly loving marriage—and to prepare from the onset for the trials of parenting. But it is also to accept the wonders and joys of parenthood, which even in this vale of tears surely outweigh the trials.
Originally published on the Catholic America Today site.
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