It has been 38 years since the Supreme Court decision that gave women the right to have an abortion. Lloyd Steffen, professor of religion studies, university chaplain and the author of seven books including Life/Choice: The Theory of Just Abortion and Abortion: a Reader, offers his perspective on Roe vs. Wade.
You have said that pro-choice people should thank Pope John Paul II for clarifying what is at stake on the issue of abortion. How so?
Roe acknowledged serious religious issues involved with abortion but chose not to pursue them as a constitutional basis for abortion rights. But that could have been done. Pope John Paul II once made a revealing statement that put the religious issue center stage in the abortion controversy. In Evangelium Vitae, he declared that abortion is murder because the fetus is “absolutely” innocent and “no one more absolutely innocent can even be imagined.” That claim of absolute innocence created an absolute protection for fetal life. The problem, however, is that we do not encounter “absolute” innocence in the moral life but only in religion and theology—the absolute innocence of Jesus or Mary, for example, and, according to John Paul II, every fetus. The Pope clarified, helpfully, that an absolute prohibition on abortion rests on a religious belief about the absolute innocence of the fetus.
Why is that important?
The Pope exposed the diverse religious beliefs about fetal humanity involved in the abortion debate, differences in belief that are under our system of government all protected. No one should dispute that a human zygote is human by species membership. Whether it is a person or “absolutely innocent” and exempt from direct and intentional killing in every circumstance is highly debatable as a moral issue. “Absolute innocence” is nothing in anyone’s moral experience, and even Catholic moral thought allows that innocent persons can be, in certain circumstances, justifiably killed as a lesser evil to prevent an even greater one. The protections given innocent civilians in Catholic teaching about just war, for example, does not acknowledge that civilians have an “absolute” protection and can never under any circumstance be killed. But that kind of moral thinking is not transferred to innocent fetuses—there the protection is absolute. The problem is that sometimes women face life-threatening dangers due to pregnancy. From a moral point of view, a woman—any woman—facing death due to pregnancy complications should act to save her own life, even if it cost the fetus its life. It’s self-defense. Absolute innocence overrides self-defense.
As someone who is both religious and pro-choice, how do you respond to this concept of “absolute innocence?”
Pro-choice people should support the right of any person to hold a view of the fetus as absolutely innocent, even if, like me, they do not share it. I do not share that view and actually find it theologically offensive, but that is because of my religious context and commitments, which are centered elsewhere than on the idea of an absolutely innocent fetus whose life is always of more value than the pregnant woman’s. No reasonable person wants more abortions, but I do not accept that fetal life is more important—always more important—than that of the pregnant woman, and that is what the idea of “absolute innocence” means.
In protecting the free exercise of religion, the First Amendment protects John Paul’s view of absolute innocence and my disagreement with it. Moral disagreements over abortion will never stop, so the question is how to live together in peace with disagreement. Roe came up with a practical solution aimed at societal peace—rights with conditions—and for that I am thankful. I am also thankful this anniversary of Roe that The First Amendment prevents the government from “establishing” for all citizens any particular religiously held viewpoint or belief. As an American, I do not believe “absolute innocence” should ever become an “established” view of fetal humanity sanctioned by the government. That is a religious belief that should not be imposed on me or any citizen and certainly not forced on any woman considering what to do after becoming pregnant from, say, rape or incest or who is facing possible death due to medical complications.