March 1981 v.p. – Abortion Two Ways To Look At It p. 9
ABORTION: Two Ways To Look At It
By Frank Cordaro
Why is it that people of good will, concerned with social justice, should differ so on the issue of abortion? I, myself, have spent a great deal of time trying to convince people of my pro-life view without really trying to listen to the assumptions that make up the pro-life argument. The whole debate was brought back into focus after reports of the national conference of the Mobilization for Survival in Pittsburgh last month.. The abortion issue is splitting the MfS right down the middle. People of common concerns against nuclear weapons, nuclear power, the arms race and the failure to meet human needs are feeling that they cannot work with others on these vital issues without coming to an agreement on the issue of abortion. We might be better off if we listened to the good in each other’s arguments and lived accordingly.
There are basically two arguments on abortion. Though both address one issue, they represent two very different ways of looking at the world. Simply put, the pro-choice people argue primarily from a scientific perspective, with the highest value being human freedom. The pro-life people argue from a symbolic perspective, with the highest value being life.
The scientific world view is the dominant one in western society. This orientation has brought about countless im- provements in the quality of life. There is hardly an area of human concern that has not been affected by science: medicine, agriculture, housing, transportation, education and many others. The scientific mind is trained to see the world with empirical solutions. Great effort is put into finding the empirical facts and changing the human condition by direct action. There are many examples of scientific improvements that have revolutionized our lives. The plow, penicillin, the automobile, the transistor, the skyscraper and the computer, for example, have all changed our lives and touch us every day.
To the scientific mind, abortion is a solution to a problem. The human problem is an unwanted pregnancy and, supposedly, abortion is the answer. The question in the scientific mind is whether abortion is the acceptable solution. The scientific mind asks science if the fetus is human and if this can be proven. Turning to the many human sciences that are already with us – psychology, physiology, biology anthropology – the scientific mind cannot determine whether or not the fetus is human. It is pre-human for sure, but is it human? There is no “factual” answer. Since the question of human life cannot be settled one way or the other, the value of freedom is stressed. Science has had a hard-fought battle against false beliefs that have historically held people in bondage. Science has often been in direct contradiction with Church authority (“The World is Flat” debate for example.) It is little wonder that “freedom” would be one of the highest values of the scientific mind. From the scientific viewpoint, the abortion issue is a question of the individual’s freedom and the right of a woman to control her own body.
The symbolic world view starts from a completely different position. The combination of facts with their meaning is what symbolizes the real. Reality is encountered by the use of symbol. For the symbolic mind, what it means to be human may be all the human sciences say and more! A good symbol for human life will incorporate all of what the human sciences teach us, plus the “more” that the human sciences do not tell us. The “more” is not the type of empirical fact that the scientist may one day discover. It is the part of the reality that has to do with the whole and its meaning. A good symbol will speak more to the whole (facts with meaning) which is always more than the sum of its parts (facts alone being the scientific area). A pure symbol represents something other than itself, yet at the same time it is what it represents.
For the Catholic mind, this should not be hard to understand. We are a sacramental church and we rely heavily on the symbolic. For a church claiming the Real Presence of Christ under the signs of bread and wine, it is not hard to see why we would be adamantly against abortion. How could the fetus be anything other than a pure symbol of human life to be protected at all costs? For the symbolist in the abortion argument, the highest value is human life and it must be protected.
No one is totally symbolic or scientific in practice. Both approaches are used interchangeably throughout our everyday lives. Both help to make us who we are. Making the distinction between the scientific and symbolic perspectives within the abortion debate has helped us to understand the pro-choice argument. It has also helped me to clarify why I continue to hold on to my anti-abortion stand. Just because persons hold to one or the other position does not mean that they are not for freedom or for life. However, when taking a stand on the abortion issue, it is important to take the position that is more consistent with one’s way of life.
It is precisely on this point that I take issue with “pro-life” anti-abortion people. It is most confusing that the majority of members of the “pro-life” movement see the symbolic truth of the fetus as human life and, therefore, in need of our protection, yet they do not come to the same conclusion in regard to capital punishment, the arms race and war and the many other forms of political and economic oppression that keep large numbers of people in bondage. How can a truly pro-live person endorse capital punishment when the act of taking a human life by the state is so clearly a symbol of disrespect for human life? Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong? How can a pro-lifer refrain from protesting the arms race and the nuclear arms development that has gone unchecked these many years when this waste of precious human resources robs the poor of the needed human services that insure the quality of human life? How can a pro-lifer support wars and threats of wars when war is nothing more than capital punishment on a massive scale?
The integrity of both the scientific and symbolic arguments depends a great deal on the consistency of the people who hold them. It is certainly clear that the pro-life/anti-abortion stand within the MfS would have a great deal more legitimacy if the larger pro-life movement would reflect a more consistent pro-life position in regard to the many other life and death issues that the MfS is addressing. It is also a shame that Pro-Lifers for Survival, a national pro-life group trying to bridge the gap within the pro-life movement, is having difficulty getting affiliated status with the MfS at the very time that both the MfS and the pro-life movement need to broaden both membership and concern for life.
Via Pacis, vol 6, March & April 1981