Roe v Wade: Do we really honour motherhood?

For many Catholic adults who oppose abortion today, the pro-life movement was our real introduction to moral philosophy.

Maybe we attended prayer vigils with our families in grade school or high school, or maybe we just read news magazines and argued with kids on the school bus.

Either way, the questions surrounding abortion opened our minds to some fundamental moral questions.

What do people owe to one another?

What is a human life, and what is it worth?

When must we set aside our personal goals for the sake of something bigger?

I can still remember sitting in seventh-grade Spanish class, turning over the phrases in my head: “right to life,” “unique human being,” “woman’s right to choose.”

Even as it shaped our moral sensibilities, the pro-life movement also served for many of us as a kind of primer for politics in the United States.

We may have come of age with deep antagonism toward the American judiciary, but at the same time, we also had serious reasons to reflect on the value of civic peace.

We reflected on the ethical and pragmatic reasons for pursuing worthy goals within the constraints of our political system.

We talked a lot in the 90s and 2000s about “the culture of death,” and also debated what might be involved in building a culture of life.

For many years now, the prospect of overturning Roe v. Wade has unified pro-life Americans.

We had our disagreements, but in a strange way, our shared opposition to this Supreme Court verdict provided the canopy for a very large political tent.

But the recent leak to Politico of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito suggests that the Supreme Court will soon strike down Roe v. Wade, and a corner may finally be turned. We must consider the road ahead.

It is a strange moment.

A pro-life society must support mothers.


Mothers are indispensable to the good of children,


and to society as a whole.

The recent leak to Politico of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito suggests that the Supreme Court will soon strike down Roe v. Wade.

We must consider the road ahead.

If Roe is overturned, pro-life Catholics likely will rejoice, but we also must consider the ways in which the political landscape more broadly, as well as the dynamics among the various factions of the pro-life movement, may change as a result.

It may feel harder to work together in pursuit of honourable goals.

Nevertheless, we can.

It is possible because the groundwork has already been laid.

Across all those years of praying for the right judges, we understood that originalist legal theories could not really do all the work.

Strong legal protections for the unborn would be impossible without the support of a given state’s voters.

Even with amenable voters, laws can only do so much. The state can and should provide some protections for unborn children, but a culture of life must go further. Children have enormous needs that cannot be met by laws. They need families. Most especially, they need parents.

The Face of Motherhood

The first eyes to meet a newborn’s gaze should normally be those of the infant’s mother.

She is the person whose voice a child has heard for months on end.

Her body was the child’s original home.

Sometimes there are serious reasons why a mother cannot nurture her child, but in a culture of life, we would normally expect those eyes to be there, searching the tiny face, making first contact with the world’s newest citizen.

No law can make this happen, but it needs to happen, at least in most cases, if we truly want to protect and support our children.

What this means, of course, is that a pro-life society must support mothers.

They are indispensable to the good of children, and to society as a whole.

What does this mean on a cultural level?

This is a terribly difficult question, not least because it plunges us into broader controversies about the status of women generally.

Historically, many or most societies have presumed that a woman’s primary responsibilities were to her household and children.

Her civicstatus was generally mediated through her husband, her father or another familial male.

Children have enormous needs that cannot be met by laws.

As a somewhat natural but unfortunate extension of this principle, most societies have treated women as something less than full-fledged citizens.

In many places, until recently they were a protected class, with only some of the rights and duties that define citizens.

In the United States today, we consider that sort of arrangement to be unacceptable.

Women do deserve to be citizens, with full access to civic society.

As a woman, I am grateful that we have taken this laudable step, affirming the full dignity of women.

Still, it remains undeniably difficult today to give women the moral and material support they need to be present for their children while also ensuring the opportunity to pursue outside work (whether out of desire or necessity) or other personal interests.

Particularly on the political right, some of the proffered solutions are fairly insulting to mothers.

It is rare for these to reach the caricatured extremes of the recent book by Stephanie Gordon, Ask Your Husband, which posits that women should do little without following the instruction of the book’s title.

But many people still seem to want women to diminish themselves pre-emptively, either personally or professionally, cutting out any personal interests or pursuits as if that could prove to the world that they are ready and available for mothering.

Another approach, often favoured by pro-life Catholics, calls for a greatly enhanced social safety net.

It posits that a strong safety net allows expectant mothers to feel confident that they can raise their children without experiencing dire poverty.

Thus, they may be less likely to seek abortions.

The situation would be still better if women could count on extended families and communities to offer practical help, regardless of the availability of the child’s father.

Instead of scolding or punishing women for becoming pregnant (possibly under difficult circumstances), they argue, we should embrace the mother and child together, ensuring that they have what they need to thrive.

There is much to admire in this position.

It replaces harsh judgment with gentle compassion.

It recognizes that mothers both need and deserve material support, especially through pregnancy and their children’s early years.

It is shocking and shameful to read stories of mothers in the United States who deliver their babies and head out within 48 hours to deliver pizzas or drive Ubers, just to keep food on their family’s table.

As a society, we need to find better ways to support families, especially those raising children under adverse circumstances.

As a society, we need to find better ways to support families, especially those raising children under adverse circumstances.

Realistically, though, we must recognize that this strategy has its limits.

We cannot buy good mothers because maternity has moral and spiritual dimensions that no social program can reach.

Across the decades, pro-lifers have battled Roe v. Wade here in the United States with remarkable tenacity and conviction.

Meanwhile, in the world as a whole, abortion has become far more available, while birth rates have plummeted.

We need to face the glaring reality that motherhood is extremely difficult, with or without a network of support.

Social safety nets have their place, but if we treat them as a reliable solution to the problem of abortion, we risk repeating a mistake that already undermines a culture of life: We risk making mothers invisible.

Invisible Mothers

Invisible mothers are not a uniquely modern problem.

This became increasingly clear to me over the years as I reflected on my maternity.

I was raised on Bible stories, and I noticed from an early age that the Bible richly affirmed the value of children.

In the early years of my marriage, my husband and I struggled with infertility, and I was grateful for the many stories about remarkable biblical women who experienced similar trials.

I am now the mother of 5 children, and as my family grew, I was somewhat discomfited to notice that, although numerous descendants are promised to some as a reward for their faith, the Bible offers surprisingly few examples of mothers nurturing large families. Continue reading

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News category: Analysis and Comment, Palmerston.

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