Randall Smith: Neither the Seamless Garment, Nor Merely Anti-Abortion

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By Randall Smith,. The Catholic Thing, Jan. 30, 2019

Randall SmithI want to apologize in advance for not writing about the Covington Catholic social media mugging.  It’s not that I don’t think there was a terrible injustice perpetrated against what appears to have been a totally innocent teenage boy. There was.

And it’s not that I’m unconcerned that the ultimate lesson parents might derive from the panicked reaction among pro-life leaders to a cleverly edited propaganda video is that no responsible parent would ever agree in the future to send his or her son or daughter to the pro-life march for fear of the damage a random video might do to their college and career prospects.  I am.

Nor, quite frankly, do I hold out much hope that this whole shameful, tawdry affair has finally “taught America a lesson” about the dangers of social media mobs so that “it might be different next time.” I don’t.

Just read the comment boxes even on Catholic websites.  It’s just that everyone else has complained about all that, so there’s really no point in my repeating it.  So, by your leave, I would like to mention another topic occasioned by the March for Life.

Let me begin by saying that I have no desire to attach the pro-life cause to such a wide array of issues that the cause itself disappears from view.  People who work in non-profit organizations call this “mission creep”: you start out doing good for one group, then someone says, “Why not these people?” and then these, and “How about all those?” until, finally, you have precious few resources to do much good for anyone.

The pro-life coalition is united by one thing: a shared horror at the killing of unborn children.  There are many other evils in the world: human trafficking, sexual abuse of children, the mistreatment of women and young girls, especially in the Middle East, the violation of human rights by authoritarian governments – the list goes on and on.

Others might add: the crisis of refugees and immigrants, the continued use of the death penalty, unbalanced use of the world’s resources on weapons rather than the poor.  All of these are problems.  But the “pro-life” coalition will never hold together if “being pro-life” requires holding particular, defined views about each one of those complex moral issues.

There may be disagreements about the need to “build a wall” on our southern border, but that disagreement shouldn’t be allowed to keep us from striving together to protect unborn life, any more than the centuries-long differences between Protestants and Catholics should have been allowed to keep them from striving together to protect Jews during the Holocaust. They didn’t have to agree about transubstantiation to vote against laws restricting Jewish ownership of businesses and property.  Nor do we have to agree about immigration or even the death penalty in order to struggle for greater justice for the unborn.

And yet, having said all that, there are certain matters so closely connected with the protection of unborn life that to be “pro-life” rather than merely “anti-abortion” requires giving them some serious attention.  So, for example, the State of Texas is a very progressive state when it comes to battling the scourge of abortion. (And yes, I used “progressive” there just to be irritating and to show our friends on the other side what it feels like.)

And yet, now that the protestors from Texas are home from the March, they might look into the kind of aid the state gives to support the mentally retarded or the deaf or children with Down Syndrome. California is a much less progressive and enlightened state on abortion (oh, my, that is fun; no wonder liberals enjoy that), but California often provides better support for parents of children with disabilities.

Consider a young mother living below the poverty line who is told that she will give birth to a mentally retarded child or a child with Down syndrome.  In this culture, that woman and that child face a very uncertain future in terms of medical care.  Will she be able to afford the medical expenses?  Will there be the kind of help she and her child needs?  Will there be help for this child when he or she grows up, after the mother and father have died?  These are all considerations that might cause this woman to be tempted to have an abortion.

Our opponents charge repeatedly that we are merely “anti-abortion” and not really “pro-life,” that we only care about a woman’s unborn child and not about the woman, a charge that, quite frankly, has always rankled me because I have known dozens and dozens of women who have been working selflessly week after week, year after year, with little or no pay, in “women’s care centers,” trying to help pregnant women so that abortion is not a choice they feel they need to make.

What is Planned Parenthood doing with its millions to help pregnant women avoid feeling forced into having abortions?

Our opponents say about themselves that they are not “pro-abortion” but “pro-choice,” protecting “women’s reproductive rights.”  Let’s agree to disagree about that, but agree that, although being “pro-life” can’t mean anything and everything, being “pro-life” and “pro-choice” has to mean providing the support necessary for mothers and children, especially those with disabilities, so that no woman feels pressured into having an abortion by the fear that her child might be subjected to the lack of medical care we all know persists for too many in our country.

None of this would justify terminating the life of an unborn child.  But we who say we care about those lives “from conception to natural death” had better show it with the way we support programs, both governmental and private, to take care of the disabled – programs that treat them with the dignity they deserve as sons and daughters of the loving God we say we believe in.


Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.