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‘Pro-Life Catholics’ Who Oppose Banning Abortion?

Three objections to Texas's new "heartbeat" law, and how to refute them

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 ruling not to impede a Texas law that lets citizens sue providers and others who “aid and abet” a woman in obtaining an abortion beyond the point where a baby’s heartbeat can be detected by ultrasound. The Court did not make a pronouncement on the law’s constitutionality, but merely rejected legal “stays” that would have prevented it from going into effect.

Although other states have passed similar “heartbeat bills,” none has survived legal challenges, and so none was ever implemented. The Texas law is different because, according to the New York Times, it

bars state officials from actually enforcing it, a design intended to make it difficult to challenge in the courts. Usually a lawsuit aiming to block such a law as unconstitutional names state officials as defendants. Instead, the Texas law deputizes private citizens to sue anyone who performs an abortion or “aids and abets” a procedure. Plaintiffs who have no connection to the patient or the clinic may sue and recover legal fees, as well as $10,000 if they win.

The law is far from settled, and although abortion providers are currently complying with it, pro-abortion advocates have promised legal challenges and are urging President Biden (who claims to be a faithful Catholic) to keep “his campaign vow to champion federal bills that would enshrine Roe’s protections in federal law.”

What’s most surprising in the wake of these proceedings are self-described “pro-life Catholics” who oppose the Texas law. Some object to the law’s reliance on private lawsuits; others offer criticism that sounds more like what a pro-abortion advocate would say, and not a faithfully pro-life Catholic. Here are a few I’ve come across on social media:

  1. “Society has a responsibility to make sure no pregnant women is in need before it outlaws abortion.”

That’s like saying society must make sure every plantation-owner has all the machinery he needs to harvest his crops before outlawing slavery. By this logic, many other laws should be taken off the books.

The most common crimes a poor person commits due to financial strain are things like shoplifting and burglary. Does society have a responsibility to make sure poverty is eradicated before it outlaws crimes like shoplifting? Of course not, and the same applies even more to economically motivated violent crimes like aggravated robbery and abortion.

Also, a significant number of couples who choose abortion do so not because they lack material resources to care for a child, but because they do not want to alter their life plans and take on the burdens of parenting a (or another) child. One reason the “poverty paradigm” of abortion is flawed is that women in extreme poverty are four times less likely to have an abortion than women with four times that annual income (about $47,000). One study found that pregnant single women who make $11,670 per year abort 8.6 percent of the time, whereas single women who make $47,000 a year or more abort 32 percent of the time.

Finally, this kind of reasoning perpetuates a harmful stereotype of the poor being passive agents who can’t be virtuous unless someone “takes care of them” first. But as we’ve seen, poor people are less likely to choose abortion, and families that fall into poverty almost universally don’t commit crimes like infanticide to remedy their situation. Instead, they seek help from the numerous government and non-government services available to assist needy families. But even if that help weren’t available, violence against children (born and unborn) should never be legally tolerated as a substitute.

  1. “It’s wrong to pass laws that disproportionately affect a specific group of people like poor pregnant women.”

Just because a certain group of people are more likely to break a law, it doesn’t follow that the law is unjust. Men are more likely to commit sexual assault than women, but laws prohibiting sexual assault are obviously not immoral. Likewise, the poor are far more likely to commit crimes like shoplifting, but that doesn’t mean that shoplifting should be legal. The same is true of laws prohibiting acts of violence toward unborn children.

Some people also claim that “even if you outlaw abortion, the rich will just travel to get abortions, so all you’re doing is harming the poor.” But preventing someone from engaging in a grave evil is not a harm; it’s an act of love that protects his soul as well as the persons he would have harmed.

  1. “Abortion bans will just get struck down in the courts and make the pro-life movement look bad.”

This objection involves a prudential judgment rather than a moral argument, and Catholics can disagree about whether a specific legal strategy is “cunning like a fox” or “stupider like a fox.” But arguing that pro-life advocates should never try to restrict abortion on a wide scale because the laws might be struck down seems irrational.

For example, opponents of racial segregation suffered legal defeats in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and Lum v. Rice (1927) before achieving incremental victories in cases like Gaines v. Canada (1938) and full vindication in the landmark 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education. If civil rights activists had waited to challenge unjust laws until they were assured absolute victory, then minorities might still be waiting for equal and just treatment under the law.

In closing, Catholics must remember that our faith obliges us not only to morally oppose abortion and refuse to obtain an abortion for ourselves. It also obliges us to oppose pro-abortion laws and work so that every unborn child has the legal protection all of them did have just decades ago. Pope St. John Paul II put it well:

Civil law must ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for certain fundamental rights which innately belong to the person, rights which every positive law must recognize and guarantee. First and fundamental among these is the inviolable right to life of every innocent human being. . . . Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection (Evangelium Vitae 71-72).

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