Pope Francis, Abortion, & Quandary Ethics

It seems now that excitement over Pope Francis was always destined to be short-lived.

After much jubilation following the publication of his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, some writers on the left have now soured on the pope who takes his name from the iconic Saint Francis. In his 13 January ‘State of the World’ address, Francis remarked that abortion is a symptom of a ‘throwaway’ culture:

“It is horrific even to think that there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day…Unfortunately, what is thrown away is not only food and dispensable objects, but often human beings themselves, who are discarded as unnecessary…”

The remainder of his speech focused on the horrors of modern slavery and the conscription of child soldiers in warfare, but those remarks were less often recalled in the flurry of commentaries that followed than those above. Writing for The New Statesman, Laurie Penny first noted that the Pope had been “doing so well”, and then submitted that his views on abortion will only become relevant when he himself is pregnant. Glosswitch, also of The New Statesman, called the Pope’s remarks “utterly dehumanizing” for women and girls. At Jezebel, Lindy West adduced his stance on abortion as plain, clear evidence that the Pope does not believe women should have control over their bodies. Even the best popes, West lamented, are still popes in the end.

And so, there you have it: Pope Francis, champion of the poor and systematically deprived, campaigner against exploitation and violence, uniformly detests women and girls. Any hope the secular left may have had of coalition building with the Christian left can, if these commentators are to be believed, quietly dissolve. After all, there can’t really be fellowship between such a profound hater of women and a movement whose goals include the furthering of equity between the sexes – right?

That would be a reasonable conclusion to draw from so many articles blasting Francis for his anti-abortion position. But the reality is that women themselves are deeply divided on the issue of abortion, and to represent any opposition to abortion as manifest evidence of misogyny is ignorance at best and dishonesty at worst. Numerous polls have featured splits on abortion between the sexes, suggesting that whether or not one can become pregnant actually has very little to do with where he or she comes down on the matter. A 2013 Pew Forum poll shows that 48% of men and 50% of women think that having an abortion is morally wrong, and much wider gender gaps than that occur when it comes to specific abortion policies. For instance: multiple polls showed that women were generally supportive of the GOP’s proposed 20-week abortion ban, and were consistently supportive of the policy in significantly greater numbers than men.

In short, abortion does not appear to be an issue wherein a person’s position gives an informative view of their ethics as a whole. That is, a person who opposes abortion may believe there are circumstances in which it’s morally unacceptable for a woman to exercise certain expressions of control over her body, but that does not necessarily ensure that person believes women should have no control over their bodies, or that women are inhuman or lesser subjects of moral concern. This is most clearly the case because so many of the people who object to abortion are themselves women.

The question now becomes: how can this be? Abortion is routinely advanced as a litmus-test type issue to sniff out whether or not a person is committed to important, universal moral imperatives, like bodily autonomy, liberty, and equality. But is this a fair framing?

I don’t think so. I think it’s a manifestation of what Edmund Pincoff called “quandary ethics”, or a tendency to think of ethics as the universal rules that arise from the resolution of high-stakes, zero-sum moral puzzles, like abortion and the infamous ‘trolley problem.’ As Pincoff points out, one of the major problems with the quandarist pursuit of ethics is the type of reasoning it demands to produce suitable solutions: “what is relevant must have nothing to do with me, only with the situation: a situation in which anyone could find himself. What is right for me must be right for anyone.” This is essentially the stripped-out, hyper-abstract sense in which we’ve come to imagine abortion, despite the fact that both sides harp endlessly about dealing in the harsh realities of lived human experience. In practice, the discussion of abortion zeroes down to categories so broad they’re almost vacant: woman, fetus, equality, freedom.

When we put these extremely broad categories into competition with one another in the case of abortion, we fall into the quandary ethics trap, and wind up insisting upon ethical rules too general and too extreme for our real sense of the matter. Not only are the sort of maxims we come up with when we solve abortion-writ-large as a quandary unsatisfying to us politically, as Michael Peppard points out, but they also lead to strange intellectual conclusions – such as the notion that 50% of women hate and dehumanize women, or that Pope Francis – the man who encouraged women to breastfeed their infants at will in the Sistine Chapel – is a rank misogynist and loather of liberty.

But the reasoning of the Catholic Church differs here. Despite what is commonly pushed as the Catholic position on abortion – hardline, rectilinear, intractable – the Church does not uniformly condemn everything that might be thought of as abortion, and it does not condemn the abortions that it does condemn due to whatever antiquated notions of male ownership of women it’s often charged with harboring. The Church approves, for example, of medical intervention to preserve the life of a woman which incidentally results in the termination of the life of a fetus – a strange position for a group charged with such burning misogyny. What the Church does not approve of is the intentional termination of the life of a fetus for that end in itself, just as it does not approve of the termination of any life for that purpose, regardless of sex.

The factoring in of subtleties like intention, purpose, and overall cultural tendencies is difficult in the world of quandary ethics, but is native to the Catholic tradition. This is, I fear, why the two sides in the debate I’ve presented here – those who approve of Pope Francis and those who cannot due to his position on abortion – are becoming increasingly incomprehensible to one another. Their frames differ too broadly, and their first principles are out of joint as well: not that the discussion ever gets that far, regrettably.

And this, I think, is a shame. Since Pope Francis made his first well-received statements about the obligation of the world to its poor, right wing dissenters sneered aloud, wondering when he would dare to alienate his left supporters with the Church’s stance on abortion. This is a disappointing and disheartening use of the Church’s love of human life to separate leftist coalitions that seek to support the poor, and worst of all, it’s working. Leftist Christians will undoubtedly prefer not to align themselves politically with groups who accuse them of hating women and girls and freedom and all other goods we can imagine, and in losing the ability to work together politically, we lose much of our strength when it comes to affecting policy in the arenas of poverty and inequality.

Secular leftists who disapprove of the Pope’s stance on abortion would at least do well to remember that the position of Catholics and other Christians on abortion does not inform their ethics when it comes to women, girls, and autonomy as a whole in the sense that the secular leftist might first suspect, because ethical framing is different among many Christian groups. That is not the sort of answer that promises full policy agreement, and indeed that can’t be promised: but what can be is the assurance that the specter of misogyny the secular left seems to want so much to see does not really exist here, which should at least be enough to allow cooperation on matters that require our united effort.