Perhaps the most absorbing element of this election season is the spectacle of abortion activists and media analysts grappling with both Gov. Sarah Palin’s decision to spare the life of her Down syndrome child and her teenage daughter’s decision to continue her pregnancy and marry the father of her unborn child.
As a group of talking heads on television expressed their amazement at the state of the Palin household, I thought of William May, my moral theology professor at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, and his penchant for poking holes in the tortured logic of abortion advocates. May could nail the source of abortion supporters’ present discomfort in a nanosecond: Palin’s family choices directly challenge arguments that justify abortion as the “lesser evil.”
Since the ’60s, reproductive rights activists have presented abortion as perhaps the best solution for the scourge of teenage pregnancy, inner-city poverty, gender inequality, and the suffering experienced by disabled infants and their families. But May didn’t buy those arguments: “If abortion is the ‘lesser evil,’” he used to tell our class, “then the alternative — keeping the baby — constitutes the ‘greater evil.’ But how can that position be proved?”
The answer is that it’s impossible to prove that abortion constitutes the “lesser evil.” Catholic moral theologians like May have labored for years to explain both the logical inconsistencies and the moral dangers of the “lesser evil” argument. Now, the Palin family is providing an assist.
Basically, the “lesser evil” argument seeks to weigh, or commensurate, the good and evil consequences of two opposing moral choices.
But May and others argue that this exercise is like comparing apples and oranges. With abortion, the decision is made to terminate nascent human life in order to avoid a worse outcome. According to this equation, bringing the baby to term will produce such disastrous consequences that the good of preserving human life is outweighed by the overwhelming burden of sustaining it. But no abortion advocates have offered an analytical model that will support this utilitarian calculation. In fact, this balancing act is not a precise scientific evaluation, but a reflection of personal beliefs and experience.
The “lesser evil” argument also reveals a scary indifference to the moral evil inherent in the choice to destroy innocent human life. Many pregnant women, unwed or not, can be overwhelmed by the scandal, financial and logistical demands, and threats to personal freedom posed by the arrival of a new child. This argument implicitly assumes the mother can predict the future, and that it will be bleak if her child is brought to term. But this, too, cannot be proved. The future, as we all know, is woefully, or gloriously, unpredictable.
In fact, the “lesser evil” position depends on scary scenarios that can distract the would-be mother from the fundamental moral principle at issue: “You shall not do evil that good shall come of it.”
There was a time when every American child learned that “the ends don’t justify the means.” But since the ’60s, that moral aphorism has been under sustained attack, both within and without the Church. Long before self-described Catholic politicians challenged traditional teaching on abortion, the Church was roiled by the eruption of theological dissent on the morality of married couples using contraception.
The rejection of Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) depended on a steady stream of sympathetic portraits of married couples struggling to achieve financial and emotional stability by spacing births. Contraception was the “lesser evil.”
During the debate on Humanae Vitae, dissenting theologians advanced two additional arguments to justify the use of contraception. Moral relativism remained the most popular argument — times had changed, and moral absolutes no longer applied. The second argument has been described as the “fundamental option”: “Good” people can occasionally violate moral absolutes without endangering their souls. Good Catholics could contracept, as long as they remained loving parents and spouses. Since then, similar arguments have been employed to justify abortion, sidestepping the decisive way evil actions shape our character and future moral choices.
The three lines of theological dissent pose logical and moral problems. But May also liked to expose the blind spot at the heart of any rejection of moral absolutes. The arid “lesser evil” equation that sentences the unborn child to death ignores the endless possibilities of a human choice that embraces the great good of preserving life.
As Pope John Paul II often noted, the Ten Commandments provide the absolute limit beyond which human behavior cannot descend. But the Decalogue sets no limits on human transcendence. Christians navigate their temporal existence with the aid of a Church that offers the truth that sets us free.
When abortion is off the table, the search for true solutions begins — tightening the household budget, proposing marriage, offering the child for adoption to a childless couple. Catholic moral teaching drives human creativity, inspiring real fruitfulness.
Once declared a settled political question, abortion keeps resurfacing at the center of the political stage. In part, that’s because the debate over abortion is not just about the unborn person’s right to life. It’s also about how we should embrace the vast possibilities of our vocation to love as Christ loves us. How we should live in this world.
Many Americans, Republicans and Democrats will be drawn to the drama of the Palin family. And while neither they nor we know what the future holds, we share their hopes. And who knows? Maybe this election will consign the “lesser evil” argument to the dustbin of history. Professor May would applaud heartily.
Marylander Joan Frawley Desmond writes for a variety of publications on religious and cultural topics.
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