As usual, controversial moral issues such as abortion are discussed as mere differences of political opinion. Scratch the surface, though, and you see that they expose fundamentally opposed ideas about the nature of reality and the human being.
Woman is both blessed and burdened by her peculiar role as the bearer of children. The biological necessity of Man’s physical proximity to his child ends at conception, while Woman must remain physically close at least until the child is weaned, if the child is to survive. In fact, Woman must literally house her child within herself for nine months, the two bodies as close together as two bodies can be, the two lives inextricably intertwined. Man’s responsibility for his offspring is largely a moral, social one. Woman’s responsibility is necessitated by biology and resides in the very make-up of her body. Add to this the fact that biology also enables Man to initiate and even force the conception of children on Woman, with little risk to his own future and with great risk to hers. This results in a greatly unequal responsibility for children between the sexes.
Humans have typically interpreted this natural inequality by keeping Woman confined within the sphere of child-bearing and child-rearing. This is understandable, especially in rustic settings, since the survival of children is dependent on the attention given to them by Woman and since biology makes this non-negotiable. Also not surprising is that fact that, due to humanity’s ability and tendency to see meaning everywhere, we have abstractly considered “bearer of children” as essential to defining “Woman.” Thus we have traditionally understood womanhood and motherhood as nearly synonymous. If you will suspend your modern, First World assumptions for a moment, this will probably become obvious.
(Though granted much more freedom of movement, Man is not therefore unbound by biology and free to seek his own welfare exclusively. During pregnancy and nursing, children depend directly on the Woman for sustenance, keeping her close to them. This makes Woman herself dependent on the labor of Man, placing the responsibility for her survival largely on his shoulders. Again, we have therefore usually imagined “provider of food” as essential to defining “Man,” making manhood and bread-winner nearly synonymous. Genesis 3:16-19 succinctly summarizes these facts about the human condition.)
But, then. Our society experienced an industrial revolution which has enriched us beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams, creating less rustic environments in which we have unprecedented control over our surroundings and over our bodies. For the first time, less worried about survival and with lots more free time, people suddenly possessed the luxury of questioning our assumptions about Man and Woman. For a female to be “fully a woman” (abstractly, of course), must she always be a mother? Is there something pernicious in taking the two things as synonyms, thereby limiting Woman forever to the realm of home and children? With millions of women now able to prevent pregnancy and able to live comfortably with fewer children or no children, what is Woman after all? For that matter, what is Man, if Woman is equally capable of the non-physical labor that makes up most of the modern industrialized economy? Modern affluence disrupted our ancient lifestyle patterns based on gender. This in turn caused us to lose our footing in how we conceive of the archetypal categories “Man” and “Woman.”
The implications of these historical developments can and should be investigated in regards to all our modern problems of (trans-)gender, sexuality, marriage, parenting, family, masculinity, and femininity. For now, let’s consider the original topic of abortion. Here is where we find the conflict between fundamental beliefs about reality.
For the secular person unconcerned with transcendence, there need be no inherent connection between womanhood and motherhood. Equal parts Gnostic and Darwinist, the contemporary secular worldview is free to utterly divide one’s biological identity (“bearer of children”) from one’s abstract identity (“woman”). The abstract identity is meaningful only insomuch as human minds assign meaning to it, anyway. Add to this no reason to believe in the inherent value of human existence (even apart from human personality) and the prizing of unrestrained personal freedom as the key to happiness, and you have created the pro-choice person. A purposeless natural world enables us to separate meaning from biology, motherhood from womanhood, and thus the human body inside the womb from the human body around it.
What about the Christian who believes in transcendence and cares about God’s will for the world? The Christian worldview cannot so easily disentangle biology, or what God has created, from what it means abstractly, or the meaning the divine mind has assigned to it. A woman’s pregnancy is no mere physical accident divorced from the way she conceptualizes her personal identity. Put another way, she is not an enlightened mind inside an animal body. Rather, she is soul and body, made by God. Her capacity for pregnancy, and her pregnancy itself, say something about who she is.
We all see the danger in too closely associating “woman” with “mother.” Childless women have been shamed and even despised for millennia. Civilization has suffered from the historical exclusion of women from public spheres. Great injustice has been done to untold numbers of women who could not bear children or who would have been greatly useful outside the domestic realm if given the opportunity. We know very well, then, that a woman is a Woman (and first, a human being) whether she bears a child or not. For the Christian, that is basic imago Dei doctrine.
But do we see the danger in separating “woman” from “mother” entirely? Are women in the first stage of motherhood–i.e. pregnant women–still not truly mothers in any sense, such that their children are mere bundles of disposable tissue and not children at all? Is the biological fact of their pregnancy totally unrelated to their femininity or to their personal identity? (Furthermore, can a male really be called a woman if he is without the remotest capacity of ever bearing or nursing a child and if his body does not every month prepare for the possibility?)
For me, as a woman, as a believer in transcendence, and as a person deeply interested in the well-being of all women, abortion denigrates women by utterly severing the tie between body and soul, between biology and identity.
These topics deserve further discussion, within the Church and within broader society. I would love to hear from you.