Abortion and Empathy
Modified from a bulletin article by Fr. Jeff Lorig, Pastor at Midtown Catholic
As we enter the holiday season, a time where we interact with family members more frequently, I thought it might be good to share some thoughts on a hot-button topic: abortion.
I chose this issue because the pending U.S. Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson has captured national attention. The Supreme Court’s decision in June could overturn Roe v. Wade, and that means this could be a topic at many a dinner table during Christmas.
Before I begin, I want to give you my pro-life “credentials” just in case somebody might become suspicious of where I stand on the issue.
I have been part of the pro-life movement since I was 18 years old. It was the summer before seminary, and I met a girl (thanks God, not confusing at all). As I got to know her, she shared a deep darkness that had been plaguing her. She revealed that she had had an abortion. I didn’t really know what to do so I bought a book at Cosgraves on the topic of healing from an abortion. It recommended a prayer exercise that included a healing of memories. She experienced God’s forgiveness and was able to forgive herself as well. She named her child and found great healing through whole the process.
When I was in college seminary, I prayed at the abortion clinic routinely and did sidewalk counseling almost every Thursday. I was the president of the Students for Human Life at the University of St. Thomas for two years. Since my ordination, I have counseled numerous women and men who have experienced the pain of abortion. I’ve also attended several March for Life rallies in Washington D.C. over the years.
As I get older (and hopefully wiser), I’ve begun to change my mind about what the most effective ways are to communicate the pro-life message on the issue of abortion. I’ve only recently become aware of some research that was done almost twenty years ago that confirmed my thoughts.
A group called the Vitae Foundation funded research to better understand the hearts and minds of women who were in a crisis pregnancy so that their pro-life message wouldn’t fall on deaf ears. The research is summarized in an article published in First Things written by Paul Swope called Abortion: A Failure to Communicate. I recommend taking the time to read the entire thing, but here are a few highlights:
- The report suggests that women do not see any “good” resulting from an unplanned pregnancy. Instead they must weigh what they perceive as three “evils,” namely, motherhood, adoption, and abortion.
- The scores of women involved in the study (none of whom were pro-life activists and all of whom called themselves “pro-choice”) agreed that abortion is killing.
- Unplanned motherhood, according to the study, represents a threat so great to modern women that it is perceived as equivalent to a “death of self.” While the woman may rationally understand this is not her own literal death, her emotional, subconscious reaction to carrying the child to term is that her life will be “over.” This is because many young women of today have developed a self-identity that simply does not include being a mother.
- While many of us know adoption to be a beautiful and courageous option, it is rarely perceived as such by a woman in a crisis pregnancy. Adoption, for many women, is seen as a double death. Not only would the woman have to carry the pregnancy to term as a mother, a death of self, but then be a “bad mother” because there is a sense death by abandoning her child. It is commonly perceived as the worst of the three “evils”.
- All of this means that many women see abortion as the least of three evils, and choosing abortion is perceived as a choice for survival.
While many of us may not agree with these perspectives, it would serve us to well to try on a little empathy. No one cares what we have to say until they’re convinced that we actually care. Our failures to communicate often begin with our failure to listen.
I would encourage anyone of who claims to be pro-life not to make any judgements about the women who have these views. It’s simply not helpful. Listening, understanding, and empathy, are the keys to effectively communicating a pro-life message. If we want to communicate, we also have to listen. Empathizing with women going through a crisis pregnancy should exhort us to reconsider our pro-life rhetoric and slogans. Much of our pro-life message falls on deaf ears and actually makes things worse.
Consider the common pro-life slogan, “Abortion Stops a Beating Heart.” The First Things article that I mentioned above points out that, “While this may be an effective phrase among pro-lifers, the effect upon a young woman in crisis would probably be to: 1) provoke anger at the messenger (pro-lifers), 2) confirm her sense that pro-lifers ignore her life and situation, and 3) drive her further into denial and despair.”
I know some in the pews would prefer that I and my brother priests give more strongly worded and more frequent anti-abortion homilies. When I preach, I have to consider who is sitting in those pews. Consider this:
- 1 in 4 women by age 45 will have had an abortion (Guttmacher)
- Nearly 4 in 10 women who have had an abortion were churchgoers when they ended a pregnancy (Care Net)
- And finally, that 24% of women who get abortions are Catholic (Guttmacher)
It was Jesus’ gaze of mercy, care and concern that changed the hearts those he encountered. As the Body of Christ on earth, it will serve us well if we share that same gaze of mercy, care and concern to those whom we encounter. If we want to remember the unborn, we have to care for the mother first, understand her situation, and then choose our words carefully.
Want more on how to talk about being pro-life?
Listen to our EquipCast on Pro-life Messaging!