The fact that we have lapsed into cultural warfare, rather than cultural dialogue, over this issue seems in large part due to the polarization that has occurred around it. To "pro-lifers," their adversaries are self-centered, hard-headed people who deny the obvious humanity--not to say personhood--of unborn life, merely to guarantee their own comfort. Abortion on demand, in other words, is a matter of sheer expediency.
To "pro-choicers," a naive attribution of "personhood"--or even of humanity--to an embryo or fetus is the product of religious fanaticism that puts some skewed, abstract principle above the reality of a woman's life and represents the worst kind of invasiveness into the most personal and private realm of her existence.
In fact, the great majority of women who opt for abortions do so out of motivations that are far less callous, far less egocentric, than many pro-life activists would like to admit. For many "aborted women," the experience both before and after the fact is traumatic and depressing. Many feel that they had no choice other than to abort their child, and they react to the typical "pro-choice" hue with derision or with tears.
As for responsibility, they are often torn between being responsible toward their unborn child, toward their parents who cannot accept their unmarried daughter's pregnancy, toward a husband who doesn't want any more kids, or toward themselves in cases where poverty or emotional trauma make unbearable the idea of another mouth to feed--another life to care for and deal with.
Personal responsibility in the abortion issue is not as clear cut as many would have it.
Responsibility to whom? And how?
Those of us who are definitely "pro-life" need to question the caricatures to which we've become all too accustomed. We need to share, for a moment at least, the pain and anguish so many women go through when they opt to terminate a pregnancy. And those on the other side need to open their minds to the obvious: that unborn life is still life. It is fully human life, and it deserves the care and protection we owe to any human being at any stage of his or her development.
All of us, then, need to stop the verbal overkill and begin to talk, with mutual respect and openness. We need to talk, but also to listen.
The churches have been eerily silent on this whole issue. Some have felt it their calling to denounce abortion, yet they give little attention to the plight of the mother (and virtually none to the responsibility of the father). Others offer varying degrees of support to abortion proponents, particularly those who speak in the interests of victims of rape and incest. While both sides claim to defend truth, they certainly represent reality: the reality both of the unborn and of the unborn's mother.
It's time that these same churches (yours and mine) provide--at the local level--a forum for genuine dialogue concerning abortion and the significance of prenatal life; a dialogue that to all parties involved is responsible, respectful and compassionate. In today's atmosphere, if they don't, certainly no one else will.
The Very Rev. John Breck was Professor of New Testament and Ethics at St. Vladimir's Seminary from 1984-1996. This article is reprinted with permission of the author.