How would you define “pro-life?” Many of us would say it is simply the defense of life from conception to natural death. However, when talking about abortion, some pro-life supporters add the often-repeated exception “in cases of rape, incest or when the mother’s life is in danger.” That amended clause, as compassionate as it may sound to some, can damage the women concerned and the pro-life ethic.
There are some who, while fervently believing that life begins at the moment of fertilization, would take away the right to life if conception occurred through rape or incest. But how can a human being become disposable because of the circumstance of conception? The child is still created in the image and likeness of God, just as any other human being. Yes, the woman has been victimized — a devastating, life-changing event — but the child is not the criminal. Should we destroy this new, innocent life and increase the violence by making the child a second victim?
We should all be appalled that a woman has suffered the outrage of rape or incest. The man has used her as an object, without recognizing that she was created by God in his image and likeness. Fists shaken in anger by sympathetic people slam down at the thought that she might have to give birth to the perpetrator’s child. Without doubt, the offender bears the moral responsibility for the barbaric abuse endured by this woman. But the child cannot be identified as an enemy. The only criminal in this case is the victimizer, not the baby.
She has been violated; however, she must not violate the rights of the human being growing within her. When fertilization takes place, a new person springs into being, and this new individual remains apart from the man; and although in the woman’s body, the child is a separate person developing within her. Even when conceived through an immoral, criminal act, the child is as much the image and likeness of God as everyone else.
Those pro-life supporters who insist on the exception clause send a double message: a baby is definitely a precious life, except when it isn’t. The difference centers on the circumstances of conception. However, circumstances cannot change the fact that this new life is a human being. To deny this individual’s right to life produces an incoherent logic where how the child was conceived takes precedence over the child.
Never an answer
In an attempt to come to the mother’s aid, well-meaning individuals can default to the deception of abortion. However, the exception clause dismisses the woman herself, as if, in destroying the new life, the woman can then return to her daily routine. But abortion cannot rid her mind of the memory of the attack or of incest’s entrapment. Abortion is never an answer to any problem, and it does not restore the woman to her former life.
The woman deserves our compassion, and abortion has nothing to do with compassion. Her pain seeks release through psychological and spiritual healing from the trauma itself. It calls for the moral response that involves caring people who are committed to reaching out to embrace her in her brokenness.
True pro-life advocates respect both the woman and the child, and they walk with her through this difficult time, helping her to find therapy from a suitable pro-life psychologist as she grapples with a difficult past. Carrying a child is time-limited, but who knows how long she might carry the vicious memory of the aggression if she fails to receive the proper help?
A few trusted pro-life supporters can journey with her during this process, as well as during her discernment about whether to raise the child herself or entrust the baby to adoptive parents. She might be navigating through the rapids of pressure from family, husband or boyfriend to abort the child. Those who are pro-life must serve as a safe harbor and reliable contact for her. The importance of relationship imbues our Catholic Christianity. Our Faith is incarnational. God was born into our world and related to the human race by taking on a bodily form. Through baptism, we are brought together into his mystical body. Because of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are saved. We must ask: What can I do to prevent an abortion and to aid in this woman’s healing? It is as important to respond to the woman’s problems and respect her life as much as we respect the child’s.
Caring for the expectant
When he was archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor put forth an invitation: Any pregnant woman in the United States who needed assistance in order to carry her child and give birth would be welcomed by the New York archdiocese. Today there is a pro-life community that he founded years ago called the Sisters of Life. The compassionate members of this apostolate include sisters and layworkers who offer the women dependable availability, steadiness of communication, and even their talents and practical assistance.
How can women find the resources in other places? More dioceses need to publicize their efforts through billboards, bus signs, library and laundromat message boards, and via newspaper and radio ads. If we are to save the child’s life and help the woman re-acquire her life of dignity, dioceses should work to get the message out in parish bulletins and through multimedia via social networking and links on websites.
Underscoring the principle of subsidiarity, parishes might even sponsor a vulnerable woman. Perhaps she needs life skills, employment or job training.
Parishioners willing to come forward during this period to share companionship, food and clothing might also help with housing and the other necessities that will take her through her pregnancy and perhaps beyond.
Mother in danger
The most troubling phrase referenced in the exceptions clause is “when the mother’s life is in danger.” We must recognize that two lives — possibly both in peril — are patients. The imperative requires that everything be done to save both mother and child. Physicians must consider them equally as his patients, meting out their medical skills with equity so that both survive. Both lives are of equal dignity and worth.
The child cannot be aborted. There are times when in performing surgery on the mother, the baby will die, but the death results from an effort to save the mother, not to provoke abortion. There must never be any intention or direct action to kill the child.
Power of prayer
When a woman first knows that she is pregnant, she should consider asking St. Gerard Majella, the patron saint of expectant mothers, to pray for her (his feast day is Oct. 16). Dioceses and parishes should consider setting up a special prayer line for woman in high-risk pregnancies and their unborn babies.
Around the saint’s feast day, special celebrations and publicized novenas might include blessings for the expectant mothers and their unborn children, community prayers and refreshments with personal introductions to parishioners who will pray regularly for them.
Some might sign up to prepare meals, run necessary errands or even provide transportation when the time arrives.
Healing begins with love. Abortion is not the response to a woman’s emotional wounds. Our love and caring perhaps can bring her to the ability to rise from her victimization. Defying the death of her innocence with the determination to overcome the horror that assailed her, she can turn toward life and with unselfishness decide to allow the child to live — and this can begin her own healing.
Irene Maria DiSanto writes from Florida.