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Joan Frawley Desmond on Maternal Connections & the End of Roe
An optimist by temperament, I celebrated Gonzales v. Carhart, the Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, as the beginning of the end for Roe v. Wade. As Rick Santorum, author of the bill, said: “For the first time in over 35 years, the Supreme Court balanced the interests of the two individuals directly involved in an abortion and found for the interest of the innocent child.”
But later I began to question my initial reaction. Perhaps the Justices were concerned not with advancing the rights of the unborn, but with something more subtle and ambiguous: upholding the moral value of the maternal bond. A second thought flowed from the first: Would a stronger emphasis on maternal communion result in a deeper appreciation for the human dignity of the unborn, or would it produce a sentimental side show, shifting the public debate from the main event?
For years, pro-lifers have publicized the devastating emotional and moral impact of abortion on the millions of women who have undergone the procedure. Just fifteen years ago, in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Justice -Anthony Kennedy made implicit reference to post-abortion syndrome without using it to justify any significant -restriction on Roe. This time, the problem of maternal guilt was employed to underscore the extreme inhumanity of partial-birth abortion, establishing the boundary that distinguished a civilized society from its opposite.
“Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child,” stated Kennedy in the majority opinion. “It is self-evident that a mother who comes to regret her choice to abort must struggle with grief more anguished and sorrow more profound when she learns, only after the event, what she once did not know: that she allowed a doctor to pierce the skull and vacuum the fast-developing brain of her unborn child.”
This is an important, if largely symbolic, achievement for the pro-life leaders who have struggled for years to inject into the law premises that will incrementally produce the overthrow of Roe. At the same time, Kennedy’s opinion does not lead the American public to face the incontrovertible truth that all abortions—tidy or not—involve the direct taking of innocent life. His language leaves our sympathies with the woman and her emotional turmoil.
This is not entirely a bad thing. Though unremarkable at first glance, any acknowledgment that abortion harms women attacks a key precept of hard-line activists in the women’s movement: the inviolability of individual autonomy. According to this position, legal abortion is essential for self-actualization, and thus women experience relief and not guilt when they undergo an abortion.
No surprise, then, that Justice Ruth Ginsburg, in her minority opinion, criticized Kennedy’s protective regard for the maternal bond as arising from “ancient notions about women’s place in the family” that have “long since been discredited.” Yet even as commentators advanced her critique in editorial pages and journals, their ire seemed misplaced and antiquated—an eerie reminder of the -cathartic utterances heard in 1970s consciousness-raising sessions.
Christian anthropology holds that, created in the image of the Trinitarian God, men and women are relational beings. A healthy conscience registers our moral responsibility for the treatment of others, especially those consigned to our immediate care.
In contrast, Ginsburg’s state of radical autonomy is a fictional existence. It defies reality, and erroneously implies the possibility—and the “good”—of achieving emotional and moral detachment from the needs of others. In his majority opinion, Kennedy implicitly grapples with this Christian truth, though God goes unmentioned.
A renewed appreciation for the bond of the mother and her child surely will aid our efforts to overthrow Roe. In this land of individualists, the perennial challenge in every missionary age is to teach the truth that we are not alone, that “it is not good for man to be alone.”
But the promising developments in abortion law and the increased acceptance that abortion harms the mother have not occurred in isolation. In the last year alone, the maternal vocation has been embraced even by Hollywood.
Mothers on Film
The film business certainly hasn’t departed from the days when movies like Norma Rae, Silkwood, and Working Girl offered American women a vision of self-fulfillment through political activism and career success, consigning motherhood to a supporting role at best. But there are signs of a shift in perspective.
Several recent films celebrate maternal bonding, from the ambitious, dystopic vision of The Children of Men, to the quirky hard-luck story of Waitress, to the gross-out, adolescent attitude of Knocked Up, to the delicate, humane ethos of Bella. These movies can, to varying degrees, even be described as “pro-life”: the would-be mother doesn’t “plan” the pregnancy, but her child’s life is protected nevertheless.
The most popular of the four, Knocked Up, begins with a drunken one-night stand that results in pregnancy for a beautiful, hardworking television interviewer. Surprisingly, she neither schedules an abortion nor arranges for an adoption. Instead, she contacts the father, a jobless, goofy guy who smokes marijuana with his mindless friends and does little else.
Her unconditional acceptance and emotional need draw him out of his playpen and into adulthood. The narrative is punctuated with sonogram portraits of the unborn child. The film juxtaposes the father’s moral growth with his child’s physical development in utero.
While Knocked Up adopts the crass style of many popular movies pitched to teens, Bella, another explicitly pro-life film, presents a more integrated vision of culture, family life, and faith that makes the Gospel of Life palpable. The winner of the People’s Choice Award at the 2006 Toronto Film Festival, Bella presents an unwanted pregnancy as an unexpected gift in the lives of an unconnected man and woman who spend a day together that decides the fate of her unborn child.
In The Children of Men, an imperfect but memorable adaptation of P. D. James’s “Christian fable,” a despairing man helps a stranger, the first pregnant woman in the world for many years, flee to safety, and in doing so rediscovers his own capacity for joy. Amid this dark world of the future, there is a glimpse of the portent of the birth of the Savior and the thrilling danger of the flight into Egypt. Protection and care of the child are the means by which the woman and man become fully themselves and recover a sense of hope.
In Waitress, a widely praised independent film, the protagonist is stuck in a bad marriage with an oafish husband. An unintended pregnancy only deepens her sense of frustration. She begins an affair with her obstetrician, who falls for her unique grace and the extraordinary pies she concocts as a distraction from her woes. With the delivery of her child, she finds a way out from her impasse. The unwanted child emerges as the crowning glory of her new life.
It’s striking that in all these well-regarded films, the female protagonists choose the good of saving unborn life amid the ruins of a broken marriage, a dysfunctional family, and a decadent culture—the social environment typically used to justify the “lesser evil” of abortion. Instead, one might conclude, the overarching theme is “no excuses.”
One would like to characterize these movies as a case of art imitating life. Recent surveys show that young Americans are more pro-life than older Americans, and the success of Knocked Up suggests that teens are receptive to new ways of thinking about unwanted pregnancy and abortion.
A Supreme Aid
So is the United States on the cusp of a pro-life era? Is American society finally ready to abandon the lie of radical autonomy?
Kennedy’s tortured logic underscores the need for caution. Back in 1992, in his Casey decision, the justice also offered his signature meditations on the emotional and physical responsibilities uniquely experienced by mothers. Still, he concluded, “This bond of love cannot alone be grounds for the State to insist that she make the sacrifice”—and have the child. “Feelings, nothing more than feelings,” as the song goes, will not provide sufficient justification for overturning Roe.
Indeed, the Casey decision is especially memorable for Kennedy’s views on “the heart of liberty” in which each American bears “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning . . . and of the mystery of human life.” Here, Kennedy seems to share Ginsburg’s love for a world of self-contained individuals.
Unfortunately, widespread acceptance of this logic may keep Roe in place, but it could also undermine the legal system that keeps the justices employed. The moral: Pro-lifers cannot mistake sentimental reflections for the real courage that makes a decisive choice for life, whether that person serves on the nation’s highest court or waits tables in a restaurant.
But Christians in this country can use these developments as an aid in the hard, ongoing task of conversion and catechesis. Important truths about the human person are again open for discussion. The foundation on which everything rests must still be put in place and secured.
Joan Frawley Desmond is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and three children in Chevy Chase, Maryland. She is a recent graduate of the John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family.