Can we have a civil conversation about abortion?

Hillary Clinton selected Virginia’s junior senator and former governor Tim Kaine as her vice presidential running mate. An active Catholic and Democratic politician who is personally opposed to abortion but does not seek to make it illegal, his selection has highlighted the contention in this country surrounding the issue of legal abortions, especially among Catholics.

It is almost certain that some bishops will publicly proclaim that, should Tim Kaine be campaigning in their state, he should not present himself for communion at Mass, despite the fact that in his home diocese of Richmond, Virginia he is an active parishioner. Kaine speaks openly about the importance of his faith and glowingly about Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, the Jesuit school he attended. As a young man he served as a Jesuit volunteer in Honduras for a year before receiving his law degree from Harvard and working as a civil rights attorney.

For some his resume offers a model of how a Catholic should embrace a commitment to social justice and care for the poor and suffering. For others, because of his support of legal abortion, he is the worst example of a pandering politician who cravenly abandons his faith in order to gain votes. These people argue that Kaine has abdicated his moral responsibility to protect the unborn, and so is not a “real” Catholic.

The varied responses to Tim Kaine’s selection highlight the fact that there is no middle ground when it comes to the issue of abortion in the United States. Neither side gives the other the benefit of the doubt. No real listening occurs. There is no “culture of encounter” between those who want to keep abortion legal and those who don’t. One side screams, “Baby killers!” The opposing side screams back, “Keep government’s hands off my body!”


It seems that having a civil, respectful conversation about abortion is impossible. Nevertheless, the attempt must be made.

Try to understand people with whom you don’t agree

To be quite honest, I can completely understand both sides of the abortion debate. My background in counseling taught me that it is possible, and actually necessary, to be able to understand others, even if you don’t end up agreeing with them. I can certainly understand the belief that human life is sacred from the moment of conception to natural death; it is something I also believe. Therefore, I can also understand those who want the state to provide legal protection to those who are the most innocent and vulnerable: the unborn.

But while I believe abortion is immoral, I don’t think it is difficult to understand why some believe that whether a woman should give birth or not is a decision that should be made by that woman and her family.

Regardless of our own personal beliefs, neither of these positions is so outlandish or unreasonable that we cannot recognize or understand them.

Assume the best motivations and tone down the rhetoric

People of good will with good intentions are on both sides of this issue. Our discussions should reflect that. Those who desire legal protections for the unborn are not just religious bigots and misogynists who want to oppress women. Those who want abortion to be legal are not minions of Satan who take delight in killing innocent children.

We must avoid euphemisms, hyperbole, and exaggerated rhetoric. Personally, I don’t like the terms pro-life and pro-choice or pro-abortion and anti-choice. We are talking about people who differ on whether abortion should be legal or not. The term abortion refers to the ending of an unborn human life. This is what we are talking about and this is how we should talk about it.

Using terms like abortionist or zealot might be emotionally satisfying, but is unlikely to convince, persuade, or convert others. The reality of abortion in the United States is not like the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. (If the government was imprisoning pregnant women and killing their unborn children against the mothers’ will, that would be like Nazi Germany.)

This is an extremely important issue. We are all very committed to, and justifiably passionate about, our beliefs. Precisely for that reason, it is essential to be very precise in how we refer and speak to those with whom we passionately disagree.

Religious people can participate in public policy debates (just like everyone else)

Those who want to keep abortions legal frequently accuse those who don’t of violating the separation of church and state. Let’s be clear: Every law is the imposition of someone’s morality on others who do not share that morality.

With legal abortions we are not dealing with the imposition of religious beliefs on others. People may be opposed to the death penalty, legal abortion, slavery, torture, etc. because of their faith or for other moral or practical considerations. It makes no difference.

In a healthy democracy all people, whatever their motivations might be, are able to participate in the public forum. Some positions will win and some will lose.

Not everything immoral is also illegal

Like many Catholic Democratic politicians, Tim Kaine has expressed that he is personally opposed to abortion, but does not believe that abortions should be illegal. Some have claimed that this position is morally incoherent. However, this is the moral position of the Catholic Church on many issues.


The Catholic Church considers the use of artificial contraception to be an intrinsic evil (always wrong, no matter the circumstances). However, the church does not advocate making the use of artificial contraception illegal. Missing Mass on Sunday without a legitimate excuse is morally wrong, but legal. Having an affair on one’s spouse is a mortal sin, but not a criminal offense.

The real issue under debate is whether abortion should be legal. Some clearly believe that because this is an issue concerning the life of an innocent, defenseless child, the government must intervene. Others, even if they are personally opposed to abortion, don’t believe it is legitimate, or even practically possible, for the government to police women’s pregnancies.


Claiming that it is always morally incoherent to be personally opposed to something one does not also want to make illegal is incorrect. The claim is a distraction that keeps the debate from addressing the real issue at hand.

Pregnancy isn’t like anything else

In almost any disagreement we tend to make comparisons in order to make a point. This can often be helpful. However, I think it is important for all of us to recognize that, when dealing with the issue of abortion, pregnancy is really not like anything else.


Pregnancy is one human being totally dependent upon the body of another human being. Nothing else in the human condition is quite like this. Because of what it means to be pregnant, we are not just debating over what a woman can do with her own body. We are debating about what control a woman should have over the life and death of another human body existing within her.

This also raises unique questions related to enforcement. If abortion were illegal, how would government policing, prosecutorial, and penal systems be brought to bear? How could the government ensure that a pregnant woman is forced to give birth when she does not want to? What would be done with the woman who violates the law? These are not easy questions.

Compromise and cooperation is possible—and necessary

The Supreme Court has ruled more than once that abortion is legal in the United States, although individual states may place some conditions and restrictions as long as no “undue burden” is placed on any woman seeking an abortion. It seems unlikely that Roe v. Wade will ever be overturned outright. Given the division within our country, a constitutional amendment making abortion illegal couldn’t pass. This is our reality.

However, there are still many aspects to the abortion debate that could and should be addressed by both sides working together. For example, the reasons women choose to have abortions. The abortion rate has steadily declined since the 1980’s; however, it has risen among poor women. Are some women having abortions because they fear they cannot provide adequate healthcare, nutrition, or education for their families? Are they concerned about the safety of their communities or their child’s future? As a society we must address poverty, which may very well be influencing a woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy.


However, not all women seek abortions because they fear they cannot adequately care for a child. Do some women seek abortions because of a morally confused notion of autonomy, financial success, or sexual freedom? What are the cultural values we want to embrace? Our culture should promote a correct understanding of the place, beauty, and responsibilities of sexual intimacy.

None of these important discussions can take place until both sides are willing to genuinely attempt to understand each other. Then, even if the two sides can’t come to complete agreement, maybe we can cooperate to effect change.

Or, we can just keep screaming at each other.

Father Paul Keller’s online column, Smells like sheep, focuses on the places where pastoral ministry, public policy, theology, and ethics converge.

Image: Flickr cc via dhendrix73

About the author

Father Paul Keller, C.M.F.

Father Paul Keller, C.M.F. is a Catholic priest and a Claretian Missionary. Father Paul Keller’s online column, Smells like sheep, focuses on the places where pastoral ministry, public policy, theology, and ethics converge. You can like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @keller_cmf.