In my capacity as theologian, teacher, and culture commentator, I’ve been reading articles on ethical matters for years and have grown relatively inured to the expression of even the most outrageous points of view. But a few weeks ago, I came across a piece that was so shocking and so egregious that I was compelled, as I read it, to put the magazine down several times and just shake my head in disbelief. It was an article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine called “The Two Minus One Pregnancy,” dealing with the phenomenon of “reducing” (love the Owellian language) a pregnancy from two children to one. Evidently for years obstetricians had been willing to eliminate one or more children if a woman was pregnant with triplets or quadruplets, but now, at the behest of an increasing number of mothers, doctors are commencing to (again, I’m using the dreadfully antiseptic language from the article) “reduce to a singlet,” which is to say, to eliminate one of two unborn and perfectly healthy twins.
A few months ago, I was in a cab with some of my Word on Fire colleagues, heading to the Baltimore airport. Our driver, an African American woman, enquired who we all were. When I responded that we were part of a team working for the Catholic Church, she launched into an anti-Catholic diatribe that lasted, pretty much without interruption, until we arrived at the airport. She complained about many of the usual subjects—birth control, women’s ordination, the sex abuse crisis, the Pope, etc.—but her strongest and most passionate words were directed against the church’s prohibition of abortion. “Don’t you realize,” she asked, “that women have a right to choose what to do with their own bodies?” I’ll confess that, probably out of fatigue or cowardice, I didn’t really engage this lady in debate, but she came back to my mind rather vividly last week when I read some shocking statistics that came out of New York. According to a recent study, 41% of pregnancies in New York City end in abortion. That figure, of course, is breathtaking enough, but consider this specification: among black women, the number rises to 60%! My cab driver friend was complaining bitterly about a Catholic church that opposes itself to abortion, when a genocide of the unborn among her own people—fully sanctioned and protected by the law of the land—is proceeding apace. This kind of confusion is all too typical, I’m afraid, among the adepts of the anti-anti-abortion position.
The death of Sen. Edward Kennedy has unleashed for me a flood of memories and triggered a number of rueful meditations. I come from a family of intense Kennedyphiles. Both of my parents—Irish and Catholic to the bone—deeply admired the Kennedy family. My mother was especially fond of Rose, the pious and energetic matriarch of the clan. Magazines and newspapers reporting the assassination and funeral of President Kennedy were cherished keepsakes in our home when I was growing up; and the murder of Sen. Robert Kennedy (when I was eight) is one of the most vivid and poignant memories of my childhood. For my father, the Kennedys represented the continuation of the great Democratic tradition stretching back through Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Harry Truman, FDR, all the way to Al Smith. One of my earliest political memories was joining in with my father in lustily booing Richard Nixon as he appeared on the TV screen accepting the nomination of the Republican party at their 1972 convention in Miami. My father just didn’t care for Republicans, seeing them as the representatives of the interests of the rich. Democrats, he often told me, stick up for the little guy, the oppressed, those who fall through the cracks of the society. And they were, he argued, the politicians most in line with the instincts of the Catholic social teaching tradition. My uncle Tommy, another died-in-the-wool Democrat, often worried that, as my father moved into the upper middle class, he might commit the unforgiveable sin of voting Republican!