A Social Justice and Faith Webzine


by Joanna Manning

In an ideal world, there would be no war and humanity would live in peace. In an ideal world, there would be no abortion. Every sexual relationship would be loving, mutual and consensual, and every child would be wanted. But we do not live in an ideal world, and as a result, both war and abortion have been part of human history since before the dawn of the Christian era.

     The earliest Christians, who gave their lives as martyrs rather than take up arms in Rome’s wars, did not hold similarly strong views on abortion. But although it is only since 1869 that it has been forbidden under any circumstances by the church, the injunction of the fifth commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ has since then been applied to abortion under all circumstances, and with the utmost rigor.

      The teaching that permits the taking even of an innocent life in a just war has a long history, dating back to the time of Augustine in the fourth century. Many Catholics believe that the advent of the nuclear age has made such an idea untenable, but in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the just war theory has been dusted off and revived. "We are not a pacifist church," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the U.S. Jesuit magazine America in an interview published in The Globe and Mail on October 25, 2001.

      So the precept against the taking life can be modified. In the moral complexity of these betwixt and between times we live in, where church leaders hold that there can be a just cause for killing civilians in war, then perhaps there are also grounds for arguing that there can be a just abortion. This short article is not intended to be a fully developed treatise on the issue, but simply to find a way to open up a discussion in the hope of finding common ground.

     War has been by and large a man’s issue, abortion a woman’s issue. Perhaps that explains why the men who rule the church have found it easier to be flexible on war than they have on abortion. The conditions for a just war, developed since the time of Augustine in the fourth century, fall into two categories: "jus ad bellum" ( a just cause for war) and "jus in bello" (a just conduct of the war). Just causes for waging war include the righting of an injustice, the recovery of things unjustly taken, and a general right to national defence against an act of aggression. War must be undertaken only as a last resort, when all other means of resolving an issue have been tried and found wanting.

     The parallels with the abortion issue are not exact, but they are worth exploring.

     In the decision on abortion, there are two major parties to the action that initiates the context of the dilemma. Not the mother and the fetus, but the mother and the father. In certain contexts, the action of a putative father towards a putative mother makes a sexual act an act of unprovoked aggression. Extramarital rape, marital rape, sexual abuse, incest: all of these are forms of non-consensual, violent sex. The sperm deposited within the woman’s body get there as a direct result of this act of violence. It is the forcible deposition of sperm within a woman’s body that may result, in circumstances outside her control, in forcible fertilization.

     Under such circumstances, any resulting conception could be considered an act of war. A graphic illustration of this has occurred in several recent conflicts, such as that in Bosnia, where rape was used as a weapon of war. Women on both sides were raped by enemy soldiers, and told that the purpose of this act of aggression was to force them to "bear the enemy within their body."

     Contraception, the means of defence against forcible fertilization, is unavailable to women who are victims of sudden and unprovoked violence. Taken by surprise by the invasion of her body, the woman becomes the innocent victim of an act of aggression. Her decision to have an abortion under these circumstances could be considered an act of self-defence.

     So what of the fetus? Leaving aside the disputed issue of the full and equivalent person-hood of a fetus as opposed to an adult woman, the fetus is caught in circumstances beyond its control. Its context is similar to that of civilians caught in a war zone. Its elimination as a result of abortion could thus be described, in the phrase now used to describe civilian deaths in war, as the "collateral damage" that results from the assault.

     There is much work to be done to eliminate the causes of war, just as there is much work to be done to eliminate the causes for abortion. An open discussion on the church’s stand against the ‘"morning after" pill, which is not classified by medical science as an abortifacient, might be a place to start.

     To refer to a fetus as "collateral damage" will be repugnant to many. Just as repugnant as the death of any child or adult caught up in the context of war, however just the original cause. But the idea of a "just" abortion under certain circumstances could provide the parameters for opening up a conversation in an often hostile and disputed territory.

Joanna Manning is the author of Is The Pope Catholic?: A Women Confronts Her Church published by Crossroad Publishing. She has been a teacher in high school and university for 30 years. In 1995, Manning received the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association’s Marion Tyrell Award for outstanding contribution to Catholic Education. She also runs a weekly breakfast for homeless and poor people in Toronto.

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