The modern woman and the abortion debate

January 10, 2017

During a recent talk at Rice University on the politics of abortion, a young female student asked, “Isn’t the real problem that our society doesn’t value motherhood?” Given the topic’s current prominence in legislation, the courtroom and the media, the question is both timely and interesting. With the abortion debate continuing to gain traction, it is important to continually evaluate the factors that lead women to choose abortion. The modern view of women and of motherhood is only one of these factors, but is an essential one.

One need make only a cursory examination of the Old Testament to discover a stark contrast between past societies and our own. Examples abound (Sarah, Rachel and Hannah) of the despair occasioned by childlessness and the joy and thanksgiving occasioned by the subsequent blessing. One further discovers a deep sense of motherhood as vocation. Our Rice student, currently completing a graduate program in history, noted the ways other cultures had celebrated and supported the woman’s role as mother. In such societies, women took pride in motherhood as an expression of themselves. As St. John Paul II reminds us, “[motherhood] expresses the woman’s joy and awareness that she is sharing in the great mystery of eternal generation.” 

Modern perspectives on motherhood vary so greatly from this model that John Paul’s words may strike the modern ear as jarring or perhaps quaint. While the previously referenced perspective has not disappeared entirely, it is nonetheless almost unrecognizable to many. In the name of achieving “equality” with males, girls are often advised to prioritize education and career over family and childrearing. Only after these “important” priorities are complete is it deemed prudent to consider motherhood. In this calculus, motherhood is no longer an important vocation, but is reduced to a kind of afterthought and constitutes just another option available to the modern woman. Worse, motherhood may be viewed as a burden to be avoided as something that holds women back. Feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir went so far as to instruct women that to be truly human, they “must aspire to masculine qualities,” describing motherhood as “doom[ing] woman to a sedentary existence... [the mother’s] whole body is a source of embarrassment.” 

From a Christian perspective, this view is not only erroneous, but tragic as it proposes to erase that which is unique about women in favor of a false equality. Woman’s undisputed equality of dignity with man does not, as de Beauvoir would have it, reveal itself in sameness with man. For John Paul II, “A woman, as well as a man, must understand her ‘fulfillment’ as a person... as an expression of the ‘image and likeness of God’ that is specifically hers.” Such fulfillment of woman’s purpose necessarily includes a call to motherhood. 

Understanding these views is essential to understanding abortion in the West. While women feel pressured to end a pregnancy for many reasons, many cite the fear that motherhood would interfere with other life goals as a major factor in their decision. In our current political climate, even among faithful Catholics, there can be a tendency to view the issue of abortion from a purely legal perspective. In this view, if only the right candidate is elected, the right legislation passed, the right judge nominated, abortion can be eliminated. Laws, elections and courts are certainly essential, but our work as Catholics is incomplete if we do not also aim to create a culture — by embracing the true nature of motherhood and femininity and support of mothers and families — that aims not only to protect life but to truly embrace it. 

Julie Fritsch is the director of the Archdiocesan Office of Pro-Life Activities.