A Delicate Balance

Most sane pundits would have the good sense to shy away from a subject as polarizing as the controversy between pro-life and pro-choice. It's a no-win debate in many ways, because few people are willing to listen to the other side. But a recent interview with someone I greatly admire and respect moved me to pass along her thoughts.

I'm not a close friend of Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun, though we have met before on several occasions in Chautauqua, New York. Even so, I love her from afar. In the Greek style amphitheatre, not all that far, actually, from where Barbara and I own a house there, Sister Chittister has been a frequent speaker. She's brilliant and somewhat outrageous. In other words, listening to her is meaningful, relevant, enlightening and fun. I recall the first time I heard her speak some years back. It was a weeklong Chautauqua theme about the forces that helped bring about women's rights and get our culture on the path to gender equality at all levels. Sister Chittister started her speech challenging the audience to come up with the most important single driver of this momentum toward equal rights. The crowd called out scattered suggestions. Some shouted the names of female leaders. After a brief pause, the good sister offered her nomination. It was the microscope. There was an incredulous murmur and some quiet laughter. Undaunted, the Sister offered her defense of the microscope as the liberator of contemporary women. The microscope, she said, enabled humanity to discover that the female egg was as critical to the creation of life as the male sperm. For thousands of years, it was assumed that the male sperm alone gave birth to life. But no longer. No more. A woman's role was more than simply to be an oven set at warm. She was indeed an equal in the creation of human life. With that, the notion of male moral superiority went out the window.

So we come to our subject, about which she's at it again, bringing a startling clarity, from an unfamiliar angle, to an issue that has been polarizing America for decades. Let's be crystal clear from the start. No sane person would want to promote abortion. It's a grave decision, a terrible freedom women now have to decide on whether to let an unborn child live. But let's say we always chose for birth, rather than abortion. What I gained from Sister Chittister is the real meaning of that "Pro-Life" choice. In her words:

I do not believe that just because you're opposed to abortion, that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, one's morality is deeply lacking if all one wants is a child born, but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed.

You see where she's headed: to the consequences and responsibilities of childbirth. Sister Chittister challenges all of us, both pro-choice and pro-life, to think in broader, more meaningful ways about the issue. Are our tax dollars going to make sure the child we bring into this world is fed, educated and housed? If not, Sister Chittister concludes, "one is not pro-life, one is pro-birth." Finally, she says, "we need a broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is." In other words, she is for birth, not abortion, but that's only the start of our responsibility to those children -- and this so far hasn't been a part of the conversation for most who are against abortion.

For me, this good Benedictine Nun brings up a fundamental moral obligation to all of us, as members of families, communities and our nation. Together, we have an obligation to care for those born -- not to think that our job is done when we hear the cry that tells us they've started breathing. Perhaps, as families and society, that is the only acceptable moral way to be pro-life. Long-term consequences matter. This is vitally important, for all our newborn babies, because they represent the future of our planet.

I personally thank Sister Chittister for the clarity of the moral challenge.

What do you think?

Peter Georgescu is the author of The Constant Choice. He can be found at Good Reads.