Rising abortion rate post-Roe has not instilled collective guilt in our society

To the Editor:

In professor Gene Outka’s Religious Ethics course at Yale in 1976, I took the following position on the abortion issue Peter Johnston cites in his article (“Religious right critiques hope, destroys world” 2/29): Subconsciously, our culture cannot sustain a million and a half acts a year which, for want of a legal definition of when life begins, might be the taking of human life.

Our collective guilt will result in cultural paralysis. Roe v. Wade was three years old at the time.

I calculated that at 1,500,000 abortions a year, in three more years the total of legally performed abortions would exceed the total of fatalities in Germany’s World War II extermination centers; our culture’s subconscious guilt due to not knowing whether those 6,000,000+ abortions were or were not homicides would end in social warfare or paralysis. Thirty-one years have elapsed since then, and presumably at least 31,000,000 abortions have been performed. And Johnston’s article proves me wrong.

No collective guilt, no cultural paralysis prevails in the wake of our legal and societal ambiguities.

Paul D. Kean

Feb. 29

The writer earned a masters from the Yale School of Divinity in 1980.


  • Ellie

    Right, and when women start to die because of illegal, botched abortions (if they don't already) to whom can we put the blame? Women are surely dying in Africa because they perform abortions on themselves because Bush re-instated the Global Gag Rule the first day in office. Women are even dying from botched abortions here in the US. I guess the women are just paying for their sins, considering men aren't responsible at all for getting them pregnant. Keep those babies coming so they can fight unjustified wars in the name of God.

    What a bunch of nonsense. But I guess that's what one should expect from religious talk.

  • Reality Check

    Let's be realistic--our govenment is the cause, RIGHT NOW, of an unknown number of dead people and destroyed families and lives in the name of war. I find it much more problematic to be killing people already born and trying to build a life for themselves. It is much more problematic to let children starve or die of malaria or be raped and killed as they are all over the planet now. There really is no point in fussing over this issue when we have so many unresolved pressing and fatal issues for the already living. This is just a distraction from the real issues we have to face.

    When you adopted and taken care of all the unwanted children that exist on this planet already and protected them from further harm, THEN come talk to me about the unborn--the scale of suffering is just not comparable. That, and of course, the point that must be made--it is up to the mother, it has to be.

  • SM '98

    "I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself.

    And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts. Jesus gave even His life to love us. So, the mother who is thinking of abortion, should be helped to love, that is, to give until it hurts her plans, or her free time, to respect the life of her child. The father of that child, whoever he is, must also give until it hurts.

    By abortion, the mother does not learn to love, but kills even her own child to solve her problems.

    And, by abortion, the father is told that he does not have to take any responsibility at all for the child he has brought into the world. That father is likely to put other women into the same trouble. So abortion just leads to more abortion.

    Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want.

    This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion."

    Mother Teresa, Speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, 1994

  • Reality Check

    It is all well and good, but I believe MT was overwhelmed by the suffering she witnessed in the present. For a quick summary, please see the following excerpt from 23Aug-2007 "Time" magazine article on her by David Van Biema:
    "A new, innocuously titled book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light (Doubleday), consisting primarily of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over a period of 66 years, provides the spiritual counterpoint to a life known mostly through its works. The letters, many of them preserved against her wishes (she had requested that they be destroyed but was overruled by her church), reveal that for the last nearly half-century of her life she felt no presence of God whatsoever — or, as the book's compiler and editor, the Rev. Brian Kolodiejchuk, writes, "neither in her heart or in the eucharist."

    That absence seems to have started at almost precisely the time she began tending the poor and dying in Calcutta, and — except for a five-week break in 1959 — never abated. Although perpetually cheery in public, the Teresa of the letters lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. In more than 40 communications, many of which have never before been published, she bemoans the "dryness," "darkness," "loneliness" and "torture" she is undergoing. She compares the experience to hell and at one point says it has driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God. She is acutely aware of the discrepancy between her inner state and her public demeanor. "The smile," she writes, is "a mask" or "a cloak that covers everything." Similarly, she wonders whether she is engaged in verbal deception. "I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God — tender, personal love," she remarks to an adviser. "If you were [there], you would have said, 'What hypocrisy.'"

    If she doesn't think she has the answers, I'm not sure her words should be used for someone else's.

  • Paul Keane

    My position in Outka's Religious Studies classs was about Jung's collective unconscious. It had, and has, nothing to do with the shrill arguments pro or con religion on the topic of abortion. PDK '80MDIV

  • Anonymous

    Paul, it seems that the position that you took in your religious studies class was pretty far-fetched- and I'm not sure whether this is a reflection on Jung or on your talent for speculation…

    But the question that has been really puzzling me is this: How does the content of your letter (and of the ensuing discussion) relate, even tangentially, to Peter Johnston's column, to which you claim to be responding?

  • Paul Keane

    Is history merely an inert accretion of cause and effect events or does it have a conscience? Aren't our currrent national politics an elaborate expiation ritual for hundreds of years of discrimination against and inhumanity toward women and blacks? Jung might wonder.
    As for Mr. Johnston. His article seems to imply that only "right wing" extremists are concerned about abortion as a ethical issue. The surgical removal of 31,000,000 fetuses without the blink of an ethical eye simply because society, religion, the courts and medical experts cannot agree on a definition of when human life begins (zygote? viability? birth) troubles some of us who are not right wing fanatics or religious zealots. Are we all fiddling with our iPods while Rome burns? Best, Paul Keane, '80MDIV

  • Reality Check 2

    To the original Reality Check:

    First of all, do you know anyone who is sure that they have all the answers? Those people usually end up being cult leaders or people like Hitler. I don't think it makes Mother Theresa's words any less valid if she sometimes wondered if she was right. If you found out that Martin Luther King, Jr. sometimes questioned himself and wondered if it was all worth it, would that make the speech "I Have a Dream" any less powerful?

    Second, you are actually supporting other people's points. The fact that she went through such turmoil, and saw such pain and suffering all around her in Calcutta, and yet still could say that abortion was the biggest problem our world has, seems to indicate that it isn't some minor problem that should be ignored while we deal with other issues.

  • Old Blue '73

    "[Abortions] which, for want of a legal definition of when life begins, might be the taking of human life."

    No Paul, the courts say that the legal definition of when life begins is at birth. The potentiality of a new life is something the state may have an interest in regulating but it is only the "pro-life" folks who have tried and are still trying to change the definition.

    I don't feel the least bit guilty about the abortions you cite. If the "pro-lifers" really wanted to reduce the number of abortions they would stop pushing legislation or executive orders which restrict birth control. Their efforts seem to show that they are as much concerned about sexual morality as they are about the "killing".

  • Paul Keane '80MDIV

    Dear Old Blue '73:
    It isn't that the courts don't "have" a definition, it's that they can't "agree" on a definition which satisfies the other groups. There is no consensus: so we use the moral ambiguity of that situation to permit 31,000,000 (that's million)acts which we do not know are NOT murder. My hypothesis in '76 Religious Ethics course was that society would collapse or be paralyzed under the guilt of numbers which exceeded the German death camps. I was wrong.As William Faulkner said somewhere,"Mankind can endure anything. That is the terrible thing."

  • follower, not disciple, of Mother Teresa.

    Reality Check :
    The logic of asceticism cannot be debated it can only be examined with awe. When a woman in the audience once asked Mother Teresa how she was supposed to reconcile her recent diagnosis of cancer with faith in a divine being, Mother Teresa replied in a gentle and respectful voice, "Your cancer is Jesus kissing you." Had those words not come from a world famous woman who continued after her fame to personally pull worms from the puss filled wounds of dying lepers, I would have scoffed at her reply as enigmatic equivocation. However, the moral authority of her personal contact with and commitment to the fetid and abandoned terminally ill
    made her mysterious answer a haunting declaration of ascetic logic. Her views on the fruit of the womb may also fall under this extra-logical category. One may disagree with her, but only the intellectually glib pirouetting on the platform of their own prose (such as Christopher Hitchens)can scoff at her.

  • Paul Keane ' 80MDIV

    PS to Old Blue '73

    Yes--I should have said "for want of universally agreed upon legal definition". As for the courts (or Court)I recall there were some few folk who in the wake of Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856)believed that slaves were not property but were instead human beings.

  • Anonymous

    Paul, the sentiment that I think you seem not to be understanding--or at least admitting to exist--is the very real sentiment among a great many people--myself included--that fetuses are not human beings. The fact that not everyone agrees does not suggest that the sides have equal force behind their respective arguments, nor does it suggest that either camp is uncertain. The laws don't declare an infant alive until birth (or at least viability), and many, if not most, people agree. I don't sit up wondering if an abortion is murder. I flat out see insufficient reason to think it such and thus don't think it such. It's really that simple. I see nothing disturbing in this sentiment whatsoever, and I think the slavery allusion is not relevant. Religions can say what they want; most of us refuse to be bound by them. Rationality informs us that an acorn is not a tree, and similarly a cluster of cells (zygote, fetus, or any other early stage) is not a human being. Granted, there's no clear line--and I suppose this may have been what you're getting at--but there nonetheless remains stages in which most of us freely admit that the cluster of cells is not human and need not be afforded the same rights.

    Moreover, I've found that some of the more interesting arguments for abortion have begun with accepting (for the sake of argument) that life begins at conception. They still go on to show why abortion is nonetheless not necessarily murder (beyond the age-old self-defense and other medical reasons) based on, of all things, individual rights.

    To be honest, I'm not sure what you expect us all to get worked about and what do you expect us to do about it? Ban abortion? Based on sentiments that not all share? No, I don't acknowledge the right for such sentiments to legally restrain people, nor do I cede to you the moral high ground in any of this. I see nothing particularly "moral" about the pro-life movement, and I wish they would stop shrouding their religious sentiments in facades of reason and so-called appeals to humanity.

  • Paul Keane

    Dear Old Blue '73

    I'm not asking you to cede the moral high ground nor to get all worked up. I merely am admitting I was wrong to assume that there was a collective unconscious which would be disturbed by the ambiguity of 31,000,000 fetal amputations from their hosts. However, I was trying not to allow Mr. Johnston to get away with the implication that only "right wing extremists" or religious fanatics are bothered by the ambiguities which surround the abortion debate.
    When I was boy growing up in Mt.Carmel, my parents took me to the Peabody Museum. At that time there was a haunting display at the Peabody (which existed for several years) of nine glass jars, each one containing a fetus for each of the months of development. Five blocks away from that academic display of tissue, on a sidewalk in front of Planned Parenthood on Orange Street,Roman Catholic lay people were on their knees on the sidewalk saying the Rosary 24/7/365 in protest of Griswald v. State of Connecticut. Twenty years later, the Supreme Court (in Roe v. Wade) would sidestep the issue of whether reproductive union is simply an atavistic impulse "to cover the planet with as much protoplasm as it can as fast as it can" as Thornton Wilder puts it, or a means for spirit to incarnate through the process of evolition. It is one of the great questions of our time. How dare I or you sweep it aside with the hubris of secular certainty?

  • Paul Keane

    P.S. My last comment was for Anthony L. I mistakenly addressed it to Old Blue '73. Je regrette.

  • to Mr. Keane

    You do realize, I hope, that Peter Johnston's article was meant to be satirical…

    If you don't believe me, read some of his other columns on abortion:

  • Paul Keane

    Noto Bene: That is small "i" for incarnation and small "s" for spirit. It is Jungian not Jesuian.

  • PK

    Thanx. Even if I missed the satire (apologies to Mr. Johnston), it has been worthwhile hearing views on my 31 year old thesis in Outka's Religious Studies course of 1971. Sad to say, that it has been taken much more seriously in this blog than in that course three decades ago.