St Thomas, Choice, and Pregnancy

The “pro-choice” movement argues that women deserve the dignity of choosing to continue or to end their pregnancies. The government, family, and society in general should stay out of the decision. They argue that pregnancy should be voluntary.

St Thomas may disagree with the conclusions. However he would agree with importance of voluntariness. According to St Thomas, acts that are proper to humans and that can aim towards our highest good are voluntary.

In Summa Theologica, St Thomas distinguishes between acts of humans and human acts. Acts of humans are lower and cannot aim towards the highest good. They are shared with the lower animals. They may or may not be voluntary. Human acts, on the other hand, are voluntary and are properly human. With human acts, man can pursue his highest good. (see Summa Theologica II-I.6.3) According to St Thomas, this highest human good is contemplation of the divine.

St Thomas’ distinction between acts that are human and human acts sets a high bar for what constitutes properly human activities. Even in modern society, much of what we do is not voluntary. For example, pregnancy is a long and difficult process. Most of it is involuntary. Once begun, the continuation of pregnancy is not reliant on any action of the woman. If the pregnancy was the result of rape, even the initiating act of pregnancy cannot be thought of as voluntary. It seems doubtful St Thomas would look at pregnancy as a human act capable of aiming at our highest good.   

Now to the issue of abortion. As Catholics we believe that abortion is taking life. It is murder. Ultimately, the ends does not justify the means. Regardless of the circumstances of conception, the ends of enhancing the choices of women does not justify the means, which is the taking of the life of a child. This is another one of St Thomas’ teachings.

However as we strive to engage in dialogue with people who support abortion rights, it is useful to find areas of conceptual overlap. The mantras used by the pro-choice movement often sounds so Catholic because many of them do rely on Catholic theological notions. St Thomas teaches that choice, consent, and voluntariness elevate and dignify human activities. Similarly, the pro-choice movement says that these elevate and dignify women’s reproductive experiences.

We should agree on as much as we can agree on, and we should take care with our rhetoric. Catholics do believe women should have legitimate reproductive choices. Catholics are not “anti-choice”. Because of this we should reject the language that constantly connects “abortion” and “choice”. The “pro-choice” movement is really the “pro-abortion” or “pro-abortion rights” movement. However at the same time we need to demonstrate that we do support a wide variety of good and legitimate choices concerning women’s reproduction, pregnancy, childbirth, and child rearing.   

Right now there is an illusion that women have many options. The reality for too many women in our society is that pregnancy is a form of imprisonment. They can lose jobs. They may be physically trapped by an abusive partner. Pain is often met with the equivalent of a shrug from medical professionals. Medical insurance is often too difficult to understand and usually offers few options. Health complications can leave one bedridden and living in severe isolation for months on end. Although poor women suffer the most, it would be a mistake to think that middle-class and upper-class women do not suffer these as well.

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