Ruling prompts reflections on women, men and love

The recent decision by five justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in Gonzales v. Carhart, upholding a statute passed by Congress to ban partial birth abortions, provoked a furious dissent by the four other members of the court, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Justice Ginsberg was upset that the majority opinion, issued by Justice Anthony Kennedy, not only upheld the ban, but also had the temerity to use such terms as “mother,” “unborn child,” and “baby.”

Particularly galling to Justice Ginsberg was the majority’s reference to the “bond of love the mother has for her child.” This characterization was rooted, Justice Ginsberg argued, in “notions of women’s place in the family” that supposedly have been “long since discredited.” Women should not be “regarded as the center of the home and family life” because that would preclude their “full and independent legal status under the Constitution,” as if motherhood and full citizenship were mutually exclusive.

For women to “control [their own] destiny,” wrote Justice Ginsburg, the state must give them the same freedom as men to disregard their parental bonds. During pregnancy, this freedom can only be actualized through the destruction of life in the womb by means that even Justice Ginsburg admitted were “brutal” and “gruesome.”

A woman’s “full potential” lies in her equal participation in the “economic and social life of the nation,” Justice Ginsberg asserted. Thus, according to this perspective, a woman’s unique ability to become a mother and, more significantly, any motherly feelings of moral anguish she might have about abortion, must be counted as impediments to and not attributes of her full humanity.

As a logical conclusion from this line of thinking, these maternal characteristics serve only to inhibit a woman from accepting the price needed to pursue the really important socioeconomic work found outside the home, and thus they make her unequal to men. Abortion is being sold, then, as the great equalizer between men and women.

For Justice Ginsburg, at stake here is “a woman’s autonomy to control her life’s course, and thus enjoy equal citizenship stature.” Let me share a story that I heard a while back that provides a different account of what is at stake.

Fifty years ago this coming October, just a day before the Russians launched into orbit a beeping metal ball with spindles, a doctor delivered a baby and discovered some serious problems. The infant had a cleft palate and other facial malformations, caused by a deficiency of folic acid in the mother’s system.

The doctor took aside the child’s father and warned him. The doctor recommended putting the child in an institution. The doctor believed that the facial disfigurements indicated an underlying mental disability. The child probably would experience abnormal development.

The father asked that the mother and he see the baby. The doctor demurred, saying that the emotional trauma would be too great. Besides, it would be more difficult to send the child away if a bond developed between mother and child.

The father spoke with the mother and she insisted that the child be brought in. The doctor relented and the baby was placed in the mother’s arms. She looked down at the infant and started to cry. The doctor turned to a nurse and said something like “See, I knew it would be too devastating for her to see the child.”

The mother explained later that she did not start crying because of any trauma on her part from witnessing the child’s disfigurement. No, she cried because she thought of the pain that the infant would experience in life as a result of the disabilities.

That very day the infant heard for the first time the Gospel of Life, communicated in the quiet sobs of a mother and echoed in a father’s commitment, both bonded in love to a child with a claim on their autonomy.

Both father and mother knew that the infant’s place was with them, and brought the child home. She had to give up her job as a nurse, a job she loved, to care for this child along with the five other children already at home. The infant required several hospitalizations but grew into an adulthood quite different from the one predicted by the doctor.

The teller of this story was one of my sisters, the father and mother were my own, and the child was me. The story was shared a year or so after my mother’s death, when I was in my 20s. I had not heard it before.

Women are equal to men but they are not identical. The essential difference, according to John Paul II, has something to do with men having the gift of being able to give of themselves in a receiving way and women receiving in a giving way. As Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized, human fulfillment lies ultimately not in the “economic and social life of the nation” but in love, shaped by the very form of the male or female soul.

At stake in the battle over abortion is the meaning of humanity itself. Can we learn to live in a way faithful to the dignity of every human being and open to the two different ways of being and loving as human? A mother loves as only a mother can--a father loves as only a father can. From the complementary nature of my parents’ sacrifice, I as their child continue to learn where my true fulfillment rests.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director of Policy & Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.