By MT Davila
The news that Ohio lawmakers had finally passed a ban on abortion beginning at six weeks from conception, so-called “heartbeat” laws because they seek to protect the life of the unborn from the moment a heartbeat is audible, are the kind that would make most pro-life advocates rejoice. Regardless of whether these laws would stand as constitutional upon being challenged, the wisdom of pro-life efforts is that this is a victory worth celebrating.
And yet, as I reflect on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, a feast intimately tying Mary’s personhood and soul to the mystery of the Incarnation, I can’t help but feel loss rather than glee at this news. For a long time now my pro-life advocacy has been somewhat muted. Much of my reticence stems from the lack of a properly developed theology of the personhood of women, especially pregnant women, in the struggle to promote the life of the unborn. For decades I have seen many pro-life efforts as womb-only approaches that in my estimation fail to recognize the complicated interrelationship of persons, each deserving of rights and with full dignity before the Creator, that is present in a pregnancy. If there are two (or more) persons with full dignity present in a pregnancy, why do the laws written to protect the unborn typically reject the woman’s personhood as mattering at all? Don’t both lives matter, equally?
I suspect that in many cases these laws aim at addressing the procedure of abortion itself, rather than protecting the pregnancy in all its facets. To protect a pregnancy requires recognition of all persons involved and the impact this event has on all these persons’ lives. Womb-only, or pro-birth policies carelessly — perhaps even violently — avoid dealing with the messy question of personhood. Attempts at legislation that would establish the personhood and rights of the unborn often fail. I might suggest that they fail because they are only addressing a partial truth about the interrelationship of persons involved. By failing to include the personhood of women in their efforts, all these laws deny the fullness of pregnancy, childbirth, and childrearing. Policies that aim to protect all persons in a crisis pregnancy situation would extend safeguards beyond the womb, with guaranteed medical care for child and parents, generous childcare vouchers and/or supplemental income, parenting groups, support hotlines, as well as preventative efforts before a crisis pregnancy occurs.
In the mystery of the Incarnation, Mary’s role is beyond that of providing a womb. The Immaculate Conception and the narrative of the annunciation clearly highlight the ways Mary’s person, her dignity before God, her moral standing, and her willful “yes”, are uniquely and properly acknowledged, even while her life is intricately linked to that of her Son. And yet the church has failed in providing an adequate anthropology of women’s dignity and recognizing the personhood of pregnant women. Mary as a key figure in the story of salvation does not seem to inform the church’s vision with respect to its advocacy for the unborn, which remains woefully womb-only. There is much to uncover — and correct — in developing a proper theological anthropology that acknowledges the phenomenon of persons uniquely and intricately embedded with each other’s destiny in the event of a pregnancy and parenting.
It might seem to some that by stating that BothLivesMatter I am making light of the BlackLivesMatter movement. Let me be clear that I believe that Black Lives Matter IS a life issue, one on which the Church in the United States is eerily silent except for a few bishops. You can read some of my reflections on racial justice here and here. _________LivesMatter for me has become a way of highlighting where human dignity is affronted in deep and concrete ways. While, yes, Blue lives do matter, no one questions the personhood of a police officer. However, as I’ve described here, we are still worlds away from clearly identifying and defending the personhood of women, specifically pregnant women, along with the personhood of the unborn. Wherever personhood is in question the Church is confronted with a serious life issue, and must affirm incontrovertibly that refugee lives matter, prisoner lives matter, women lives matter, black lives matter…
MT Dávila is associate professor of Christian ethics at Andover Newton Theological School. She is a parishioner at St. Joseph’s parish in Malden, MA, along with her husband and four children. Her scholarship focuses on the areas of racial justice, immigration, political theology, and the option for the poor.