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Letters & Op-Eds - 1990s

los angeles times

If War is 'Just', So is Abortion

Frances Kissling

17 April 1991

A surprising sidebar to the Gulf War was the frequent invocation of the "just war" ethic—a once obscure set of principles defining the moral use of military force. Even President Bush applied the criteria in reassuring us that the United States was fighting a just war. And yet the architect of the theory, the Roman Catholic church, approached the question of its applicability with considerable ambiguity. Only a handful of the nation's 300 Catholic bishops opined that the conflict did not meet the just war criteria. The vast majority of bishops cautiously declined to venture a definitive opinion. This approach sharply contrasts with their vociferous and virtually unanimous stance on abortion.

Church attitudes toward war and abortion are linked as primary strands running through the "seamless garment" philosophy, developed and promoted by that small but hearty band of progressive Catholics opposed to legal abortion. The seamless garment (or consistent ethic of life) philosophy holds that such issues as abortion, war and capital punishment are of the same cloth; those who oppose the violence and injustice of war and capital punishment are required by the logic of consistency to also oppose abortion. All, as the theory goes, are "killing acts."

What seamless garment proponents ignore is that war remains defensible in church teaching.

In the Persian Gulf conflict, the bishops, using the just war theory as their moral buttress, did not condemn either the war or the war-makers. Yet they daily condemn abortion as an absolute moral evil. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston is typical of church leaders who rationalize the taking of human life in war while deploring the taking of human life in abortion. "Even as we echo the prayer of Pope Paul VI, 'No more war, war, never again,' With heavy hearts," the cardinal declared, "we realize that such a prayer is not fulfilled at the price of granting tyrants and aggressors an open field to accomplish unjust ends." This from the same man who called abortion the "primordial evil."

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, president of the bishops' national conference, said only that "every reasonable step must be taken to assure that the means of war are proportionate to the values to be defended, that the human and other costs are truly worth the objectives to be achieved."

Most disturbing in the lack of parity between the bishops' passionate war on abortion and their lukewarm response to the war in the Gulf is this incontrovertible fact: invoking the just war theory involves accepting the destruction of the lives of human persons to achieve a greater good. In the case of abortion, where the Catholic church has no formal position on the personhood of the fetus, no weighing of the good to be achieved against the tragedy of abortion is permitted.

Let's look at how the just war theory could be applied to the case of abortion. Both constructs would recognize that the taking of life in war and in abortion (though not equivalent acts) are never in themselves moral goods. But these values are not absolute. They can be overridden in serious circumstances and after reflection on the moral guidelines established by the church.

For example, the just war theory accepts the taking of human life if one's life or that of another is directly threatened. A just abortion theory would therefore permit a woman whose life was in danger to have an abortion—an act now prohibited by church law. Just war theory has also accepted that war can be warranted to protect a nation's integrity, particularly if the violation of a nation would result in the erosion of values judged to be equal to or greater than life itself. This could include territorial violation that would result in loss of liberty or traditional freedoms such as religion and speech. Could not a just abortion theory admit that threats to a woman's physical and emotional health are a violation of bodily integrity comparable to national integrity? Could not a woman's capacity to care for existing children and children to come, her ability to function as a fully contributing member of our society and her sense of self-identity and purpose be seen as values proportional to the potential value of fetal life?

Other guiding criteria on which an act of war is justified include the competence and intent of the leader making the ultimate decision. Is not a pregnant woman a competent moral agent? What is immoral in the goal of a woman who, in order to achieve a good greater than bringing one new life into the world, chooses abortion under difficult circumstances?

"Seamless garment" proponents claim that appropriate application of the just war theory depends on the avoidance of civilian casualties. One can kill or seek to kill only other combatants. The fetus, they point out, is innocent. As we have seen, even in high-tech modern warfare, innocents will be killed. One cannot help but wonder why the bishops so readily give presidents and generals wide latitude in decisions that take many lives, while on the home front they seek to prohibit absolutely a woman's ability to make an individual decision.

The bishops apply an inconsistent ethical paradigm to the issues of war and abortion. It is possible (and it is time) for Catholic thinkers to fashion a just abortion doctrine, one that respects the sacredness of human life, the worth of women's lives and the capacity of women to make moral decisions.

This article appeared in the 17 April 1991 edition of the Los Angeles Times.