WELCOME! CrossCurrents aims to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! See more about me and my work at http://home.comcast.net/~bfmswain/onlinestorage/index.html or contact me directly at bfswain@juno.com NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

#468: The NFL’s Loyalty Test

  The controversy swirling around the bended knees by NFL players raises issues about our national identity and our commitment to it. 

On Thursday, the Supreme Court Justice picked by Donald Trump spoke to a select audience about defending the First Amendment. Here is what Neil Gorsuch said:

To be worthy of the First Amendment freedoms, we have to all adopt certain civil habits that enable others to enjoy them as well. When it comes to the First Amendment, that means tolerating those who don’t agree with us or those whose ideas upset us, giving others the benefit of the doubt about their motives.

Also Thursday, Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie walker revealed that he and his family had been receiving death threats.  These were apparently how fans responded after he suggested that fans should not come to NFL games if they felt disrespected by player protests.  

These two events reveal the opposite extremes the controversy has surfaced.

It’s tempting to think that the upset over the NFL protests is a mere distraction from the more serious problems facing America.  Certainly, for Trump himself, it is convenient if the public and media fight among themselves over the NFL players rather than focusing their attention on his handling of affairs with North Korea, or his slow response to the crisis in Puerto Rico, or his tax plans.

But in 21st century America, matters of race are never a “mere distraction.” And this case is above all about race.  But the real and unfortunate distraction has been to pretend that is about something else. So perhaps it is helpful to reflect and clarify on how the controversy about the NFL is a test of loyalty both for Americans and for Christians.

The clarification requires stating some basic facts to clear the air:

First: the NFL players did not introduce politics onto the playing field.  This was done in 2009 when the U.S. government began paying the NFL millions to stage “patriotic” events before each game: color guards, gun salutes, fly-overs—all designed to boost recruiting efforts by whipping up patriotic fervor.  In short, this is government-paid advertizing for the military, and it had the effect of bringing politics onto the NFL’s playing fields.

It’s just silly to complain if the players, understanding that politics is already at work here, decide to take advantage of the situation someone else has created.

Second: the players are not protesting the flag or the anthem.  Colin Kaepernick explicitly said that he meant no disrespect to either, but was in fact protesting the bad treatment of African Americans by police.  One may agree or disagree about the issue of police brutality, but it has nothing to do with either our flag or national anthem.

Third, this is not a protest about soldiers or veterans.  The original protest about police brutality has been transformed, in response to Trump’s “Sons of bitches” attack, into a protest about the First Amendment itself.  In neither instance are the players attacking, objecting to, or showing any disrespect for members of the military.  In fact many protesters are themselves veterans, and many other veterans support them. 

The players did not make the decision to have soldiers on the field, and they should not have to take any responsibility for it.  The players need to be on the field to play the game, but football could continue even if no soldier ever set foot on the gridiron.

Fourth: player salaries have nothing to do with the protests.  Yes, these players are millionaires - -but they are responding in protest to the attacks of someone who is even richer than they are. To allow a billionaire president to make such attacks, and then to claim that his target audience cannot protest because they are rich, is completely inconsistent. 

Some fans are even arguing that the players are “ungrateful” because they want to protest despite being well paid.  But First Amendment rights cannot be bought off; players do not lose those rights when they accept a paycheck, no matter how large.  And since most of them are African-Americans, calling them ungrateful sounds like a new way of calling Black Americans “uppity.”
Bill Russell takes a knee with his Medal of Freedom

Fifth:  Kneeling is not disrespectful.  The simple fact is, kneeling has been a gesture of respect, loyalty, even fealty, for centuries.  Many of us kneel when we pray, as a sign of respect.  And many players kept their hands over their hearts to reinforce that sign of respect.  This protest does not use kneeling as a sign of disrespect, but simply as a sign of protest--first, a protest against racialized police brutality, and second as a protest in favor of First Amendment rights.

Sixth:  Thus the real issues are (1) racialized police violence and (2) the right to protest itself--that is, free speech.

Once we accept the facts of the case, we can look at the underlying question of loyalty.

Loyalty here can mean many things.  It can mean loyalty to a flag, or to a song, or to a team, or to the Constitution, or even to a higher law.

Many Americans of course have strong emotional feelings about the flag, and we’re even in the habit of pledging our allegiance to it.  But while the actions that surround the flag often suggest that people regard it as something sacred, this cannot really be true. 

First, the U.S. Supreme Court has long determined that in the name of protest people may even burn the flag.  It also ruled that people have the right not to salute the flag. What this demonstrates, no matter how you feel about it, is that the right to protest is more important than this piece of cloth.  We cannot defend the flag by preventing protest.  Instead, we must protect protest even if it harms the flag.

Many Americans also have strong emotional attachment to the national anthem.  And the singing of the anthem at sports events became popular and routine during the 20th century, and especially during and after World War II.  But most people only know the first verse, and except for the final line “The land of the free and the home of the brave,” the rest of the song is simply a celebration, not of American values or institutions, but of a battle victory over the British in 1812. 

The song has been linked to sports, but we do not sing it in a theater before a movie, or a play, or in church before each ceremony.  We are perfectly capable of being Americans and celebrating American values and institutions whether we sing this song or not.

These things symbolize our nation and our people, but they are only that: symbols. If we treat them as though we must love them to love the country, we make them fetishes, as if they are the whole of us. It’s like loving someone’s big toe, instead of the whole person. This is not patriotism, it’s pathology.

And worse, to turn this song or this flag into something sacred—something, for example, higher than protest itself--is to fail the loyalty test that Americans, and especially American Christians, should be passing.

For Americans, the values enshrined in our Constitution are the highest standards we possess as a people.  The right to protest is the First Right among these, and nothing else in our social life is higher or more important.  Any attempt to prevent rightful protest as “disrespectful” to the flag or the anthem--or even to the military--is actually an act of profound disrespect for the Constitution itself, the very foundation of our nation, which those other things represent..

And for Christians, the lesson should be even more obvious.  Treating any object--a song, a flag, even a veteran or soldier--as something sacred fails the test of loyalty to the First Commandment: “Thou shall not have false gods.” Christians believe that only God is sacred, and that God’s will creates a higher law than any other law.

That law includes, especially for Catholics, the idea that we are one human family, all children of God, all brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, and that therefore any division among us is a scandal to our faith.

 The very notion that Blacks in our country have been mistreated for centuries must be a source of shame to all of us.  That shame reflects the fact that America has failed to do God’s will for centuries, that slavery really is our original sin, and that we have not finished our penance and amendment for that sin. Using the flag and the anthem as camouflage to hide that makes the sin worse. Using our soldiers as human shields to hide our sin is worst of all.

So while loyalty to team, to flag, to a song, to the military may all be good things, the real test of our loyalties this: is our first loyalty as Americans to the Constitution?  Is our first loyalty as people of faith to the will of God and God’s higher law?

Viewed this way, the controversy is hardly a “mere distraction.” As serious as the other problems facing us are, this challenge of loyalty to God and Constitution cannot be ignored, cannot be forgotten, cannot be avoided.  It is a test of loyalty that, sooner or later, this nation must pass—or the nation will fail.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017

Saturday, July 8, 2017

#467: We CAN do Better than Fake Facts

  In an age where virtually all our nation’s public institutions have fallen into distrust, perhaps it is time to look beyond our borders. Perhaps a focus on some basic facts that are beyond dispute can provide a basis for public debate. 

We live in distempered times.  The general public, surveying the current events landscape, reacts with a wide range of troubled emotions: anger, embarrassment, fear, frustration, ridicule, disdain, even disbelief and shock at what is no longer shocking.  No matter our zip code, economic class, or political stripe, almost no one is happy with the current state of public affairs.
The climate for civil discourse is the worst I can remember--and I am a child of the 1960s, when U.S. cities burned and the nation’s capital was repeatedly besieged by impassioned demonstrators and three national leaders were assassinated.
I shared my Boomer generation’s desire for change, a desire to create a better world.  I saw many of our institutions--the government, the military, the police, the church, even the family--in crisis.  I found our country drifting into a spiritual malaise that sapped the moral energy we needed to revitalize our national values.  I saw the need for strong guiding values in the face of war, racism, and poverty, but by 1969 I had lost confidence in our established political parties.  I felt that, rather than providing visionary and moral leadership, the GOP and Democrats simply reflected the materialist and war-like values of their political bases.  Our leaders were following conventional wisdom of public opinion, rather than leading in a better direction.  I had lost faith in the system.
So I chose to abandon my own ambitions for a political career and to promote better values by working “outside the system.” For me, activism for a better world took the form of local action focused on faith-based communities. This was my response to that era’s crisis of values.
But 40+ years later we seem to face, not merely the crisis over values, but even a crisis over facts.  We are not merely divided by what we value, by what matters, we are even divided over what is real, what is true.
We see the signs everywhere as people dispute reality on a issue after issue.  We argue whether climate change is real or a hoax. Whether elections are rigged or fair.  Whether the current investigations are legitimate or witch hunts. Whether immigrants are a threat or a benefit.  Whether a travel ban means better security or unjust discrimination.
This begs a question: what relevance can faith have here? When people struggle to achieve common values, as happened in the 1960s, it made sense to look to faith-based institutions for moral guidelines—churches were prominent in the civil rights movement, and Martin Luther King was an ordained minister, not a public official.
But when people are reduced to fighting over facts--what use are faith-based institutions?
I am convinced our religious institutions can help us achieve common ground about basic facts that can renew our civil climate and revive the possibility of a productive public debate.  If we can agree on what’s true, we can then argue civilly and constructively about what should be done.  But how to agree on what’s true?
First, we step with a primary fact behind all others facts: Facts are mostly a matter of good sources.
None of us can verify every fact for ourselves.  We rely on GPS to know where we are going¸ and the speedometer to tell us how fast we are getting there.  We rely on meteorologists tell us a storm is on the radar, on clocks to tell us the time, on green lights to tell us it’s safe to go, on the Internet for nearly everything.  Every hour of our lives we depend on facts, but we get those facts, not from our own direct observation, but from sources we trust. We know the facts only because we believe those sources.   A wise philosopher once said that 95% of the most brilliant person’s knowledge is based on such belief.
It stands to reason, then, that our current crisis over facts is actually rooted in a crisis over sources.  In a word, what we believe depends on whom we believe-- and right now, our country cannot agree on whom to believe.
This is especially true when we speak of facts about public affairs.  Where people once prized freedom of the press, many now dismiss the mainstream media.  Where people once relied on “the fourth estate” of reporters and commentators, many (even our leaders) now turn instead to social media.  While the previous generation counted on investigative journalist to dig up the truth, we now turn to cable news panels to hear what we want to hear.
It makes sense, then, that to restore common facts we need to search for sources we can count on.
And forgive my career-shaped bias, but I find the Catholic Church a helpful source in the search for common facts.  I know this institution has been scandal- plagued for nearly a generation now (see CrossCurrents #442 https://swaincrosscurrents.blogspot.com/2015/11/442-spotlight-gets-story-right.html to see how persistently that scandal has crossed my own career path).  And last week’s allegations against Australia’s (and the Vatican’s) Cardinal George Pell once again has stained the church’s credibility.
Nonetheless, there is a case to be made for paying attention to the Catholic Church on public affairs--and if one does pay attention, the results are significant.
Let me cite two sets of well-established facts that could become the basis for a much wider discussion.
Fact Set One: Why pay attention to the Catholic Church?
Fact #1: the Catholic Church is the world’s largest organization of any kind, with more than a billion members and worldwide coverage. 
Fact #2: Its membership includes roughly 20% of all Americans, and these American Catholics have become an important swing vote in recent elections.
Fact #3: Despite the toll of the sex abuse scandal on the Church’s public reputation, the election of Pope Francis in 2013 brought a huge public relations boost to the Catholic Church.  Francis is among the planet’s most visible and respected—even beloved--public figures.  When he talks, people listen, and when he talks, he speaks for a consistent tradition of the Catholic Church’s vision for a better modern world dating back to 1891.
Fact #4: That vision presents a comprehensive analysis of world affairs, as well as set of principles for addressing our major challenges.
In my opinion, that vision, typically called Catholic Social Teaching (CST), represents the best single perspective on the crises facing our world and how they might be solved.  In particular, I believe that Francis is speaking to our time with a focus, a breadth, and a wisdom unmatched by any of our nation’s public figures. That’s why I pay attention.  And this leads me to a second set of facts. 
Fact Set Two: Facts about what Catholic Social Teaching (CST) actually says.
Fact #5: CST says promoting the common good is more important than pursuing personal benefit.

Fact #6: CST says people have a right to private property--but all our property must serve the benefit of others.

Fact #7: CST says that the market system must serve people, rather people serving the market.

Fact #8: CST says that healthcare is a human right, not a commodity or a privilege.
Fact #9: call CST says that immigration is a human right; while governments may protect their borders, they must respect the right of people to migrate.

Fact #10:  CST says that climate change is a reality, that it is a threat to God’s creation, and that the entire human family—but especially wealthy nations—face the moral imperative to address it.

Fact #11: CST says that economic inequality is the unacceptable sources of many evils, and must be fixed.

Fact #12: CST says that, while war may be justified under some conditions, the conditions of modern warfare make such justification rare or impossible.

Fact #13: CST says that religion is not to blame for terrorism. Rather, terror emerges from poverty, injustice, and fanaticism.
Fact #14: CST says that Islam, like Judaism, worships the same God as Christians.

Fact #15: CST says that taxation must serve the common good--even if that means redistributing wealth

Fact #16: CST says the world’s population comprises one human family and that this planet is our common home, so our goodness must be judged by our embrace of that family and our efforts to care for that home.

We’re all entitled to our opinions, but not to our own facts. So anyone can disagree with the statements above--but no one can say that these are not in fact the teachings of the Catholic Church. 
And those facts matter. For those of us who are Catholic, or those of us who admire Pope Francis, or those of us who simply seek a vision of a better future, these facts can be--as they are for me—a starting point for any discussion of public affairs. Even if we disagree with the positions they express, we cannot deny they represent the worldview of the world’s largest organization. And on that basis alone, they deserve our attention. They certainly deserve more attention than the fake facts flying all around us. We can do better than that. 
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017

Thursday, June 1, 2017

#466: A Surprisingly “catholic” Encounter

  Catholic spirituality is much like a vast global forest. This is the story of just one tree.
I spent part of the 2016-2017 academic year leading a group of young participants through the RCIA (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults).  They were preparing to become Catholics, and my role was to familiarize them with the core elements of Catholic tradition.  One topic was the multiplicity of customs, beliefs, and practices that comprise the rich tapestry of Catholic spirituality. They were amazed to learn how Catholics through history have attached themselves to small practices that shape their faith life in hundreds of varied ways.

My recent trip to France with my wife Anne offered a perfect opportunity to explore one striking example of such practices: the blessing of throats on the feast of Saint Blaise (February 3).

During a day trip south of Paris, we drove to the small town of Milly-la-Forêt to visit a tiny chapel celebrated for its décor, painted by Jean Cocteau. 

We were not even sure the chapel would be open on a weekday afternoon, but as we approached the parking lot I noticed an older man walking away from the chapel carrying a ring of keys to his car.  We stopped and, as I walked toward him, I called out “Monsieur, would it be possible for us to visit the chapel?”

He began walking to us with an apologetic look on his face.  “I am very sorry,” he said.  “I am afraid that will be impossible. The chapel is undergoing renovations, and the technicians are just now at work inside while it is close to the public.”

Even before I could express my own disappointment, our local host Françoise spoke up: “But surely, Monsieur, you cannot refuse these two visitors, who have come all the way from the United States to visit this chapel!”

At this point the man got the first of several surprised looks on his face.  “You are visiting from America?” When we nodded, he went on. “You know, the Americans came through this very village during the Liberations on their way to Paris from the south.  And after the war I became friends with one of the GIs, because he married a local girl and took her back to live in Boston.”

When I quickly observed that we also live in Boston, the man’s face showed surprise a second time.  “No, really? I have always felt attached to the Americans because of Patton’s army coming through here.” I offered the further information that General Patton himself was a resident of the Boston area, and that there is a park named for him on the North Shore where to this day there sits a genuine Patton tank.

The man’s third surprised look was accompanied by a shrug.  “In that case, Madame is correct,” he said, nodding to Francoise. “I cannot refuse you your visit to the chapel.  Follow me.”

As it turned out, the chapel in question is in fact the chapel of Saint Blaise, who was Bishop of Sebastea (in historical Armenia, now modern Sivas, in Turkey) in the 4th century.  When I recalled my childhood experience of the blessing of the throats on the feast to Saint Blaise, the man shifted gears.  From that moment on he would not simply be opening the door to the chapel.  He would be providing a detailed guided tour of the chapel and the surrounding garden.

“Of course, that blessing was done with two candles on the throat,” he said, demonstrating with his fingers set into the shape.  “At the same time the following blessing is given: ‘May Almighty God at the intercession of St. Blaise, Bishop and Martyr, preserve you from infections of the throat and from all other afflictions.’ That’s because of the legend: Saint Blaise was supposed to have saved a choking child by touching his throat.”

We wondered why the name over the chapel was Saint Blaise des Simples. Our guide explained. “That’s because, in French, “simples” refers to medicinal herbs, plants that promote health.  And that explains the link between the saint and the chapel.  You see, due to his legend, he became a patron saint of good health, especially of healthy herbs--and this village of Milly-la-Forêt has, since the 10th century, enjoyed a wide reputation for the medicinal herbs grown here.  So the link between Saint Blaise and this place made a dedicated chapel a natural idea.”

It turns out that the garden around the chapel is still planted with such herbs, each in a separate plot well tended by the village’s committee of volunteers, of which this man is a leading member.  And each plot is marked with a small sign indicating what herb it contains.

The renovation was necessary to save the paintings that Cocteau was commissioned to make in the late 1950s as a way of providing symbolic imagery for the plain interior of this old stone chapel, which had been abandoned for some years.

Cocteau used simple bold strokes, herbal designs, and earth-tone and plant-tone colors to symbolize the veneration of Saint Blaise.

There is a small statue of the saint with a plant-like bishop’s staff in his hands,
and Cocteau’s own tomb is in the middle of the chapel floor with a simple inscription “Je reste avec vous”--I remain with you.  There is also a small framed photograph of the artist.

Outside the building, our guide took us from one plant to another, explaining what each might be used for.  And at the end of a tour that lasted nearly an hour (during which Anne took the photos featured here), he accompanied us back to the parking lot. Francoise suggested that we might get in touch with his friend after we returned to Boston. 

“Unfortunately,” he said, “I don’t have his contact information with me.” Francoise replied, “Why don’t you give me your e-mail address, and then we can pass that information on to our American friends.”

As he dictated his e-mail address to Francoise, and I watched her writing, I realized I was about to provoke yet another surprised look from our new friend.

“So you are Bernard?” I asked.

“Yes, my name is Bernard.”

“Well, I am also Bernard.”

“”Ah non!  It’s not possible!” his face suggested that we had presented one too many coincidences.  But he also looked very pleased.

After that Anne proposed a picture of Francoise standing with the two Bernards, and then we drove off as he waved his farewell.
The Two Bernards and Francoise (Anne Connaughton photos)

It struck me, as I reflect upon this visit, that a sort of instant bond between total strangers had sprung up simply due to two converging factors.  First, was the fact that a war had brought someone from my hometown to his hometown, thus creating a physical link that none of us knew in advance.  Second was the fact that, as Catholics, we strangers already shared--before we even talked about it--a tradition that included one particular spiritual practice, which had in turn given birth to this chapel and created a common interest among us. 

We call that war "World War II" precisely because it engaged people from such far reaches.  And we call the Church “catholic” because it aspires to be a universal community that embraces the entire human race across the globe. 

In the final analysis then, it is actually not so very strange that a 4th century bishop from what is now Turkey would inspire a modern artist’s work in a building in what is now central France, and then trigger a new friendship between a resident of the village and two visitors from across the sea. In that sense, it is not too surprising, after all, that someone who spent his life in a small French village, volunteering his time to attend a small herbal garden around an ancient stone chapel, would one day come across two visitors from 3000 miles away who shared his interest in honoring a saint who himself had lived long ago and far away.  It's a very catholic (and Catholic) thing.

© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017

Friday, May 12, 2017

#465: Time Is Running Out for Roe v. Wade

  Roe v. Wade was always a ticking time bomb, and although it’s had a very long fuse, it’s about to go off.

No, I’m not talking about the prospect of a conservative SCOTUS majority overturning the case. I’m talking about the natural outcome of the case itself.

Two major features characterized the legal argument of the majority in Roe v. Wade.  First was the idea that privacy was an implied right under the US Constitution which protected women from the intrusion of government.  Second, it determined that the “viability” of the fetus was the dividing line between the woman’s private interest before viability, and the state’s interest after.

Of course, there were two risky implications in using the idea of “viability.” First, determining when was “before” and when was “after” might prove to be difficult.  And in fact the court chose an arbitrary method: it divided pregnancy into trimesters, and determined that the first was “before,” the third trimester was “after,” and the second trimester was someplace in between.

The second risk is that the very idea of “viability” was, in reality, a sliding scale, a moving target.  The court decided Roe v Wade in 1973, when fetuses rarely survived outside a mother until the third trimester--that is, after 24 weeks.  A fetus born prematurely at six months almost surely died.

As time passed, however, and medical technology and prenatal care evolved, early births received better and better treatment, and premature babies survived at younger and younger ages.  By the 21st century, it was common for babies born at 24 weeks and even younger--that is, in the second trimester--to survive.  Babies born at 24 weeks now have a 40% chance of survival, and babies born at 23 weeks still have a 17% chance of survival.  This represents a remarkable shift in “viability” in the 44 years since Roe v. Wade.
 But now comes a much more dramatic development, with the recent report of the invention of an artificial womb. (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/04/preemies-floating-in-fluid-filled-bags/524181/) Until now, the device has been used only with baby lambs, but the inventors reported it would soon be available to assist “premature babies.”

To be this seems to be a case of under-reporting.  For if we’re really going to have an artificial womb, the implications go far beyond what we now think of as premature babies.  Such a device potentially offers the prospect of bringing fetuses to term in pregnancies much shorter than the current “viability” limit:

Within a decade or so, babies born between 23 and 25 weeks might not be thrust into the harsh outside world at all. Instead, they may be immediately plunged into a special bag filled with lab-made amniotic fluid, designed to help them gestate for another month inside an artificial womb.

--the Atlantic April 25, 2017

The current device is quite primitive, but will surely evolve. Dear reader, imagine the practical impact of a device that could, for example, offer survivability to a fetus in mid-or even early second trimester.

This impact was explored long ago in a hypothetical discussion that was part of a popular Boston TV show called “Miller’s Court.”

Arthur Miller, a Harvard law professor (now at NYU law school), used the program from 1979-1988 to discuss legal issues in a quasi-courtroom forum, usually cross examining several panelists at once.

On the occasion I have in mind, the issue under discussion was abortion.  The panel included then- Congressman Barney Frank and feminist writer Gloria Steinem.

Miller posed this hypothetical question: suppose that an artificial womb could be used to bring a fetus to term AFTER the pregnancy was terminated by abortion. Would that mean that the mother would lose her legal standing, and the state would gain a legal interest in preserving the child’s life? Both Barney Frank and Gloria Steinem agreed that to be the case. They said yes: at that point the state could act to save the child, and the mother’s right to decide would be gone (presumably because her privacy right had ended).

Two noteworthy points here: first, Frank and Steinem were answering a really hypothetical question, which at the time (the mid-1980s) had no practical importance.  Second, it was nonetheless stunning to hear two such prominent pro-choice advocates take the position they took. In effect, they were limiting the women’s control over the effects of her choice, once the fetus was outside her body.

You see, this discussion revealed a generally overlooked element about abortion itself.  It demonstrated that an abortion is really two events at once: it is the termination of a pregnancy, and it is the death of a fetus.  Generally, these two events are inevitably connected; one cannot choose one without the other.  And so most discussions about abortion jumble the two together, with pro-lifers opposing the killing, and pro-choicers defending the woman’s right to end her pregnancy.  In such discussions, the two sides inevitably talk past each other--which is exactly what has been happening for more than 40 years.

But Miller’s hypothesis opens the possibility of speaking of these two elements separately.  In other words, what if women could terminate a pregnancy without killing the child?  Then what?

What Frank and Steinem were essentially agreeing to was the idea that, if it were possible to terminate pregnancy without causing a death, then the resulting life would become a matter, not of the mother’s privacy, but a matter of public interest.  At that point, the state could take over the attempt to save the child.

But if Miller’s hypothesis highlighted the basic fact that abortion does 2 things (terminates a pregnancy, but also kills the fetus)--now it seems the hypothesis itself may soon become real. For now we DO have an artificial womb, and now it may soon be possible to terminate pregnancy yet save the fetus!

What this means that the artificial womb completely explodes the notion of “viability” built into Roe v. Wade.

It opens the prospect that women can retain the right to choose an abortion, but lose the right to kill their fetus.  Since that latter right depends on the location of the fetus within the woman’s body, the artificial womb opens up the entirely new horizon of allowing the fetus to survive outside woman’s body, where a mother no longer has legal jurisdiction.

Depending on how effective the artificial womb is, and how quickly it evolves, this could mean that many abortion cases which are currently treated as private under Roe v. Wade could become legally controversial under the same case.  For example, what if a woman’s partner (or mother or father or sister or brother) sues to save the child using an artificial womb?  What if a state attorney general sues to enjoin any pregnancy longer than, say 12 weeks, to be subject to state review and intervention? 

None of this would require a reversal of Roe v. Wade.  Theoretically, it could lead to cases where the woman has her abortion but the child survives. 

Not only would this prevent many deaths, but it would also pose a new challenge for both the pro life and pro choice communities.  For pro-lifers, it would mean reconsidering their attitude to abortion itself, recognizing a woman’s right to terminate the pregnancy as long as someone else takes responsibility for saving the child.  For pro-choices, it would pose a difficult challenge: acknowledging that a woman’s right to choose extends only to the termination of pregnancy, not to the fate of the child produced by the pregnancy.  In individual cases, this could mean that a woman might choose to abort with the knowledge that her child survive, and grow, and live in the same world she does, without her consent, and without any legal recourse.  In other words, this could mean that choosing abortion means relinquishing any voice over the future life of one’s own child.

None of this represents a change in abortion itself.  None of this represents a change in Roe v. Wade.  This would simply be a long-term final outcome of a time-bomb decision that has been ticking away for more than 40 years.  And it would finally bring to surface the long overlooked reality that abortion is two things at once, and that each side of this long and anguished debate has been arguing about only one of them, and ignoring the other.

Would this mean the end of the debate?  I suspect not.  Would it make people happier?  I suspect neither side would be fully satisfied, since one side would continue to object to the first trimester abortions, and the other side would feel that somehow a woman’s freedom was being curtailed.

But even if the debate continued and both sides remain unhappy, one thing is sure: Sunday, somewhere, each of us might well meet someone who owes their life to an artificial womb, and who can say to us “I am an abortion survivor.”
 © Bernard F. Swain PhD 2017