On Being a Catholic Who is Both Pro-Life and Pro-Conscience
Updated: Feb 2
June 26, 2022 - Marisa Guerin, PhD
Updated February 2, 2023
In the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v Wade, I felt deeply distressed. I know this decision unleashed intense emotions from people on both sides of the issue. It left me in a complicated place, with a view point that is not simple to explain. I decided that one thing I can do is to write and share how it is that I can be both a practicing Catholic… and also someone who thinks that Roe v Wade should not have been overturned.
In my small corner of the world, I am in relationship with many people who are pro-life and with many people who are pro-choice. Because my view contains elements of each, not speaking allows others to make assumptions about my stance. It seems like a matter of integrity to express my personal views, at least to explain if not to persuade. Maybe I can give voice to those with similar thoughts, especially those who might realistically fear the consequences of expressing themselves honestly.
My position has developed slowly in me over the years through study, prayer, life experience and reflection on this complicated issue. I believe I speak from an informed conscience. And I can’t be the only one with this point of view, judging from the polls that indicate a considerable majority of US citizens who were supportive of Roe v Wade.
I am not a mother and have never been pregnant although when I was a younger woman I could have been. I believed then and I believe now that a pregnancy is the beginning of a new life, to be protected and nurtured in every way possible. But I live in the United States, a dynamically-pluralistic society in which people of many cultures, religions, and political views must figure out how to live together and what the rule of law shall govern. Not everyone believes that the earliest days of a pregnancy involve a separate personhood for the growing fetus, and as far as I know there is no incontrovertible scientific evidence to prove it yet. There is a lot more consensus about the right to life of a baby in the womb when it is at the point of viability, or otherwise far along in its development. The conviction that life and personhood begin at conception is my own religiously-informed belief, but it is clearly not a universal view. Serious and conscientious people of other faiths hold other beliefs.
This pluralism of beliefs is the first reason why I came, over time, to support Roe v Wade. Not because I personally would wish to see a single abortion, but because I simply do not think it is right for my Catholic beliefs to be imposed as law in this country, at least not as long as there would be good-faith differences in beliefs about when life and personhood begins. For the early months of pregnancy, I think individual conscience should be primary. I don't think the law should criminalize the decisions of women who do not hold the same beliefs that I hold, despite my sadness when a potential new life is aborted.
The second reason I supported Roe v Wade is because for all women, even for those who do believe that a child conceived has the right to life, pregnancy represents a complex balance between the rights of the mother and the rights of the unborn child. Moral decisions, like ethical ones, are rarely between a clear-cut right and a clear-cut wrong. They can be difficult to discern, balancing one right against another right. Because this is so delicate, so tied in to medical conditions, socio-economic realities and personal conscience, it seems to me best that such agonizing deliberations be made by the people closest to the situation – mother, father, doctor, counselor. For example, if the life of the mother depends on having an abortion of an ectopic pregnancy, that seems like a decision she and her family and doctor should make. When a tragic event late in a pregnancy presents medical providers with the prospect of saving the mother or the baby, but not both, I don’t think it would be appropriate for the state to declare that only one of these beings has the right to live. The last thing women need in this country is a patchwork of state laws that could criminalize a heart-wrenching medical procedure that they may, in good conscience, truly need.
For these two reasons – respect for the pluralism of legitimate differences in beliefs, and respect for the inherent complexity of moral decision making – I came to support the rights outlined in Roe v Wade as a ‘good-enough’ balancing act between society’s obligations to protect the life of the unborn and the rights of women who are pregnant. Without claiming any expertise in constitutional law, this is why I consider myself a pro-conscience Catholic.
But I also consider myself a pro-life Catholic, a “whole life,” pro-life Catholic. In addition to desiring life for the unborn, I am opposed to the death penalty, opposed to war and opposed to uncontrolled gun rights and violence in all forms. I am opposed to racism and discrimination of any kind, including intolerance of our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters. I am a supporter of public policies that would ensure that all people have access to physical and mental health care, to education and housing and fair employment opportunities.
Pretty much all of these issues, like the question of abortion, are subject to complex moral discernment because rights must be thoughtfully weighed and because resources are not infinite. At the societal level, this is the serious work of governing, but the governing process is failing us these days. In my view, my city, state, and national governments don’t do enough to support an ethic of life for all of us, and especially to enable people at the margins to survive and flourish. So, in addition to advocating and voting for my values, I use personal funds to support the nonprofit organizations that do their very best to fill the gaps. That’s part of what it means to me to be pro-life, not just pro-birth.
It may not be convincing to those who sincerely believe that one of these positions makes the other impossible, but it is a fact that I am both a pro-life and a pro-conscience Catholic. Not every question has to be “either-or;” many things are “both-and.” The pro-life part of me is anchored in my religion and spirituality. The pro-conscience part of me has to do with my beliefs about a legal system that is fair to all Americans.
This is a subject that always has a level of heat involved, all the more so now in the wake of the Dobbs decision. However, I am not comfortable with the most inflamed rhetoric at either extreme of the issue. I do, however, feel compelled to speak up and to act. My ideal scenario is one in which all viable pregnancies come to healthy term because the women and families involved are able and willing to make that choice, without legal penalties that apply to the early stages of a pregnancy. If someday science and society come to see the beginning of life the way that we Catholics do, so much the better. But that time is not now.
In the meantime, I am committed to voting for those who will implement policies to reduce poverty and structural racism and to provide a fair chance at life for women, children, and their families. If I have the opportunity, I will likewise vote for those willing to restore the legal protections that disappeared when Roe v Wade was overturned. I’m pretty sure that most options available to me will feel imperfect, but so be it. It will be a long road to wise balance. I grieve deeply for the vulnerable ones in this time of chaos.
I don’t know if this writing makes any difference to anyone else, but I wanted to share my personal deliberation of conscience as a Catholic citizen. I’m trying to contribute to public discourse in this turbulent moment. I pray that the Author of all life give me and us the grace to repair what is broken and to nurture what is good for all beings. Mine is not a prayer for magic deliverance from the messes we humans create - - it is a prayer that we might be given the insight and courage to do our part towards healing what is wounded, and shaping a safer world for all who come into it.