Faith & Choice: A Woman’s Conscience and It’s Demise

On October 11, 1972, Sarah Weddington stood before nine male justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. Each of the men were old enough to be her father, yet the 26-year-old Weddington spoke as a woman with convictions. Her mind and her conscience were clearly focused on the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy. Weddington argued that every woman had a right to privacy and that the realm of privacy encompassed both contraception and abortion. Weddington argued that every woman has a right to follow her conscience and be true to it when it came to the question of having or not having a child.

The testimony Ms. Weddington gave was truly impressive. She was calm, forthright and exceedingly competent. By virtue of both her message and her demeanor she championed the virtue of self determination that is every woman’s due. Obviously, she won the case, probably the one Supreme Court case everyone knows by name: Roe v. Wade. Her testimony was so compelling that it would have been unimaginable for the Justices to decide that women were too incompetent to manage their own pregnancies.

Weddington prevailed in Roe v Wade, 7 – 2. Just as clearly her opponent lost. The Attorney General for the State of Texas, Robert Flowers fumbled and faltered, and nowhere as much as when trying to make the case that the fetus is a person. He did not have the benefit of being coached by today’s Catholic Bishops. Not long after her case in court and before knowing the Court’s decision Weddington vied for and won the Dallas area seat for the Texas State House of Representatives. Her associate, Ann Richards went on to become Governor of Texas. Flowers, know for his strong anti-abortion views, was turned out of office. But that was then and times have changed, at least in Texas.

Looking back, it may be claimed that the Court’s response to Weddington’s presentation was the high water mark in the struggle for a woman’s reproductive justice. There have been few voices as persuasive in defense of a woman’s freedom of conscience.

Weddington’s core argument prevailed, true enough, but she lost a larger argument. Justice Harry Blackmun who wrote the Roe decision starts by giving women the right of conscience and the right of self determination with respect to their pregnancy. But as Blackmun continues, as if to placate a male view of the world, he took away much of what he gave initially and refused to make abortion an absolute right. In the Roe decision and all subsequent decisions, the call for abortion on demand was not to be. The Roe Court, and again all future Supreme Court decisions allowed the State to restrict and regulate abortion claiming that the State has a rightful interest in protecting potential life. It is this right of the State that has given rise to much subsequent litigation and a host of State regulations. While the decision in Roe has not been overturned, access to abortion has become so difficult and so costly that for a vast number of women their right to an abortion exists only in words and not in the real world. As access to abortion shrinks, the world where women are free to live by their conscience is dramatically affected. In the end, religious liberty is the loser.

It is time to examine this historical turn of events and understand what has happened to women of conscience who thoughtfully consider the status of their fetus.

Catholics for Choice need no introduction to the subject of conscience as developed by the brilliant Catholic scholar John Henry Newman. We non- Catholics may need to be schooled. In Newman’s words, “(We) have within (our) breast a certain commanding dictate — an authoritative voice, bidding (us to) do certain things and avoid others.” This “commanding dictate” is our conscience and for Newman the power and presence of conscience argues for the existence of God.

The teachings of Newman are echoed in the Encyclical Letter Veritatis Splendor in 1993 by Pope John Paul II. Here conscience is defined as “the sanctuary of man where he is alone with God whose voice echoes within him.” The Pope also discusses the authority of the teachings of the Church but in the end His Holiness comes down on the side of conscience by declaring that only by making decisions autonomously would man be able to attain moral maturity.

The Church’s teachings regarding conscience give courage to women as they confront the many political and legal constraints that have evolved in today’s world. As a pregnant woman navigates through the legal system what was once an elevated sense of worth and power has been diminished. According to Roe v. Wade, a woman may exercise her conscience as a function of privacy but only from the beginning of pregnancy until fetal viability. During this initial period a woman is legally free to follow her conscience for the management of her fetus with no restraints from the State. But this position of power and competency is not long-lasting.

We are dealing with a strange turn of events. Pregnancy begins with a declaration of privacy, liberty and the freedom of one’s conscience. But there comes a point in time when the law overrides all conscience considerations and abolishes religious freedom of the pregnant woman. The State inserts itself as the moral authority and takes over all important pregnancy management decisions.

Who bestows on the State this awesome authority and monopoly whereby women are forced during the course of their pregnancy to surrender their God- inspired conscience? A complete answer to this question is beyond the scope of this paper. Sufficient for now is the assertion that the power behind the throne is the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and their many subordinate anti-abortion organizations and lobbyists. While the Catholic masses may be falling away from the teachings of the Church, the opposite is true of State governments. In State after State, legislators act as children attending catechism translating into law the rhetoric they have been fed.

There is a note of irony in this Church-State development. When the Church asserts the authority of its moral teachings, allowance is made for a woman to exercise her judgment in good conscience with respect to the management of her pregnancy. But at that moment in time at 6 weeks, 12 weeks, 20 weeks or 26 weeks, depending on the political jurisdiction, when the State asserts its authority, a pregnant woman confronts an unyielding legalism with no opportunity to exercise her conscience.

The moment when a woman loses her moral capacity to live by her conscience keeps shifting as this historic debate unfolds. At the time of Roe (January 1973) women could start their pregnancy with no constraints on their conscience prior to viability at 24 to 26 weeks. But the so-called pro-life forces have been at work. In Texas, after considerable public debate, the line between a woman’s freedom and State control was set at 20 weeks. Even shorter periods of time have been enacted by several states. However the real goal of the pro-life forces are best illustrated by PersonhoodUSA. They, together with Priests for Life and others, maintain that a full human person is created at conception. Their goal is the total elimination of all abortions since all abortions are the killing of one of God’s precious innocent little ones. Once a woman becomes pregnant, the game is over. At conception the fetus has a right to life and the woman carrying it has no say in the matter. A pregnant woman is reduced to impotency. If PersonhoodUSA achieves their goal women from the moment of conception are reduced to that of incubator and the well- being of the fetus becomes the ruling interest of the day. For the personhood movement, women surrender all rights to a freedom of conscience at the time of conception. Surely Cardinal Newman would find this picture highly disturbing.

The grand vision of women inspired by their liberty and living by their conscience protected by a realm of privacy has dramatically changed. Clearly, if Priests for Life and PersonhoodUSA prevail, the rights won by Sarah Weddington and her supporters will fade into history.

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