Progressive Revival

Kate M. Ott is the associate director, Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing

During the President’s Inauguration, Catholic Vote ran an advertisement on BET (Black Entertainment Television) that used Barack Obama‘s story as an anti-abortion tale.

My first reaction to this ad was, “How disrespectful to Barack Obama! . . . to use him, a historical anomaly, to vilify women and men struggling to make a decision about an unwanted pregnancy; to use a man who clearly has stood up time and again for abortion access and women’s reproductive healthcare and choice; to use, and worse to distort the circumstances of his birth all for an advertisement!”

Here are my second, third and fourth reactions.

We do not know the potential fame or folly for which our children are destined. To base decisions solely on the unknown possibility of a pregnancy is flagrantly dismissive of the other lives involved in that decision and sets up our children for unrealistic, unattainable futures. We do not know who our children will become; we only know how well we can support them, provide for them, and give of ourselves to them. In the Religious Institute’s Open Letter on Abortion as a Moral Decision, we say, “The sanctity of human life is best upheld when we assure that it is not created carelessly. It is precisely because life and parenthood are so precious that no woman should be coerced to carry a pregnancy to term. We support responsible procreation, the widespread availability of contraception, prenatal care and intentional parenting.”

There is no other visually identified person in this advertisement except a floating fetus. That’s a medical impossibility. Removing a woman’s body from the visual message does more than make us focus on the fetus; it forces us to create a false separation between a pregnant woman and the fetus in her uterus. They are inextricably intertwined, as are their lives and decisions about their futures. Abortion is not an abstract act; why must we continue to erase the physical presence of the moral agents in these decisions – women? This separation diminishes our ability to grasp the true moral complexity of an abortion decision. The advertisement stresses “broken, abandoned and struggle” as the descriptive circumstances into which Obama was born. Barack Obama’s mother and father were well educated and had family support systems that allowed them to make a choice about this pregnancy, which is not the case in all unwanted pregnancies. I don’t even think we can surmise (without hearing from his mother, which is no longer possible) if this was an unwanted or unplanned pregnancy.

My fourth reaction is that the advertisement is a new version of the old ethical argument that “absolute respect for human life” is the only moral principle upon which to judge abortion, and its only application is to prioritize the life of the fetus. In almost no other moral deliberations do we actively deny other moral principles, such as justice or love of neighbor. The advertisement coercively limits the scope of our moral imagination and denies how context influences moral choice. “The ability to choose an abortion should not be compromised by economic, educational, class or marital status, age, race, geographic location or inadequate information” (our Open Letter again), but in reality it is. The choice to have an abortion is always a moral choice; women are always capable moral agents; moral decision-making requires deliberation of multiple principles.

I haven’t even touched on the racial implications of airing this advertisement on BET during the inauguration of the first black President of the United States. This, I think, has more to do with the racist and sexist moral character of the group supporting and contributing to the ad, not the moral decision of women to have an abortion.

Our moral struggle should be one that sees racism, poverty, and heterosexism as factors that destroy communities and place women and men in uncompromisingly difficult moral decisions – not one that uses historical events as an opportunity for moral exploitation. 

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