Iowa, abortion and ethical nuance

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With the signing of a draconian, and likely unconstitutional, anti-abortion law by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, I want to share the view of a different group of women on the subject. In an earlier post, I mentioned getting to know, as a non-Catholic, a group of anti-war nuns while doing graduate study in ethics during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s. I will try my best to present their “nuanced” ethical position on abortion expressed to me then, as I think it bears airing. It is also a good example of the battle between rule-based ethical systems and end-based ethical systems, which have been the subjects of an ongoing series of posts.

The idea of nuance in ethical discussion is that the “swinging sledgehammer” approach often taken by dedicated advocates of one particular ethical theory is rarely productive when, as I like to say, “good people disagree.” Ethical nuance simply means that we recognize multiple ways of looking at difficult ethical dilemmas, each with its own sometimes-subtle strengths and flaws (and likely coming out of different parts of our own brains). These issues are hard, and we need to talk intelligently about them, rather than toss bombs.

Note that my personal position on this subject requires some additional nuance that I will explore in future posts, but I believe that the position of these sisters merits a more visible place in the discussion. Some positions bring us closer to a workable consensus on difficult issues and some positions shut down ethical discussion. I put this argument in the former camp.

As I noted in that earlier post, the local Archbishop was none too pleased with the public positions of these nuns, and that included their less-than-hardline views on abortion. These sisters supported what is called a consistent ethic of life, which places equally-high value on human life at all of its stages, including at death. This position, for instance, places a very high ethical importance on collective societal support for poor mothers with children, and also opposes the use of the death penalty on the other end of the life continuum.

While attempting to be true to the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion, these women would talk about the (all-male) church hierarchy’s out-sized focus on the “smaller ethical dilemma” of birth control on top of an over-simplistic view of abortion, which is the “larger ethical dilemma.” In essence, by trying to control the sexual lives of women with a ham-handed, unscientific and patriarchal ban on birth control, the Church effectively causes huge numbers of abortions, both legal and illegal, around the world. This deeper analysis of the consequences of rigid ethical language by the nuns is ethical nuance in practice. Approaching ethical issues wearing the blinders of just one perspective is usually counterproductive.

The sisters knew their math. People of means and privilege have long had access to both effective birth control and safe abortion, and that includes “good Catholics” (you just need to count the children at mass in well-off parishes for a start, they would tell me). Poor women and teens do not have this same access. That is the reality of this world. I noted in an earlier post of the position of a Jesuit ethicist we studied under that, “at its root, morality must be based on reality.” That reality of social inequality comes into play here in a big way. We cast moral judgement on poor people who have been forced into decisions that well-off people get to escape.

The cynical joke in my small Iowa town has long been that clueless fathers sit at home watching football on TV while mothers and teen daughters go on a euphemistic “shopping trip to Des Moines.” The reality is often too uncomfortable for self-perceived “good people” to confront. In difficult situations, humans seek an expeditious end to time-critical moral dilemmas, and that includes abortion. But these “good people” dare not speak of their “real world” experience in public. The math, however, tells a different story. Well-off women and teens do not have less sex than poor ones. They just have more options (as do the men, but that is another story).

Each one of us is here on this planet because of a combination of lots of men and women having sex throughout the ages combined with the biological and probabilistic birth lottery that produced specifically me and you. That reality will not stop. I’m an admitted “math guy.” The math of a limited experiment in the state of Colorado [1] and larger longstanding social policy in the Netherlands [2] demonstrates that when you aggressively provide reproductive health care, and give birth control choices to poor women and teens, you reduce the rate of abortion to the level long enjoyed by well-off and independent women. Which is to say, somewhere much closer to the rate of “a closer call” for more thinking parties, a goal that seems to me to be a “win-win.”

This is a classic “rules versus ends” ethical dilemma. Conservative religious America has had a long obsession on controlling the sex lives of people (other than their President, it seems), based on their perception of ethical rules. Those rules are based on their perception of “Divine Command” and what I call the “Ten-ish” Commandments. But the statistical end results of that rule-based position in the U.S., compared to other developed nations, have been more abortions rather than fewer. As those nuns I met in Cincinnati so wisely noted, the obsession on the “small ethical problem” literally created a much bigger ethical dilemma that just does not have to be.

What to do about abortion when all else fails, and when all women and teens have informed reproductive choices, is a separate ethical issue for another day. Governor Reynolds, please address the “small dilemma” with the big statistical and human pay-off first, and then let’s talk about the “bigger dilemma.”

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  1. Tavernise, Sabrina. “Colorado’s Effort Against Teenage Pregnancies Is a Startling Success.” The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2017.
  2. See Ketting, E, and A P Visser. “Contraception in The Netherlands: the Low Abortion Rate Explained.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 1994, and Orenstein, Peggy. “Worried about Your Teenage Daughter? Move to the Netherlands.” Los Angeles Times, 8 Apr. 2016.

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