Sociologically, I suppose, the combination of values that I hold on abortion is utterly predictable. My Roman Catholic background predisposes me toward a moral condemnation of abortion, and a good part of me is inclined in that direction. But I am also by background upper middle class, highly educated, and an inhabitant for most of my adult life of what might loosely be described as “liberal” circles. That combination, of course, inclines me toward a permissive view of abortion, and it would hardly surprise pollsters that I count myself among the “prochoice” supporters. The likelihood of that outcome is all the more enhanced by the fact that I am, at best, only a cultural—as distinguished from an active—practicing Catholic these days. Yet, even as a Catholic, I was influenced by that powerful movement in the American church during the 1950s and 1960s that sharply distinguished between the requirements of personal morality and those of public policy.
The late and distinguished theologian John Courtney Murray was one of my early teachers and heroes. His pioneering work on Catholicism and pluralism set the stage in my own thought for differentiating between the morality of abortion and what might constitute sensible policy on the subject. Father Murray died before the advent of the abortion dispute, and it is hard to guess how he would have come out on that issue. But he did provide me (and many others) with a rough map for making our moral way in a pluralistic society. In sum, my own intellectual and moral formation, in both religious and secular terms, was of a kind likely to produce a prochoice advocate.
I confess to that sense of social determinism with no great cheer. It would do my spirit much good if I could believe that my own thinking effortlessly rose above the determinations of class and time. To be sure, I see in myself only free will, pure reason, and ex nihilo originality. But I am ruefully able to appreciate that I may appear less so from the outside. The only interesting question, I think, is whether anyone might be able to predict whether and to what extent my views might be different 20 or 30 years from now (assuming my views could be distinguished from my senility). For anyone who would care to make such a prediction, here is the data with which to work.
I was born of Catholic parents and raised in Washington, D.C. My father was an executive in the early years of radio, and a few of my childhood years were spent in New Orleans and Boston. After World War II, my father started a business publishing newsletters in Washington, and I spent my high-school years at a Catholic military school in the city. My mother, a sophisticated woman who was once called by a newspaper in the 1920s “the most beautiful woman in Washington, ” was a somewhat stronger Catholic than my father, but for both of them, religious life and secular life existed comfortably together. I cannot recall ever hearing the subject of abortion discussed, and about the only thing my mother ever said came in my adult years, when she once remarked that she had known a number of women during her younger years (she was born in 1895) who had had illegal abortions. She was not shocked by the social reality of abortion.
I initially stumbled across the subject of abortion during the mid- 1960s, when the abortion reform movement first came to significant public attention. At that time, I was an editor of the liberal Catholic magazine, Commonweal, and gingerly wrote a few editorials on the subject. By 1967, I had become interested enough to decide to write a book on it all. When I began the book, I was firmly in the prolife camp (though the term was not used then), but as my research and thinking proceeded, I gradually changed to a prochoice position. My principal reason for writing the book, however, was not to promote that particular point of view. Instead, I wanted to examine the question of how a subject like abortion ought to be morally understood and analyzed (a reflection of my philosophical training), and how our country could devise a wise public policy (a reflection of my longstanding interest in the relationship between law and morality).
I think it is important to note that my interest in abortion has always been principally an intellectual one. It is an issue that serves wrenchingly yet beautifully to touch on a wide range of moral considerations and their social implications. Though my wife and I have raised six children—not all of them “planned” —I cannot say that abortion ever arose as a debatable option in my own case. To this day, I find it hard to imagine any circumstances whatever that would impel me toward abortion—though I can imagine many reasons that might impel others, without condemnation from me. In that respect, then, I have always felt an emotional repugnance toward abortion that I do not feel is shared by some of my prochoice allies. My reason, not my feelings, has led me to my prochoice position. At least, I hope it has been my reason, and not just some confluence of social determinants that has deceived me into thinking that I am not deceiving myself.