Dorothy Day on Abortion and Mercy

Jessica Keating_headshot

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

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“Don’t you care about anything other than abortion, like U.S. military plans to invade Iran?,” a middle aged man asked a women holding a sign that read, “Abortion Hurts Women.” I happened to overhear this question a few weeks ago, when I participated in the nation’s largest Planned Parenthood protest in history.

The problem with this question and others like it (don’t you care about poor, don’t you care about the environment, don’t you care about the plight of the immigrant, don’t you care about
homelessness, don’t you care about human trafficking, etc., etc.), is that they attempt to limit the horizon of conversation to predetermined and falsely constructed dichotomies. Such questions are not neutral; rather their framing fossilizes the narrative about human dignity in our country through the unrelenting rehearsal of 11951995_10152931926825793_3853225836498330680_nslogans and arguments. These questions, whether expressed on Facebook or Twitter, in the media, or by presidential hopefuls in what seems like endless election cycles, are nearly always linked to the desire for power, to get candidate X elected. The not-so- hidden implication of such questions is that one cannot care about the unborn and militarism, or human trafficking, etc., etc. I have also heard the question inverted, so as to imply if one is really against abortion, all other human dignity issues must recede from view. In either inflection, there is a lack of nuance, distinction, and vision.

In light of the absurdity of this set-up, I have found myself reflecting on Servant of God Dorothy Day as a particularly important icon for Catholics in America who are daily tempted to fall prey to disjointed “issues”-based politics and to cultivate a comparable “issues”-based gospel. She confounded such tidy divisions and simply declined to engage the American political milieu in such predetermined ways.

Day actually rarely spoke or wrote directly on the topic of abortion. Scour her journals, articles, letters, and books. Search her prolific corpus, and one will find scant reference to that ordeal of which she had a most intimate knowledge. She wrote a fictionalized account of her own abortion in an early work, The Eleventh Virgin, and obliquely gestures to the experience in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. Indeed, she expended her considerable journalistic talents denouncing state sponsored militarism, detailing the rhythms of Dorothy_Day_1934family life, describing the scandal of the works of mercy, writing letters, and advocating for a new social order. In part, no doubt, this had as much to do with the historical fact that abortion was not available and practiced on the scale it is today until the end of her life, but I also suspect her relative silence on the subject had something to do with Day’s own deeply painful experience of abortion.

In addition to the references to abortion in The Eleventh Virgin and The Long Loneliness, Day speaks of her abortion again in a tender letter written on February 6, 1973 to a young woman named Cathie whose own abortion left her in deeply wounded and contemplating suicide. To Cathie she speaks of pain and hope, healing and prayer. “In a way,” Day writes “to use old-fashioned language, I feel you are a victim of souls, bearing some of the agony the world is in, Vietnam, the Third World, ‘the misery of the needy and groaning of the poor’”(All is Grace, 397).

Day again mentions abortion in a reminiscence to mark her 75th birthday that appeared in the August 10, 1973 edition of Commonweal Magazine. Writing of her conversion, The Imitation of Christ, and Bartolome de las Casas, she writes:

God forgive us the sins of our youth! But as Zachariah sang out, “We have knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of our sins.” I don’t think anyone recognizes the comfort of this text better than I do. I have not yet been attracted by the present tendency to bring everything out into the light of day by public and published confessions. Were we not taught by Holy Mother Church to respect the modesty of the confessional? Or is that a silly expression? But oh the joy of knowing that you can always go there and be forgiven seventy times seven times. (Even though you wonder, in your distrust of yourself, whether you really mean or have the strength to “amend your life.”) I hope your readers can read between the lines from the above and recognize what my positions on birth control and abortion are.

In the same “letter-article,” she recounts being asked by reports in
Australia about her views on abortion and birth control. To these 2251719973_01c2c3fd40questions, she explained matter-of-factly:

My answer was simplistic. I followed Pope Paul. . . . Thank God we have a Pope Paul who upholds respect for life, an ideal so lofty, so high, so important even when it seems he has the whole Catholic world against him. Peter Maurin always held before our eyes a vision of the new man, the new social order as being possible, by God’s grace, here and now, and he so fully lived the life of voluntary poverty and manual labor.

There is a striking similarity between Day’s straightforward answer and Pope Francis’ first interview with America Magazine where, when asked about abortion, contraception, and gay marriage, he said simply, “I am a son of the Church.” And yet, such simple answers are far from simplistic. Rather, they speak of a life lived according to a particular form of life and a particular logic of love and mercy.

Day’s most formal statement about abortion appeared The Catholic Peace Fellowship’s “Statement on Abortion,” which she co-signed with six others on June 28, 1974. Here the authors write:

We make this statement to protest a policy and a practice, not to condemn any individual for a tragic decision she or he may have felt forced to make, just as in our protest against war and its destruction of human life we pass no judgment upon the individual who acts in good conscience.

. . . For many years we have urged upon our spiritual leaders the inter-relatedness of the life issues, war, capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia and economic exploitation. We welcome the energetic leadership our bishops are giving in the abortion controversy and we are proud to join our voices with theirs. At the same time we must point out that, ultimately, the sincerity of our words and theirs on any of these issues will be measured by our readiness to recognize and deal with the underlying social problems which turn many people to these deadly womalternatives, to condemn all forms of social and economic injustice and to work for their elimination and the establishment of a social order in which all may find it easier to be “fully human.”

What are we to make of these three references? The first appears in personal letter in which Day recalls her abortion and the healing grace of God. The second appears in a self-described “letter-article,” wherein she speaks of abortion in connection to the mercy and authority of the Church. The third reference appears in a formal statement, in which the authors denounce the policy and practice of abortion and call for a new social order, one which makes human flourishing easier—a society that, in the words of Peter Maurin, “makes it easier to be good.”

Taken together, Day’s remarks on abortion offer two essential insights.

1) Mercy capacitates us to see more. In her “letter-article” for Commonweal, Day quotes the Benedictus: “We have knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of our sins.” The mercy of God, fully disclosed in the person of Christ, and Day’s encounter with God’s mercy enabled her to see more of reality. Indeed, it is a life prayer, of participation in the sacramental life, that forms such a vision. Grace elevates and penetrates even that which is available to reason. It enfolds us into the logic that knits together all “life issues.”

If this sounds similar to a seamless garment life, it is because it is. But let me be clear, such a vision must avoid conflation. The image of the seamless garment like the image of the Body of Christ, with Christ as the head, is a hierarchical image. Abortion, the willful termination of human life, is simply not the same moral act as capital punishment or even economic exploitation. Rather, such a vision requires the careful and precise distinction evident in Evangelii Gaudium, when Pope Francis explained why the protection of the unborn takes primacy of place in the Church’s teaching on human dignity.

Among the vulnerable for whom the Church wishes to care with
particular love and concern are unborn children, the most defenseless pope-francis-im-not-a-marxistand innocent among us. . . . Defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems. Once this conviction disappears, so do solid and lasting foundations for the defense of human rights, which would always be subject to the passing whims of the powers that be. No. 213

A society that fails to defend its most vulnerable members will soon find that it is unable to defend other human rights, that indeed, what is considered a “right” increasingly will be determined by the powerful.

At the same time, such a vision can see the inner connection of all life issues. We do well not only to remember that the realities of war, migration, and economic exploitation often disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us namely, children, but also that all offenses against human life, in different ways and at different levels of gravity, participate in a logic of violence, in a logic that produces a throw-away culture. We also do well to remember that the realities of war, migration, and economic exploitation often disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us namely, children. Day expresses this when, in her letter to Cathy, she sees the acute particularity of Cathy’s suffering and its universality. It is precisely because of the Church’s teaching on abortion (and euthanasia) that enables her to to speak and act with clarity, conviction, and authority on all issues related to life, to labor tirelessly against an economy that kills (53). This kind of vision is elevated and expanded by an encounter with God’s fierce and tender mercy.

  1. Mercy is a habit that requires concrete forms of practice. Peter Maurin was famous for saying that the aim of the Catholic Worker was to build a new society in the shell of the old, one that made it easier to be good. In her “letter-article” to Commonweal, Day seems to make a non-sequitur from her affirmation of Pope Paul’s upholding of respect for life to Peter Maurin. As I read over the passage a second time, however, it struck me that her abrupt change in subject was only an appearance. Indeed, for Day (and for us) Maurin is living witness to the gospel of life. He provides, as does Day, a particular enactment of a life conformed to Christ, to the one who reveals the breadth and depth of human dignity, which is made known to us again and again through the tender forgiveness of our sins. It is a life lived within the horizon of mercy.

In his concrete practices of prayer and the works of mercy, the vigorous exercise of his mind and enactment of his vision for an agronomic university, Maurin (and Day) worked to build a “social order in which all may find it easier to be ‘fully human.’” By daily practicing the way of mercy, they labored for a society in which it was easier to be good, easier to choose life, easier to say no to the will to power and violence in all its many forms.

I stood on Grape Road, with my jeans rolled up and my hair pulled back, with the young and old, with men and women who had also come to plead for justice and mercy for unborn, to call for a new 11879275_10152927735535793_2395403451959082158_osocial order, one that makes human flourishing easier—a society permeated by mercy. This work on behalf of the unborn is not exhausted by protesting, though that is critical. It is not exhausted by legal changes, though these are necessary, as the law shapes the imagination. It requires more; it requires concrete practices of care and support for mothers and their children—health care, paid maternity leave, a living wage, etc. Mercy does not choose its own way. It does not say, I will do this work of mercy but no other. Mercy is a bridge, it has wholeness, a breadth and depth that makes it easier to choose life.

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