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Scarlet Letter

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August 2022

Some things come late in life, or more precisely, later. For me it was reading, or more precisely, the enjoyment of reading. As a kid, I’d dutifully go to the library and check out a stack of books. Two weeks later they’d go back unread, often not even opened. Today, the chance to take my mind off the day’s concerns and enter a different time and place is relaxing, inspiring, and thought provoking.

With lots of catching up to do, my focus has mainly been on classic fiction, books that have stood the test of time. Like The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel about life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of the 17th century. Hester Prynne had a pretty big problem. Hester had relations with a minister resulting in a child. The minister would not admit his involvement, and Hester would not disclose his identity. In Puritan society adultery was unforgivable, so she was forced to wear the letter A on her clothes, a public stigma that resulted from her wrongdoing.

As societies have developed over the ages, one constant feature has been the imposition of boundaries. That’s good, for boundaries are important to self-preservation. Some things we must not do. No one disputes that we may not take another’s property, and certainly not take another person’s life. It is universally accepted that we may not destroy another’s reputation by scandalous and malicious lies. Civilized societies create laws to mark our boundaries and to give fair notice of what will happen if someone crosses over them. Disobedience has often resulted in punishment—and a resulting stigma.

Over the centuries mankind’s boundaries have changed, sometimes for the good, sometimes not. But those changes have usually been gradual. There is a reason. It allows society to come to grips with what is being asked, with whether a proposed change is for the common good. It is why Roe v. Wade came as such a shock—there was nothing gradual about it. All of a sudden, women nationwide were told they could legally kill their own children. What had been the strongest social boundary of all crumbled before our very eyes.

Roe’s authors, and the justices who reaffirmed Roe in later cases, thought that by treating abortion as just another medical procedure, it would become acceptable to society as a whole. The issue would somehow be forgotten, and everyone (but the unborn) would just more forward. But Roe’s promise was never fulfilled, and it was evident from the beginning that it would not be. Those who saw legal abortion as the unspeakable evil never stopped working to end it. Over the years, their work intensified. In many states, common sense restrictions were imposed to protect the health and safety of women—often teens—forced to deal with the unexpected consequences of boundaries crossed.

But Roe was still there, and legal abortion continued nationwide. Women had abortions by the millions under a claim of right. Of course, a legal right and a moral right can be two very different things. And for many women, the abortion process was anything but liberating. Women who thought it was just a medical procedure learned the very hard way that it is not. Abortion left many women with physical, emotional and spiritual scars. It also left them with a stigma—a scarlet A for abortion—that they saw even if no one else did.

For decades, the abortion movement has tried to de-stigmatize abortion. Women have been told that an abortion is “reproductive justice” and “health care.” They’ve heard that they have a “right to chose”—though never specifically told what they are choosing. They hear that the new creation inside them is really only a “mass of tissue” or a “clump of cells,” words accepted in moments of desperation but not after a little thought. Recently, an activist described abortion as an act of “self-love,” which more sounds like selfishness than love. A Congresswomen suggests that we eliminate the word “abortion” because it weaponizes the procedure—though abortion is a weapon. Women are told to “shout out” their abortions and that opposition to it is just the ravings of an intolerant Church.

But all the efforts to de-stigmatize abortion have and will continue to fail for a simple reasons. Long before there was Church or legal abortion, God wrote His natural law deep in mankind’s heart. It speaks to us, allowing us to differentiate between good and evil, to know what is right and wrong. It allows us to serve Him and to live with each other in harmony, even if we do not profess a religious faith. The clanging of a misguided culture cannot silence its message. It is what women who contemplate or have suffered from abortion hear in their hearts. Ironically, it is what the abortion movement, with all its claim of helping women, ignores. Did you ever hear of any abortionist providing counseling for women?

Roe may be gone, but it gave the culture a 50-year head start in bad thinking. In our post-Roe world, we must change hearts and minds. It starts with re-establishing that abortion is a serious wrong, a boundary not to be crossed. But it continues by constantly assuring that in Christ’s Church, all hurt by abortion can find forgiveness, help, and hope.

No one needs to wear a scarlet A, even if no one else sees it.

Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics.  He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois and have six children.
© Paul V. Esposito 2022.  Culture of Life.  Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted.  Visit us at http://www.the-culture-of-life.com/ and on Facebook.

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