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Abortion, Down syndrome and the throwaway culture: Why the left has to grapple with Pope Francis

Pope Francis blesses a baby during his weekly general audience at St Peter’s Square on June 10, 2015 at the Vatican. (Filippo Montefortefilippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)
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This opinion piece is by Charles C. Camosy, associate professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University in the Bronx.

If you’ve heard anything about Pope Francis’s new eco-encyclical, you likely know that it calls out market economics in light of catastrophic global climate change. This pope has won the support of the American left since his election, so it is anything but surprising that the encyclical has so thoroughly captured the attention of our largely left-leaning media.

Indeed, several pundits have not been able to contain their glee as they watch their counterparts on the right awkwardly resist a pope’s authoritative teaching.

[Release of encyclical reveals pope’s deep dive into climate science]

It isn’t getting much press, but there is plenty in Francis’s encyclical which also spells trouble for liberal orthodoxies. On a host of issues — from population control, to gender theory, to moral relativism — Pope Francis explicitly and strongly denies the prevailing views of most American progressives.

Including on the most polarizing issue of them all. “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion,” said the ostensibly-liberal pope.

The following tweet from NARAL summed up the reaction of many:

While NARAL’s reaction is understandable in the context of our lazy liberal/conservative political binary, the pope is merely reflecting Catholic social teaching’s long-standing commitment to a consistent ethic of life which transcends simplistic American politics.

Francis goes on to say we cannot “genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be” if we fail to protect the prenatal child. “If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of the new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away.”

[10 key excerpts from Pope Francis’s encyclical on the environment]

If we want to get a sense of the incredible range of vulnerable beings the pope has in mind, it is worth quoting him at length about a moral disorder

which drives us to treat others as mere objects, imposing forced labor on them or enslaving them to pay their debts. The same kind of thinking leads to the sexual exploitation of children and abandonment of the elderly who no longer serve our interests. It is also the mindset of those who say: Let us allow the invisible forces of the market to regulate the economy, and consider their impact on society and nature as collateral damage.
In the absence of objective truths or sound principles other than the satisfaction of our own desires and immediate needs, what limits can be placed on human trafficking, organized crime, the drug trade, commerce in blood diamonds and the fur of endangered species? Is it not the same relativistic logic which justifies buying the organs of the poor for resale or use in experimentation, or eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted?
The “use and throw away” logic generates so much waste, because of the disordered desire to consume more than what is really necessary.

Conservatives obviously find themselves indicted rather strongly here, but the pope gives no quarter to liberals either. His reference to “eliminating children because they are not what their parents wanted” is another reference to abortion. Perhaps an abortion-rights liberal could reply that his comments are unfair, and that women and men who seek abortions would never do so for such a casual reason. Perhaps, they could argue, this is an unfortunate but marginal part of an otherwise progressive encyclical.

They would be mistaken. Pope Francis, when he speaks about the throwaway culture, almost always includes abortion. The pope’s diagnosis of our ecological problem is that we have a spiritual sickness: Westerners are caught in a consumerist lifestyle which rewards selfishness and greed — and the lifestyle has produced a culture which ignores, abandons, or marginalizes the vulnerable and inconvenient.

In his recent exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” Francis insists that prenatal children “are the most innocent and defenseless among us.” If the developed West is ever going to get serious about the radical transformation necessary to resist the throwaway culture and reverse the global climate crisis, the pope argues we must develop virtues and practices of welcome and nonviolence with respect to all marginal populations — including inconvenient prenatal children.

Almost on cue, there were three different news stories about abortion and Down syndrome around the time of the encyclical’s release. New blood screening, for instance, has resulted in a 34 percent increase in such abortions in Britain. Just a few days later, a Washington Post guest columnist argued such routine and systematic screening — not least because between 67 percent and 92 percent end up aborting — constitutes the formal “elimination of a group of people quite happy being themselves” under “the false pretense of women’s rights.” And then there was the story of the truly despicable company stealing the image of a child with Down syndrome for their Orwellian-sounding test kit named “Tranquility.”

You couldn’t ask for a more revealing practice of the throwaway culture Pope Francis so strongly decries. It doesn’t matter that people with Down syndrome are happier than those who are “normal;” our consumer culture’s tendency is to turn everything into a mere object or tool of the market, and when the object or tool is no longer useful, we simply discard it. These children don’t meet the quality-control standards of the consumer, and so the product simply gets thrown out as so much trash.

But one of the central themes of Pope Francis’s encyclical is that all creation has value independent of its value within a consumer culture. In response to my sharing the three stories mentioned above on social media, an old friend sent me a touching e-mail (parts of which are shared here with permission) about her sister with Down syndrome. She remembers that her family was initially sad and worried — but now, looking back, “it truly made no sense.” She explained:

My parents were told she might never read, yet she does (currently the “Hunger Games” series). My parents were told she might never talk and she does talk (favorite topic: Taylor Swift). My parents were told—in effect—to lower their expectations. They never did and she has excelled. Veronica holds a job working 10-12 hours a week in a local outpatient clinic. She volunteers at a daycare center. She is extremely active in several local clubs and organizations. She was on the swim team in high school. She rides horses. She is a vocal advocate for disabilities awareness. Veronica has a busier social schedule than I do. She even dates a nice young man—much to her older brothers’ chagrin.

What can we say about a culture which eliminates three out of every four people like Veronica? Pope Francis has an answer: it is not the kind of culture capable of reversing our climate crisis.

Charles C. Camosy’s most recent book is “Beyond the Abortion Wars: a Way Forward for a New Generation.” You can follow him on Twitter @nohiddenmagenta.

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