Abortion is failing women: An interview with Angela Wu Howard

| Catholic News Agency
Oct 26, 2021 10 Min Read
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Part of a continuing series examining the U.S. Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a direct challenge to the 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion throughout the United States.

On Dec. 1, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the abortion case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Many legal experts say the case presents the most momentous test yet of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide. At issue is the constitutionality of Mississippi’s 2018 law banning most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy.

As with any high-profile Supreme Court case, dozens of amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” briefs have been filed both in support of and in opposition to the Mississippi law.

Angela Wu Howard, a legal scholar who has practiced law in the U.S. and internationally, is one of the signers of an amicus brief supporting Mississippi’s pro-life law. The brief argues that women’s “social, economic, and political opportunities” were already increasing before Roe, and that abortion is not necessary for women’s socioeconomic success.

The following is a transcript of CNA’s interview with Howard. It has been edited for length and clarity.

What is your personal and faith background? 

My parents immigrated here [to the U.S.] from Taiwan, and I grew up in Queens, New York, and in the suburbs of New Jersey. I’m a Catholic convert. I became a Christian as an adult and was baptized in the Church of England in Brussels during a year abroad, and then became Catholic about 12 years later.

How did you come to the place where you are professionally?

I studied modern intellectual history during undergrad and was always interested in the way people think. Eventually, I went to law school, and then I studied European law after getting my J.D. I had a career in international religious freedom law, and then went back to school to get my doctorate in legal philosophy.

What brought you to the place of signing the amicus brief with the 239 other women?

I work for Becket, which is a nonprofit public interest law firm that defends the religious freedom of people of all faiths. Our clients have included Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Becket filed an amicus in this case focused solely on the religious freedom implications, making the argument that the constitutional structure of Roe and Casey [the landmark 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which affirmed a right to abortion] escalated religious freedom conflicts where there did not need to be any, and urging the Court to replace the Roe framework so that religious freedom needn’t be such a proxy for abortion.

Separately, I know one of the authors of [women scholars and professionals] brief, Erika Bachiochi. She asked me to sign this brief filed on behalf of women scholars and professionals with terminal degrees. I read it, and I agreed with it, so I signed it in my personal capacity. I don’t think our nation’s laws should be based on a lie, and this brief corrects the record.

The amicus lays out an argument that, contrary to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, abortion has not facilitated women’s advancement, and in reality has hurt women. Can you explain why you agree with this argument?

Roe and Casey were premised on certain ideas about women in society, and about the necessity of abortion for women's advancement. This brief attacks the faulty premise that women have what the Court in previous cases called a “reliance interest” on the availability of abortion, that abortion supposedly ensured women's capacity to participate equally in the economic and social life of a nation.

The brief points out that the political scientist whose work is at the heart of this premise — she did not herself claim any causal link between abortion and women's improved economic and social status. In fact, contrary to the way the Court used her work, she specifically said that abortion was actually a result of the changing economic and social status of women, and not the cause. The brief spends quite a lot of time deconstructing that argument and looking at the [48] years since Roe and what has actually happened to women in society and in the workplace.

Although women in the workforce rose [as abortion increased] in the few years after Roe, in subsequent years, women's status in society and access to economic and social opportunity also continued to rise when abortion levels dipped precipitously. So, there wasn't even a correlation, much less causation.

The brief also outlines how wide access to abortion, and the assumption that abortion is not only available, but seen as necessary, has actually done damage to women. It severed sex from any idea of a joint future between the man and the woman who have sex, an act that often naturally leads to parenthood, and to children. It also enabled this idea that single parenthood is a woman's choice, and solely the woman's choice, and that it's solely the woman's burden, because she could get an abortion, but she elected not to. It really ties into the feminization of poverty.

[The brief] very succinctly outlines how abortion has enabled corporate actors, and public, private, and social actors to basically avoid accommodation for women with children, and avoid accommodation needed for the flourishing of the family. The brief points out that the U.S. lags behind almost every other developed country in providing basic workplace accommodations for family, for parenthood, and for paid parental leave.

What do you think is missing from the mainstream conversation around this topic with regards to what you just shared?

I was not always pro-life, even as a Christian. There was a moment in time when I realized that my position was untenable. I volunteered as a rape crisis counselor and at an overnight homeless shelter, I worked in domestic violence, and I helped to pass the Violence Against Women Act as an intern. My views on abortion have been deeply colored by that work, and, even when I thought that abortion should be legal and was uncertain about what kind of limits should be placed on it, I knew that our society was failing women.

Now, I have the view that abortion is one of the signs of how badly we are failing women. The vast majority of women who choose abortion choose it for reasons that are entirely within our grasp to address and to ameliorate, and we, as a society, choose not to. The vast majority of women choosing abortion — sometimes multiple times — are doing it for social and economic reasons. Those reasons do not justify the taking of a life, and it's on us to fix them.

When you look at the vast majority of women choosing abortion, what they want is not to have to sacrifice their children. What they want is to have their children and have the emotional, social, and economic means to support and love their children. We’re failing, we are telling them that the only option for advancement is to take the life of their own child. Then, we’re taking a further step to diminish what is actually happening by characterizing the child as a clump of cells, and it’s a scientific lie.

We hear a lot about the pro-life position being “anti-science.” How do you respond to that argument and what would you want women to know?

This is a major problem that we're coming up against as a society, that when we talk about anything remotely complex, we immediately go to these tropes and these ad hominem attacks. We're not looking at the facts as they really are. We’re not looking at what women really want.

Women deserve to know what abortion actually does, the mechanics — many women have no idea how abortion is actually performed. Women deserve to understand the stages of fetal development, that a child can have a heartbeat within weeks, and arms and hands that touch the face within 10 weeks. And they deserve to know that there are alternatives to taking that life, that there are many stable, loving couples that would love to welcome their children in adoption, and that they, themselves, have access to material, psychological, emotional, and social support if they decide to keep the baby.

That's not what's happening. When they go to Planned Parenthood, they’re not told any of this. They’re only given one option.

And there’s an enormous misunderstanding of what abortion actually is, what constitutes abortion. Doctors have always had a duty to save both lives, to save the lives of both mother and child, and when a child is lost in that process, that’s what moral theologians call double effect — a grievous harm that results from pursuing a good end. It’s not abortion; it’s not the intentional taking of an innocent human life.

So, I think that this idea that pro-lifers are unscientific and don’t understand the science is frankly, really ironic, because it is often people who are for unfettered abortion that seem not to understand the stages of fetal development or what abortion actually is.

You mentioned that you were not always pro-life. How did your perspective change?

I had always thought that abortion would be, for any woman, an incredibly difficult choice, and I still believe that. In an age where women are “shouting their abortion,” I still hope that it is a difficult decision. But, underlying that idea was something that I didn't want to think about, which is why.

Because of the background I had had working with women in very painful circumstances, I always thought it just doesn't seem right to force a woman to carry a child to term. It seemed like such a physical burden. So, I thought I was just going to remain pro-choice while doing everything I could to support women in other ways, by making it possible for her not to have to choose abortion.

I found myself doing all of this work, but I remember sitting in the office of a particular Dominican priest before I became Catholic and this topic came up. I remember stating my position, and he kind of sussed out that I did think a human life was at stake, and that I didn't, at that point, believe that it was just a clump of cells. I believed, both from a faith perspective and what I had learned in biology — things like that the baby's DNA is completely there from the beginning, that it was a human life at stake.

But I felt I could not impose that burden on another woman. It is very common that a lot of women say, ‘Well, I would never choose the abortion, but how can I make somebody else not choose it?’

The priest said to me, “What if there was a particular class of persons, of human persons, and you never saw them or heard from them, and perhaps they pose some sort of a burden on others, and you found out that they were systematically being eliminated. Is there any other class of human beings where you would think this could be justified?”

I couldn't say “Yes” to that. It was a very defining moment where I thought, “I can't defend this anymore.”

Was there anything else that convicted you to be pro-life moving forward?

When I had my first child. Pregnancy is really beautiful, and it can be quite difficult. You are carrying a child, and your body is in full participation in creating this other life. I remember thinking when I was pregnant that I had so much more sympathy for women who found themselves unexpectedly pregnant, for women who were afraid.

Angela Wu Howard with her family in Alexandria, Virginia. The legal scholar cites her experience having her first child as a major turning point in her becoming strongly pro-life. Photo by Erin Donner.

Angela Wu Howard with her family in Alexandria, Virginia. The legal scholar cites her experience having her first child as a major turning point in her becoming strongly pro-life. (Erin Donner)

I also became so much more passionate about defending the unborn because I knew that this was a life, I knew this was a vulnerable human being that I had a sacred duty to protect, even though it required sacrifice on my part. I grew in my empathy for women who find themselves in difficult or painful situations, and also in my empathy for unborn children, for the life that they carry and how much we, as a society, not just women alone, owe to them.

What are your hopes for the future of the pro-life movement?

Whether or not Dobbs succeeds, and regardless of what happens at the legislative level, if that's where abortion law goes, I think the pro-life movement has a duty to women, to children, to fathers, and to families to create a pro-life culture, a whole life culture. That means providing the circumstances where families can flourish, and where human dignity is respected in all aspects of life. I think the movement as a whole can do a great deal better in actively presenting women with alternatives to abortion, and we can do that regardless of whether or not abortion is illegal.

In every city we lived in, we have, in our small way, supported or volunteered with pro-life ministries that help pregnant women and mothers, long after birth. There are always so many women who need help — they want to keep their babies — and these crisis pregnancy centers and homes are amazing, but they are always underfunded.

This emphasis on material and spiritual support does not diminish the legal case for limiting or banning abortion, because there is something really critical at stake there, and that is the inherent value of every human life, an accurate understanding of the science of life, and our willingness as a society to sacrifice for the vulnerable. But the principles that you see at stake in Dobbs and in all of these abortion cases bleed over into many areas of life that people who are not particularly concerned about abortion should be and are concerned about. I would think that even if you are not pro-life, you would want to help women keep their babies.

Religious actors, in particular, should do all the more to present women with viable alternatives. There should be publicly and privately funded alternatives for women in every city in America.

There’s another aspect to our witness, too, which we talked about earlier — creating a society that welcomes and supports families. Seamus Hasson, the founder of Becket, is deeply Catholic and has seven children. He set out to create a workplace where families could flourish, where he wouldn’t lose lawyers as soon as they had families to support. We have great maternity and paternity leave. Part-time and remote work has always been common for at least a season.

I am consistently impressed by what a non-issue parenthood and being a mother is in the quality of work produced. The firm searches for excellence, and has largely eliminated lifestyle barriers such that parents, and mothers in particular, can continue to be within the field of consideration.

The pro-life movement needs to be the leader in supporting people who come with relationships, families, obligations. Your job is not just supporting you and your ambitions, it’s supporting you as a whole human being. It can be a real witness in the pro-life movement to say, You do not have to leave your children behind to be successful here.

If somebody was considering an abortion and was talking with you about it today, what would you say to them?

I would ask for her story. I would want her to feel seen and heard. I would hope that she knows how deeply loved and valued she is as a human being, and I would want her to know that she is strong enough to choose life.

There are people waiting to be there for her, whether she chooses adoption or chooses to rear the baby on her own. There are people who want to help. She doesn’t have to sacrifice her children in order to flourish in life.

Autumn Jones

Catholic News Agency

Autumn Jones

Catholic News Agency

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