Healing the Elephant in the Womb

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the seventh in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal“, the third is “When Does Life Begin?“,  the fourth is “The Developmental Soul“, the fifth is Teilhard, the Personal, and the Developmental Soul“, and the sixth is “Fullness of Life“.

As we come down the home stretch in this extended Wisdom inquiry into the abortion issue, I’ve tried to draw together here some of the most important implications and “business arising” out this exploration. Most of my following “top five” have already been touched on in previous blogs, but a few are new (though obviously following from points already raised). Here we go:

  1. Reframing

The whole conversation around the abortion issue needs to begin with a comprehensive reframing of the metaphysical assumptions on which it rests: away from a substance-theology-driven fixation on nailing down the precise moment when “life” begins (implicitly understood as meaning an individual human soul) and toward a wider appreciation of the entire life journey as a single, interwoven dynamism of “soul-making” in which each stage of the journey is equally vulnerable and precious. When does a daffodil become a daffodil? Is daffodil the bulb? The shoot? The bud? The flower? It is all of the above, yet none insofar as a stage is taken in isolation. In the traditional Wisdom maps – confirmed as well as in the more dynamic relational models emerging from the leading edges of biophysics and evolutionary theology – the term “pro-life” can no longer be usurped by any single phase of the journey, for the soul is the fruit of the entire life journey, not merely of the moment of conception.

This Wisdom understanding of “pro-life” assumes that the boundaries demarcating an individual life from the greater relational field that has supported its gestation/individuation – and will continue to do so for the entire course of its life – are always a bit indistinct, marked by considerable reciprocity at each step of the way. Attempting to establish identity by separating an individual element from the whole is an old, old metaphysical habit that no longer matches the shape of our dynamically interwoven universe. At every phase life makes its way juggling difficult balances and hard trade-offs. To be pro-lifenot merely “pro-birthimplies an acknowledgement of that challenging terrain and the willingness to bring forbearance and mercy to the entire unfolding.

  1. Compassionate speaking

    Arthur Russell’s “The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea”

As an important initial step in that direction, we need to become much more forbearing and merciful in our use of language. Precision is necessary“soul”, “life”, and “individual essence” are NOT synonyms, and when used as if they are, they result in creating what Arthur Lovejoy once defined as emotional pathos – language wielded for sentimental and/or manipulative effect. Christianity is already vulnerable enough to that sort of emotional manipulation; it has been standard devotional and even theological practice for centuries. We need to tread extremely gently here, and to be doubly alert to well-worn rut tracks of associative thinking.

Above all, it seems to me that the word “murder” has no place in any helpful discussion of the abortion issue. Technically, yes, abortion terminates an incipient human life. But when connotation – not merely denotation – is factored in, murder typically implies malevolent intent; it already presumes a crime.1 To impose this set of associations on a decision-making process which virtually always unfolds in the realm of human anguish is inflammatory and cruel. Is it also murder to “put down” a pet? To withdraw life support from a loved one following a catastrophic stroke? Do these decisions – which also terminate a life – always presume malevolent intent?

At very most, we are speaking here of “fetal homicide”. My own preference would be to recognize that in those great liminal zones surrounding birth and death, where life is not yet (or no longer) fully viable on its own, we need a whole different way of languaging those painful but sometimes necessary decisions to end the life of another sentient being. I am not suggesting euphemism here, but rather an honest and compassionate clarity that would serve the goal of healing – not simply anger and blame.

  1. Acknowledging the shadow

That being said, abortion does end the life of another sentient being, and such a decision is never easy or pain-free. It inflicts deep wounds on the human psyche (I believe this is true even in the case of putting down a pet), and these wounds are long in healing and reverberate on many planes; in that sense, abortion is a karmic act. Because of the harm it invariably engenders (to self, fetus, relationship), it is never simply a medical “procedure”, let alone a “normal” method of birth control. It should always be considered exceptional: a “least preferable” option to be invoked only after alternatives have been carefully weighed and rejected.

Since the clearly documented shadow side of abortion still tends to be under-acknowledged in pro-choice presentations, there seems to be an obvious need for a more balanced emphasis in sexual education, together with a concerted effort to make standard forms of contraception readily and blamelessly available: the only strategy to date that has yielded a conclusive and consistent success rate. And yes, here again, it’s a trade-off between high principles and sustainable results. From my admittedly pragmatic angle of vision, it seems that if the Catholic Church could ever see its way clear to constraining the rights of the “potentially conceived” in favor of those already conceived (i.e., contraception as the only realistic “preferable alternative” to abortion), I suspect that the vast bulk of its pro-life agenda would be instantly achieved.

  1. Safeguarding legal access

While abortion is never the preferred option, I believe it needs to remain a protected legal option. The Wisdom model provides additional validation for doing so in affirming the equal importance of all stages of life and exposing the implicit Catholic/evangelical theological bias at work in the presumption that the rights of the unborn take precedence over the rights of the mother. In an increasingly pluralistic America, where many religions and no religion offer competing moral compasses, it is more important than ever to establish a legally protected space in which difficult personal decisions can be arrived at through personal conscience, not through the legal imposition of sectarian dogma. I return here again to my earlier proposal of a “two-tier” system stipulating that included among the fundamental “first tier” rights is the right for a woman to control her own body and to hold the decisive vote as to whether a new life will be formed within her body.

Beyond that baseline – at what I’ve called “second tier” – adherents of specific religious paths would have the full freedom to practice a higher level of moral observance according to the understandings of their particular faith tradition. It simply would not be universally binding. 

  1. Creating a wider ethical forum

Beyond those immediate issues raised by the abortion issue itself, the even greater challenge has proved to lie in figuring out a way to hold this conversation at all! And I’m not just talking about the differences of opinion and occasionally painful give-and-take as challenging new ideas are collectively pondered; I’m asking why thoughtful pondering of the kind we’ve been sharing here is such a painful rarity in our cultural conversation nowadays. As I racked my brains to think of a journal, a publishing house, an academic, or retreat setting that might sponsor such a discussion, I quickly realized there were none. “Too far afield” for traditional theological journals; “too political” for academic or contemplative specializations; “too provocative” for retreat or even Living School fare, where one wishes to avoid giving offense to those who might be challenged or made personally uncomfortable by the exchange: “Cynthia is misusing her post as a teacher to wander into such dangerous personal ground”.

It has seemed to me for a long time now that the most urgent long-range need facing our country today is for some cultural forum – beyond an internet blog series – where the important questions and issues impinging on our common humanity can actually be weighed and discussed. A Wisdom chautauqua, as it were. But what sort of forum would that be, and where would it take place?

Traditionally, issues of ethics and morality have been discussed and enforced within specific faith traditions. But today there is no longer a single faith tradition undergirding our civic morality and, given the prevailing contemporary interpretation of the First Amendment, it is no longer easily acceptable to teach subject matter traditionally identified as belonging to the “religious” sector in a secular educational setting. The big questions that have traditionally guided human ethical progress – “Who am I?”, “What am I here for?”, “Who is my neighbor” ,“Is there anything beyond self-interest?”, “Is there a higher purpose or coherence to the universe?” – are perceived as spiritually booby-trapped (alas, often true!) and hence off-limits for the purposes of public education. Meanwhile, given the continuing hemorrhaging in most mainstream religious denominations, it is far from a foregone conclusion that younger generations of Americans will be exposed to these ideas even within a religious setting.

The vacuum is lethal – filled, by default, simply with the clichés and role-modeling available from the entertainment and marketing sectors. The highest and finest of what has traditionally made us human has effectively been closed out of our cultural transmission.

This becomes particularly pressing when we attempt to explore the concept of a developmental soul, for it clearly presumes a sacred context for the human condition, a meaning to life not realized in personal self-maximization but in cosmic obligation and the sense of participation in a larger coherent whole. It is here and only here, the great sacred traditions unanimously affirm, that the ultimate meaning and satisfaction of human life are to be found. It is here and only here, one might add, that the attitudes, vision, and practices that can carry our planet safely into the future are to be found. And it is only at this scale – against the wider backdrop of the meaning of all of life, considered as a unified trans-cosmic whole – that the meaning and gravity of fetal abortion finally come into a rightful perspective. If we are not able even to raise these questions – let alone, wrestle with them, grow into them – what hope do we have in steering our planet wisely through these turbulent times?

Like many citizens in our country today, I’ve come to hate gerrymandering – that political sleight of hand that hacks up functional geopolitical units in order to create political firewalls. But even more than political gerrymandering, I loathe cultural and spiritual gerrymandering, which chops up the unified terrain of the human heart into a thousandfold denominational and academic fiefdoms in such a way that the great river of our collective human wisdom can no longer flow freely through it. The tragedy, of course, is that it is only our collective human wisdom that will save us.

Any bright ideas as to how such a container might be created?


  1. Black’s Law Dictionary defines “murder” as the unlawful killing of a human being by another with malice aforethought, either expressed or implied. A “homicide” is defined as the act of a human being in taking away the life of another human being.
25 replies
  1. Jim Bruns
    Jim Bruns says:

    I read all the blogs you authored on abortion and I would like to share my thoughts. I am not a female but I still feel the pain of my wife’s miscarriage of our first child at about 12 weeks or so. I am sure that child had a soul, a spirit, an essence and most surely a life.
    I can’t state this from a logical standpoint (which is my strong suit, as a part time engineer), but how I feel as the connection of Spirit and Soul. I am also against any funding for such because of being complicit. I have written congressman numerous times, but no, I have not volunteered for Pro Life concerns or fundraisers for unwed mothers, so I am part of the problem as I see it. I feel I needed you for Char din and Panikaar in the Living School, but now am reticent to continue my review of LS material I restarted since being sent in August. It may seem petty, but I need you to do that, and I put you in a closed bookcase….I am sad but I don’t agree Teilhard de Chardin is saying the same thing. Gurdjieff, maybe….
    I did get all texts back out and continue on with redoing the LS Curriculum. I am presently listening to your Law of 3 talk and when your Embryologist quote of “stillness for 24 hours” or so, and then “ignition,” affirms for me the Spirit, soul, essence, and life of the child. Thank you for that.
    Ilia Delio quotes Pope Francis and Pope Pious on evolutionary consciousness and the immediate creation of the Soul:
    “Pope Francis’ position on evolution is not unlike that of his predecessors. God creates a world in need of development (80), and human beings may be explained in part by evolution, but “the uniqueness of humans cannot be fully explained by evolution” and “presupposes a direct action of God and a particular call to life” (81). Here we find an echo of Pope Pius XII who wrote in Humani generis that evolution may explain how the physical body of the human person is formed but the church maintains that the soul is created immediately by God (HG 36). We are the lodestar of creation and “all creatures are moving forward with us and through us towards the common point of arrival, which is God” (LS 83). By framing the human person as integral to but distinct from creation, however, Laudato Si’ thwarts a true evolutionary discourse on human becoming. For we are not simply in evolution; we are evolution becoming conscious of itself.”
    Merry Christmas
    Jim Bruns

  2. William Ryan
    William Ryan says:

    Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago in the 1980s proclaimed that a ProLife moral commitment by Christians is of necessity “a seamless garment”. I await for that development to spring forth in the Christian world.

  3. Sioux
    Sioux says:

    Cynthia: Respect! Thank you so much for taking on this issue! Seems to me that you’re risking the cross on this one, and that reflects what a true Wisdom Teacher you are (though I knew that), putting truth before comfort. I feel sad about – and yet completely understand – your concerns about “raising these issues even Living School fare (‘Cynthia is misusing her post as a teacher to wander into such dangerous personal ground’). Yeah, well, how about a Chautauqua for those who choose to attend? I have facilitated county-wide conversations involving hundreds of highly-heated people on uber-contentious issues, and would be happy to lay out and facilitate a simple process that we could fall back on IF the conversations became dicey. Also, how about an essay series in something like Parabola magazine? Cynthia, thank you, on behalf of all creation (whether they yet know enough to feel grateful) for taking on such an important topic. You’re a leader of immense proportions. Huge Love. – s

  4. Lawrie Okurowski
    Lawrie Okurowski says:

    As I sit with this complex issue, it seems to have winnowed itself down to how It touches me at my core. Personally aborting is the action of one expression of God denying another expression of God the opportunity of continuing in the life giving sacred space that they are Sharing. This cessation of relationship touches on so many dimensions at once that my mind is stunned – only my heart has the courage to stay present.

  5. Angela Maves
    Angela Maves says:

    On the subject of creating a forum for engagement – I’ve attended two “Death Cafes” here in Washington DC. Both were very good experiences. Here’s a link to an article about experiencing a death cafe in Britain. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/mar/22/death-cafe-talk-about-dying.
    They can be held in many different locations and engage people who are total strangers at first, from all walks of life to talk about a difficult subject (although not a potentially divisive subject such as abortion).

    Another creative, courageous and hopeful forum I heard of recently was an interview on NPR with Dylan Marron who engages people by telephone who respond to his on-line blogs with hateful comments – https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/conversations-with-people-who-hate-me/id1257821731?mt=2

    Just putting these out there to stimulate our own thinking …..

  6. Cheryl Truesdale
    Cheryl Truesdale says:

    Possible cultural forum?…..maybe your next book possibly as a starting point? Book content: Expanding on the journey of a developmental soul and laying out the truth of what’s REALLY required for pursuing spiritual evolution (adressing those very topics that are ” spiritually booby-trapped” as well as the necessity for difficult conversations). I believe this type of starting point could open a portal that many, many people would be willing to enter, and being made aware, would then have the capacity to engage in discussions in a mature, loving, compassionate manner.

  7. Nancy Sylvester
    Nancy Sylvester says:

    Thank you for this invitational journey into a potential space to begin a deep conversation on this critical issue. As a Catholic the binary way the abortion issue is approached is painful. I so resonate with your statement that it is only “against the wider backdrop of the meaning of all of life, considered as a unified trans-cosmic whole – that the meaning and gravity of fetal abortion finally come into a rightful perspective. If we are not able even to raise these questions – let alone, wrestle with them, grow into them – what hope do we have in steering our planet wisely through these turbulent times?” I, too, believe we need a forum to explore it in this way. I know I will be pondering possibilities where it might be explored. Many thanks.

  8. Donal O'Farrell
    Donal O'Farrell says:

    The dialogue model developed by David Bohm and furthered by others such as Claus Otto Scharmer and perhaps the scenarios processes used in troubled times in Post-apartheid South Africa or in Guatemala might offer ways for creating a sufficient container for healing and compassionate exploration. Bohm’s Implcate order or Merton’s Hidden Wholeness seem and sound like something close to “unified teams-cosmic whole”

  9. Emma Harley
    Emma Harley says:

    I don’t have an answer to your question Cynthia, but thank you for posing it with such urgency and heart. There is something gestating here I am sure, and I feel it in my own life all the way over here in Australia – how to find or create that which you describe – it is pressing. Whether it be online or boundaried by geographical space, please know there are many of us who are hungry for it. The work of the Fourth Way brings a depth and resonance and darkness to it (if that makes sense) that gives the very light a greater substance, and I am so grateful that you are bringing this forth, interwoven with other lights in the the esoteric and mystical traditions.

  10. Jennifer Betuzzi
    Jennifer Betuzzi says:

    My lived experience says that a small container with four or five taking on the issue and then feeding into a larger container. As the first response noted, this is a tender topic with strong feelings in absolutely every direction the topic moves. However, who better to tackle it than a community calling themselves “wisdom”.

  11. Burnett Nancy
    Burnett Nancy says:

    Thank you for this series! It leaves me breathless with its profound truth, insight, and generosity of spirit. It raises so many profound questions for our time that I don’t know where to begin. Yet, it also offers a road map to begin the journey. This final entry brings us full circle to the most important and challenging concern: where to step into the solution. Yet, we each must step in from where we are. Compassion is my stepping-in place. Compassion demands two-tier or even more-tier levels of awareness and responsiveness. A black/white world removes compassion from choice because even if the “white” side is chosen, it is a too-narrow frame of reference for wholistic compassion to operate. The world is a great big grey ball. The grey areas are vast and everywhere. There are many ways to kill our “children” from distracted neglect to outright murder. And they only mirror the ways we kill the already living among us. Gerrymandering is one of the more despicable practices of “killing” the spirit of our neighbor. Thank you for the image of cultural and spiritual gerrymandering. That raises the bar for all of us. And the concept of the developmental soul, priceless. But I challenge you, Cynthia, to reconsider rejecting Living School as a context for tackling this theme. The too-delicate perhaps need toughening. This is spiritual warfare, right? Living School is an ultimate grass-roots possibility. There just needs to be more of you to go around. Can you work on cloning yourself? Is this not the best solution ever? (she said, tongue-in-cheek) In loving appreciation…n.

  12. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    In light of our discussion of the DEVELOPING soul, I realize I read this concept decades ago, spoken by another Wisdom Teacher, the Skin Horse, to an aspiring apostle, the Velveteen Rabbit who asked “What is Real?” While it doesn’t have all the nuances of these six essays, I think it catches the essence of how we develop a Soul or how we become Real:
    “Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you…You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
    ― Margery Williams Bianco, The Velveteen Rabbit

      • Sandra
        Sandra says:

        Thank you Emma. Obviously one of my favorites too…second only to the soliloquy from Our Town…both saying in such loving and poignant ways how precious life, love, and this world is.

      • Sandra
        Sandra says:

        Thank you, Cynthia. And thank you for your brilliant connections in everything I read of yours. You are a very important teacher and guide in my journey.

      • Ron Starbuck
        Ron Starbuck says:

        I believe it is there now – of course it is – right in front of us each moment of each day. And that we are indeed living out a life that goes beyond death. Still, I do love these thoughts and words, and how life calls out to life and calls us into a relationship with one another and all of creation. So beautiful and true…

        “You must find that in you that already lives beyond death and begin to live out of it now”, my teacher Rafe taught me, encapsulating the essence of this teaching in his own plain words.

      • Emma Harley
        Emma Harley says:

        🙂 I love that you have incorporated that. THIS is the process of weaving and bringing God down here, substantively, that you are talking about, right here in this very forum <3

  13. Ron Starbuck
    Ron Starbuck says:

    I like the idea of holding a 21st Century Chautauqua, and within that forum – using Art & Literature as a way of engaging in the conversations that matter. There are a lot of possibilities here to consider.

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