Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

You Don't Get Credit For Not Killing Someone

Yet again a Catholic school, this one in Helena, Montana, is in the news because it has dismissed a teacher for moral reasons. Shaela Evenson who has taught literature and PE to middle schoolers at Butte Central Catholic Schools for the last nine years has been fired because she became pregnant out of wedlock (a violation of the morals clause in her contract with the diocese) and an anonymous letter writer alerted the diocese to the situation. The diocese says that the policy applies to men and women who violate Church moral teaching, but acknowledge that they don't proactively investigate their employees lives and Ms. Evenson's situation is "much more evident" than a similar transgression by a man would be.

These cases are always thorny. I would hope that diocese and schools use some discretion in applying their policies, making some sort of good faith effort to understand whether they're dealing with a teacher who genuinely reject's Catholic teaching or is living with the consequences of an acknowledge lapse. People's natural assumptions start to come out in a situation like this. One group of writers seem inevitably to frame any such story as "vindictive authorities punish faithful teacher for her one moral lapse" while another group frame it as "school finally gets rid of teacher who doesn't accept Church teaching." Sometimes it may be clear whether Church teaching is accepted from the actions or statements involved, but other times it seems to be more a matter of people pouring their dispositions into a situation. It seems clear that, in the real world of real people, in some cases this will turn out to be a teacher who accepts Church teaching but failed to live by it (or was the victim of an assault) while in other cases it's a teacher who really does reject Church teaching and probably does a pretty bad job of trying to pretend when teaching it.

Be that as it may, there's one line of argument that seems to me completely off base. Voices of indignation often frame these stories as "teacher fired for being pro-life". The theory behind this is that if the teacher had had an abortion, no one would have been the wise. Thus, if a teacher is fired for having a sexual relationship outside of marriage which is discovered via her becoming pregnant, then implicitly she is being fired for not having an abortion.

While it's true that the teacher's transgression wouldn't have become known had she had an abortion, I think this approach is flawed, in that it implicitly moves abortion into the range of potentially acceptable actions.

Imagine the following case: A young man comes forward and accuses the priest who was his pastor when he was young of having sexually abused him. The priest is removed from ministry. Is there anyone who would mount the defense, "Sure, the priest sexually abused the young boy. But we should be very thankful that the priest did not then kill him and hide the body. If he had done so, we would never know of the crime, and the priest would still have his job. We're punishing the priest for choosing life!"

No. Indeed, the argument is on the face of it offensive and suggests that the abuse victim's life is somehow forfeit and that it's only by the generosity of his abuse that her retains it.

Similarly, arguing that the teacher is being punished "for choosing life" both assumes that the initial transgression is inevitable rather than being itself a moral choice, and also gives in to the idea that abortion is a "normal" response to being pregnant when you don't want to be.

I think one could make a pragmatic argument about incentives on somewhat similar grounds: that given the prevalence of abortion in our current society that it's important to try to avoid creating situations in which people face a consequence for giving birth to a child which they do not face for having an abortion.

But I think that it's unacceptable from a pro-life point of view to see this kind of situation in terms of "punishing someone for choosing life". If we take the pro-life point of view seriously, "choosing life" is a given.


Jenny said...

Funny, this is exactly the type of situation I was talking about in the other post which I was typing at the same time you posted this one.

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, if "we" say that people who have done jobs which they were trained to do are "heroes" just because they did those jobs particularly well, I guess we'd give a woman extra credit for not having an abortion.

So has anyone started to call her a hero for "choosing life" despite persecution by the school?

Jenny said...

"But I think that it's unacceptable from a pro-life point of view to see this kind of situation in terms of 'punishing someone for choosing life'."

I agree with this statement but your title does not necessarily lead to the conclusion that she is being punished for choosing life.

In our current society with abortion being hailed as not just an unfortunate and necessary evil, but as an all-around good thing, I think she does get some credit for not killing someone.

Your analogy to the priest does not hold because there is no one actively championing his "choice" to dispose of the victim. With a pregnant woman in the United States today, sadly, abortion *is* a "normal" response to being pregnant when you don't want to be.

In a just society it would not be true, but we live here.

Paul C. said...

"stop firing unwed pregnant women for the sin of being unwed and pregnant"

I notice that her school superintendent said that she: "made a willful decision to violate the terms of her contract". The word 'willful' made me wonder exactly what the superintendent knew, as opposed to what he was able to say. A little searching on the web for what the newspaper stories have chosen to leave out (or refer to only very obliquely) suggests that it was not simply the fact that she was pregnant and unwed that led to her firing.

Darwin said...


I tried googling around a bit, because there are certainly times when it turns out there's a lot else to be known about these cases. I recall one a year or two ago when it turned out that the single teacher who had got pregnant had done so via artificial insemination because she just wanted to be a mother. I suppose one could repent of that decision as well as of any other, but that certainly suggests someone who is obstinately opposed to Church teaching at several levels. In this case, I wasn't able to find anything further, but no one is talking much since they're in the middle of litigation.


I guess I agree at a certain practical level, but I think it's important to be clear that not getting an abortion is what you're supposed to do -- absolutely and without exceptions. And also that we can't take sex outside of marriage as a given that we simply assume has to happen. I think (perhaps influenced by knowing it's a hard left venue) that author of the Millenium Journal piece ends up acting as if pregnancy itself "just happens" and that if we don't celebrate unwed motherhood we're just encouraging abortion.

Paul C. said...

I notice another thing that the school spokesman chose to point out: "The Catholic moral teaching is that the sacrament of marriage is a holy union between a man and a woman". This newspaper story also ends in a oblique clue for further searching.

Darwin said...


I'm not a tea-leaf reader, so I'll have to wait and see if there's a story that actually states further details, but since I'm supportive of the diocese right to choose to enforce their contract and fire her for having sex outside of marriage, it's not deeply material to me.

Paul C. said...

There's more than tea leaves floating around. I'm not at all in favor of the specific right you mention: the circumstances are all important -- which eliminates any idea of a right. But then I'm biased; I had a friend who committed suicide rather than get caught in a disapproved pregnancy.