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I’m Pro-Choice. Can I Donate to Anti-Abortion Pregnancy Clinics?

New York Times - Tue May 4 09:00

The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on how to weigh doing good against the beliefs of the do-gooder and becoming a godmother without being a Catholic.

Credit...Tomi Um

I crochet recreationally and in the past have donated baby afghans to charitable organizations. My preferred organization donates to local neonatal intensive care units (NICUs), but because of the coronavirus, hospitals aren’t taking blankets. The only places taking baby blankets are pregnancy clinics that are anti-abortion and associated with the Catholic Church or conservative Christian groups. I am not against donating to religious organizations, but I am staunchly pro-choice and believe women should not be judged or shamed for the difficult decisions they make regarding pregnancy. However, I worry that withholding my donation is further “punishing” any children whose parents have views that differ from my own, and I’m struggling with how to stay generous in spirit. Name Withheld

These clinics you’re considering donating to are doing something very good: They’re looking after mothers and babies who need care. They’re also implicated in something you think is seriously wrong: shaming women who want to exercise their legal right to an abortion and campaigning to restrict or eliminate that legal right. You have reason not to support such institutions (as someone who is against abortion would have reason not to support institutions that favor abortion rights), because you don’t want to be associated with policies you deplore. Your blankets would make a negligible contribution, if any, to advancing those policies; what’s at issue is really your own moral integrity — whether it matters to the world at large, it matters to you, to your sense of your own commitments and values.

What happens when we think about the situation in terms of the good you can do? If you wait until your local NICUs are accepting blankets again — often to give to parents when their babies are ready to go home — the number of recipients you will have helped over your lifetime may be lower than it would otherwise have been. (To be sure, if the need far outstrips the supply, you could bank up your blankets and your inventory would be swiftly taken up by NICUs, benefiting the same number of families.) Still, you wouldn’t be condemning anyone to discomfort or harm, and your blankets would be used eventually. If that is the choice you face, the considerations on each side are finely balanced; I could understand either choice. It reflects well on you, I think, that you’re weighing both considerations.

But there may be a way of meeting both goals — helping as many families as you can and avoiding association with groups doing what you consider a serious wrong — so long as you don’t mind a bit of research and, perhaps, some additional mailing expenses. You could look for clinics outside your area, and even outside this country, that don’t oppose abortion and could use crocheted blankets or sleep sacks. The United States isn’t where most of the world’s needy infants are to be found.

I’ve become an atheist, but most of my family is Catholic. I love my sister very much, but we’re not in the habit of sharing our views on things like religion or politics. So far as she knows, I’m still Catholic.

She recently had a child, and I was very honored to be named the baby’s godmother. However, my sister’s very strict Catholic parish allows only “practicing” Catholics to be godparents. There’s a form you must submit from your parish (signed by your priest) as proof of your participation. I probably should have come clean then, but I didn’t want to have my godmother status revoked. So I figured I would sign up with a new parish, become a member and do whatever I needed to do (go to church a few times, whatever) to get it done.

Because of Covid, the parish waived all the things they normally do when bringing in a new member: tours of the parish, meeting with the priest, etc. Everyone I talked to was extremely nice. After a few days, they made me a member and signed the godparent form from the other church.

So I was able to be godmother at my niece’s baptism. I figured all was well, and I could just forget about it. But now an individual from the church I signed up with has reached out wanting to talk about my faith needs and about how I want to get involved when things open up again. I feel bad. Catholicism is just not part of my life anymore, and I feel bad lying to them. Should I just tell them the truth and thank them for their time? Ignore it and hope they forget? Or go to church a few times and do whatever else to make amends? Name Withheld

Oh, dear. The amount of weaving that went into this tangled web of well-meaning deception would leave most blanket makers in the shadows. But if your sister is a serious Catholic, inviting you to be a godparent was asking you to play a role in the child’s spiritual development. Catholic canon law says that a godparent — or what it calls a sponsor — must “be a Catholic who has been confirmed and has already received the most holy sacrament of the Eucharist and who leads a life of faith in keeping with the function to be taken on.” And that’s because this function is to help your godchild “lead a Christian life.”

You have a moral duty to avoid deceiving people about matters they take to be important.

If you’re not a Catholic, you don’t have a duty to obey Catholic canon law. But you do have a moral duty, Catholic or not, to avoid deceiving people (especially those you love) about matters they take to be important. And you have failed in that duty both to your sister and to the parish that welcomed you. What you did is irreversible; after a baptism, the Church does not allow members to reconsider their choice of godparent. Certainly you shouldn’t continue the pretense. And you should seriously consider admitting to and apologizing for this deception both to your sister and to that parish. By unweaving your web, you may confirm their suspicions about the reliability of atheists, but you’ll also show that it’s possible to confess and seek absolution without believing in God.

A friend lived in a small, close-knit neighborhood where many families used the services of the same mother-daughter cleaning team. My friend discovered that the daughter was stealing things like small amounts of money, gift cards, etc. She spoke with the mother, who apologized profusely on behalf of her troubled daughter and, of course, understood when my friend said they wouldn’t use the service any longer. Was my friend obligated to let her neighbors know? She worried about this team losing business when she had no way of knowing whether or not the daughter was stealing from others. Name Withheld

Here, again, we’ve got a finely balanced situation, and your friend properly recognizes the considerations on either side. People who clean houses can have difficulty finding other work, especially without recommendations, so telling all the neighbors would have severely burdened the innocent mother as well as the troubled daughter. At the same time, your friend had a substantive set of relationships with her neighbors, and she has obligations to them as well. The nature of the thefts matter: A small keepsake can have derisory worldly value but enormous “sentimental” value to its owner. That’s not what’s being described, however. The loss represented by the odd pocketed fiver is mainly one of trust.

A helpful way to think about the situation is to imagine that a neighbor learned what happened and asked your friend why she didn’t spread the word. After all, your friend decided she didn’t want these people in the house. Her reply wouldn’t be limited to observing that she wasn’t sure what was happening in other households. The daughter knew that her misconduct cost her and her mother a job; she had a strong motive to reform her ways. It was reasonable to think that the penalty your friend imposed would have been to the benefit of other clients. So your friend’s decision to discontinue using these cleaners without blackening their name in the neighborhood was an ethically sound one.

If she had been inclined to spread the word, though, she should have first discussed the matter with the mother. That way she would have had a clearer picture of both the consequences to the mother of the loss of all these jobs and of her capacity to control her daughter.


Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include “Cosmopolitanism,” “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.” To submit a query: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)