On Dec. 1, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case in which the state of Mississippi is seeking to ban abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Pro-choice advocates see it as a challenge to Roe v. Wade, which permits abortions so long as the fetus is not yet viable, which amounts to considerably more than 15 weeks.

Which side is correct, and why? Each side has its strengths and each its weaknesses. Is there a compromise?

Pro-choice advocates point to the influential Turnaway Study, which followed 1,132 women seeking an abortion at 30 abortion clinics in 22 states over a 12-year period. Half got the abortion they sought, while half were turned away. The Study was designed to compare the long-term effects on women in the two groups. Writing about the Study in The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot found that there were “no long-term differences…in depression, anxiety, PTSD, self-esteem, life satisfaction, drug abuse, or alcohol abuse” among the two groups. She underscored the finding that only 5 percent of the aborters regretted their decision five years later and that there was little evidence to support the claim by pro-lifers that a large percentage of aborters are “wracked with guilt” later in life. She concluded that the evidence was welcome news for “anyone who supports reproductive justice.” She also pointed out, ingenuously, that “the vast majority of women who’d been denied abortion” were glad five years later that they hadn’t been able to get one — welcome evidence that a 5-year-old child will almost always capture the heart of a mother.

The Turnaway Study makes a strong case for the advantages of getting an abortion, but it doesn’t address the sticky moral issue of ending the life of a future human being, much less an already existing one.

The strength of pro-life, by contrast, is that it tackles this issue head on. This is not to say that its position is correct, only that it doesn’t shirk the moral question. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “the union of sperm and egg at conception produces a new living being that is distinct from both mother and father. Modern genetics demonstrated that this individual is, at the outset, distinctively human, with the inherent and active potential to mature into a human fetus, infant, child and adult.” Catholic teaching declares that the presence of an immaterial soul created by God and placed in its fleshly receptacle gives it an inherent dignity possessed uniquely by a human person. It rejects an old theory that the receptacle must reach fetal status before it can be ensouled.

The weakness of the Catholic position is that it cannot demonstrate that an immaterial soul is implanted in this new being or that it even exists. At best it can claim, according to its pro-choice opponents, that the fetus is on a trajectory toward becoming a person, and that to claim more is a matter of faith that is not shared by everyone. Thus, for pro-choice, an abortion does not constitute murder, and the well-being of the mother is justifiably the first consideration, in fact the only consideration that is relevant.

Ancillary factors might come into play. The decision to deny human life to a fetus that is well on the way to becoming a person cannot be easy. Pro-choice parents, female and male alike, have only to ask what would have happened to them if their parents had chosen to abort them. The Golden Rule, we would hope, would weigh heavily in their decision. Couples with money and support who choose to abort because they hadn’t planned on a child and don’t want to be bothered with one don’t usually earn our admiration.

On the other hand, there might be good reason for those inclined not to abort to question their resolve. Most of us can imagine circumstances we would dread being born into. Would we choose life if we knew our mother was on crack or lived in dire poverty with no father to help raise us? Heartless though it might sound, some of us can even say about people we know that it would have been better for them not to be born.

In the final analysis, is there a compromise position? Ultimately it would seem not: either the fetus is a person or it is not. If not, a person is not being killed. If so, a person is being killed, and we can justifiably call it murder. How can we decide?

President Biden, a Catholic, has made it clear that he personally cannot condone abortion but will not condemn those who do. He justifies his position by pointing out that as president of the nation he has no right to condemn those who disagree with him: he was elected to represent all, whatever their personal views. He feels justified in receiving Communion in his Church, and he has the Pope’s support. But what about Catholics who don’t feel the burden of representing a large constituency? Should they think of pro-choice advocates as murderers?

On the other hand, should pro-choice advocates denounce pro-lifers as gullible, perhaps stupid victims of an unsupportable superstition required by their Church?

My answer is no to both questions. For me it is impossible to decide based on the evidence at hand. I would choose not to abort if an unwanted pregnancy showed up, but my decision would not be based on a certainty. I would bear in mind that what happens at conception is unknowable, and this uncertainty would keep me from condemning those who abort. I believe that a compassionate agnosticism is the correct position to take.

Of course, the Supreme Court will not have such a luxury. The justices will have to decide, and both sides will probably find a lot to dislike. Nevertheless, the rancor that divides the nation over this issue should find no place in our hearts. Whatever our view, we should remember that the other side has its reasons, and they should be respected.

Stafford Betty is professor emeritus of religious studies at Cal State Bakersfield.