In the current presidential campaign, I have heard some serious Catholics express reservations about voting for Mitt Romney because of the abortion issue. True, they are aware of how rabidly pro-abortion Barack Obama is. They may even consider him—correctly—the most pro-abortion president the U.S. has ever had. He has a consistent track record of embracing every position the hard-core pro-abortion movement favors, including the Freedom of Choice Act, public funding of abortion, overturning the Mexico City Policy (one of his first acts as president), permitting partial-birth abortion, and even allowing abortion-survivor babies to die. This does not even take into account his other positions at odds with Catholic moral teaching such as supporting same-sex “marriage” and the rest of the homosexualist agenda. Still, Mitt Romney permits abortion exceptions—“hard-case” abortions—so there is really no difference between the two candidates. A Catholic, they say, cannot vote for either of them because this shows that both are pro-abortion.
Romney’s position on abortion is that he would permit it to save the life of the mother and in cases of rape and incest. That is actually a position that is more restrictive than that of his Mormon Church, which despite its reputation as pro-life permits abortion also for reasons of maternal health and fetal deformity. Romney’s position also is the same as was George H.W. Bush’s when he ran for president in 1988. Like the senior Bush, Romney’s public position on abortion has evolved—essentially from favoring legalized abortion on-demand to favoring it only in limited circumstances. Romney also now says he opposes embryonic stem-cell research, although it’s not so clear that that was his position in the past. His church does not oppose that; it has not taken a position one way or the other about it. Obama not only supports it, but has expanded federal funding of it.
It is not so clear that Romney’s current position has not been shaped, at least in part, by political considerations. An out-and-out proponent of elective abortion could probably not secure the Republican presidential nomination. Still, that does not mean that he’s not sincere about it, or that he would not uphold it and shape policies consistent with it once in office. Indeed, that was what George H.W. Bush did.
The central question for Catholics is this: Is it morally acceptable to vote for a candidate like Romney who supports abortion rights in some cases when his opponent is a supporter of sweeping abortion rights? After all, didn’t both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and the U.S. bishops in their documents on Catholic citizenship and political participation say that, “a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals?”
The answer can be discerned from a statement in John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (#73), which is repeated in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (#570), about the moral obligations and restraints on legislators. Since legislators are the ones who are most directly involved in lawmaking, what is said about them applies a fortiori to the voters selecting them and other public decisionmakers: “when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law…” In other words, if legal abortion cannot be outright overturned—which, barring a major confrontation between the political branches and the Supreme Court that the former clearly have no will to initiate, could happen in the U.S. only with the judicial overturning of Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton—a legislator can support lesser initiatives or partial correctives even though they leave the norm of permissive legal abortion intact.
In his 2004 pastoral letter when he was Archbishop of St. Louis, Raymond L. Cardinal Burke—who is now the Prefect of Apostolic Signatura (the Church’s equivalent of the Supreme Court)—directly addressed the question of the moral obligations of the Catholic voter. He said that a Catholic who “is clear in his or her opposition to the moral evil of procured abortion could vote for a candidate who supports the limitation of the legality of procured abortion, even though the candidate does not oppose all use of procured abortion, if the other candidate(s) do not support the limitation of the evil of procured abortion”(#41). This is exactly the situation in the Romney-Obama contest. In fact, Cardinal Burke also affirmed explicitly what I have suggested: the standard of Evangelium Vitae for the legislator is applicable to the voter.
Some might ask, given the fact that neither candidate in an election like the current presidential one is against all abortion, whether Catholics should just refuse to vote. They might consider the fact that few U.S. political candidates say they are against all abortion (they will at least claim the life of the mother exception). That means that such Catholic voters would probably have to sit out every election, or at least all the ones for federal offices. I can hardly think of a better way to minimize the influence of faithful Catholic citizens in American politics.
Cardinal Burke framed the decision to not vote in a circumstance where there is a less than ideal pro-life candidate in moral terms: “the Catholic who chooses not to vote at all, when there is a viable candidate who will advance the common good, although not perfectly, fails to fulfill his or her moral duty”(#43). The CDF document emphasizes that Catholics may not delegate their political responsibilities to others, which is effectively what happens when one chooses not to vote.
Those who try to resolve this putative dilemma in the current election by not casting a vote for the top of the ticket and maybe also in a Congressional race, and instead just voting for state and local offices, should also ponder these words of Cardinal Burke. They should also note his further point that the Catholic voter must “make a prudent decision regarding what best serves the common good”(#44). Additionally, those thinking about voting for an obscure third-party candidate should consider whether, under the circumstances, it is a prudent choice (actually, I’m not sure there is a pro-life third-party presidential candidate on many state ballots this year). The same thing obviously applies to write-ins.
Moreover, while all procured abortion is a moral abomination, we have to be realistic on a practical level about drawing an equivalency between an abortion-on-demand candidate or public policy and a hard-cases one. Even the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which was previously the research arm of Planned Parenthood, reports that only .3% of all U.S. abortions are done for reasons of rape, .03% because of incest, .1% because of a threat to the mother’s life, and 98% for mostly reasons of preference. So, the Romney-Obama election is between a man who favors that fewer than .5% of the 1.2 million abortions in the U.S. each year should be legal and one who favors that 100% of them should be.
Perhaps the prudence that Cardinal Burke spoke of is the political application of the old aphorism that the perfect must not become the enemy of the good. It seems to be particularly applicable this election year.