I write these words as an individual Catholic Citizen, representing no other person or thing. They are words about the politics of opposing abortion.
My anti-abortion principles can be simply stated. First, a commonsense look at human life yields, and no science contradicts, this perception: there is no true “viability” in the womb, at any time, and precious little afterward. Our dependence on one another is no less clear at age six months or six years than six weeks after conception. In short, human life is a continuum which presents no clear dividing line between a condition of little importance and a later one of great importance. Second, if the first point is true, then at no point after conception can human life rightly be taken simply for anyone’s convenience and as a function of, e.g., a so-called “right to privacy.” There is no balance, no proportion between taking that human life, on the one hand, and avoiding that inconvenience in the name of one’s “privacy,” on the other. Indeed, it would seem that a life should not be taken for any reason less than life itself. The pro-abortion position typically described is at root just an assertion that no appreciable value inheres in the unborn and that, accordingly, no special reason is needed to justify killing it. Opposition to such elective abortion, by contrast, rests on the assertion of human value coming to be with conception, and meriting protection henceforth.
With or without theoretical justification, there seems no mystery why abortions have always happened and always will: the baby in the womb is usually vulnerable and without effective constituents save his mother, and it happens that mothers can and sometimes do find the demands of ego overcoming the call of benevolence. Tragic though that is, and unjustified though abortion is, mothers who abort are, like the rest of us, children of the Fall and have no monopoly on behavior destructive of others.
But what is mysterious is how that terrible deed becomes a “right,” an acceptable category of social action. How does a Supreme Court in 1973 find that “right” in a Constitution which had hidden it for nearly two centuries? How does anyone have the brass to malign those who seek a Constitutional amendment to protect the unborn by accusing them of “tampering” with the Constitution, when the Court itself was the original tamperer and, being electorally non-responsible, is reversible only by amendment? And having pretended to find abortion rights in a typical fiction of judicial review, that Court judged correctly it would be immune from political retaliation, at least up to now. How does a thing which seems so clearly winning — that abortion for convenience is, in fact, never a proportionate and legitimate response — become a loser time and again, and fail to be sustained by an allegedly enlightened and humane political order?
I believe that one powerful reason for this radical ineffectiveness on behalf of a radically persuasive cause is the failure on the part of anti-abortionists to keep separate issues separate. I believe that the anti-abortionists often have been their own worst enemies by letting their clear, simple, and compelling plea to protect the unborn become drastically mixed up with a variety of other issues, some of them losing issues, which have served to cloud and sometimes hide the anti-abortion message. Though I know it is not true, sometimes it has almost seemed that antiabortion forces, especially Catholic ones, wanted failure. Three cases will illustrate the point, and also point the way to a more effective politics in pursuit of a most praiseworthy goal.
If you wanted to stop abortion as a legally accepted procedure you could do no worse, perhaps, than to tie it up with a surely losing cause. As the losing cause sinks beneath the waves, the cause of anti-abortion, whatever its merits, will at least take on water and, at worst, sink along with the losing issues. Contraception is such a losing cause, and Catholic spokesmen have spent great energy in lashing abortion securely to it. By treating abortion and contraception as twin matters of “sexual ethics” — even though the ethics of abortion have nothing to do with sex but with life-taking — I believe Church teaching has encouraged people to think about the two as if they were much the same and of similar gravity. Even as this linkage has been forged, however, contraception has come to be generally accepted, about as much among Catholics as others. The effect of that development, I believe, is to blur and weaken the anti-abortion spirit, to invite this kind of unhappy but all-too-human response: “Well, I have justified contraception in my ethic and, since abortion is inevitably tied to it, I must have justified abortion at the same time.”
Consider this. At a moment in time when the contraception issue had been popularly decided in favor of contraception, and Catholics were increasingly moving with others on the question, Humanae Vitae stated in No. 14: “In conformity with these landmarks in the human and Christian vision of marriage,…directly willed abortion, even if for therapeutic reasons,.. is forbidden.” And “Equally to be excluded,… is direct sterilization” and “… every action which, either in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or a means, to render procreation impossible.” The popular acceptance of contraception in no way establishes its moral authenticity. That is another question, not examined here. But whether for or against contraception, one should be able to see that in a “contraceptive age” a good way to torpedo the anti-abortion effort is to assert that abortion and contraception need to be seen as essentially intertwined. Recent popes and hierarchical spokesmen have routinely done exactly that, perhaps to the detriment of the unborn. Typical is No. 25 for Justice in the World by the Synod of Bishops, November 30, 1971: “The fight against legalized abortion and against the imposition of contraceptives and the pressures exerted against war are significant forms of defending the right to life.” Abortion, contraception, war — such as mingling exposes each to any weakness of the others.
A second step taken by anti-abortionists, and in my view woefully injurious to their good intent, has been to permit the anti-abortion position to be subsumed into a larger, more abstract category, vulnerable to an infinity of attacks. The favorite such category, I suppose, is “Pro-Life,” a tag perhaps adopted to overcome any guilty feelings or lack of confidence among some anti-abortionists. “Pro-Life” allows you to avoid being “simply negative” — as if there were anything wrong, on a given matter, with being precisely and simply negative. “Pro-Life” also lets you escape the brand of being “single-issue” — as if every individual and group had an obligation to do the whole synthesis which one political order is obliged to achieve. But what the “Pro-Life” slogan also can do is cause the anti- abortionist wrapped in it to become immediately vulnerable to gaping inconsistencies which can weaken and perhaps destroy his credibility and rhetorical power. How?
If you are anti-abortion, you are just that: you say you will protect the unborn unless his presence is life-threatening to his mother. You may be countless other things besides anti-abortion, but each of those other things will have to stand or fall on the basis of its own ethical completeness. You may be against or for contraception, sterilization, guaranteed adoptive processes, aid to unmarried mothers, capital punishment, self-defense, military preparedness. Each of those issues is important and calls for its own careful judgment. But wherever you stand on those issues, you will do so on their own merit, and your anti-abortionism will not be weakened and made vulnerable even if one or all of your other positions are indefensibly held.
But look what happens if you decide to leave antiabortion for “Pro-Life.” At that moment you are seen to be at least inconsistent, perhaps incredible, if you are not also a pacifist, an opponent of capital punishment, and probably suspicious of police carrying guns. Moreover, since much anti-abortion political sentiment has come from Catholic citizens; and since, traditionally, these same citizens have generally felt war in some situations may be justified; it follows, not surprisingly, that the simple taking on of the “Pro-Life” label has not only induced cries of inconsistency from pro-abortion spokesmen, but probably has also contributed to confusion or even schism within the Catholic community of believers-as-citizens.
A third case of self-imposed damage to the cause of anti-abortion is the continued direct intrusion of the Catholic hierarchy as hierarchy in the political process. A simple analysis of religion and politics will show that such intrusion reflects a misunderstanding of religion’s vital potential in politics. Religion achieves its political vitality and its importance through the religionist-as-citizen. The citizen engaging in politics, whether cleric or lay, is necessarily engaging in value choosing and forming, and in the deciding of very particular matters. He will bring to that engagement a value structure informed by whatever reality he sees as normative. If that reality, or part of it, is for his religion, then his integral life will bring those values to bear upon politics.
As a citizen seeking to achieve his politically-pertinent objectives, he has every right of any other citizen, and is no more the agent of his Church than another citizen whose values may derive from nature. Both are value-laden, and both are fully-empowered citizens. Perhaps the very best way to hamstring and weaken those citizens who are anti-abortion is to portray them as in some fashion agents of the Church — for the Church is seen, understandably, as a danger in politics whenever it has a direct action capability. To the extent the Church hierarchy continues to talk as if there were a direct link between Church and polity, rather than the link of the believer-as¬citizen, they weaken their own communicants’ efforts in the political arena. They do this regularly by treating legalized abortion as a religious question rather than as a policy question for citizens to deliberate on — hopefully, informed by clear Church teaching of pertinent principles, including traditional principles of protecting the unborn. When the formal Church pretends to a right of direct political intrusion in a free political process, it simply feeds the forces which want, in any case, to describe Catholic citizens as conscripts in service to the Church, and suspect as citizens.
I have described three patterns of action employed by many anti-abortionists, especially some Catholics, which, as I have watched unfold the tragic events of the last decade, seem to me to work significantly against the very objective of eliminating the legal right to abortion. Perhaps by insisting that distinctions be made where they so clearly exist, we can rid anti-abortion of some of its unnecessary and probably disabling accompaniments, and argue clearly to our fellow citizens and elected representatives that we are simply and conclusively against abortion, and want no legal support for it.