Abortion and Catholic Politicians

Those who say they are opposed to abortion but refuse legally to prohibit it are not opposed to abortion as Catholics are opposed to it.

There is a growing number of Catholic politicians who put distance between themselves and the teaching of the Church on abortion, not the least of whom are the Democratic Party vice-presidential nominee and the Democratic Party convention keynote speaker. The existence and increasing influence of such “Catholic pro-choice” politicians cannot but help exacerbate the problems over Church authority in the U.S. Inevitably, push is going to come to shove on the issue at some point.

In dealing with this new phenomenon, it is necessary to distinguish between two apparent very different kinds of positions. There is the Catholic politician who, like some Catholic theologians, claims that it is possible to be Catholic without accepting the teaching of the Church, even on very important issues such as abortion. Then there is another Catholic politician who claims to accept Church teaching, but adopts the position: “While I am personally opposed to abortion, I think that the law should allow people to choose for themselves whether to have an abortion.”

I understand the first position. Basically it is a rejection of Catholicism. Whatever the reason why such people want to retain their identification as Catholics, they are explicitly rejecting one of its fundamental and irrevocable principles, namely, the authority of the Church (through its hierarchy) to teach and command in matters of faith and morals.

The second position I find much more difficult to understand. These individuals deny that they are rejecting the teaching of the Church, and claim that they only want to refrain from imposing the Church’s teaching on others.

Normally one would assume that if a person really does accept the Church’s teaching on abortion — that it is an unspeakable crime — there would be no question about what the legal status of such an act should be. Taking the life of an innocent human being would have to be prohibited by law. And yet there are Catholics in politics who strongly deny that reasoning. What is the counter-logic of their positions?

Position No. 1: I think that one would have to rule out one possible line of argumentation. Pro-abortion Catholic politicians (that is, “pro-choice ones” — the only relevant meaning of “pro-abortion” or “pro-choice” is that one advocates that abortion should be legal) cannot mean something like this: “I know that, as the Church teaches, abortion is an unspeakable crime against unborn human life, but we live in a pluralistic society, so it is not right for us to impose this principle on others through law.” The problem with this argument is obvious if one simply substitutes other moral principles, as for example “I am opposed to breaking Jewish or Negro skulls, but others in our society disagree with me and therefore I do not feel that I can impose this principle on them.” We would obviously have to reject such an argument, not just because of the Jewish and black voting blocs, but because there are a certain number of minimum obligations we all would agree the law must fulfill, one of which is protecting innocent human beings from those who would deprive them of life.

Thus, there must be some difference between “killing Jews or Negroes is wrong” and “killing unborn children is wrong.” Which brings us back to the question of what the pro-abortion Catholic politician means when he says “I am personally opposed to abortion.”

Position No. 2: We can also rule out another extreme, I think, that goes something like this: “Abortion is a terrible thing and it should not be necessary; we all look forward to the day it can be eliminated.” What this might very well mean is merely that the speaker prefers contraception to abortion (abortion is a “last resort” after “failed contraception” in the case of those who are “irresponsible,” ignorant, or unlucky). Abortion might be “terrible” not in the sense that it is a terrible moral evil, but in the sense that it is a kind of personal trauma: moral, but still ugly. For example, many people would think it terrible if the Humane Society had to kill a lot of cats, because killing cats is not a pleasant thing. Abortion is like that, only very much worse because there is “a part of a woman herself” involved (one which a surprising number of women having abortions refer to as “my baby”). That is, some people who would call abortion a terrible thing, would not be opposing abortion in the relevant sense, i.e., they would not be morally opposed to it, but merely find it an extremely “unpleasant” thing.

This too would put the speaker in the first category of people who simply reject the teachings of the Church. It would be a rejection of the teaching that abortion is a terrible moral evil.

Position No. 3: Another possible defense of the Catholic pro-abortion politician’s position would focus on the question of subjective sincerity: “Abortion would be morally wrong for me, but I recognize that if other people have different moral positions, it might not be wrong for them.” But that line of reasoning would be a defense of not prosecuting Nazis or white supremacists who liked to crack Jewish or Negro skulls. Sincere Nazis and racists who do such things should be punished for doing so, however sincere they might be in their moral views. Likewise, if abortion is objectively wrong, then those who perform it should not be exempted on the basis of sincerely held moral views.

Position No. 4: Perhaps what is meant by “I am personally opposed to abortion, but …” is the following: “Abortion is obviously a very unfortunate thing, which no one really wants; in fact it’s morally wrong, I think. But I’m not entirely sure, and so I should not impose what is merely my opinion on others.” But a statement of this sort is not compatible with Catholic teaching. Rather than being an assent to the proposition that abortion is morally evil, it is merely an assent to the different, lesser proposition that abortion might be, or even that it probably is, evil.

Of course, even if a person sincerely believed that abortion might be or probably is killing an innocent human being, elementary morality should lead such a person to op-pose the legalization of abortion. If somebody else were about to commit an act of murder, we would be obliged to do what was in our power to prevent the act. Likewise, if someone were about to perform what might be an act of murder, we should stop him if we could. (Not to do so would suggest that we don’t really believe that a possibly or probably evil act is being done.)

Position No. 5: Another position of the pro-abortion Catholic politician might be this: “Abortion in general is wrong, but sometimes what is wrong can become the right thing to do if it is necessary in order to avoid a greater evil; I’m not sure that I’d ever say that abortion is the lesser evil, but other good and sincere people, with their viewpoints, might balance various conditions differently and decide to have an abortion.”

This position too is incompatible with the Church’s teaching (though it is exactly what some theologians are saying). It is the position of consequentialism, which says that it is sometimes right to do (a moral) wrong in order to avoid another (physical or non-moral) evil. (For example, abortion might be justified in order to avoid the supposedly greater evil of the pain and trauma of a rape-caused pregnancy.) In fact, this is to deny the Church’s teaching that abortion is always wrong and that circumstances cannot make it right.

Position No. 6: A final argument, which may at first glance seem to explain “Catholic pro-choice” politicians, is this: “Abortion is a terrible moral evil; but many people (at least a very large minority) disagree with us, and an attempt to impose our views on them would be likely to have horrible results: widespread civil disobedience and a real ‘fracturing’ of our body politic. Therefore, we should not impose our views.”

In the first place, though, this is not an accurate statement of the position of most (probably all, in fact) pro-abortion Catholic politicians. It is difficult to detect any anguish in their saying that we cannot successfully “impose” our views that unborn human life should be protected, reflecting a genuine belief that many lives are being destroyed. They do not say that we are simply unable to impose our views, but that we should not impose them — a very different thing. (This is especially obvious in the case of those who favor abortion funding.)

I do not contest that in some cases Catholic politicians, having vigorously enunciated the correct moral principle and fought strenuously to have it realized, may have to vote for compromises which fall short of full protection of the unborn, pending the day on which achievement of what elementary morality demands becomes possible. But the Catholic politicians we are talking about are not those in the forefront of the battle to limit abortion — they are generally in the ranks of those who fight to expand abortion “rights.”

One must also ask whether this position reflects a genuine belief in the terrible evil of abortion, if one looks at other positions obviously associated with it. How many of those who adopt this position would have made the same argument about slavery in the 1850s? Stephen Douglas’ position on the issue — “popular sovereignty,” i.e.  letting the people of the territories decide on slavery for themselves, without Congress imposing one view — was, after all, closely parallel to the “pro-choice” view (although the perfect parallel would be letting individuals decide for themselves whether to have slaves). Was Lincoln right to “fracture” American political life with his demand that slavery be prohibited in the territories, so that it would eventually die out? (Yes!) For that matter, didn’t the Supreme Court risk fracturing America over segregation and civil rights in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and later cases — decisions “pro-choice” politicians would certainly applaud? Sometimes, on fundamental moral issues, it is necessary to risk fractures. (I would jump two stories from a burning building to avoid death, despite the risk; and I would risk damage to the body politic on issues such as slavery and abortion.)

Finally, the dangers of “imposing” our views are limited because we are unlikely to obtain more than the country will tolerate. The very fact that stringent limits on abortion could be obtained in our political system would show that there was broad consensus supporting (or at least tolerating) it. There might be a significant minority opposed, of course, but not one so great as to fracture our society beyond healing.

The lamentable corollary to this argument is that it will take an enormous effort to change the prevailing mores to achieve elimination of abortion. Right now, the consensus of society makes possible only a partial limit on abortion (though certainly greater than what the Supreme Court has allowed). At the same time, it is very implausible that abortion on demand (the “pro- choice” position) is the only position which will prevent fracturing the nation. There is a general consensus for some limits on abortion. This suggests that fears about “fracturing” the nation are really a cover for something else, i.e. at least a qualified acceptance of abortion itself.

I have not yet been able to come up with another explanation of what is meant by “I am personally opposed to abortion, but I do not think the law should prohibit it.” Some of the above positions are obviously untenable (e.g., that sincerity should exempt one from legal restraints, or that one can never enforce moral principles in a pluralistic society), while others are tenable only on the basis of a rejection of Catholic teaching. The net effect is to make it very clear that those who say they are opposed to abortion, but will not legally prohibit it, are not really “opposed” to it as Catholics are opposed to it.

Thus, to be honest, we must say that there are not two kinds of pro-abortion Catholic politicians, those who reject the Church’s teachings outright and those who accept the teachings but are unwilling to “impose” them on others. There is just one single category of those Catholic politicians who abandon the moral principles of their faith in the conduct of their political duties: what might be called the category of “political apostates.” That is strong language, I know, but then the issue demands that the truth be said, and be said strongly.

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When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Christopher Wolfe was a member of the Department of Political Science at Marquette University.

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