Why Abortion and the Iraq War Are Not Equivalent

The intricacies of Catholic moral theology have never been my strong suit. Rather than use the law to nitpick and condemn people, I’m far too inclined to be on the side of the sinner and give people the benefit of the doubt. For those who quibble over the morality of a particular action, I’m too inclined to skip the detail work and look at the big picture.
But it doesn’t take a Jesuitical moral theologian to figure out a recent moral conundrum that has taken the fancy of some American Catholics. In this presidential race they are faced with the choice of one party that is in favor of abortion and another party that is in favor of a war that many believe to be unjust. Some Catholics who wish to vote Democratic justify their choice by saying, “We’re going to have the killing of innocent people one way or another. With Democrats, innocent people will die through abortion. With Republicans, innocent lives are lost through war. There will be terrible deaths both ways. Let’s focus on immigration and the economy.”
The unnecessary suffering and death of any human being at the hand of another is to be decried, and while all human life is equally precious, not all killing is of the same moral seriousness. The rape and murder of an innocent ten-year-old girl is more horrific and wicked than the death by lethal injection of the man who did the crime. Likewise, the deaths caused by abortion are not to be equated with the lives lost in war. This is not to minimize the horror of war, or argue that a particular war is just or unjust. It is simply to make the simple moral argument that the war in Iraq is not of the same moral order as abortion — and here’s why.
First we have the question of proportionality of both numbers and time. How many people have been killed through abortion, and how many people are being killed in the war in Iraq and Afghanistan? There have been around 4,000 military deaths in Iraq and about 1,000 in Afghanistan, and there have been around 90,000 deaths caused by internecine violence in Iraq. The war has been going on for five years. In comparison, deaths from abortion in the United States have been going on for 35 years, and abortions worldwide number about 42 million per year. The sheer number deaths over time involved in these two issues are not morally equivalent.
Second, it’s argued that, in both abortion and war, innocent lives are lost, but we must consider the “innocence” of the deaths. In abortion, a totally innocent and vulnerable unborn child who is incapable of self defense is killed. This is more morally outrageous than the killing of an armed opponent in war. An opposing combatant has chosen (at least partially) to take up arms and be involved in killing, and is therefore not innocent. The armed combatant also has the possibility of defending himself.
To be sure, there are also civilian casualties in war, and these — especially the children — are innocent of wrong doing. That they are injured or harmed is a terrible injustice, but is even this morally equivalent of abortion? I think not, because of several other considerations. Nearly 90,000 have been killed by fellow Iraqis, not by American soldiers. Along with this we must consider the intention of the American forces. While the American invasion of Iraq may have opened the door to the internecine atrocities, the Americans never intended for civilians to be killed, and have made huge sacrifices to eliminate the terrorists and end the atrocities and anarchy by bringing law and order.
Which brings us to the third point: In judging the morality of any action we not only consider the objective act itself, but we also consider the intention. A general who plans to go into battle does not consider first and foremost how he can best kill enemy combatants. His first goal is something else, like the liberation of a city or the elimination of a military threat or a strategic facility of the enemy. He accepts that he may have to kill enemy soldiers, but that is not his first objective. Even when a soldier goes into combat he may be trained to kill, but he is also trained to kill only as a last resort. He is first trained to avoid killing and to take the enemy prisoner if at all possible, and he is supposed to treat the prisoner humanely. It is true that in war this does not always happen, but we are considering here the intention, not the ultimate outcome.
In contrast, the abortionist or one who procures an abortion sets out to kill as the first intention. They may have an ulterior motive that seems good, but the primary intention of their action is to take an innocent life. Politicians who support abortion therefore enable those who wish to kill innocent and defenseless children. Even if the particular war is unjust, the soldiers and politicians who instigated the war were doing so (even if in a debased way) not to promote killing, but to promote an ultimate goal of justice and peace.
Abortion and the war in Iraq are not the only issues in this election. Each voter has the responsibility to weigh all the moral concerns our country faces, but they must do so intelligently, prayerfully, and sympathetically. People of good conscience may be opposed to a war they consider unjust. They may also be opposed to abortion, but to pretend the two are of equal moral culpability in order to justify their support of one particular candidate is irresponsible, untrue, and unjust.

Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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Father Dwight Longenecker is the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. He is the author, most recently, of Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness (Sophia Institute Press, 2020). Read more at www.dwightlongenecker.com.

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