Gov. Mario Cuomo’s lecture at Notre Dame University last month, “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” was a significant event. It was perhaps the most detailed and thorough attempt by a major Catholic office holder to set forth a reasoned “pro-choice” position on the abortion issue. As a rhetorical exercise, Mr. Cuomo’s speech is indeed impressive. As an exercise in moral-political analysis, however, it is seriously flawed.
Central to Gov, Cuomo’s argument that it is not in-consistent to oppose abortion personally while refusing actively to resist it is his contention, that such a strategy would divide the nation so severely that it would disrupt the civil peace. Imposing legal sanctions in the absence of a supporting consensus, he contends, is both morally wrong and practically unworkable. Gov. Cuomo evidently holds that civil harmony is the highest political good. Whatever threatens social harmony is disqualified from legislation. But surely there are some values so paramount that their defense is worth risking civil discord. And surely in this category are values for the sake of which our polity was established in the first place. As Archbishop Bernard Law has recently pointed out, it is rigorously logical that the right to life is the first of the three foundational rights enunciated in our Declaration of Independence. When this right is systematically denied, its defense takes precedence over the maintenance of civil peace. Thus Gov. Cuomo’s principle that the obligation to protect innocent life is “unique but not preemptive” is simply backward: on the contrary, the right to life is a preemptive right because it has a unique purchase on us. Civil peace is indeed a good not to be lightly set aside, but it is not a “preemptive” good, before which all other goods must give way.
It is curious that a man who in the keynote speech to his party’s convention this summer evoked a sense of pride in its past, should now counsel against legally prohibiting abortion on the grounds that a, consensus supporting such a prohibition is lacking. After all, it was the governor’s party that stood in the forefront of the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s — which struggle, aided by the force of law, was certainly disruptive and lacked a prior consensus. But as Martin Luther King eloquently argued, the massive deprivation of the civil rights of blacks warranted risking such disruption. Does Mr. Cuomo repudiate the civil rights struggle? Or should it have been postponed until a consensus in favor of legislative remedies was present?
Let’s assume that Gov. Cuomo is right, that there is not at present a consensus for restricting abortion. What he fails to see is that the law itself often assists in the formation of a consensus. As the classical view had it, the law is a teacher. It instructs people that certain values have a privileged place in our society. The constraints it imposes are not only legal but moral as well. The enactment of civil rights legislation was divisive for awhile; but eventually attitudes began to change and a new consensus emerged. Today few would baldly assert their moral right to discriminate on the basis of color. Those who do can expect their neighbors, and virtually their entire society, to rebuke them. It is convenient for the pro-choice position to maintain that first we must have a consensus against abortion, and then and only then can we move to legal measures. But it is an unconvincing argument.
Why, then, does Gov. Cuomo give such weight to the “consensus” and “civil peace” arguments? Perhaps because he repeatedly characterizes opposition to abortion as “derived from religious belief” and — along with opposition to divorce and contraception — as a “specifically Catholic” position. The implication, of course, is that efforts to curtail such behavior are “sectarian,” and hence unfit to shape public policy. But the governor is simply wrong here: the case that abortion is homicide does not rest on narrow religious grounds, but on the recognition that the child in the womb is in fact a human being and thus deserves the protection of law. In short, the anti- abortion position rests on grounds that are accessible to any rational mind, regardless of religious affiliation. That the Catholic Church has made abortion one of its principal concerns is cause for pride. Yet abortion is essentially a deprivation of human rights, and therefore it is altogether fitting that the pro-life cause should claim the right to help shape public policy. Gov. Cuomo obscures this crucial feature by representing the pro-life position as flowing from narrow, sectarian dogma.
Finally, there is the question of what obligations Mario Cuomo incurs as a Catholic official. It is gratifying to learn that he wishes (and believes himself) to be in accord with the official teaching of the church. (Some who applaud his conclusions couldn’t care less about the teaching authority of the church.) But he contends that, while he agrees with the church on the level of principle, he is still free to disagree on the practical measures to be taken to eliminate the evil of abortion. After all, he points out, the U.S. bishops themselves have taken various positions on how to combat abortion.
On this point, the governor has failed to think the matter through. The U.S. bishops have been unified on two points: on the moral principle involved (abortion is the direct taking of innocent life and so is a moral evil) and on the strategy that fidelity to this principle entails. This strategy is one of active resistance within the democratic process. Because of the heinousness of abortion, other strategies, such as acquiescence or active cooperation, are ruled out. Where the bishops do permit a diversity of action is at the tactical level, i.e., whether active resistance is best served by the Hatch Amendment, or a Human Life Amendment, or some other tactic. But whatever tactics are pursued by Catholics in public life, these must, it would clearly seem, serve the strategy of resistance. Only then can Catholic officials legitimately claim that they are in agreement with church teaching.
To the extent that pro-choice advocates gather under the Cuomo tent, the governor may have done the pro-life movement a favor, for pro-lifers will then have a single quite vulnerable target with which to contend. Gov. Cuomo’s speech deserves a wide reading, for it furnishes a compendium of ways in which even a sustained, sophisticated defense of the pro-choice position fails.