Barack Obama and Abortion: A response to John Kavanaugh, S.J.

John Kavanaugh, S.J., is one of those scholars who enriches every dialogue to which he brings his voice. I’ve long admired his provocative scholarship challenging the consumerist orientation of the American culture. The challenging “ethics across the curriculum program” that he directs at St. Louis University illustrates time and again how the Catholic mind must be imaginative as well as interdisciplinary in seeking ways to fully embrace the social teaching of the church. His recent open letter to Senator Obama contains all the usual Kavanaugh elements: wisdom, civility, prudence and most of all, insight informed by Christ’s own witness.

Father Kavanaugh’s purpose in writing Senator Obama was to alert him to what he called “his abortion problem.” Having raised this topic with the senator myself in person, and having made it my principal reservation in giving him my public endorsement, I concur.  In fact, Father Kavanaugh thoughtfully noted that my endorsement—which I would give again—has nevertheless come at a considerable cost for me: the loss of collegial friendships from the Reagan and Bush administrations; harsh, even brutal, blog commentary that embarrasses my family and myself; and even the denial of communion by a zealous prelate.

Why endure all that? Because Senator Obama is not only ready to lead, he is leading. He inspires America and foreign nations alike with his integrity, intelligence, and call for change to meet great needs precipitated by unjustified war, corporate profiteering and a self-centered autonomy that aggravates, rather than elevates, the human condition.

Father Kavanaugh’s “to do list” for Senator Obama has received substantial attention. For example, Kavanaugh recommended that Senator Obama support Jim Wallis’ abortion reduction agenda that focuses on giving economic support for pregnant women and greater access to adoption. The senator did Kavanaugh one better: he sent his staff to the platform drafting table to highlight and strongly endorsed prenatal care, maternity funding, income support and greater access to adoption. Unfortunately, the Democrats’ platform continues to endorse Roe v. Wade, but at least now this tragic moral choice is not one-sided. Some have pointed out that the old language of “safe, legal and rare” is gone. Good riddance. That language had become a mindless mantra, not a tangible step that could positively incline an expectant mother to choose life. Pro-life Catholics are looking for a viable path toward abortion reduction, not a simple slogan.  

By contrast, the GOP platform seems all slogan and no personal commitment. Going into Minneapolis, the Republicans re-stated their support for a Human Life Amendment (on no one’s political radar) and blamed “activist judges” for pretty much everything (grossly overstated and unfair to the existing bench). At the same time, they deliberately removed language calling for the reduction in the incidence of abortion. In this inversion of subsidiarity, there is no point for an individual to contribute to the common good until large institutional actors remake the universe. Not only is the perfect the enemy of the good, it is an all purpose exemption from the social teaching of the church to which, one suspects, the political descendants of Adam Smith think wholly optional.

Kavanaugh also advocated giving a place at the Democratic convention to Democrats for Life. DFL supporter Senator Robert Casey, Jr. gave a prime time address in Denver (rectifying the slight of his late pro-life father in 1992), and presided over an afternoon session held by the DFL and other Obama advisors. The candidate himself in accepting the nomination before 80,000 supporters made explicit reference to the “disagreement over abortion,” but opined that there “surely” must be agreement on reducing the incidence of abortion that is often the consequence of unwanted pregnancy.  These are well-timed and appropriately-focused statements, as indicated by a study released in Denver by Alexia Kelley of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good correlating poverty and abortion. (According to the study, women below the poverty line are four times more likely to have abortion).

A number of the other points in Kavanaugh’s letter are less easily accomplished, but nominating the Catholic Joe Biden for Vice-President underscores the seriousness with which Obama intends to address them. Kavanaugh rightly noted that the Catholic vote as not monolithic. Let me add that insofar as the Catholic vote constitutes up to one-third of the vote cast in battleground States like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, it is also the key to victory. Some Catholics are already strongly in Senator Obama’s column because of his commitment to addressing the social justice deficiencies of the last eight years.

Other Catholic voters are regrettably more difficult to reach because they have been sold the untenable proposition that the only way to honor life in the Catholic tradition is by reversing Roe, even as that does little other than toss the issue back to the states. These are people of sincerity, who are nevertheless being deliberately misled, some would say wrongfully enslaved, by Republican partisans who demonize Obama and those intending to vote for him. Because I was a long-time resident of this part of the Catholic community, I have devoted a great deal of thought to the concerns of this sizeable contingent. In a new book soon to be released, (Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking The Big Questions about Barack Obama, Overlook Press) I suggest some positive ways for these Catholics to find electoral freedom consistent with the bona fide teaching of the church.

But there is also an undecided group of Catholics, who, as Father Kavanaugh notes, is watching and listening to Senator Obama most closely of all, especially with respect to horrific procedures like partial-birth abortion. Senator Obama recognizes that these late term abortions aggravate the moral disorder, and it is important for him to keep exploring in public conversation their proper restraint. To his credit, Senator Obama has indicated that in this context a mental illness exception must mean more than mental distress. In his words, such exception should “be defined by serious clinical mental-health diseases . . . [and] not just a matter of feeling blue.” Senator Obama has taken some flak from abortion right activists for raising this point, but one of the senator’s most admirable traits is his intellectual integrity, not just telling his supporters what they want to hear.

Pro-life Catholics like myself and Father Kavanaugh have no illusions. Politics isn’t bean bag and for several generations the Democrats have been absent without leave from the defense of the unalienable right to life. In 2004, Democrats for Life could scarcely get an audience with the counselors to the nominee. Today, a different type of Democrat is open to the views of all and has already led his party to a better place, more affirming of this precious gift of life to which none of us have entitlement and all of us have an obligation.

8 years 5 months ago
The problem I have with ultimately overturning Roe vs. Wade is that it could lead to protecting the fetus over the life of the mother. I have three daughters and if one of them could get incarcerated for aborting a pregnancy which was a threat to her life, I would then have to go to Spain, or France, to save her life. Sick pregnant women would then be offered up as martyrs, which has deep mysoginistic roots. The Church is wise but has also had to learn many lessons throughout her history. I remind you of "The Malleus Malleficarum"- or "The Hammer of Witches", in which millions of women were killed. Also, the wisdom of the maternal instinct to abort a fetus with extreme disabilities has something important to say about natural law. Whoever carries the burden has the choice.
8 years 5 months ago
Thank you for posting a number of newsworthy articles that allow practicing Catholics an opportunity to more fully explore this very complex issue. Too often I feel totally coerced as a Catholic to vote Republican when I know neither party has impacted the core issue of why women choose the abortion solution to their percieved problems. I have never believed the solution could be found in legislation. Hopefully politicians will inspire by their example of holy and faithful lives rather than the voting record.
8 years 4 months ago
In the words "of my sainted grandmother "Hogwash!" Would Jesus have voted for Obama? No. There's a great book written by C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, read it.
Robert Koch
8 years 4 months ago
Mr. Kmiec wrights, "but nominating the Catholic Joe Biden for Vice-President underscores the seriousness with which Obama intends to address them." I say give me a break, Biden is no different then the other disgraceful pro abortion "Catholic" Senators Kennedy and Kerry. Mr. Kmiec, your going down the "Yellow Brick Road."
8 years 4 months ago
My only regret about Biden is that he did not mount a more intelligent defense of the pro-choice position than pluralism. Had he used the remarks I had sent him, you would have seen much more fire on this issue. Instead, the campaign used surrogates to assure that Obama was a safe choice, rather than engaging in the frontal attack the right to live movement so richly deserves as an arm of the Republican Party.
7 years 12 months ago
As a physician, I don't think I'm vulnerable to "being sold" anything; moreover, we "more difficult to reach" Catholics are not pinning our moral hopes upon the reversal of Roe v Wade, which we fully recognize as passing the issue back to the states; rather, we understand abortion as an intrinsic evil which cannot be obscured by the sophistical use of phrases such as "the perfect being the enemy of the good" (invoked before Smith by Voltaire, no friend of the Catholic Church). Your subtle condescension toward those who will not compromise on ending abortion reduces intelligent, informed Catholics to the status of pitiables who require outreach from the sages who understand President Obama's wisdom. This stance puts the emphasis on "audacity" rather than hope.
7 years 10 months ago
At last: a sane voice who maybe someday can convince the crazies to hate less and empathize more. If some of the above commenters will read Dr. Kmiec's forthcoming book, perhaps they will be able to have less tunnel vision.
7 years 9 months ago
There is absolutely no need for late term abortions like President Obama claims. If a woman is experiencing emergency health problems late in her pregnancy, a late term abortion could kill her! Late in a pregnacy, the child's skull is large and her bones/muscles are harder to rip apart. In order to dismember and pull out the body parts, a woman's cervix must be forced open and dialated, which is a 24hr minimum-3 day procedure. In the event of an emergency, a woman doesn't have days to wait around for the abortion, let alone the stress it will cause her body and the long-term emotional impact it will have on her for the rest of her life. (We weren't designed to turn on our offspring, our bodies were created to protect, not destroy.) And in the event of a partial birth abortion, why can't the abortionist pull the child the last 3 inches out and allow her to live? Why does he have to stab her in the back of the head and crush her skull as she's being born? How barbaric! How evil! How dare we allow God's creation to be treated as trash! And how dare we allow a man who supports this practice to lead us in the White House! How can there ever be peace in the world when we kill our own children? Abortion pits mothers against their own children as enemies. The terrorist who attacked our country don't even kill their own children! Abortion almost killed my daughter in Jan 2000. It is the most horrific thing to know that no one could've protected my daughter from me. I judged her, thought she would ruin my life... but God knew best. I trusted Him, and now, after getting to know my child, I'd gladly die for her as Christ died for me. She is the love of my life and the greatest blessing from my Lord and Savior! Woe to those who hurt his children. It would be better for them to have a millstone strung around their necks and be tossed into the sea than to touch a single hair upon their heads! Abortion is Satan's greatest tool. Not only does it tear families apart, but it destroys God's creation. It's wiped out 1/3 of my generation and will ultimated lead to the murder of millions of elderly, sick, and disabled people. Because now, there aren't enough of us "wanted" children to care for the baby boomers who only wanted some of us and secondly, we've been taught that the strong don't have to care for the weak... the "unwanted" can be disposed of as we see fit. Don't forget, the elderly's diapers are much bigger, one year in a nursing home can cost more than a 4yr college education, annual cost of meds are through the roof. It's nearly impossible for 2 kids to cover the costs of 2 parents, and who's going to care for those who didn't have kids when they have their own parents to worry about? God will not be mocked. You kill by the sword, you die by the sword. You support the culture of death, and it will only come back to someday claim you. Pope John Paul 2 encouraged the youth to stand up and defend life. Mr. Kmiec, you and President Obama are not my daughter's hero. You have mislead thousands of people for political purposes and my heart breaks for you. I pitty you. You will not be a happy man for selling your soul and you will be held just as accountable for the loss of innocent life as everyone else. How was slavery out lawed? Did they lower the need for slaves or did they get right in there and make it illegal to own slaves? During the Holocaust, did we help Germany lower the need to kill Jews, Catholics, and the disabled? Or did we get right in there and stop the killing? Mr. Kmiec, if President Obama was personally opposed to owning a slave, but didn't think he has a right to force his believes on others and keep slaverly legal, would you have stood next to him? Maybe you should check out and see what a child in the womb looks like, please note the rather human appearance: http://www.1800sonogram.com/ Mr. Kmiec, you can' be lukewarm... it's either killing or it's not. You either follow God or you do not. I am praying that your eyes be opened. Abortion has deeply hurt many of my friends. They will suffer a lifetime because of their choice to kill their own child. Abortion has many victims, including both women and children, and both deserve to be protected! Sincerely, Jen Nelson 28 Liberty Moore 8
7 years 9 months ago
It is a personal decission to choose life or death. No sin is greater than the other. Who am I to make anyone obey some of God's princples and I don't obey them all myself. We must all work out the sinful ways in our own life. It's not right to judge anyone who doesn't believe in the Bible or follow it in parts or whole-heartedly. We must do like Jesus - spread the word and not like an enforcer of Hitler's army. Where is the LOVE? Attacking welfare isn't the problem but changing the minds of people in the medical field towards the poor. Truely it takes money to have an abortion and most blacks and hispanics don't have abortions. You are fighting a belief system-"The Problem." I believe what God believes we are human before physical conception;therefore,when the egg and sperm clash together-what was in heaven is now on earth. God made it clear in Jeremiah, "I knew you before conception...". I'm not for abortion but pro-choice. Everyone has a right to choose. It's not a question of if I like their decission but allowing them to decide. I like my freedom to choose whatever! I'm a human first and everything else second.

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