Contra Capps & Its Defenders

I have never met Nancy Keenan, the President of NARAL, but I did once interview Jon O’Brien, the President of the fabulously misnamed Catholics for Choice. He seemed like a very nice man although we obviously disagree about many things. Both Keenan and O’Brien are now desperate. They had planned to use the health care reform to vastly expand the ease with which women might be persuaded to terminate their pregnancies. But, they ran into a wall of facts. And, while I respect them as human beings, their arguments require a forceful rebuttal.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi threw her pro-choice allies under the bus last weekend because there was no way to pass the bill without the votes of pro-life Democrats. Yes, we pro-life Dems are here to stay. We want to support health care reform, but we do not believe expanding abortion coverage helps women anymore than it helps the unborn. We pro-life Dems tend to grasp better than our Republican pro-life friends the fact that more than a change in laws is needed to create a Culture of Life. We see that overturning Roe v. Wade would have to occur at the end of a long process, not at the beginning, that the days when women sought back alley abortions is not a past to which we wish to return, and that the pro-life cause must tie itself completely, and unconditionally, with those women who face a crisis pregnancy and are in need of help. Our concern for the unborn is profound and it flows from the same commitment to human dignity from which flows our ambition to enact universal health care. President Obama told us in countless ways during the campaign that we pro-life Dems were welcome in any party he would lead, and he promised both the Pope and the American people that he would not permit federal funds to be used to procure abortions.


Keenan and O’Brien spent the summer trying to convince the country that the Capps Amendment was the compromise that guaranteed there would be no federal funds used to procure abortions. The problem was that we knew better. And knew better. We know that money is fungible, that the Capps Amendment amounted to borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Instead of engaging our arguments, they simply continued to assert what was transparently false. When the negotiations hit the wall, they were caught out.

Yesterday, in an essay at Politico, and in a "Hardball" appearance by Keenan, they repeated the canard about Capps being an acceptable compromise. But, the Capps Amendment is dead. Like the Soviet empire it collapsed because lies always collapse.

What was stunning about their essay, however, was the analogy they used to prove their point, an analogy that Keenan repeated on air. They argued that the Catholic bishops’ argument against Capps, that it amounted to an accounting trick, was hypocritical because the Catholic Church receives federal dollars for some of its social justice programs, but it also segregates those funds from the privately raised funds it uses to fund its explicitly religious mission, such as catechism or evangelization or administration of the sacraments. So, in this analogy, abortion is like Mass. That is offensive at every level but it also concedes a point I do not think Kennan and O’Brien want to concede. The Church has a first amendment right to say Mass and perform its religious ceremonies, but there is nothing private about the exercise of that right: Catholicism is one of the most public phenomenon in the world, rooted in specific historical claims about Jesus of Nazareth and his followers, carried on in a public ministry through the centuries, and still manifest in our nations’ culture, from its skylines to its music to its political debates. And, the government provides funds to our social justice ministries because it perceives a clear public interest in those social justice ministries. The Democratic Party is engaged in the fight for health care because we believe it is in the public interest too. But, abortion is not, according to the pro-choicers, in the public domain let alone in the public interest. Roe v. Wade argued that abortion was an explicitly private decision. If Keenan and O’Brien wish to concede that abortion is an act with public significance, they are making a huge concession that undercuts the logic behind Roe more significantly than I suspect they wish to do.

On "Hardball" Chris Matthews was kinder to Keenan than I would have been. And, he has exposed the myth of Capps not providing federal funds for abortion on previous shows. Readers should make sure that the editors of their local papers do not swallow the myth about Capps still being spread by Keenan and O’Brien: Their arguments may make it to a moderately well-read column on page A12, but everyone reads the Letters to the Editor, so do not let their misrepresentations go unanswered. Call your editors if news items state falsehoods. The politics of the Senate are looking a lot like the politics of the House, and I do not foresee any chance that the Capps Amendment will make a comeback. But, we need to make sure. And say a prayer for Keenan and O’Brien. They are lost, lost sheep, but our pro-life message suffers when we fail to love the sinner even while we detest the sin.

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Think Catholic
9 years 2 months ago
MSW this is a very insightful explanation.  Abortion is like Mass to them.  But their analogy is also wrong for another reason.  The Catholic Church and other Christian ministries do not defend their receipt of government subsidies on the pure basis that segregation of funds prevents government assistance of religion.  Christians defend it on the basis that there's nothing wrong, constitutionally or morally, with incidental, non-sectarian, fair and equal assistance of religious organization services (on equal terms as services of non-religious organizations).  Keenan's premise is, it would be wrong if the government money in some way helped Catholic Charities display Christ to the poor in addition to helping them materially.  But the constitution doesn't require that, and the American people don't adopt that radical exclusion of religion from community service.  They don't want their government to be so phobic of religion that religious groups must purge their religious character from their employees and activities that receive government funding.  On the other hand, the American people do believe that the government should not even incidentally support abortion. They do support the public "compromise" that even if abortion is legal our public institutions won't even indirectly support it.  And they believe their public institutions should even take a position, passive or not, in favor of life.  The constitution allows government to favor life and completely sever its ties to abortion.  Americans don't agree with the ACLU that public institutions should take that kind of quarantine against religion, but they do think it about abortion, and they are right. 
John Raymer
9 years 2 months ago
St. Michael the Evangelist: Your essay has renewed my soul and reminds me of why I became Catholic. We are a public religion with a public witness to life and truth. We bear witness to the God of Love who gave His life so that we might have ours - and so that we might then give our lives so that others might have theirs. This is why we are pro-life and why the pro-life position demands public health care for all.

Anyone who puts his money before the health and welfare of others is not of the Kingdom of God. Anyone who consideres their rights, power and freedoms more important than the health and welfare of others is not of the Kingdom. Anyone who would withhold healthcare from someone whom they consider unworthy - due to their own poor decisions, immigration status, or being still in the womb - is not of the Kingdom.

I continue to be amazed at how so many Catholics do not get this - that supporting a system that denies health care is no different than supporting a system that allows abortion. The only real difference is that opposing abortion is totally easy - it requires no sacrifice but only a loud mouth and some high-sounding philosophy. Supporting health care requires that we reach into our pockets give up some freedoms. But our freedoms and our money do not belong to us. They belong to God who is the source of all things - and even so paid for them again through his own sacrifice on the cross.
Pearce Shea
9 years 2 months ago
MSW: Thanks for this. It was a great post.
Matt Bowman: I agree, except with one caveat. The American People you speak of are highly divided (though certainly not into equal portions) about whether or not they want religions involved in community service.Not twenty minutes ago a coworker told me that he would prefer the poor starve than religions be permitted to persist in spreading their "lies." Again, I don't think this is the majority of Americans, but I do worry that this is becoming the majority of liberals and maybe even of Democrats.
Bill Collier
9 years 2 months ago
All your neurons were firing in sync when you wrote this one. Powerful, and compelling.
david power
9 years 2 months ago
Whoever hired you as a writer deserves a lot of praise.The passion for Life and the brilliant mixing of Politics with a catholic vision is a welcome relief from the usual mishmash of lame attempts at dialectic.A pleasure to read.Best Religious writer bar none.None!Most of the time I read your articles I come away learning something,that is a tribute in itself as most journalists just seem to reheat stale arguments.I am more and more rooting for this bill.
Marie Rehbein
9 years 2 months ago
Will not allowing public funds to help purchase insurance that covers abortion actually reduce the number of abortions?


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