Andrew Cuomo and the sad inheritance of ‘personal opposition’ to abortion
Reading Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New York Times op-ed in defense of New York State’s new and perversely titled Reproductive Health Act, I was reminded of his father Mario Cuomo’s own tendentious arguments explaining why he, as a Catholic, could support Roe v. Wade. Andrew Cuomo's arguments share the same weakness for pious dissembling.
Both Cuomo père et fils approach the issue as political animals, and their support for abortion on demand was and is driven by Democratic party politics. Recall: Mario Cuomo entered the abortion culture wars in 1977 to provide intellectual cover for his friend, New York Representative Geraldine Ferraro, who as Walter Mondale’s presidential running mate in 1984 was the first woman, the first Italian-American and first pro-choice Catholic to run for vice president of the United States. The ticket lost both the Catholic and the Italian-American vote.
Both Cuomo père et fils approach the issue of abortion as political animals, and their support for abortion on demand was and is driven by Democratic party politics.
The younger Cuomo’s op-ed is a bumbling political effort to tie the pro-life movement to Trumpism and—astonishingly—to argue that the Catholic Church he claims to identify with is part of evangelicalism’s faded religious right. It is also an attempt to wave away the prominent critiques of his legislation by numerous Catholic bishops, including Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Father John Jenkins, the president of the University of Notre Dame. Unlike his father, the governor is prone to public pratfalls.
Mario Cuomo’s central argument, in his famous speech at the University of Notre Dame, was that while he was personally opposed as a Catholic to abortion on moral grounds—indeed, he averred, he and his wife Matilda would never abort a pregnancy—he had no right to impose his personal religious views on a pluralistic society. His son Andrew’s underlying argument mimics his father’s: that “religious values” should not “drive political decisions.” This both distorts Catholic arguments against abortion, which are based in common human dignity rather than specifically Christian revelation, and draws an incoherent line between values and politics—one that Andrew Cuomo rightly stepped over when he recently stated that the death penalty was “a stain on our conscience” and that he stood “in solidarity with Pope Francis” in opposing it.
Mario’s “personally-opposed-but” argument proved serviceable for a time for other Catholics running as Democrats for public office. But it did not prevent Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the first Catholic since the Kennedys to capture the Democratic nomination for president, from becoming the first Catholic presidential nominee to lose the Catholic vote, in 2004. That is because by then Mario’s argument had become transparently untenable.
Even Mario Cuomo himself did not adhere to his doctrine of separation between personal and public morality. The elder Cuomo was personally and passionately opposed to the death penalty: In fact, his opposition cost him the New York City mayoral election in 1977. More to the point, he continued that opposition as governor despite statewide polls showing that most New Yorkers were in favor of capital punishment. When challenged on his willingness to take take a public stand on his personal view of capital punishment and his unwillingness to do so on abortion, Mario Cuomo reached for a faux distinction only the lawyerly would make: His personal stand on the death penalty was moral, he argued, while his stand on abortion was based on his Catholic faith.
Neither Andrew nor Mario Cuomo could acknowledge what people can and do by reasoning or human intuition come to recognize: that aborting children in the womb is morally repugnant. The Catholic Church does not rely on a faith-based argument to oppose abortion, after all, but on natural law, an insight echoed in the “inalienable right to life” acknowledged in the Declaration of Independence.
Neither Andrew nor Mario Cuomo could acknowledge what people can and do by reasoning or human intuition come to recognize: that aborting children in the womb is morally repugnant.
When Mario was mulling a run for president himself, he welcomed jousting about abortion with reporters like myself. During one of several extended interviews, he told me that the whole issue was about personal liberty and quoted from a speech of his to solidify his point: “Only when liberty intrudes on another’s right, only when it does damage to another human being, only when it takes or hurts or deprives or invades may it be limited.”
“But surely abortion damages another human being,” I responded. His reply was typically coy: “Not everyone agrees when human life begins.”
Some weekends later, the governor called me at home with a proposition: The two of us would gather a panel of theologians to discuss ensoulment. His notion was that if we do not know when soul joins body, we cannot say that abortion destroys a human life.
“Come on Mario,” I said. “All you have to do is wait 266 days and see what you get. A human embryo does not become a dog or a cat.”
Like all politicians, Mario Cuomo used to cite polls that showed no consensus on abortion to bolster his argument that no Democrat could win on a pro-life platform. In his op-ed, the younger Cuomo cites polls saying most Americans are pro-choice. In fact, the New York Times columnist David Leonhardt is much closer to the truth when he writes that public opinion on abortion is deeply divided and has not changed much either way since Roe.
Gov. Cuomo cites polls saying most Americans are pro-choice. In fact, public opinion on abortion is deeply divided and has not changed much either way since Roe v. Wade.
When Mario Cuomo was governor, polls showed that most Americans were pro-choice but wanted those choices limited to the “hard cases”—rape, incest and immediate physical harm to the mother. In other words, most Americans opposed abortion for the reasons most women have them. And I suspect that remains true today. But when I showed that data to Mario Cuomo, he said he did not trust polls—that from a governor who kept a full-time pollster on his staff.
Mario Cuomo played with liberal Catholic expectations in his carefully orchestrated “personally-opposed-but” arguments. To recognize this, one has only to listen to his full-throated endorsement of legal abortion in his keynote address at the 1992 Democratic Convention—the same convention at which the Democratic National Committee refused to allow pro-life Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey Sr. to submit a minority report on the party’s abortion plank—or even to address the convention.
Andrew Cuomo is more straightforward. His Reproductive Health Act removed even the few protections Roe allowed unborn human beings. After gleefully celebrating this legislative achievement, his only response to legitimate criticism can be that on this issue, he suspended his Catholic values in order to pursue his political goals. He seems to think that is an act of courage, but it is a dodge as transparently self-serving as his father’s “personal opposition” to abortion.
Correction, Feb, 13: A previous version of this article identified Bob Casey Sr. as a U.S. Senator in 1992; he was governor of Pennsylvania at the time.