Andrew Cuomo and the sad inheritance of ‘personal opposition’ to abortion

CNS/Brendan McDermid, Reuters (left), Carlo Allegri, Reuters (right)

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.

Advertisement

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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Crystal Watson
6 months 1 week ago

The right to life of existing people may be a basic Christian belief, but there's no scriptural basis for that belief when it comes to embryos or fetuses, and many other Christian denominations believe women should be able to decide about abortion themselves. There are reasons why fetuses don't have the same legal rights as existing people.

John Hess
6 months 1 week ago

Crystal, please note that we don't have old traditional funeral rites for miscarriages.

rose-ellen caminer
6 months 1 week ago

True .It does not follow therefore that it is not human. Though it is not a person; it's not a hair cell or a heart cell either. its the way humans are at that stage of development.The idea of soul is a purely religious one, outdated meaningless even,Perhaps the proper word for soul is "subjectivity". Does a zygote have subjectivity? Probably not, though we really don't know. For all we know all creation may partake in some sense of subjectivity[ awareness of ones existence] .Tiny creatures certainly appear to have a sense of their own being.Even plants. ,subatomic particles? Why not?So do the movements of single cells for that matter. I am not equating zygotes with what we KNOW are biologically sentient beings,possessing subjectivity[ soul] but it is not unreasonable to take the position that an already existing zygote, being alive, and projected to become fully sentient subjectivity [ensouled; as the term was once used] is inherently valuable for being at the first stage of human its development. No need to mourn a clump of non subjectivity possessing cells[ again, though we don't know they have NO subjectivity; existence is a mystery] but if human life is inherently valuable, a society can make the deliberate destruction of this life [ subjectivity present or not]wrong. Life is good; human life is good and that is what we stand for as advanced civilization.Therefore zygotes get to live.
I do believe embryos certainly have some subjectivity and can feel pain and so obviously should not be killed.Fetus are not considered human if we say they are not human.They are genetically[ if they are the result of human sexual reproduction whether artificial or not]. It is wholesome healthy right and just for a society to consider all genetically human, beings, humans!It does not mean that we should have some police looking into women's whatever, .and prosecuting for miscarriage of zygotes. But on principle our values should be that genetically human beings should not be killed; life is good humans are inherently deserving of their existence.Not all violations whether real or perceived of stated values gets enforced for practical and other overriding moral reason, but that does not mean we should ditch them.

Warren Patton
6 months 1 week ago

"There are reasons why fetuses don't have the same legal rights as existing people."

Because they are incapable of fighting for them.

Crystal Watson
6 months 1 week ago

Animals are incapable of fighting for their rights, but yet, amazingly, they have some rights. The reason fetus's rights are limited is because their rights conflict with the rights of women who are pregnant, and women's rights mostly supersede.

Warren Patton
6 months ago

We kill and eat animals, so its a bit of a stretch to claim they have "rights" in the sense we use the term in regards to humans. In general I'd say animal welfare laws are more about regulating human behavior then securing any fundamental rights for animals. So for example when we ban cockfighting it's not because it's seen as wrong to kill chickens (we do that all the time) but because cockfighting is sadistic and the government wants to discourage sadism among its citizens. Other animal welfare laws-regulations on hunting or slaughtering animals- give an appearance of order and decency to something that might otherwise look too gruesome for many people. But these laws don't secure any fundamental rights for the animals, who can still be killed. Animal welfare laws are in this way a lot like restrictions on abortion.

Lisa Fullam
6 months 1 week ago

Mr, Woodward states that at the time of Mario Cuomo's statement, most Americans supported abortion in "'hard cases'--rape, incest, and immediate physical harm to the mother." What he does not acknowledge is that magisterial teaching then and now rules out abortion in all cases, including the hard cases he mentions. (Some moralists would find room for exceptions in cases in which the mother's health is immediately and imminently threatened, but that is not acknowledged in magisterial documents.) This from the Declaration on Procured Abortion: "It may be a serious question of health, sometimes of life or death, for the mother;... We proclaim only that none of these reasons can ever objectively confer the right to dispose of another's life, even when that life is only beginning." So let's be clear: rape, even of a minor? No. Incest, even of a minor? No. potentially lethal harm to the mother? Not acknowledged by the magisterium--as the Phoenix abortion case a few years ago showed, some Church leaders find abortion even this kind of case unacceptable, even if some moralists might disagree. By Mr. Woodward's argument, since the magisterial teaching is rooted not in faith-based reasoning, but in natural law accessible to all (and enshrined in the Dec. of Independence!) abortion even in "hard cases" should be illegal. He should be clear about that, or explain how he could justify any exceptions under Catholic magisterial teaching.

Lisa Fullam
6 months 1 week ago

[duplicate deleted}

Christopher Minch
6 months 1 week ago

Interestingly and serendipitously, the scriptural readings of this week have centered on Genesis, the first book of the Bible, so far, Chapters 1 & 2. Jesus used Chapter 2 support the importance of Marriage in God's plan to refute the scribes and Pharisees notion that marriage can be easily dissolved.

Note that the end of Chapter 1 and the beginning of Chapter 2 talks of making of the human being, man and woman. Chapter 1 notes that God created them equally in his divine image. In Chapter 2, there is more detail on how God created, specifically man in this instance. It states that God (like a potter) created the human form from the clay of the earth and after the a form was completed God breathed the "breath of life" into his nostrils and man became a living being. The "breath of life" is both a physical phenomenon but also is believed to be when a soul was begun. IMO development and timing is everything. Note that it was only after the human form was completed it seems that God confirmed both a human life and soul had begun not during the development or forming of the human form.

This is the beginning of our inspired writings. It should be normative as it was for Jesus on Marriage. Why did the Church have to posit a soul earlier than this and drill down to even the meeting of a sperm and egg, that is fertilization? Fertilization and implantation and development is so much, much more complicated than to point to a specific point in time as to saying when a soul or life began. I don't know the theological rationale for saying it was at fertilization but it doesn't match well at all with Genesis. All I am trying to say is when there is a lot of room for interpretation and why can't the Church give us the benefit of the doubt and go with the more simple theological explanation of the beginning of life and a soul. We can leave the rest for science and medicine in terms of how to bring about a viable human being.

Please be clear I am not advocating abortion earlier than when the "breath of life" was conferred. I think it is up to every woman and her support group, husband, doctor, possibly family to determine if they can support another baby in this world. Some will welcome and support all the way and others not. Their choice IMO. But Church and others should not be in there judging and condemning but rather supporting this woman in whatever decision she comes to, that is the Christian thing to do in this most difficult of life-long decisions. We should leave this decision to the person(s) who have to live with it and not by others who will not be there to care, feed, shelter, medically care for, educate and in essence love in all its finances and details of which strangers have no business getting involved with. You have "no skin" or your money in this endeavor.

Warren Patton
6 months 1 week ago

This is an eccentric view theologically, as it treats the body like a sort of wind-up toy that then has a soul inserted into it. Most theologians today do not take this Cartesian view of the soul as a separate thing animating dead matter. Rather the soul is seen as inextricably a part of life. And it is clear that a zygote or embryo, which is actively growing and taking shape into a full human being through its own potential, is not mere dead clay waiting for an animating breath of life.

Christopher Minch
6 months 1 week ago

Without apology this is an eccentric, my point of view and posited as mainly questions as to why the Church has taken such an extreme stance as to the beginnings of life and soul. I do not see the body as a wind-up toy, I called it a developing body that according to scripture was fully formed and then God breathed life into it at a specific point of time and a viable existence began. And the zygote/embryo is not growing just of its own potential but in a womb attached and nurtured by a unique person, a human being who we hope is being well-supported but may not be too.

I am no scripture or theological scholar. This is a grown-up forum for thinkers and seekers of truth. I identify as Christian first and Catholic second. I have read widely in mainly centrist reputable Catholic and Christian circles but not so much lately. But I still read scripture daily and pray and ponder its meanings relative to what we are living out now. Sometimes I think the Pre-History accounts of our faith-life in Genesis have a lot to guide and teach us even when in our certitudes we think we have it all figured out. I now prefer going to the roots of our faith, the Gospels and Epistles rather than perusing studied arguments and apologetic tracts, no matter how edifying. I suggest readers take it or leave it in terms of my thinking and faith wanderings here.

John Hess
6 months 1 week ago

So Warren, does this mean that each living bacteria has a soul?

rose-ellen caminer
6 months 1 week ago

What means soul?Perhaps the word for us post moderns is subjectivity. Does bacteria or a zygote have a sense of its own existence? We don't know. Existence itself is a mystery; Life itself is a mystery ;how can anything exist? How can anything be alive?What is life?Why is there something rather then nothing? What is existence?Perhaps all that exists or all that is alive or both possess some form of subjectivity;[ experience of being]. How can anything BE really?if God is essential [subjective] Being , who created all that exists materially and all life, then perhaps all possess some degree or another of God's essential being;some sense of subjectivity;.This is not science obviously but a zygote , bacteria subatomic particles;all that is and certainly all that is alive ; we don't know they have NO subjectivity. Bacteria behave like they might.All living things do.So too subatomic particles?Life is a mystery and all existence may partake in the essential Being of God possessing in degrees the image of God.[ the essential Being sharing its being with its creation in degrees.of subjective awareness akin to God's ].

Warren Patton
6 months ago

Bacteria are not living. But as for living microbes, I don't know. It's certainly an interesting question and the idea is not as silly as you think it is. But a microbe's soul would be nothing at all like a human soul.

The reason conception is considered to be the moment of ensoulment is that conception is when a new being is formed. It's when the gametes' passive potential to be the material for a new human changes into the zygote's active potential to grow into one. At this point a new being exists, and is believed to have a soul because the soul is fundamental to the person's being, and is thus assumed to be present throughout their whole life. We can't just assume the soul is inserted into them at a convenient moment. This isn't an arbitrary view. It's not even a theologically sophisticated view. It comes from viewing the soul as fundamental to one's being rather then viewing souls as sort of disembodied ghosts that God sometimes attaches to matter and sometimes doesn't.

And this is a view was not dreamed up by nefarious Catholic bishops. It is common to many religions and philosophies. For instance in Buddhist scriptures the Buddha describes the soul as giving form to the body in the womb.

Crystal Watson
6 months 1 week ago

Nancey Murphy has a book, Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies?. Dualism, neoPlatonism ... it's an interesting subject.

Crystal Watson
6 months 1 week ago

Underlying the church's stance on abortion is the implicit belief that fetuses' lives are more worthwhile than the lives of already existing people - women and girls. This can be seen in the case in 2013 in Brazil of a 9 year old girl, raped by her stepfather and pregnant with twins. The church tried to get the courts to deny her an abortion, though her doctors said her life was in danger. When the court ruled for the girl, the church excommunicated her mother and doctors and the local archbishop said "Abortion is much more serious than killing an adult. An adult may or may not be an innocent, but an unborn child is most definitely innocent. Taking that life cannot be ignored." ... Nine-Year-Old's Abortion Outrages Brazil's Catholic Church.

Raul Tercilla
6 months 1 week ago

Our Federal Constitution is predicated on expanding and protecting the freedoms and rights, of the individual person ("people") that reside in the USA mostly from governmental authority or social norms and conventions that create a hardship to a minority group (numerical not demographic) or more importantly another individual. Our Legal institutions and Political commonwealth form an imperfect system , hence the latitude must reside in respecting the legal rights of the other person. We are ethical individual's or citizens of a commonwealth by necessity in order to reside in a society, but we are moral beings by choice by our decisions to observe a religion and or follow a church. By the cheer nature of how and why we participate as a citizen and as believer we tend to operate in two spheres: a civil one by politics and law,and theological and moral one by choice. St Augustine's Free Will is one of those few constructs that coincide as a Ven Diagram between the spheres. As sinners in the religious circle we can decide to sin, for instance can choose to medically terminate a pregnancy. As a citizen we can make a decision with our own autonomy as long as it is legal and even ethical as well, however it is unlikely that I will be permitted nor should I want to impose restrains on a fellow citizen that is operating within legal means and acceptable to their sense of morality, like to medically terminate a pregnancy . It is short sided to restrict the ability of a very capable political leader to help its Commonwealth, whether a state ( Cuomo as Governor of the State of NY) or nationally ( Biden as President of the US) because their Church has a moral system that believes that women under no circumstances should medically end a pregnancy. Specially when that Religion was founded on various other manifestations of the intrinsic value and dignity of human life that the opponents of Biden and Cuomo constantly trounce ( such as medical care, nutrition, and education of poor children; the brutal separation of undocumented parents from their children, the death penalty; dehumanize immigrants because they are darker and non European, promote further income inequality). St Augustine distinction between the City of God and the City of Man is not a separation of church and state. Rather is an aspirational level: one to pursue saintly aspirations and another one to delve in the day to day mundane nature of a civil society. It probably took a very wise man like Augustine who had been a great sinner to become such a crafty universal Saint. He probably recognized that the tyranny of the perfect is the enemy of the good. Hence I may be against abortion a noble moral construct. But I live in an imperfect civil society. If I want to enter the political arena and advocate ways to improve the commonwealth where I reside and to do so have to align myself,to the chagrin of George Washington and John Adams, to a Political Party. Then I should join one that shall aspire to provide the greater utility to a greater number of my fellow citizens regardless of religion, race , ethnicity, class, sexual orientation. Since it reflects closer the precepts of a wise man from Galilee that change the world for the better 2000 years ago.

Paul Fishman
6 months 1 week ago

Andrew Cuomo is an apostate and Also should be excommunicated for proclaiming the death penalty for the unborn and the newborn. IF he repents and changes the Law for pro-life, he has a chance to come back to the Faith. Otherwise he is acting as Mussolini to oppress mother and babies of New York.

bill carson
6 months 1 week ago

One thing is for sure: all these pious Pro Choice posters here will someday be judged on all the inconsistent, self serving justifications they're throwing out. They act like they care about the women and the babies, and they do to some degree, no question. But always, always, always, the most important point they make is the one that will someday likely damn them: They want abortions to continue.

E.Patrick Mosman
6 months 1 week ago

One can only wonder what the response would be from all those late term pro-abortion, let the recent born "mass"
die after birth advocates if Governor Cuomo was advocating the same end for a litter of puppies, furry little kittens
any other animal species or even saltwater crocodile eggs.

E.Patrick Mosman
6 months 1 week ago

One can only wonder what the response would be from all those late term pro-abortion, let the recent born "mass"
die after birth advocates if Governor Cuomo was advocating the same end for a litter of puppies, furry little kittens
any other animal species or even saltwater crocodile eggs. No doubt the PETA people would be up-in-arms.

Vittoria Colonna
6 months 1 week ago

Cuomo might be 'Catholic' because he joined the Catholic church. But he's not a Christian. From his living with his girlfriend, to his rejection of traditional marriage and his support of the termination of life. He clearly does not believe in Christian values or principles. And his flippant reaction to the calls that he be excomunicated just prove the fact. It's high time for the Catholic Church to tighten up it's rules as to who they let in and allow to remain Catholic. It should not be allowed to remain to so called 'Catholics' like Cuomo who think it's a joke.
I was thinking about the other day how in Judaism it is traditional for a Rabbi to turn away a potential 'convert' 7 times. I used to think that this was just legalistic. But now I see the point. Rabbi's see their faith as being something sacred and beautiful and want to make sure that only the serious and the most devout stick with it. Catholics should do the same.

Michael Schaefer
6 months ago

Actually, making laws to largely resolve this situation wouldn't be difficult if you are familiar with abortion law pre-Roe. It's implementing the laws to punish the doctors that would be difficult given how our society worships anyone with letters after their name these days, especially "MD."

We have too many meaningless laws on the books which do more harm than good regarding lesser issues. These laws wouldn't be hard to create. Models already exist.

Teófilo de Jesús
6 months ago

The bishops of New York should man-up, and excommunicate the governor and every Catholic legislator who voted for this nefarious law. If this isn't an excommunicable offense I don't know what is.

Robert Klein
6 months ago

Good evening let me start by saying I am a blessed grandfather of a Down syndrome grandson and I tell my son God blessed you with Noah because he knew you and Ann would give him life! The doctors tried to tell them everything from he had no brain to he would live in a vegetated state. Everything to get them to abort him again they decided to give him life because of their faith and trust in god He reads and most importantly I have never seen unconditional love but he has it for everyone

JOHN GRONDELSKI
5 months 4 weeks ago

The sad inheritance is that both Cuomos should have been excommunicated.

Advertisement

The latest from america

Light streams into St. Gabriel’s Passionist Parish in Toronto. (Photo courtesy of Larkin Architect Limited)
The daily light show at St. Gabriel's in Toronto is not just aesthetically moving, writes Dean Dettloff. It is part of a church design that reminds us of human dependence on the earth.
Dean DettloffAugust 23, 2019
“The Church is a family of families,” Pope Francis writes in “Amoris Laetitia.”
Kerry WeberAugust 23, 2019
Our commitment to God is expressed through living out the gospel, but also in your fidelity to prayer. Day in and day out. “Showing up and shutting up,” as my friend likes to say about daily prayer.
James Martin, S.J.August 23, 2019
In this Aug. 20, 2019 drone photo released by the Corpo de Bombeiros de Mato Grosso, brush fires burn in Guaranta do Norte municipality, Mato Grosso state, Brazil. (Corpo de Bombeiros de Mato Grosso via AP)
A record number of wildfires and the rapid deforestation of the Amazon are prompting Latin American bishops to plead for international action, writes America’s correspondent in Brazil, Eduardo Campos Lima.
Eduardo Campos LimaAugust 23, 2019