Observations on Abortion and Politics
For the last generation, no issue has generated more sustained controversy, and none has produced more anguished appeals to conscience than has abortion. In churches, courts and political conventions, as well as in families, professional associations and universities, it is a reliable “sign of contradiction,” certain to leave antagonists in attitudes of mutual indignation and moral disapproval. In what follows, I want to say some things primarily to those who, like myself, are convinced that abortion is morally wrong and believe that a society that condones or promotes abortion is not protecting “rights of reproductive choice,” but is abetting a serious evil. My procedure will be to explore some implications of commonly recognized truths about the controversy.
First, there are both theological and philosophical reasons for rejecting abortion and for holding that it is indeed the destruction of innocent human life; but it is the philosophical reasons that have to be presented as the proper basis for public policy. Reliance on the authority of Scripture or of papal teaching does not resolve public controversies in a democratic, pluralistic society and should not do so. This means that Catholics, Baptists and other religious opponents of abortion must attempt to persuade their fellow citizens by appeals to reason, to shared values and to common interests. When religious groups appeal to reason, there is no justification for excluding them from the public conversation. In the absence of shared public reasons, however, the prohibition of abortion will not be sustainable.
There is, in my view, a strong nonreligious case for the view that abortion is morally wrong, since it involves the destruction of innocent human life. This case has been strengthened by our increased knowledge of embryology and human genetics. It makes clear the continuity and identity of human life from conception forward, and it has made it difficult to separate the acceptance of abortion from the acceptance of infanticide. But directing attention to the Catholic Church’s prohibition against abortion and invoking internal church discipline against those Catholics who hold contrary views suggests to many people that the primary issue in the public forum is not one of natural law, but rather of obedience to church teaching.
Second, even if we think that there is a very strong case for opposing abortion, we must acknowledge that public opinion remains deeply divided on the question. This does not by itself defeat the moral argument against abortion. Public opinion may well be wrong. It has been wrong in the past on such serious questions as slavery, religious toleration and segregation. It is still wrong on the subject of capital punishment. But continuing and intense public disagreement does underline how far we are from having a broad public consensus against the practice and how difficult it would be to enact and enforce a legal prohibition against it. In the absence of consensus, there are certain to be serious problems of enforcement, patterns of passionate resistance to the prohibition, failures to convict offenders and further threats to public order.
Third, while the pro-life argument in itself is clear and straightforward—the human nature of the fetus and the prohibition of the taking of innocent human life—it runs into two serious difficulties: the locus of decision and the impact of forbidding abortion on various parties involved.
In our culture, with its legalistic and individualistic interpretation of human rights, there is a widespread and strong preference for allowing each individual woman to make the ultimate decision on whether or not to abort. This preference has been intensified with the rise of feminism. For pro-choice advocates, it seems intolerable that a woman’s right to decide should be restrained by any claims made by other parties. This has led to such anomalous consequences as the exclusion of fathers and of the parents of minor children from a share in decisions about pregnancy and its termination.
The other principal support of the pro-choice position has been the concern that forbidding abortion will have a disastrous impact on the lives and the well-being of women required to bear children, on the “unwanted” children, on fragile marriages and on society at large. These are consequentialist arguments, which seem to me to have only a secondary role in the debate, which is primarily focused on rights rather than consequences. These consequences need more careful scrutiny than they usually get, since they are usually discussed in an anecdotal or impressionistic way.
Fourth, pro-life advocates need to recognize that while the philosophical arguments they make against abortion may persuade many honest people that abortion is indeed the taking of innocent human life, they are extremely unlikely to persuade the general public to accept an absolute and universal ban on abortion. Hard cases (conception as the result of rape or incest, fetuses with grave mental or physical handicaps, the likelihood of very negative consequences for the mother) will make a universal ban impossible to achieve. For that reason, some sort of compromise on the details of any prohibition of abortion is necessary if the prohibition is to be sustainable in a democratic society. Pro-life advocates may well regard compromise on this matter as regrettable; but we all have to live with many things we deplore.
Fifth, pro-life advocates must recognize that the pro-choice position, though gravely flawed, is held by many of its advocates as a matter of conscience. It would be naïve to think that all pro-choice advocates are moved solely or even primarily by conscience, but it would be arrogant to deny the role of conscience on the other side of this debate. Several things follow from this point. For one, enacting a prohibition on abortion would generate extensive civil disobedience (and perhaps some violence). It would require coercing the conscientious—not an appealing project in a pluralistic society. Furthermore, even if the conscience of pro-choice advocates is erroneous, it puts them under obligation. On grounds of religious liberty, Catholics should be very reluctant to apply coercion in this area. Catholics should also remember that we want and need to protect freedom of conscience for our members and our institutions in the face of government regulations and policies that would require the funding or the practice of abortion. It does not follow from this point that abortion is therefore right, or that the erroneous conscience of some puts others under an obligation to obey it and to act in error, or that there is no moral truth in these matters.
Sixth, the enactment of any prohibition of abortion is not simply the enunciation of a moral truth; it is a political and legal act that is to be carried out in an arena where there are many conflicting points of view and interests and where there is widespread hostility to the pro-life position. There must be room for a variety of judgments about how best to deal with this zone of conflict, in which pro-life forces work at a considerable disadvantage. It is reasonable to think that there can be and will be divergent political judgments about how to improve the protection of unborn human life in these difficult circumstances. In such a complex political setting, political leaders are better suited to make these judgments than are bishops or theologians or intellectuals. The function of bishops, and more generally of the churches, is to bear witness to the moral truth that is at stake, not to determine what is the best legal and political resolution of the problem.
Seventh, political life in a modern democracy is complex and indirect. There is seldom a straight line from a value affirmed to a policy enacted. Governments are formed by coalitions, whose members have different priorities, even when they share many of the same values. This means that complex tradeoffs are an inescapable part of political life. Thus, a pro-life voter may be urged by a pro-life political leader to vote for a pro-choice candidate, because the pro-choice candidate is thought to have a better chance of keeping the political seat for the pro-life party. This is an abstract way of putting what happened in the recent Republican senatorial primary in Pennsylvania. It would be a brave bishop who would claim to know on theological grounds just when such compromises are acceptable or justifiable, and it would be a naïve voter who would follow his opinion on such a question.
Eighth, single-issue voting may well be an admirable expression of conscientious conviction about an important matter, but it should not be imposed on voters as a requirement of conscience. Both voters and politicians have to make up their own minds about what issues are opportune, what fights can be won, what results can be achieved. It is sometimes claimed that the right to life is fundamental and underlies all other rights and that, therefore, the protection of this right must have priority over all other issues. In the sphere of immediate action, this is clearly true. The Good Samaritan is first concerned to preserve the life of the robbers’ victim. But voting, legislating and making legal arguments for the constitutionality of what has been enacted bring in a complexity that honest people can assess differently. If a person, whether a political candidate or a citizen, judges that an objective such as the prohibition of abortion is simply not attainable in the present state of American public and legal opinion, then he or she cannot be required to make the prohibition of abortion the decisive consideration in voting or to demand it as an essential plank in a political platform. If I vote for a candidate who professes to be strongly pro-life but is either unable or unwilling to reduce or eliminate abortions, then I have not succeeded in achieving my pro-life objective. This is even more true if the candidate is simply unelectable in the political circumstances of the time. Politics is not merely the expression of values; it is social action shaped by many discordant forces over time. Moral principles are profoundly important in political life, but they are enveloped within a larger and, regrettably, less well-ordered and unprincipled reality.
Ninth, the main alternative to this conception of political life and to limited expectations about how morality is to affect politics is a politics of witness. A key value is affirmed and is applied consistently across the board without regard for considerations of feasibility or for consequences. This has a certain heroic appeal and may be at times the only effective response to grave evils. In contemporary culture, there is a strong public expectation that such a politics of witness will be applied consistently without fear or favor. This means that pro-choice Republicans must be treated with the same critical severity that is applied to pro-choice Democrats. If this is not done, the key value or principle is, in effect, instrumentalized for the sake of other goals.
Tenth, the denial of Communion to Catholic politicians is a matter internal to the church and within the jurisdiction of bishops. In its own way, it is an important exercise of religious freedom, which I understand as the freedom of the religious group to define its own requirements and to be faithful to what it believes to be divinely mandated. Whether it is pastorally appropriate to deny Communion to Catholic politicians has been debated in these pages, but civil authorities must recognize the church’s right to establish a discipline for its own members. This internal disciplinary action is logically distinct from engaging in partisan politics. Politics and church discipline may well be practically inseparable, especially when the disciplinary action takes place during an election year, when journalists and others are wont to suspect bishops’ partisan motivation. The likely result is that ordinary observers think an important boundary is being breached and internal Catholic values and prohibitions are being extended into the public forum.
Eleventh, we have to recognize that the church’s position on abortion does not evoke consistent support from the Catholic faithful. Polls seem to show that there is little variation between Catholics and the population at large in their views on abortion. This point certainly does not overturn the teaching, nor does it require that we accept the social and cultural pressures that have produced this outcome.
It seems to me that we have reached a stalemate on this issue. There is a deep-seated and widely shared aversion to abortion in the Catholic population. At the same time many Catholics refuse to accept the church’s clear teaching, and even more may reject the public policy conclusions that have been drawn from it. At this point it is appropriate to ask whether the way of repeated authoritative prohibition has yielded all the results it is likely to yield and whether more might now be accomplished through persuasion, through a strategy of education and witness with less connection to political action and legal decisions. It is certainly not pastorally justifiable to write off large numbers of Catholics who are not in conformity with church teaching on this issue simply as being in the grip of a “culture of death.” Given the collapse of many of the cultural supports that once sustained Catholic and Protestant teaching on many issues of sexual morality that have now become highly controversial, we have to find ways of making our teaching more broadly intelligible and more culturally sensitive.
Twelfth, the path to doing this is not the course taken by far too many Catholic politicians, whom I would characterize as the more or less willing subjects of an unholy orthodoxy imposed by pro-choice pressure groups. Here I think the crucial mistake has been the acceptance of a right to abortion. This makes abortion itself either indifferent or even morally positive. The essential Catholic affirmation is that abortion is an evil. Whether it is an evil to be forbidden by law or to be discouraged by persuasion is a matter where Catholics, whether they be politicians or citizens, theologians or bishops may well differ. What one looks for in Catholic politicians is signs that they have thought about ways to minimize this evil, to deny it full public legitimacy and to make it clear that the teaching of their church makes a difference in their own thinking. These tasks are the responsibility of the laity, not of the bishops. They are demanding tasks, requiring personal commitment and intelligent persuasion. But the challenge should not be insurmountable for those who would offer themselves as leaders for a free and morally responsible society.