Dear Senator Obama
I am writing this open letter to you, Senator, on the outside chance that one of your National Catholic Advisory Council members might read America and pass it on to you.
You have an abortion problem, especially with pro-life Catholics who would like to vote for you—something to keep in mind when you ponder the fact that there has been up to a 15 percent rise in Catholics voting Republican in the past two elections.
Catholic voters do not think monolithically. That should come as no surprise to you, since you have many Senate colleagues with a Catholic background who have supported every bill insuring a “woman’s right to choose.” But if you are interested in the respectful hearing of opposing positions, as you often note, it will be valuable for you to have serious conversations with groups like Democrats for Life of America and Feminists for Life.
There are some Catholics who will vote for you, hoping that your programs may do more for the unborn than rhetoric or a promise by Supreme Court nominees who would just return the decision to the states. They will vote for you, not because of your position on abortion, but despite it, realizing that your approach to wars of choice, capital punishment, hunger, homelessness, health care and refugees might better serve the lives of “the least” of our brothers and sisters.
There are some Catholics who will vote for you because your liberal agenda appeals to them and they refuse to vote for any Republican. There are other Catholics who will never vote for you—a few because of the abortion issue alone, but many more because they are irreversibly Republican and distrust all Democratic policies. As one prominent pro-life Republican put it, he would have voted “holding his nose” for the pro-choice Rudolph W. Giuliani because of Giuliani’s other Republican positions.
There is a third group who are truly undecided or are tending away from you because they think you not only defend partial-birth abortion but also are against lifesaving therapy for newborns surviving an abortion attempt. You are going to be hit with ads about your vote in the Illinois State Legislature against the Induced Infant Liability Act.
I know you have tried to explain this in your Relevant magazine interview, but you seemed evasive. Can you just simply affirm your conviction that any newborn, even after an abortion attempt, should be given effective life-sustaining treatment? Perhaps your seeming ambivalence is related to your position on late-term abortions and partial-birth abortions. Second- and third-trimester abortions comprise a small percentage of all abortions, but they are horrific. Anybody who thinks not, does not think. But even your gentle qualification of the mental health exception was met with a storm of protest from the National Abortion Rights Action League, and you seemed to wilt.
I know you do not want to criminalize abortion, that you think it is a profound moral issue and that you think a father’s responsibility continues after conception, as you said on Father’s Day this year. I know also that you think our young ones should be taught more about the seriousness and sacredness of sexuality. But more is required if you are to reach the group of Catholics (and other Christians) I have been talking about. Here are three suggestions:
1. Support the Rev. Jim Wallis’s “abortion-reduction agenda,” with its economic support for pregnant women and greater access to adoption as part of the Democratic platform.
2. If you are interested in diversity and mutual respect, give a place at the Democratic convention for Democrats for Life to show you are unafraid of difference and debate.
3. Engage the arguments and evidence offered in opposition to second- and third-trimester abortions. You may find that the position of most American men and women is quite different from Naral’s. The earlier stages of embryonic and fetal development are more contested. But even your Republican opponent supports embryonic stem cell research. Ask him, and all the Catholics who will vote for him, how this fits into their professed commitments.
Perhaps you owe some courageous people like Douglas Kmiec a bit of reciprocation. Kmiec, a pro-life Catholic law professor who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations, announced his support of you because of your approach to war, poverty and immigration. Because of this stand, he has been denied Communion at least once. Are you willing to risk excommunication from the church of Naral for a principled position on abortion?
Maybe they will call you that terrible name “flip-flopper.” But remember this: anyone who refuses to change a judgment in the face of irrefutable data is either a fool or a toady. And you, clearly, are neither. As I see you move more and more to the middle in matters of the economy and the war in Afghanistan, I wait. Will you move a bit to the middle on this matter of abortion?
A vociferous cadre in the Democratic Party has for too long wielded a dogmatic veto over any discussion of limiting abortions. With your commitment to reasoned, evidence-based and respectful discourse, are you able to challenge your party to welcome pro-life Catholics into its supposed big tent?