Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Addressing Abortion (Staying with Controversial Topics!)

There is no more vexing issue for a Catholic in the public domain than the abortion issue. Let's be blunt: the church regards abortion as a gravely immoral act, and this teaching will never change. As the Catechism (#2270) states: "From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person-- among which is the inviolable right of every innocent to life." Hence abortion can never be seen as a "good" or a "right".

That said, I have little affinity for what passes today as the pro-life movement. Many in this group seem to appropriate the pro-life position as an excuse to support (or ignore) a larger right-wing agenda which is not so compatible with Catholic teaching. They seem more concerned with using the issue as a stick against Democrats and liberal Republicans than with actually reducing the incidence of abortion.

First things first. Abortion is only one issue in the gospel of life that encompasses euthanasia, war, the death penalty, and even health care and poverty. The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin coined the term "seamless garment" to describe this consistent ethic of life. You can see where I am going with this. Not only does the pro-life right detest this approach, they also tend to vilify Cardinal Bernardin and any others to adopt a similar approach (think Cardinals Mahony and McCarrick). But these issues are all inter-related, and reflect a broad based respect for life and human dignity (see the quote from Gaudium Et Spes from the torture post from two days back). To be consistent therefore, one should not only oppose abortion and euthanasia, but also unjust war (and the last two popes deemed the Iraq war unjust), the death penalty, the lack of adequate healthcare, torture, and poverty.

But something is wrong here. Most of the ardent pro-lifers back Bush's foreign misadventures, worship the death penalty, have embraced torture, and couldn't give a damn about the 50 million lacking health insurance or the rising poverty rates under Bush. What's the story? What the right will tell you is that abortion is an intrinsic evil, and therefore non-negotiable, whereby the other issues involve prudential judgments around which honest Catholics can differ. And there is indeed a kernal of truth to this. But the right pushes it too far. Far too far. In this context, I refer to the excellent essay by Mark Sargent, entitled "The Coherence and Importance of Pro-Life Progessivism". He writes:

"The antithesis between principle (with respect to abortion) and prudence (with respect to everything else) is dramatically overstated. The question of how to deal legally and politically with the intrinsic evil of abortion is not just a matter of absolute principle. There are at least some prudential issues to be considered by both citizens and lawmakers as to how the moral evil of abortion is to be handled as a matter of law in a pluralistic democracy. The question of whether and how abortion should be criminalized in a society in which a majority of the people believe that it should be permissible in at least some circumstances is a grave one not capable of easy resolution. Equally grave is the more specific and essentially empirical question of whether overturning Roe v. Wade would in fact lead to criminalization of abortion in every state, and whether it would reduce the number of abortions at all. To what extent, furthermore, is a position that concentrates on preventing or limiting abortions of a particular type (such as partial birth abortion), or in as many circumstances as politically or legally possible, more prudent than universal criminalization? Can one not make the prudential determination that the best way to counter the moral evil of abortion is by reducing the number of abortions through transformations of culture and reduction of economic incentives to abort rather than through a legal rule widely perceived as illegitimate or unenforceable? These questions all suggest that the legal status of abortion is not purely a matter of principle, but also one of prudence."
And what of the other issues, the "prudential" issues?:

"Conversely, questions of just war, capital punishment, the amelioration of poverty and other social issues involve the principle of life in such a way that not all disagreements can be dismissed as merely prudential disagreements or arguments about means. Catholic or Christian values with respect to these problems are not infinitely elastic. Clearly, neither the Gospel nor Catholic social teaching provides exact prescriptions for resolving specific problems of tax policy, international trade or labor relations, are certainly the institutional Church defers to the judgment of the laity with respect to those questions. But there is a set of core values rooted in the Gospel that tilts the scales toward a view of these questions that cannot be easily assimilated into the capitalist world view of neo-conservative economic ideology. Indeed, those who would dismiss those aspects of Catholic social teaching that contemplate the possibility of state action for the common good, or to achieve greater solidarity with the poor, or to support subsidiary institutions threatened by unrestrained capitalism, may themselves be inspired more by secular libertarian ideology than the Gospel. Similarly, rejection of the Church's critiques of capital punishment and unjust wars may be more expressive of secular conservative or nationalist ideology than of religious conviction."
I think this gets it exactly right. For many on the right, donning the anti-abortion mantle is a convenient way of embracing a secular ideology that is often incompatible with church teaching. Some will argue that we need to swallow the entire Republican agenda because abortion is so important. But others, I'm sure, are perfectly comfortable with the entire Republican agenda. Just look at the comboxes of any major Catholic blog, and you will see all kinds of support for US militarism (even torture) and a disdain for "liberal" economic and social policies. And if you look carefully at the arguments, you will notice that they are not at all informed by Catholic social doctrine, but by various secular ideologies.

Ultimately, shouldn't the aim of the pro-life movement be to reduce the number of abortions? In that case, you would think they would hail Bill Clinton's remarkable achievements!! For the abortion rate (the number of abortions per 1000 women aged 15-44) achieved its largest decline under his presidency. Using data from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the number of abortions fell from 1.6 million a year in 1990 (stable for the 1980s) to about 1.3 million by the end of the 1990s, leveling off since then. And from a high of around 30 percent in 1980, the abortion rate fell slowly to 25 percent by 1993, and again to almost 20 percent by the end of the 1990s. As Glen Stassen and Gary Krane have noted, two-thirds of women to have abortions cite "inability to afford a child" as the primary reason. So the garment is seamless after all.... social and economic factors matter.

Where does this leave us? Given their weakness and inconsistency on the issue, Democrats should stop ceding this issue to Republicans. They should stop seeing abortion as something good. Nobody is saying they should start throwing women in jail, but they should at least be pressing for an environment under which abortion rates are minimized. Nobody is saying they should push for total criminalization, but they should argue that the best abortion rate is zero. I believe that had John Kerry adopted such a position in 2004, he would have won. The abortion issue is killing the Democrats. Thankfully, many in the party--including Harry Reid and Hillary Clinton-- are beginning to see reason.

As for the pro-life movement, they need to get beyond the single issue of abortion. Strangely, when they do diversify, they pick the issues most aligned with the Republicans: euthanasia and stem cells. Or maybe it's not so strange. While I believe many are genuinely committed to the life of the unborn, I'm sure others are using it for politician gain. As the character of Thomas Becket declares in T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral: "the last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason." This is indeed, the issue.

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