"Personally I am opposed to abortion, but I will not
impose my views on others." This has become the favorite mantra of
some Catholic politicians, but it does not stand up to analysis.
If the statement means anything, it has to mean that abortion is the taking
of a human life, which is the most serious issue government can face.
But those who repeat the mantra do not act as though they believe that.
If a politician truly thinks that abortion is a grave moral evil, but
also truly thinks that he cannot support laws against it, that ought to
be a source of great anguish to him, forcing him to ask himself how the
lives of the unborn can be protected short of legislation. But I know
of no politician who shows such anguish. Most seem to be more passionate
about tax cuts than they are about what they purport to recognize as direct
When this mantra was first formulated some years ago, I thought that those
who repeated it could show their good faith by making passionate efforts
to persuade people that abortion is wrong, using the public forum to change
hearts and minds. But again, I know of no politician who has done so.
The closest such people come to trying to prevent the evil is to urge
more programs to support pregnant women, especially the poor. But there
are already a number of such programs, often run by pro-lifers, and it
is simply not true that women have abortions only because they are poor.
But some Catholic politicians have indeed become emotional about the issue.
If the taking of innocent human life does not arouse their passion, being
told that they ought not to receive Communion does. The grave evil, it
turns out, is not abortion itself but whatever consequences it has for
those who support it. Abortionists are not to be castigated; bishops are.
"Personally opposed" politicians in effect acknowledge that
they are complicit in a grave moral evil and argue that they must remain
so because of the demands of politics, which is as cynical a view of politics
as one can imagine. Bishops are accused of violating the Constitution,
but it is those on the other side who are doing so, denying the Church
the right to determine who is a member in good standing and demanding
that it accommodate itself to the needs of politicians.
Since Senator John Kerry is the likely Democratic nominee for president,
this has been defined as a partisan issue, bishops accused of tilting
towards the Republicans. But this is an odd response. It would seem to
make sense for Democrats to deflect attention away from themselves by
pointing out that there are also Catholic Republicans who are pro-abortion,
notably Governors George Pataki of New York and Arnold Schwarzenneger
of California. Why Democrats went to define this as a partisan issue defies
explanation. (The Republican Party is far more hospitable to pro-abortion
people than the Democrats are to pro-lifers.)
Behind the "personally opposed" mantra is the implication that
this is a matter of religious dogma, some odd Catholic belief which no
one else shares. But the country is almost evenly split on the issue,
and fully two thirds of the citizens oppose partial-birth abortion, which
Senator Kerry and some other Catholics support. Pro-lifers do not ask
people to accept a religious dogma; they ask them simply to look at the
evidence, including photographs of unborn children and indications that
they feel pain.
If the fetus is indeed a human being, the issue is not religious at all
but political in the deepest sense. The undeniable fact is that there
is no possible justification for the law's withholding its protection
from any class of persons. Any politician who truly believes that the
fetus is a person has an obligation to protect it, no matter how many
voters may disagree.
James Hitchcock, professor
of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary
Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. He is the author
of several books, including The Recovery of the Sacred, What is Secular
Humanism?, and Years of Crisis: Collected Essays, 1970-1983.
His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court
is to be published by Princeton University Press.
This article originally appeared on June 27, 2004 on the Women
for Faith & Family website.