Thursday, September 30, 2004

Trying to Clarify the Abortion Issue



This is a risky venture, because feelings run so strong on this issue. I am a pro-life Catholic, and support a Constitutional Amendment protecting the right to life from womb to tomb.

Yet, because I am pro-life, I find myself leaning toward Kerry in the 2004 American presidential elections. I have given this a great deal of thought and prayer, and I am trying to clarify how I have come to see the issue over the last year or so - not to convince others to vote for Kerry - but to encourage Catholics to stop judging one another if we reach different conclusions.

Can a Catholic ever vote for a pro-choice candidate without committing a mortal sin?

There are at least five potential answers to this question:

Answer A: Some Catholics argue that never, under any circumstances, can a Catholic vote for a pro-choice candidate. Catholics who feel this way in the 2004 election could not support either Bush or Kerry, since Bush would permit abortions in cases of rape and incest. Bush has also referred to the unborn as merely "potential human life", supports non-government funded embryonic stem cell research, and has stated that he will not use abortion as a litmus test to appoint Supreme Court Justices. Very few Catholics hold this position, and the Vatican does not insist on this position as the only right answer, though it is certainly a valid choice.

Answer B: Candidate X is pro-choice with no restrictions, and candidate Y is pro-choice with restrictions. Some Catholics argue that if there is no other viable option, a Catholic may vote for candidate Y in good conscience in order to limit the harm done by abortion. Indeed, Catholic supporters of Bush over Kerry are making this argument, and the Holy Father had indicated this is a valid election choice in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae.

Answer C: Candidate X is personally opposed to abortion, but votes pro-choice. This candidate also offers social service proposals that can be empirically demonstrated to reduce the number of abortions more than candidate Y. Yet, candidate Y, is pro-choice with restrictions but opposed to social service spending.

Some Catholics argue that in this circumstance, a Catholic may vote for candidate X instead of Y. Indeed, some Catholic supporters of John Kerry over George W. Bush feel this way since the number of abortions under the Bush Administration have increased compared to the number of abortions under the Clinton Administration.

Mario Cuomo indicated that in a pluralistic democracy where no wide-spread consensus exist regarding the beginning of human life, this is the only valid solution that respects the democratic process while reducing abortions. Cuomo has had the tacit approval of some members of the hierarchy with the caveat that we do not lose sight of the goal of eventually outlawing abortion in time.

Answer D: Candidate X is pro-choice, and candidate Y supports restrictions on abortion. Yet, candidate Y supports policies that violate the dignity of human life in other matters, such as a potentially unjust war, embryonic stem cell research, and the death penalty.

Some Catholics, including myself, argue that any one of these other life issues could potentially outweigh a specific stance on abortion depending on the exact stances taken on each life issue.

For example, an unjust war might outweigh a permissive stance on abortion, since an unjust war uses state authority to mandate death, and involves the entire society in the commission of the act. Permissive abortion laws do not make killing mandatory, and leave the guilt of commission of the act of killing with the individual committing the sin. This position maintains that proportionate reason referred to by Cardinal Ratzinger can exist to vote for a pro-choice candidate.

While the Vatican has not given clear guidance in support of this position, it has also not clearly condemned this position either.

Answer E: Candidate X is pro-choice without restrictions and candidate Y is against all abortions that do not meet the principle of double effect. Clearly, on the abortion issue alone, candidate Y is the superior candidate. On all other life issues, both candidates hold the exact same position so that candidate Y still seems to come out ahead. Yet, candidate Y is widely acknowledged as a lunatic who advocates absurd social, economic and foreign policy positions.

For example, candidate Y may be a member of the Nazi or Communist party, and believes that races and ethnic groups should be separated. In such a case, I do not believe any Catholic bishop or theologian would seriously argue that we are morally obligated to support candidate Y based on the single issue of abortion. It is appropriate - at least sometimes - to simply look at the full range of issues excluding abortion.

I may be overlooking some other options. Let's move on to look at a second question.

Can a Catholic politician ever vote pro-choice?

The technical answer would be no. No Catholic politician in the world can vote to make abortion legal where it is currently illegal.

However, this is not really the situation in the United States of America. Catholic politicians in America are not faced with a decision to make abortion legal. Rather, they are faced with the issue that abortion is already considered a Constitutional right, and they must discern how to best limit the harm done by this law.

There are at least three solutions that present themselves to the Catholic politician:

Solution A:A Catholic politician could support an Amendment to the Constitution protecting the right to life from the moment of conception until natural death. This is a solution I, personally, favor.

The difficulties with this solution are two-fold. First, the Amendment process requires a wide-spread consensus in the general society in order to gain passage, and no such consensus currently exist. Second, even if such an Amendment passed, there remain difficulties with how such a law would be enforced without infringing on just and proper rights of individuals, such as a right to medical privacy.

I am not saying these difficulties are insurmountable (I support this solution). Yet, it would be foolhardy to pretend the difficulties do not exist.

A Catholic politician adhering to this strategy would appear to vote pro-choice if voting against a particular proposed piece of legislation that might be deemed ineffective or unenforceable. For this reason, we cannot always assume a politician who opposes a particular piece of legislation is pro-choice. The Church has clearly stood behind politicians who have taken this approach, and occasionally tried to correct those who falsely accuse these politicians of being pro-choice when they opposed a specific piece of legislation that was deemed ineffective.

Solution B: A Catholic politician holding an office that appoints judges could try to "stack the court" with pro-life judges so that the decision of Roe v. Wade making abortion a Constitutional right might be overturned.

A Catholic politician holding this point of view may believe that a Constitutional Amendment is impractical and that complete criminalization of abortion is impossible to enforce, at least at this time. Yet, such a Catholic politician may believe that if Roe were overturned, enforceable laws requiring less of a consensus than a Constitutional Amendment could be passed that might restrict and prohibit most abortions.

The right to life movement in America has pursued this strategy for decades with little effect. It is important to realize that this approach is incremental over a very long period of time, and no single presidential election will effect the criminalization of abortion by this strategy.

Also, politicians holding this strategy often appear to be inconsistent on the issue - at once claiming human life begins at conception, and simultaneously allowing exceptions to abortion restrictions on occasion in order to get a piece of legislation passed.

Under this strategy, a Catholic politician could appear to be moderately pro-choice, when, in fact, the politician has simply made a practical compromise to do the best he or she can under the circumstances. The Church has been tolerant of this position, and even supportive of politicians who opt for this strategy.

Solution C: A Catholic politician may decide that both solutions A and B are simply impractical at this time. By "impractical", I mean that the politician may be convinced that no matter how worthwhile the goal of making abortion illegal, there simply are not enough pro-life constituents to keep such a law on the books.

Furthermore, this Catholic politician feels that the moral responsibility to represent his or her constituents, who are largely pro-choice, makes it even immoral to waste legislative effort on such impractical solutions.

Such a Catholic politician may decide that the best strategy for reducing abortions in the United States is to address the root cause reasons women choose abortions. This type of Catholic candidate may choose to oppose some or all legislation restricting abortion as a trade-off or compromise with non-Catholics in order to gain support for social service and economic justice issues that might reduce abortions by removing the underlying demand for abortion.

The Church has not been very supportive of Catholic politicians opting for this third strategy. However, I believe it it is not a sin for a Catholic politician to take this position if she or he truly believes that solutions A and B are practically impossible.

The Church teaching outlined in paragraph 2273 of the CCC and repeated in Evangelium Vitae makes it clear that we are to work towards laws that will eventually prohibit abortion. The Church teaching is that natural law, itself, which is accessible to every human being, dictates that if the civil law fails to protect all human life, all human life is in jeopardy. The doctrinal problem with solution C is the abandonment of this ideal.

However, when it comes to the issue of denying a person Communion or excluding a person the person from the Church through an excommunication, I am not sure that the politician or any of this person's Catholic supporters opting for solution C are guilty of formal cooperation with evil in the American context.

It is important to remember that the politician opting for solution C is not voting to make illegal abortions legal. Such a person is not de facto pro-abortion simply because they vote against a restriction on abortion. Indeed, in intent, such a politician may be very much pro-life in the sense of believing that solution C is the only practical way to reduce the number of abortions.

It is not even clear that such a politician is denying the doctrinal principle that all abortion should be ideally made illegal. The politician may hold the ideal, and yet believe that practically, we are decades or centuries away from ever realizing such an ideal given the current social situation.

Like their counterparts who occasionally vote against a particular restriction, this politician may be trying to say that he or she merely believes that laws against abortion will be ineffective, unenforceable, and too subject to change. Such a politician may fear any restrictions on abortion not permitted by Roe will be overtunred in court, and such a politician believes it naive to think the courts will overturn Roe.

Indeed, the politician may even feel that the very desire to have the court overturn a prior decision is itself an undemocratic means of achieving the goal of reducing abortions. In other words, the politician would support solution A over solution B if a pro-life consensus existed. Knowing that no such consensus exists, she or he argues we shouldn't rely on solution B on principle, and therefore are forced into solution C whether we like it or not.

Rather than focusing on restrictions, these politicians have simply decided to focus their effort to reduce abortions practically on eliminating the causes of abortions.

Such a politician is not denying the doctrine that human life begins at conception, nor the doctrine that abortion is ultimately a sin of murder, nor even the doctrine that in an ideal world, abortion would be both undesirable and illegal.

Though I am pro-life myself in the sense of wanting a Constitutional Amendment protecting the right to life from the moment of conception until natural death, I am not at all positive that God frowns on Catholic politicians choosing solution C. Given the current reality, God may see in their hearts that they are truly pro-life, and they are simply being practical. The Gospel, itself, tells us to be gentle as lambs and clever as wolves, and these politicians may be doing just that.

Nor am I at all convinced that the individual Catholic vote is bound only to "Answer A" and "Answer B" outlined above in the section on which candidate the individual Catholic voter can support. The entire issue of how we should vote as Catholics can not be summed up on the single issue of abortion taken by itself.

Am I saying it is impossible to sin by voting pro-choice?

I am not saying this at all. Any Roman Catholic anywhere on earth who believes that human life does not begin at conception is holding an opinion that denies essential infallibly defined doctrines of the Church.

Furthermore, I believe that the Holy Father and the ordinary magisterium are absolutely correct in the doctrinal position that it is intrinsically evil to directly and voluntarily kill an innocent human being. Direct abortion is objectively a grave moral evil, and anyone who knowingly and voluntarily procures a direct abortion is guilty of the mortal sin of murder.

Our laws should ideally protect all human beings, and our voting decisions should be guided by a dominant desire to foster and promote the sanctity of human life. Anyone who intentionally votes specifically to make illegal abortions legal with the sole intention of increasing the availability of abortion is acting in a way that is clearly contrary to Church teaching.

Anyone who supports a politician who would make illegal abortions legal precisely because the candidate holds this position also acts contrary to Church teaching. Anyone who knowingly and deliberately is voting in such a way as to increase the availability or number of abortions is acting contrary to Church teaching and natural law. No Catholic can be pro-abortion.

However, given that in America, abortion is already legal during all of pregnancy, there can be legitimate debate among Catholics about how to best reduce the number or availability of abortions. Laws restricting abortion are not necessarily the only answer or the best answer.

Furthermore, if a Catholic votes for a candidate who is pro-choice for other reasons than the abortion issue, such an electoral decision can be a legitimate moral choice if propotionate reason exists. The only way to know for sure if someone is in sin is to know the person's intentions, as well as the person's vote.

The heading of this post indicates that I am trying to "clarify" the abortion issue, and there will be some readers who feel I have muddied the water and made it impossible for Catholics to make an easy choice. Let me propose that this is exactly what needs to be clarified most in this discussion. There is no easy answer to how we should vote!

While I am passionately pro-life, I am in no rush to deny the orthodoxy or "Catholicity" of those who may be personally opposed to abortion, and simply vote differently than I do. The doctrine of the Church is non-partisan, and this, more than anything, needs to be clarified in this particular election cycle.

Peace and Blessings!

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