Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
October 24th, 2008

Something New in the Abortion Debate

After decades of debate over abortion, something new has occurred this year. Maybe this isn't as polarizing of an issue as we think...


Thomas J. Reese, SJ

Thomas J. Reese, SJ

After decades of debate over abortion, something new has occurred this year.

First, the Democratic Party is now not just using pro-choice language; it is also acknowledging the need to do something to reduce the number of abortions. Democrats, like presidential candidate Barack Obama are now willing to say that abortion is a moral issue—something the pro-choice lobby always opposed. Democrats are now promoting social and educational programs that will reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and help pregnant women have their babies. In other words, after many years of insisting that abortion be legal and safe, the Democrats are finally emphasizing that it should be rare.

This new emphasis by the Democrats will not win over the hard-core pro-lifers, but it will make it easier for those, especially Catholics, who are concerned about abortion and other issues to vote Democratic.

During the last presidential debate, it was fascinating to watch the graph of the views of the CNN group of undecided voters as it soared and stayed positive while Obama said:

“There surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say we should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby.

Those are all things that we put in the Democratic platform for the first time this year, and I think that’s where we can find some common ground, because nobody’s pro-abortion. I think it’s always a tragic situation.”

Elsewhere, Obama said that he would support legal restrictions on third-trimester abortions, as long as there is an exception for the health of the mother.

The second change in the debate this year is within the pro-life community. The traditional pro-life strategy has been to try to make abortion illegal. This has meant supporting Republican candidates, even though Republicans have never delivered on their promises even when they controlled both houses of Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court.

A small group of Catholic pro-lifers, exemplified by Douglas Kmiec and Nicholas Cafardi, has concluded that criminalization is a failed strategy. Overturning Roe v. Wade will simply return the issue to the states, where most states will keep it legal; and where it is illegal, women will simply drive to a neighboring state. These pro-lifers argue that abortion will not be criminalized in the foreseeable future and that it is time for pro-lifers to be more pragmatic and support candidates who will actually reduce the number of abortions through social programs that help women choose life when they get pregnant.

Unlike some Catholics, these pro-lifers are not saying that abortion is just one issue among many with which they are equally concerned. They are saying that the most successful strategy to actually reduce the number of abortions is to vote for Democratic candidates. The “traditional” or “ideological” pro-lifers are outraged at what they see as a betrayal by these “pragmatic” or “wishy-washy” pro-lifers (pick your own adjectives). The pragmatists are currently a small minority in the pro-life leadership, but their arguments resonate with the public, which does not like abortion but is reluctant to put women and doctors in jail.

Conservative Catholic groups are pushing abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage as the only issues of concern to Catholics. Most fail to note that there is no difference between the positions of McCain and Obama on stem cell research and gay marriage.

It is noteworthy the U.S. Catholic bishops are the only group that supports both pro-life strategies—criminalization of abortion and social programs to help pregnant women, their children and their families. This is why they are unhappy with both parties.

The bishops support constitutional protection for the unborn, but they also say, “We also promote a culture of life by supporting laws and programs that encourage childbirth and adoption over abortion and by addressing poverty, providing health care, and offering other assistance to pregnant women, children, and families.” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, November 2007, #65).

But the bishops cannot get either party to adopt both strategies. The Democrats are pro-choice, and the Republicans oppose programs “addressing poverty, providing health care, and offering other assistance to pregnant women, children, and families.”

At the same time, the bishops affirmed that “As Catholics we are not single-issue voters” (#42) and “Church’s leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or telling people how to vote” (#15).

A few maverick bishops, like Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver and Bishop Joseph Martino of Scranton, are going beyond where the rest of the bishops want to be and for all practical purposes are making abortion the single issue for Catholic voters and even denying Communion to vice presidential candidate Joe Biden. These maverick bishops are trying to resurrect the 2004 media strategy they used so effectively against John Kerry. Once again, they are a small minority among bishops since there are over 180 other dioceses where Biden is welcomed to go to Communion.

One wonders why these maverick bishops don’t just endorse their favorite candidates like some Protestant ministers (e.g., Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rev. Pat Robertson) do. It would not be a violation of the constitution or tax laws for them to endorse a candidate, as long as they did it as private citizens and did not use church facilities or funds.” Perhaps they are afraid to break ranks so completely from the other bishops and from their own people, who don’t like their clergy endorsing candidates.

Although Catholic politicians are still struggling to talk about abortion, some groups like “Catholic Democrats” is getting more sophisticated.

In a Q&A on Catholics and abortion, catholicdemocrats.org and catholicsforobama.org lay out in detail why a Catholic not only can but should vote for Senator Obama. They argue that the choice is between Republican rhetoric and Democratic results.

They try to avoid getting into theological debates with the bishops, which is what got Nancy Pelosi and others in trouble. Rather they argue:

It is the role of politicians to decide what is politically possible and how to implement moral principles in the real world. In other words, while Catholic politicians must agree with bishops that something must be done about abortions, bishops have no special expertise in deciding what is the best political strategy for reducing the number of abortions. This is a prudential decision about which men and women of good will can disagree. Catholic Democrats believe that enacting social and educational programs to prevent unintended pregnancies and to help pregnant women have their children is a more successful strategy than attempting to criminalize abortion.

The site catholicsforobama.org also presents “The Catholic Case for Obama,” by its president, Patrick Whelan, a pediatrician in Boston.

With the economy overshadowing abortion in the minds of most voters, these new arguments over abortion may have only limited impact in this year’s election. But they do chart the way for the Democrats to capture the middle in the abortion debate in future elections, especially if they fulfill their promises and actually do support programs to reduce the number of abortions and get results. If the Democrats do not deliver, the pragmatic pro-lifers will be left out on a limb.

View another Perspective “For Your Consideration

This article originally appeared on the Washington Post’s blogOn Faith.” It is reprinted with their permission.

The Author : Thomas J. Reese, SJ
Thomas J. Reese, SJ is frequently quoted as an expert on Catholic issues. He is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. He's the former editor of the Catholic weekly magazine "America" as well as the author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church. Besides his theological training as a Jesuit priest, he has a doctorate in political science from the University of California Berkeley. He once worked as a lobbyist for tax reform.
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  • yes

    Why does Obama want to reduce abortions if he doesn’t think there is anything wrong with them?
    Isn’t wanting to reduce something implying there is something wrong with it??

  • Gideon

    Yeah, David, praying will change things. That’s a much more sensible act than actually voting.

  • David

    This is horrible. I can’t believe a representative of the church can say such things. No wonder so many Catholics voted for Obama. I am scared for the young generation (which is me). How can we move forward when there is false teaching in the Church. I pray things will get better.

  • Kate

    I have heard this argument for “Catholics for Obama” in several places, and would ALMOST agree with it except for his promise to sign the Freedom of Choice Act as his first act as president.

    I don’t see how FOCA in any way promotes the lessening of abortion, in fact from what I understand it would do away with any and all legislation limiting abortion in any way. Third trimester, partial birth, even infanticide are what it would involve. No parental consent, no need for pre-abortion couceling or a waiting period. Just bam, abortion on the spot.

    If Obama REALLY wants to start lessening the number of abortions, I think signing the FOCA is the first sign that he’s going about it the wrong way.

    I sincerely hope that his intended programs to support the mothers, promote adoption and teach abstinence and less “cavalier activity” really do help to limit the “need” for abortion. But I just can’t get over his resolution to pass FOCA. I wish that Fr. Reese would address this very important part of the conundrum.

    I do believe that the best way to defeat abortion (which is ALWAYS an absolute moral evil) is not by insisting that it end here and now, but by taking small steps in the right direction.. promoting fidelity, chastity, responsibility, adoption, financial, spirtitual and emotional support for the mothers, etc. The taking of an innocent life is never morally acceptable, no matter the circumstances. The fact that it is absolutely wrong does not EVER make it easy.. I have never been in a situation where I have had to consider abortion, and I cannot in particular imagine the trauma of rape or incest.. but with a lot of help and prayer maybe even these cases can be “solved” with grace, hope and peace.

    May God bless President-Elect Obama, may He change many hearts and minds so that His will may be done and we can see at least the beginning of an end to this tragedy we know as abortion. God bless the USA!

  • Don

    The right to life, from conception to natural death, is preeminent among all rights given to us by God. And a country can secure no right until the right to life is protected.

  • Lisa

    Shame on you Father Reese, and on The Busted Halo Show, The Catholic Channel and The Archdiocese of NY for allowing this ‘perspective’ to be presented as a valid Catholic teaching. You call Arcbishop Cahput a ‘maverick’? I call him a strong and faithful shepherd, the question is why aren’t you? May God have mercy on us all.

  • Nathan

    The one thing that I wonder when people vote on abortion issues is if they actually care what will happen to the kids when they get older. Sure…..we all want to protect innocent children, but how many people posting right now would step up and take a foster child? Probably not many.
    I work in a middle school in a small town in Ohio, and everyday I see “emotionally disturbed” (as they have been labeled) children out of control in the hallways. Some of these kids come from families most of you can’t imagine. One little boy has 6 brothers and sisters with 4 different fathers? The catch…..the fathers were brothers!!! That’s right…..he has brothers and sisters that are also cousins. Things like this are common place in areas all over the country.
    Would these children have been better off if they had been aborted? I’m won’t speculate. But I will say that no one is teaching birth control in these areas at all.
    Things have to be done in this country to understand that not everyone is middle class and some people can’t understand single sided thinking. Try teaching natural family planning to a women that sleeps with 3 different men a week for drugs…..If anyone had the solution to these problems, the world would be a better place.
    But for now……when you rant about the evils of using birth control, and the evils of abortion, think about what happens to that fetus when it turns 18 and is thrown out on the street. The hardships that child will face.
    And maybe, just maybe I pray that some of you will do the right that and remember those foster children that need homes.

  • Patrick Fox

    Being pro life for me means respecting the very dignity of life at all moments. That moral principle is one I own and do my very best to live as consistnetly as I am able. That said the political path to change is not won by moral rectitiude alone. I beleive that working for change means being a part of the dialogue and all or nothing positions are hardly part of a dialogue, mores the pity they remain the monologue of the last four decades and the value of human life has suffered. I am more convinced that we must enter the political side of this as contributors to change, we can work to limit, define, and define positions that are causal to incremental change, real change both in external law and in the actions of people. We have spent the best part of 40 years trying to undo one law. I wonder what it might look like is we had spent all that effort on smaller changes that impact real movement and cause indidviuals to rethink who they are, what they believe and how they act. We might find if we devoted energy to that we would profoundly increase the real value of life at every moment. I pray we find a path to grow a vision of life that moves us from a culture of death to a culture of life based on the only way we know that we grow morally and that is in steps and phases not in all or nothing rhetoric that sounds holistic but has for forty years been clanging symbols.

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