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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  • N

    Wake up and smell reality, people. Abortion is not going away. You might as well spend your time and energy helping to create prosocial movements that promote education and care rather than wasting your time arguing for a cause that will never be recognized.

  • Steve

    Is it any wonder why the majority of the Society of Jesus lives on the edge when it comes to adhering to the teachings of the magisterium ? As a graduate of Fordham, in the spirit of “academic freedom” denial of basic truths was commonplace…………..time will tell Padre

  • greg

    Anne—I’m glad you posted just so I can read what the other side is thinking; and please don’t tell me you are pro-life. You are an idealist who cannot see murder when it right in front of you and instead looks for ‘life-affirming behavior across the board, across all spectra of humankind’. Where I grew up we call that bunk. Greed, death penalty, war, abuse, unethical behavior, infliction of emotional hart—yeah all bad, however non rise to the level of intentional killing of a human life promoted as a ‘good’ for women in need. Obama does not offer any help in fact he hinders us in our fight against the force of darkness. You may get less greed the next 4 years via socialism however it will be at the expense of countless lives murdered in and immediately out of the womb. Please get your focus back on point.

  • Gideon

    Such fear mongering.

  • Anne

    Not so easily confused as those who who do not see the Party of Death already in office.

  • Jean-Pierre Chacon

    Dear Anne:

    Nothing has been done? Where have you been? We got a partial birth abortion bill passed after Clinton vetoed it two or three times (can’t remember how many). We also got two more folks on the Supreme Court who are strict constructionists – this makes 4. We need one more. The next president will nominate at least 1, if not 2 in their first term. This could be the difference in overturning Roe as most decisions are now 5-4 in the liberal direction. If it goes the other way, the effect will last 30 years.

    It amazes me how our own people don’t know their own government. They say that the Republicans have been in charge for the last 8 years and haven’t been able to do anything. Unless you have a majority of 60 in the Senate, it doesn’t matter if you hold both houses of Congress and the Presidency. One Senator can prevent the vote on a judge or any other piece of legislation. It takes 60 to overcome this filibuster.

    Because of the wishy-washy Catholics we may get 60 in the Senate, except it’ll be the Party of Death. Then watch out – abortion on demand, embryonic stem cell research, right to die for the elderly, cloning, gay marriage and on and on. There will be no one to blame but us Catholics. We hold the power and we will be answerable to God.

    The latest comment from Obama on gay marriage does not match his rhetoric that he is against it. Look up what he said about the California marriage initiative over the weekend. WAKE UP! The Dems know they need your vote and they’ll say whatever they need to say in order to confuse you.

  • Anne

    I am continually amazed at the view that the only solution to abortion is to make it illegal right this second, right now. I can only assume those that espouse this monocular view are not serious about a solution at all. And to continue to support politicians who speak the pro-life words we want to hear, but whose actions in every single other realm of real ‘life support’ betray them is not only ineffective but absurd. We have heard this drum beat for so long, with no change and no results. Roe stands. And we have rampant greed, little regard for the care and protection of children, young people dying in war, death penalty in most states. This is what we want? This is the goal? We need life-affirming behavior across the board, across all spectra of humankind. The time is now for new strategy. Those who really, actually value life in all it’s forms need to ask themselves how really to accomplish this work.

  • J. Vedra

    While I agree with Fr. Reese’s statement, that more needs to be done to help the situations of women to avoid abortions altogether. Voting for Obama will do anything but that. He is definitely not the pro-life solution. Obama, in a recorded statement (you could look for the audio on the internet) actually if his daughters ever became pregnant he wouldn’t want them PUNISHED with a MISTAKE. I never knew human life was a punishment and/or mistake.
    But thats how Obama thinks and thats how he has voted in the past….Does anyone know if he ever changed the situation for women in his state so that abortion rates go down? If I had to guess I would probably say no.
    The man’s past speaks for itself.

  • Anne


    I question where the author got his facts on Obama’s pro-life views. He has one of the most pro-choice voting records. I don’t know what issue is more grave than abortion.

  • David

    It is unfortunate that a Jesuit ‚Äì an order with such a long and distinguished tradition of intellectual rigor ‚Äì could proffer such illogical bunk in building a case supporting Sen. Obama as the candidate with the better overall strategy for effecting real change on the abortion front. I agree that we must do a better job at alleviating the social conditions (poverty, etc) that may lead women in desperate situations to consider abortion. But what you suggest is akin to saying ‚ÄúLet‚Äôs not criminalize homicide. Let‚Äôs work harder to make it rare.‚Äù According to your faulty reasoning, recognizing ‚Äì as a nation ‚Äì a crime as a crime is divisive and counterproductive. Catholics have generally embraced a ‚Äòboth/and‚Äô philosophy rather than a narrow ‚Äòeither/or‚Äô mindset. Why can‚Äôt we call the taking of innocent human life at any stage ‚Äúmurder‚Äù ‚Äì by definition a criminal act ‚Äì while AT THE SAME TIME work to find compassionate means to provide better healthcare and educational opportunities for women and better assistance and support for families that find themselves in dire straits. As for your suggestion that, while bishops can be a moral voice in the ongoing abortion debate, they should leave it up to politicians to figure things out amongst themselves — would you have felt the same way about the Civil Rights Movement? Would you have left the fate of millions of African-Americans up to the Jim Crow politicians ‚Äúto decide what is politically possible and how to implement moral principles in the real world.‚Äù (As opposed to what, the un-real, idealized fantasy world the Church inhabits?) Or would you have said that religious leaders, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, had the sacred duty to use every legitimate and ecclesiastically appropriate means to urge politicians to change immoral laws? While I do agree that priests should operate within their proper sphere of activity ‚Äì that of pastors not politicians — I don‚Äôt hear much complaining from our liberal brethren when the church ‚Äì rightfully and admirably so ‚Äì issues strong statements on war or immigration reform and uses its considerable influence through various diplomatic channels to intervene in the ‚Äúreal world.‚Äù

  • Kevin

    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.

    Ah hello Father—please wake up. I respect you as a priest but come on Father—claiming ignorance is no defense. Please read Justice Breyer’s Supreme Court ruling in Carhart, tie it into Obama’s support for no restrictions on any abortion procedure including infanticide and then tell me again your personal views. I am sorry to say a majority of Catholic leaders are leading folks in the wrong direction—or maybe not if your unstated intention is to have an awake Catholic flee with fear to Jesus as His Church in America is ‘confused’. Stick to tax reform Father.

  • Sean Dalton

    Obama does not support the Hyde Amendment, has promised Planned Parenthood he would sign the Freedom of Choice Act, not to mention those he would appoint to the Supreme Court. In light of this, it is appalling that Fr Reese would call Archbishop Chaput and Bishop Martino “mavericks” and accuse them of employing a media strategy.

  • D. J. Cook

    I am a traditional Catholic. One who must follow the conscience God gave man. This is Baltimore Catechism (pg 5. para 3.(b)) basic: “God “gave man an intellect and a will” .

    First. A true Catholic knows when he violates God’s law and should refrain from Holy Communion. The Bishops get involved when politicians are in their effort to get elected ‚Äúpreach‚Äù and promote a false Catholic doctrine (See; Kerry, Biden and Pelosi) and truly undermine the Churches basic teachings. It is a Bishop’s responsibility to defend the faith. In fact, through the Sacrament of Confirmation, we are enabled to profess our faith as strong and perfect Christians and soldiers of Jesus Christ. Thus each individual Catholic is responsible to defend the Catholic faith and the most innocent of humans; a baby in the womb.

    Today we have Boomer Catholics and ‚ÄúBoomer” priests it appears, who are not responsible for anything. Thus ‚ÄúCatholics‚Äù promote a candidate who: caters to the poor and lower income people, this is good; this same candidate actively promotes and supports unlimited abortion and infanticide, this is bad. This ‚ÄúCatholic‚Äù vote for such a candidate is direct advocacy and support for the destruction of a baby! All other issue are mute.

    In the 1930’s in Europe we had an individual who in response to a world depression created jobs and helped the poor he even made the trains run on time! This was good. His program also included imprisonment and eventual murder of the social misfits, the homosexuals, the gypsies, the handicapped, the Jews and Catholic and Protestant objectors to his “wonderful” program, this was bad. Todays Boomer Catholic “logic” would have and in some cases maybe this flawed “logic” did promote and support Hitler and the Nazi party in its day.

    I was taught well at Bishop Gorman High School in 1954-55 by Father Teed CSV that the end does not justify the means nor does the means justify the end. A simple and very basic Roman Catholic teaching. Thus the Catholic voting for an abortion program, to insure that the poor and lower income people, “spread the wealth- income redistribution” are supported is absolutely wrong. The end voting to support the poor and lower income people does not justify the means which is the willful action of voting for and actively supporting the abortion program. Using this simple but profound concept, end vs means ,works in all aspects of one’s life and it certainly applies here.

    The Catholics who are proponents of justifying their support of a pro-abortion candidate and political party use abstract strained “logic” (as shown in Father Reeses’ article) to support their views. They try to weave war, legal executions and the need for social welfare into their false arguments to justify a vote for abortion. Forgotten in all of this Boomer “logic” is the victim.



    Note: The Jesuits introduced Liberation Theology in to Latin America, a Marxist method of governing. If the election goes wrong next Tuesday we might see it here first hand. Abortion being the Holy Sacrament of the American Democrat left will advocate, promote and fund the intrinsic evil abortion without limits. And traditional marriage will be made as valid as a Kerry Purple Heart. But “the trains will run on time.” This is a single issue? Yes!

    Hope I am wrong.

  • Greg

    Fr. Reese,
    Why is it that we fight abortion? Why do we pray rosaries, offer up devotions, and do silent protests outside planned parenthood? Why i ask you? Because Fr., there is an OBJECTIVE truth in this world. And it is found in the trinity, the word, and the church. Each one of them tells us that abortion is wrong. The trinity says “you shalt not kill”. The church opposes it. And heres a sweet bible verse for you:

    “Parents are not to be put to death for crimes committed by their children, and children are not to be put to death for crimes committed by their parents; a person is to be put to death only for a crime he himself has committed” Duet 24:16

    I think that is self-explanatory.

    While i do agree with you and mr obama that we need to reduce the amount of abortions, and i pray that that policy will work because as we move towards election it is more apparant that it will be senator obama will be our next president, I disagree that this policy is a complete solution to the modern day genocide we fight against.

    The abortion issue is a question of what is right and what is wrong. There is no “common ground”. Revelation 3:15-16 “I know your works; I know that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” Father, please get out of the middle of the road, or you will get run over. It breaks my heart that a person of your religious status would go with the flow on this one, instead of being the fish that swims against the current. Come over to the right side Fr. (no political pun intended). Come over to the side of the church, the word, and the trinity.

    I will be praying for you.

  • Joe

    Why sis Fr. Reese leave Rome ( The Vatican ) when Pope Benedict xvi was installed ? Isthere any other reason beyond not being on the “same page” as the Pope ?

  • Jason

    I still find it fascinating that it’s still so hard for some to follow coherent moral principles. The problem here is not abortion, or stem cell research, or euthanasia. The problem here is some still don’t understand the dignity of the human person, the principle upon which everything else is founded. If you understand that you will very quickly understand why what Reese insinuates to is way off the radar. Maybe if we all read a little more of John Pall II some would think a little more clearly. If both the Republican and Democratic candidates don’t seem to want to respect or promote the dignity of the human person, something given to us by God, should we vote for them? I think the answer is pretty clear and commonsensical. And for those who seem to think there are no other candidates out there simply or who would be better morally speaking, well, I invite you to do your homework and spend maybe a little less time in front of the brain-sucker (i.e. T.V.).

  • Jean-Pierre Chacon

    Father Reese: When you were writing the column did you ask yourself why the Dems changed their platform? Is it because they had a change of heart? Did you see anything in action that led you to believe differently?

    “…the Republicans oppose programs ‚Äúaddressing poverty, providing health care, and offering other assistance to pregnant women, children, and families.‚Äù Just this one sentence alone reveals your underlying bias. Are you serious? They oppose Dem programs for addressing these issues not the issues themselves. WOW.

    Right on Tony! Exactly my sentiments and thoughts. Obama is the most radical person, with regard to abortion and a whole bunch of other issues, ever to run for president. His statement that the first thing he would do would be to pass the Freedom of Choice Act is the giant Pink Donkey in the room.

    Johanna: What is wrong with making abortion illegal??? That won’t stop the number of abortions? Who says? Any way, it should be illegal because it is evil PERIOD. Making murder illegal doesn’t seem to stop people from killing each other. But it is illegal because murder is evil. Get it!?

    Mexico City Policy? Exporting tax dollars because using them here against our will for abortion is not enough? We have to make it easier for other countries to kill babies too? Any elitist or racist notions behind wanting to pay for abortions in poor and third world countries? This must be one of the “programs addressing poverty, providing health care, and offering other assistance to pregnant women, children, and families” that Father Reese was referring to in the article.

    No matter how many times the wishy-washy clergy and laity say it or how big or loud the groups get, the Truth does not change. It is the same yesterday, today and forever.

    God Bless.

  • Johanna

    Thank you Fr. Reese for your perspective on this issue – it’s what I’ve believed for a very long time! As I’m fond of saying, do we want to make abortion simply illegal (which will likely not reduce the rate) or obsolete, by fixing the broken systems that make many women choose abortion? I believe the latter does more to reduce the number of abortions.

    In reply to Tony and the Mexico City policy – Mexico City denied funds to programs that provided a wide range of health care for women in the developing world if they so much as mentioned abortion as an option in countries where it was legal. I believe the Mexico City policy did more harm than good, and should be re-repealed.

  • MEH

    I am a registered democrat but by no means vote only democrat.
    I do think that we need to look at all the issues but since this article is mostly about abortion, that is what I am going to address.
    I think that Barak Obama says a lot of things that sound really great for us pro-lifers but his voting record and his comments to the pro-choice organizations tell another story.
    I don’t think he is a bad candidate by any means but I think we need to be truthful in our assessment of him on this issue.

  • Tony

    Though I would be happy to be proven wrong if Sen. Obama wins the election, I think Fr. Reese is fooling himself by thinking that a President Obama will be good for the pro-life movement. The official Democratic platform actually removed the word “rare” from their old “abortion should be safe, legal and rare” mantra. Sen. Obama’s support for the Freedom of Choice Act – an Act he said he would sign into law if elected President – would remove the current restrictions many states have on abortion and possibly remove conscience clauses for doctors who don’t want to perform abortions. The statement that the Democrats want to offer pre-natal help to women is positive but it doesn’t outweigh the good that will be undone if the Freedom of Choice Act becomes law. Frankly, I resent Fr. Reese’s suggestion that only Catholics who support Obama are “pragmatists.” I’m judging the man based on his past record and what he has said regarding abortion, not on the rhetorical bipartisanship he’s using in order to win the election. If people are uncomfortable voting for McCain for various reasons, I accept that. I even accept voting for a 3rd party or doing a write-in vote. But saying that a President Obama would be good for the pro-life movement is a view that’s not grounded in reality. Take a look at this excerpt from Amy Welborn’s blog for a little bit of history:

    Take January 23, 1993. I remember that. Okay, so I didn’t remember the date until I looked it up, but I did remember it was the Saturday after Clinton’s first inauguration. And I was attending a workshop for catechists. In attendance at the workshop was an older religious sister. At one point, we were sitting next to each other and the new administration in Washington came up.

    The sisters was dismayed. “Did you hear what President Clinton did?”

    I nodded.

    (If by chance, you have forgotten: Jan. 22: President Clinton reverses years of pro-life progress by issuing five executive orders reversing Title 10 regulations banning abortion referral by federal employees, repealing the Mexico City Policy restricting federal funding of international organizations that work to reverse countries’ abortion laws, negating the ban on funding for fetal tissue transplants, ordering military hospitals to perform abortions, and asking the FDA to “review” the import ban on RU 486.”)

    Yes, I’d heard about that.

    “I just can’t believe he did that,” Sister continued. “I don’t understand why he would do those things. I supported him.”

    I was surprised, but not really. I tried to point out to Sister that President Clinton had run on an abortion rights platform supported in word and funds by abortion-rights groups, and reversal of these policies was a stated and clear goal of these groups.

    She just shook her head again. “I still can’t believe it.”

    And we gathered up our things and moved on to the next workshop.

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