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, and 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 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.