Certainly one of the issues of the upcoming presidential election is the Church’s commitment to life, specifically the issue of abortion. The Church’s teaching on abortion is expressed quite clearly in Paragraphs 2270-2275 of the Catechism, though I would note that time did not allow the editors to treat of a number of complexities within those paragraphs. Church practice of long-standing—specifically case-by-case advice to doctors, priests, and parents—has been marked by empathy in medical emergencies where an invasive cancer has necessitated the removal of organs from the mother that causes the death of the embryo. The intent of Church teaching is the protection of unborn life from the routine use of abortion for reasons of inconvenience, harvesting of organs, or failed contraception.
There is one segment of the Catechism that deserves special attention in our context. Para. 2273b states:
"The moment a positive [civil] law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined. As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights."81
The Church here is stating a principle of application to civil governments, stating that in the natural order of things there is a significant connection between legitimacy of a government and its active judicial commitment in protecting life, to the point of applying penal sanctions for every violation of a child’s life. Here is where we run into the dilemma of the practice of religion in democratic societies, an issue we discussed last week in the context of the American Jesuit scholar John Courtney Murray and the Vatican II teaching on the freedom of conscience. It is hard to live and engage in the marketplace of ideas from a position of religious belief when the society at large holds a variety of positions based upon other philosophies, religious traditions, or sheer disinterest and moral apathy.
It is hard for me to see how Catholicism alone would ever bring an end to abortions in the United States by itself. While the Church has allies in the Evangelical community, both partners suffer from declining attendance and influence. Given the daily barrage of polls and statistics (and I live in a swing state!) I have to confess I don’t have the precision here that I would like. What I do know is that Catholics themselves tend to poll about 50/50 in national surveys over legal abortion, and have done so for many years. One can easily see that the Church’s pro-life efforts would appear a bit hollow to the national make-up, and that some church leaders wish to remove abortion by government fiat what they have been unsuccessful to do so by other means within the Church.
In my heart of hearts, I believe that American Catholics—at least those who reflect upon such moral matters—deeply regret the large numbers of abortions performed in this country. Despite what the polls indicate, I would be willing to bet that of those Catholics who support the right to choose, very few would actively contemplate obtaining one. So the question must be raised—if, as I suggest, many Catholics support the rights of others to obtain an abortion, what exactly is the thinking of this segment of Catholics?
The answer, or more accurately answers, are complex, but it might be useful to remember that the Roe vs. Wade decision, based upon a woman’s right to privacy in U.S. civil law, dates back to 1973, when the “women’s liberation” movement was in full force but had very little to show for its troubles. There was no Title IX, few women in federal office, inequality in pay, no widespread supports such as maternity leave or accessible child care. Domestic violence and date rape were prevalent but under the radar. [As an aside, Catholic University had one-woman student in its school of Canon Law, as I recall.] It is something of a sad coincidence of history that the first “victory” of the women’s movement had to be Roe v. Wade, a signal moment that has established itself into nearly a half-century of enculturation as a basic right.
Consider, for a moment, who differently the last 43 years might have looked if the Supreme Court in 1973 had ruled in favor of equal pay for equal work, instead of the privacy ruling. We might look back upon that decision as a “Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education,” moment, the famous Court decision that put to rest—not without struggle—the injustice of the separate but equal principle.
This is a factor in the present atmosphere that we forget—legal accessibility to an abortion has now reached the Bill of Rights status in the United States. To oppose abortion in the public forum takes on the shape of revoking a hard-fought victory, like the right to vote, and there is the added dimension that the constituency most affected is the minority that is in fact not a minority, women. My sense is that women continue to feel beleaguered, and with good reason. The spectacle this weekend in the presidential election has hardly made any woman feel safer, and if anything, perhaps less inclined to trust men—including bishops—with any significant portion of their personhood.
I have left questions hanging, and I do have at least some ideas about future ways to protect the unborn. Tomorrow, Morality Monday, I will continue the discussion.