History will judge our society’s support of abortion in much the same way we view earlier generations’ support of torture and slavery.” These words appeared Monday in an essay published in–are you sitting down?–the New York Times.
You can get back up. There is an explanation. The point of the piece was to explain to Catholic citizens why they can in good conscience–indeed, why they should–vote for John Kerry.
But, you may be asking, isn’t John Kerry in favor of legal abortion? Indeed, doesn’t he support the public funding of abortions? Hasn’t he consistently voted against efforts to prohibit partial-birth abortions? Didn’t he even vote against the Unborn Victims of Violence Act that would have held murderers of pregnant women and their unborn children liable for both deaths?
Doesn’t John Kerry vigorously support embryo destruction for biomedical research? Doesn’t he condemn those who oppose this killing for putting “right-wing ideology” ahead of curing people? Indeed, going beyond the killing of embryos currently stored in assisted-reproduction clinics, hasn’t Kerry proposed to create, at public expense, massive numbers of human embryos by cloning in order to use them as disposable research material?
Hasn’t John Kerry voted against every effort to place meaningful restrictions on the practice of abortion or embryo-destructive research? And hasn’t he attempted to implicate Catholics and other pro-life citizens in the slavery-like evil of these practices by paying for them with taxpayer dollars?
By what logic, then, does the author of the New York Times essay conclude that Catholics should vote for the United States Senate’s most faithful supporter of what he says ought to be regarded, and some day will be regarded, as an injustice on a par with the evils of torture and slavery?
Dean Roche opens his case for Kerry by saying that while President Bush and the Republicans have the superior position on abortion and embryonic-stem-cell research, “the Democrats are close to the Catholic position on the death penalty, universal health care, and environmental protection.”
This argument doesn’t work. Neither candidate would abolish the death penalty, though Kerry would invoke it in fewer cases than Bush. But even assuming, as we are willing to do, that Catholics should oppose the death penalty on the basis of the Pope’s recent development of the Church’s historical teaching, no one can say that this teaching has the same status or urgency as the Church’s teaching against the direct killing of the innocent, whether in abortion, embryo-destructive research, euthanasia, or the deliberate targeting of civilians in warfare. Nor is the degree of injustice the same or even close to the same. Nor is the scale of the wrong anything approaching 1.3 million deaths per year by abortion plus thousands more, if Kerry gets his way, in embryo-destructive research.
On questions of universal health care and environmental protection, the Church does not presume to bind its members to specific policies as matters of strict justice. True, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has developed policy proposals on health care, environmental protection, agricultural policy, immigration, tax policy, the minimum wage, and a host of other issues; but the bishops fully acknowledge that reasonable people of goodwill–including faithful Catholics–may legitimately reject these proposals in favor of alternatives. Many bishops themselves reject them. No Catholic is bound by them in the way that every Catholic is bound to oppose policies that license the injustice of deliberately taking innocent human life.
Roche’s next move concerns the war in Iraq. He suggests, without ever quite saying so, that President Bush’s decision to use military force to remove Saddam Hussein violates “the Catholic doctrine of ‘just war.’” It is true that the Pope opposed the use of force. But he did not declare the war to be unjust; nor did he forbid Catholics from supporting it or Catholic soldiers from fighting in it. He respected the teaching of the Catechism and the entire tradition of Catholic thought about just war: It is up to the leaders of nations, and not to Church officials, to make the crucial prudential judgments as to whether a threat is sufficient to warrant the use of military force, and whether the legitimate alternatives to force are exhausted or will prove unavailing. Of course, Catholics needn’t think that President Bush made all the right prudential judgments, nor need they agree with the president’s strategic conduct of the war. But no one can legitimately claim a moral equivalence between Bush’s decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein and Kerry’s efforts to preserve, pay for, and even extend the practice of killing innocent human beings in utero and in vitro.
The truth is that Clinton and the Democrats cannot fairly be credited for the decline in the abortion rate in the 1990s. All that Clinton can legitimately claim on this score is that he generated a voter backlash resulting in a Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. Thus, he unwittingly paved the way for actions that have indeed had a positive effect on both the rate of abortions and our national debate. Above all, by raising the issue of partial-birth abortion and enacting a ban on this horrific practice (a ban twice vetoed by Clinton himself–a veto upheld only because of near Democratic unanimity in its support in the Senate) the Republicans placed the focus on the victim of abortion, and awakened the conscience of many Americans to the homicidal nature of the practice.
At the very same time, technological developments–above all prenatal sonography–vividly revealed to Americans, including expecting parents and grandparents, the beautiful and undeniably human life of the child in the womb. Clinton didn’t invent the sonogram, nor did he join the pro-life effort to save babies by distributing sonographic equipment as widely as possible.
Clinton’s efforts on abortion were in an entirely different direction. He supported a so called Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) that would have overturned even modest state restrictions on abortion, and proposed federal taxpayer funding of abortions via his wife’s planned nationalization of the health-care system.
But would he have said the same thing about efforts to ban slavery? Would he have lectured those who sought to ban it about “their abstract desire for moral rectitude”? Would he have proposed economic policies to reduce the market demand for slaves, as some opponents of abolition suggested, rather than supporting the party that promised to extend to all human beings–regardless of race–the equal protection of the law? Somehow we doubt that he would have regarded the cause of abolition as a mere “abstract desire for moral rectitude.”
In answering the question about abortion in the second presidential debate, John Kerry claimed to “respect” the views of pro-life citizens. He took the occasion to call attention to the fact that he himself is a Catholic and once served as an altar boy. But Catholic citizens should remember this: No one in American public life has a worse record on abortion and embryo-destruction than John Kerry. No one–not even Hillary Clinton–is to his left on these issues. When it comes to Supreme Court appointments, Kerry has made it clear that no Catholic lawyer–however superbly qualified–who believes what the Church teaches about the sanctity of human life need apply. They are ineligible. And this same John Kerry is proposing to expand embryo killing far beyond abortion by funding embryo-destructive research, and even the creation of embryos by cloning for experimentation in which they are subsequently killed.
Roche is right that abortion is in our day what slavery was in Lincoln’s. To vote for John Kerry in 2004 would be far worse, however, than to have voted against Lincoln and for his Democratic opponent in 1860. Stephen Douglas at least supported allowing states that opposed slavery to ban it. And he did not favor federal funding or subsidies for slavery. John Kerry takes the opposite view on both points when it comes to abortion. On the great evil of his own day, Senator Douglas was merely John Kerry-lite.
–Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. Gerard V. Bradley is professor of law at Notre Dame and recently served as president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.