As the nation prepares for the 38th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a bill has been introduced in Congress that has a chance to really move the nation forward on the issue of abortion, which we are so often told is intractable. Should Congress take up the challenge and pass the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act,” it could be the beginning of real, bipartisan progress based on the moral compass of the vast majority of Americans.
The introduction of this bill coincides with two other anniversaries: the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s inauguration (January 20) and the 100th anniversary of President Reagan’s birth (February 6). As they prepare to debate taxpayer funding of abortion, congressmen would do well to heed lessons from each of these men.
Though many politicians today compartmentalize their conscience and their beliefs from the way they legislate, President Kennedy laid out a different approach. In Houston, during his run for the White House, he said: “If the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do likewise.” There are always pragmatic reasons to compartmentalize one’s moral compass; one need look no further than C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. But Americans are tired of that — they want consistency of conscience from their elected officials. They want people of principle.
This brings us to the other anniversary those in Congress ought to consider, President Reagan’s. That the same man who had the moral courage to label the Soviet Union an Evil Empire and tell Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” also told us in his 1984 book Abortion and the Conscience of a Nation: “We cannot diminish the value of one category of human life — the unborn — without diminishing the value of all human life.” Ronald Reagan understood that the American people wanted leadership that wouldn’t parse its moral compass based on pragmatic political criteria. As I point out in my latest book, the myth that key social issues evenly divide the American people is preventing us from finding creative solutions that the vast majority of the electorate would agree with.
The calls to avoid a social agenda have focused primarily on abortion. But almost eight in ten Americans would like to see abortion restricted to, at most, the first three months of pregnancy. This includes two-thirds of those who identify themselves as pro-choice.
And well over half of Americans support limiting abortion — not just federal funding of it — to instances of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. Avoiding the abortion issue, or trying to find ways to continue funding it, may help Congress with Washington elites, but it won’t help them with the American people. Commonsense restrictions, such as those in the recently introduced bill, would be very popular with Americans, not to mention the right thing to do.
Our polling has shown that it is entirely possible for Congress to tackle complicated social issues — including abortion — in ways that would have the overwhelming support of the American people. When we asked Americans what they thought provided the greatest hope for the future of our country, finishing last was “the next election” and finishing first — with nearly five times as much support — was “a return to traditional values.”
For our legislature to fully realize its mandate, it must listen to the moral sense of the people, and then move beyond the business-as-usual mentality that tells us that certain issues can’t be solved. This Congress must change Washington, not be changed by it. We Americans need a Congress whose moral compass is aligned with our own. That would mean better policy and better politics.
— Carl Anderson is a New York Times–bestselling author and leader of the Knights of Columbus. His most recent book is Beyond a House Divided: The Moral Consensus Ignored by Washington, Wall Street and the Media.