Conor Lamb’s success has revived interest in “I’m personally opposed, but.” It’s a rhetorical convention — a cliché, really — that many Catholic Democrats have resorted to ever since Mario Cuomo popularized it with his speech at Notre Dame in 1984, as Alexandra DeSanctis explained a few days ago.
When a politician says that as a Catholic he’s personally opposed to abortion but that as an American he supports abortion rights, he belittles the understanding, which happens to be Church teaching, that to take the life of an unborn child is a grave injustice. The politician who cites his religion as the basis for being “personally opposed” to the practice gives others permission to dismiss anti-abortion sentiment as a sectarian idiosyncrasy, like the belief that it’s an offense to God to skip Mass on Sunday: You’re entitled to hold to that belief personally, and even to act in light of it in the private sphere, but not to enact it into law or public policy, because the separation of church and state etc.
Garry Wills, an astute critic of American Catholicism and no cheerleader for bishops or the pro-life movement, was unimpressed by Cuomo’s maneuver. “He does not argue the matter,” Wills observed back in 1990.
He merely accepts (privately) and sets aside (in public) the datum that a fetus is a human life from conception. This is very different from his eloquence and enthusiasm in opposing the death penalty, on which he has strong personal convictions.
What this means, of course, is that Cuomo claims to believe the church’s teaching on abortion, but acts as if he does not. Pro-choice critics are infuriated by his belief; pro-life believers are just as indignant at his actions (or lack of them). Since most of the public is not simply classifiable as pro-life or pro-choice, this may be a shrewd political position; but it damages Cuomo in his claim to be a Catholic intellectual who reaches his conclusions from a well-trained conscience and not as a matter of political expediency.
I would quibble with that: Pro-life believers are more indignant at the “personally opposed” script than pro-choice critics are infuriated by it. In Lamb’s case, the latter have, at least to my ears, sounded satisfied: He supports abortion rights as a matter of law and policy, after all. He said, for example, that he would have voted against the recent House bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation.
Only rhetorically does Lamb gesture toward the pro-life position, you might say. Rhetoric, though, is not nothing, as David Leonhardt points out in the New York Times. If you’re pro-life, you should appreciate that an expression of ambivalence about abortion is a step toward the truth and away from the worst pro-choice cant, in which the existence of unborn children is not even acknowledged.
Gail Collins and Bret Stephens in the Times agree that the Democrats should modulate their abortion rhetoric and agenda more seriously, by devising a program to reduce abortion. Alas, Collins envisions a kit of “family planning services” that are “easily available and free.” If she means contraception, it’s hard to see how much difference her plan would make, because contraceptive drugs and devices are already easily available and, if not free, usually not very expensive, either. Moreover, many pro-lifers oppose, logically enough, birth-control methods that act or may act as abortifacients, and any Democrat who says his party doesn’t need their votes should be sent to the chalkboard to write “Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania” one hundred times.
Here’s an idea. How about an abortion-reduction program consisting primarily of words, modeled after government anti-smoking campaigns? Consider the humble public-service announcement: “Pregnant? Take care of yourself and your baby. Here is contact information for the community health center nearest you.” Who would oppose it? Who wouldn’t support it?
“We will reduce abortion.” Democrats, put that on a bumper sticker, mean it, and see what happens. Unfortunately, just as Democrats in 2009–10 made the prudential decision to spend down some of their political capital — i.e., to risk losing some seats at the next election — in pursuit of passing Obamacare, some Democrats on the hard left today seem to think that the blue wave in November will be big enough to carry them into majority status even if they weigh themselves down with some heavy abortion-rights absolutism. It’s a gamble. They could smuggle some of that into the halls of Congress and the Congressional Record. Not from Texas, though. There’s a bit of free advice for Beto O’Rourke.