Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Pro-Choice Politician I Could Support

There's been some spirited conversation of late centering around Catholic law professor Douglas Kmiec's endorsement of and arguments for Barack Obama. Kyle of Postmodern Papist has had some interesting things to say. Jay Anderson of Pro Ecclesia has some very good thoughts up jumping off of Kyle's post.

I think it essentially goes without saying (though not quite, which is why I'm saying it) that there are situations in which a Catholic would in good conscience vote for a pro-choice politician despite that politicians pro-choice stance. The USCCB in its document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" repeats a traditional understanding of how one may vote for a politician who supports certain evils if one disagrees with those positions, and if one holds that there are sufficiently grave considerations which cause one to believe that it is most to the common good to elect that politician despite his holding some objectively evil beliefs.

However, it seems to me that in discussing the upcoming election, several Catholics in public and intellectual life (Kmiec very much among them) have attempted to make the case that one should support Obama not despite his stand on abortion, but rather because an Obama administration will be able to make progress towards a more truly pro-life society in a way that recent Republican administrations have not been able to. I disagree with people who take the former position, though I can certainly respect them, but I take serious objection to those who take the latter, and this post is intended to address them.

First of all, I'm a little sketchy as to how the Obama-crease-pro-life-society argument is supposed to work. As best as I can make it out, it is essentially:

Obama is a really nice person who wants to help people. Nice people don't like abortion. People who get help don't need abortions. Therefore, Obama is against abortion and will help people so that they don't need any.

There are a lot of problems with that kind of thinking, but the one I'd like to address is the "Obama is a nice person -- nice people don't like abortion" like or argument.

Sometime recently, the Democratic party woke up and realized that the abortion issue was hurting them. The occasional photos of women at rallies wearing "Keep your rosaries off our ovaries" and "I'm proud of my abortion" t-shirts just weren't winning over the remainder of the country. So abortion was recast from being "just a medical procedure" and "a right" and a tool for "liberation" and "equality" to being "a tragedy" that should be "safe, legal and rare".

This has the advantage of not offending the majority of Americans, who do at least have a firm sense of unease about abortion, while at the same time offering a nice out so that no one needs to feel too much guilt or too much of a need to change the culture: A tragedy, in modern parlance, is often something that simply happens to one. This is in stark contract to a classical or Shakespearean tragedy, in which fate or one's own flaws result in one's downfall. But now we talk about tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and fires as "tragedies". It's very bad, and we're all sad about it, but it's really nobody's fault. Donate a few dollars and old clothes to the Red Cross and move on.

The difficulty, however, is that it's an essentially incoherent moral view. Why should we consider abortion "a tragedy"? Is it because it is the taking of a human life? If not, why exactly is it a tragedy?

As best as I can make out, this view boils down to holding that while abortion may not actually be wrong, it's no fun and people don't (all other things being equal) want to have one. Thus, when Howard Dean announced, "I don't know anyone who is pro-abortion" he means it in the same sense one might say, "I don't know anyone who is pro-wisdom-tooth-extraction." No one wants to have his wisdom teeth out. It's not fun. It's not something you'd do unnecessarily. But in a situation where your other options are clearly painful or expensive, you have them out.

At a minimum, abortion is unpleasant. So of course, no one is going to seek one when she doesn't "need" one. In that sense, no one is "pro-abortion".

But since my teeth do not in and of themselves have any rights, dignity or moral worth, I didn't have a whole lot of qualms having my wisdom teeth cut out when they threatened to cause problems for the rest of my body. On the other hand, if my aunt is causing a lot of trouble and pain in the extended family, I cannot legally take her out somewhere and have her surgically divided into several pieces in order to remove the strife. That's because she's a human being with her own rights and inherent dignity.

So contra Howard Dean, the question is not whether there are people sitting around thinking, "Wow, I wish I could get an abortion. That would be so much fun." but rather whether it is wrong to procure an abortion in order to avoid undesirable consequences. And it is, so far as I can tell, on this point that there is considerable division in our politics and our culture. (What Mr. Dean has attempted to do is redefine "pro-abortion" in a ludicrously null set, while remaining blind to the moral issue at play.)

Another thing I should make clear (it is quickly becoming clear to me that laying out the assumptions involved in this debate takes far longer than arguing one's conclusions) is that it seems to me that the presidency is totemic as well as policy centered. Thus, when we elect a "pro-choice" president, we are conveying to ourselves we are a pro-choice society and/or that being pro-choice is something that is okay. A president is not merely a hired policy maker, he is a "representative" in the full meaning of the term.

Taking all these into consideration, my objection to the argument that electing a "safe, legal and rare" politician will help the pro-life cause is that even if the expansive social policies (as yet un-proposed) which such a president might support had the effect of reducing the demand for abortions, there is no way that electing as our representative someone who does not believe that abortion is wrong in an absolute moral sense is going to actively move us toward the belief that abortion is morally wrong. At most, it would result in a decline in abortion simply because fewer people would feel themselves in need of them. That is a good thing -- most especially for the people who would be alive as a result -- but it's not a long term solution, since that would mean that as soon as the economy hit the skids we'd go back to killing our children. If the phrase "building a culture of life" is to mean anything, it means moving towards a culture in which one welcomes children into the world even if they come at the cost of considerable pain, difficulty and inconvenience.

Thinking all this through, I do not think it is possible for one to argue, from a pro-life perspective, that the election of any politician who is only anti-abortion in the abortion-is-like-having-your-wisdom-death-out sense will move us closer to a culture of life. However, there is a kind of pro-choice candidate who I think could. Imagine that a pro-choice candidate emerged who said, "I believe that abortion consists of the intentional killing of an innocent human person. As such, it is a great moral evil. A just country would ban such a practice. Unfortunately, we are not a just country and too many of us rely on evil to maintain our standard of living. I don't believe that during the next four years it is possible for us to make any progress towards outlawing this act of killing. So while I will support policies that will give women in crisis pregnancies other options, I will not advance any new legislation to end the slaughter. Some day, I hope, we will reach the point when we're ready to stop, and then we will change our laws to protect every human life."

Now, I disagree with that approach, but I can respect it a lot more than the "safe, legal and rare" rhetoric. I could see how electing that kind of pro-choice politician would help move us forward.

Unfortunately, it wouldn't happen, because by definitions other than Howard Dean's there are a lot of people who are "pro-abortion" and would not like the sound of this one little bit. Even though this hypothetical politician would not be advocating any change in current laws in regard to abortion, I think the pro-choice side of the spectrum pretty clearly wants acknowledgement that their "choice" is okay. That's why it's acceptable to call it a "tragedy" or say "no one is pro-abortion", but a politician who said the above wouldn't get to first base.

Still, I'm open to being convinced. If Doug Kmiec can get Obama to use my suggested verbiage above, I'll give him credit for truly opening a new "national conversation" on the issue.


Tito Edwards said...

A very interesting and thought provoking post. You are a rarity. I hope more people notice these posts you continuously put up.

Great job.


Kyle R. Cupp said...

I reserve the “pro-abortion” label for those who think abortion itself is a good thing, e.g., those who profit from its practice or those like Ellen Goodman who seem upset when a woman doesn’t choose an abortion.

I don’t trust Obama on the abortion issue. You surely won’t find him supporting any policies that hinder a woman’s “right to choose.” If he becomes our president, I can only hope that he lives up to his hospitable rhetoric and can lead a national discussion on the abortion issue that is free of the alienating discourse that too often dominates the discussion and exacerbates a fundamental hindrance to building a culture of life.

To explain:

I suspect that the abortion problem is one that will be overcome (as much as humanly possible) not primarily through political, legal, or even economic means. Rather, I see the primary solution in conversions of heart and mind and on the cultural level. We won’t see any permanent legal protections of the unborn until there remain no traces of a pro-choice movement. That means for Roe’s overturning to mean much in the long run, the advocates for “abortion rights” must be persuaded to adopt a pro-life philosophy.

Anonymous said...

I have made a policy for over a decade now of completely ignoring a politician's stance on abortion. I have several reasons:

1) Less than 10% of the population is pro-life. Yes, 10%. Over 90% of Down's Syndrome pregnancies are aborted.

(Scroll down to "ethical issues".)

The Down's Syndrome issue makes clear that public support for abortion is far, far stronger than anyone will admit to pollsters. I'm stuck between my pro-life convictions and my pro-democracy convictions. It is easy to say "Life is more important than democracy!" but when a government acts against the will of the overwhelming majority of its people, worse things than abortion result.

2) Abortion will soon be moot as a federal issue. SCOTUS will, within a couple years I believe, strike down Roe v Wade. Abortion will thereafter be a state issue (and will quickly be legalized in 47 or 48 states).

3) Too many unpredictable variables. President Clinton was strongly pro-abortion, yet abortion decreased under his administration. And abortion increased under Reagan. I don't believe that either of these men intended to bring about what happened under their leadership; instead, there are just too many factors influencing these things that are beyond the scope of politics.


Darwin said...


I believe the figure I had heard was that more like 80% of children pre-natally diagnosed with Down Syndrom (only half of children with Down Syndrom are pre-natally diagnosed) are aborted, though perhaps it's gone up in the last three years. Interestingly, it is strong religious/pro-life convictions that seem to be the main differentiator. Over 40% of those women who knowingly bring their children with Down Syndrom to term are Catholic, and religious reasons are one of the main reasons given for deciding not to kill children with Down Syndrom.

For myself, I look at voting for pro-life politicians as much as a character/moral filter as a policy one. I won't vote for a pro-choice politician for the same reason I wouldn't vote for a Klansman or convicted wife-beater. In that sense, it's not necessarily material to me whether it's effective or not. I simply don't think people who are in favor of legal abortion should be granted power or allowed to represent me.

Donald R. McClarey said...

"Abortion will thereafter be a state issue (and will quickly be legalized in 47 or 48 states)."

I wish I were certain that Roe will be struck down in the next few years. I think it comes down to who the next President is. Once it returns to the states and becomes a political battle, long term the pro-life cause will win. In politics demographics is definitely destiny, and pro-lifers simply are having a lot more kids, surprise!, than the pro-aborts. The hard core pro-aborts understand this, and that is why they are fighting tooth and claw to keep Roe.

Donald R. McClarey said...

"President Clinton was strongly pro-abortion, yet abortion decreased under his administration."

Maybe, maybe not:

In any case any decrease under Clinton was in spite of his efforts in favor of abortion.

doubting t said...

Statistics are often used misleadingly. The best statistics I have seen indicate that something like:
10-20 % oppose all abortions at all times.
40-60% oppose abortions being readily available during 3rd trimester.

60-80% oppose abortions being available for "pure convenience" reasons at all times.

(Obviously these numbers are overlapping sets.)

The moral incoherence of the later groups who DO NOT oppose some abortions is beside the point: there is more opposition to abortion than the "law of the land" (i.e. the supreme dictum of 7 Justices) permits finding democratic expression.

The problem with the argument that demographics favors the pro-life side is that it is invalid: It is not true that all parents who are pro-life turn out a full set of pro-life kids. For, most of those kids are taught in the public schools. And the public schools - administrators, text-writers, curriculum controllers, and certification managers, are FULLY in the control of the pro-death camp. Most of the kids who graduate from public schools are LESS pro-life than their parents. Then the process is ramped up further in college (if the kids go to college). The campus PC police rage unmercifully upon pro-life groups, and promote "mutli-valued" intolerance in favor of pro-death groups. (I don't know of any life statistics here, but I do know of a parallel one: most kids who start college with a family religious faith get that faith damaged or broken in college). The culture is turning out pro-death children.

Donald R. McClarey said...

"The problem with the argument that demographics favors the pro-life side is that it is invalid: It is not true that all parents who are pro-life turn out a full set of pro-life kids."

Correct. It is also correct that pro-abort parents do not turn out a full set of pro-abort kids among their survivors. However most kids do follow the political prefences of their parents. Additionally the culture has been strongly pro-abort since Roe, especially academia. I helped establish the first student pro-life group at the U of I in 78 and the opposition we faced from the powers-that-be at the University was non-stop. The pro-life movement has gotten stronger nonetheless over the past three decades. Also when considering the culture you must also take into account the Churches, at least those not affiliated with dying liberal sects like the Episcopalians, most of which are more pro-life now than they were in the seventies. Be pessimistic if you wish, but I believe time, as well as eternity, is on the side of the pro-life cause.

Anonymous said...

What about Frederica Matthews-Green's observation that "nobody wants an abortion like she wants an ice cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion like an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg."

I think this is probably a better metaphor than wisdom teeth. Who misses their wisdom teeth?

Jeff said...

Say I am in a war. I come face to face with a young soldier, probably conscripted, who looks weary and homesick.

I imagine, probably correctly, that he has a wife or a girl, a mother, a life that means something to him. Whether he thinks his cause is just or not, I don't know, but I know he is a very young man who looks quite pleasant who is merely doing his duty.

He sees me and raises his gun to fire. I fire first and see the surprise and fear in his eyes as the bullet enters his heart. I watch the life drain from his eyes as he struggles in his death agony.

Now: killing that young man need not be morally wrong, but it can quite reasonably be thought of as a tragedy.

So much so that Christians and other decent people often become pacificists precisely over such things.

Leaving your wife to drown while you save your child may not be wrong. But it is a tragedy.

I don't--of course--share they pro-abortion position. In fact, I DON'T as a practical matter very much respect Catholics who vote for candidates "despite" their anti-life voting record.

But I've always been suspicious of this particular argument that if abortion isn't the taking of a human life, it can't be a tragedy.

If there WERE a transitional state between human and non-human, alive and non-alive...if there were some sort of ambiguous in-between state in which full humanity were not reached, such that the pressure of grave necessity sometimes necessitated the destruction of this creature-in-formation, it could still be a tragedy.

St. Thomas would have told you that before quickening, the embryo was dead, so killing it was not murder.

He concludes--rightly--that nevertheless it is a grave evil.

But if one concluded that it wasn't necessarily a grave evil, couldn't it still be a tragedy?