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.
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