David O'Brien

Common ground on abortion

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By David O'Brien
November 16, 2007

BOSTON ARCHBISHOP Sean P. O'Malley's attack on Catholic politicians and citizens who support abortion rights raises the moral stakes of politics. O'Malley does not stand alone - the American Catholic bishops have chosen this election cycle to give priority to opposing "intrinsically evil actions" that involve "the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia." The bishops offer moral commentary on many issues, but the cardinal's remarks make it clear that the traditional antiabortion agenda now provides the measure of Catholic political morality.

The cardinal and his colleagues shrewdly focus on Catholic politicians because politicians are an easy target, but the real sinners are the Catholic citizens who vote for people like Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, Senator Edward M. Kennedy or US Representative Jim McGovern.

Their supporters know that these Catholic politicians are prochoice but not proabortion; to call them proabortion is an insult to politicians and voters alike. The major difference between these prochoice advocates and their antiabortion critics is their recognition of and respect for the hard won autonomy and moral agency of women.

Another thing about these officials is accountability: Politicians must consult citizens before taking positions on specific legislation, and they are accountable to those citizens for the positions they take. The cardinal consults no one but his colleagues and superiors in taking his position, and is accountable only to his superiors for the consequences of his actions.

And what about those consequences?

O'Malley properly demands that Democratic citizens and public officials accept responsibility for abortions they believe take place because they assign priority to the war, the economy, and social justice. They in turn must ask the cardinal and his colleagues to accept responsibility for the consequences of following their advice in recent national elections.

Voters who made antiabortion politics their priority must share responsibility for disastrous domestic, foreign, and military policies that violate almost every tenet of Catholic social teaching.

Let's be clear about what Catholic pastoral leaders are saying. Official Catholic teaching is that every abortion, at every stage, from morning-after pills to late-term abortions, is a direct and intentional taking of human life and must be prohibited, and therefore criminalized. The exact penalties will be discussed only when Roe v. Wade is overturned and the issue comes back to the states.

European governments and most Americans distinguish between the first trimester, when abortions are allowed, and the third trimester, when they are or should be restricted, but Catholic teaching allows for no such distinctions.

For the church's pastoral leaders, abortion prevention is abstinence only; their political agencies consistently oppose contraception in educational, family assistance, and pregnancy counseling programs. Church teaching and lobbying even denies condom use by married couples with AIDS.

The cardinal is right to say that the Democratic Party has tended to insult prolife Catholics and make prochoice politics a matter of party orthodoxy. But Democrats are not alone.

In practice the Catholic community reaches out to support women with unwanted pregnancies, but when women with reservations about the church's position on abortion prevention attempted to address the hierarchy, they were firmly rejected. They were rejected at least as firmly, and with as little respect, as the Democratic Party showed when it rejected the efforts of such groups as Democrats for Life.

The clash of such antiabortion extremism and prochoice orthodoxy has poisoned American public life in recent years. For that scandal the bishops and Catholic citizens of all parties who ignore the common good and self-righteously demonize the other side must bear their share of responsibility.

Common ground, limited but important, can be found. There is plenty of evidence that provision of maternal and children health support, pregnancy counseling, adoption services, and teen education, as well as full employment and adequate provision of emergency assistance, can reduce the number of abortions.

Many prochoice politicians have supported such policies, many prolife politicians have opposed them, a difference evident recently in votes on federal child health legislation.

Catholic countries with across the board prohibition of abortion are often among those with the highest abortion rates. The lowest rates are in European countries with relatively permissive abortion legislation but a wide range of universal medical, educational, and social services.

People who are serious about supporting life and choice would do well to unite behind abortion prevention legislation such as HR 6067, a package of programs with broad support designed to prevent unwanted pregnancies and support parents and families.

Unfortunately Catholic Church support is limited because the bill includes support for education about contraception. On this bill and others like it, the Massachusetts congressional delegation can provide the only answer needed to Cardinal O'Malley's unwise assault.

David O'Brien is a professor of Catholic studies at the College of the Holy Cross.

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