Topic A

Mystery writer, apologist, and Dante scholar Dorothy Sayers once said of her fictional creation Lord Peter Wimsey something along the lines of, “Peter is not really Christian. He would have considered it impolite to hold such strong beliefs.” (If someone knows of the exact quotation — I believe it was from one of Sayers’ published letters — I’d be terribly grateful.)

It is, I think, one of the great temptations of people with an intellectual bent to feel apologetic over holding opinions which are too strong. And it is, I fear, because of a cowardice somewhat akin to this that I have felt slightly embarrassed each day as I check the American Catholic webpage and see that in the tag cloud in the right hand column the term “Abortion” is growing larger and larger. I have been no small contributor to this myself. I hesitate to go count, but I think over half my own posts have listed “abortion” as a topic.

And yet, as I watch the word grow in size, I hear one side of my mind saying, in a snobbish tone of voice, “Of course, Catholics do not need to be single issue voters. It’s not all about abortion.”

Well, I don’t think that we need to be single issue voters, in the sense that it’s possible to imagine some sort of situation in which an anti-abortion candidate was actively set on an evil so huge and immanent (say he promises to declare a war of aggression against China on his first day in office) that he would be unacceptable to vote for. However, I do think that we should weigh support for abortion rights very heavily against a candidate — and do so regardless of whether electing an anti-abortion candidate would actually make much difference in the abortion rate.

Why? Why should abortion be a topic which Catholic citizens keep bringing up, even in the face of arguments (occasionally even from some of our fellow Catholics) that “overturning Roe v. Wade is not the only way to reduce the number of abortions.” In order to keep to topic, let me be clear: I do think that legal restrictions on abortion both serve to reduce its incidence and also serve as a teaching tool; the law can successfully play moral stigma on a choice and it’s appropriate to use it that way. However what I’d like to argue in this post is that we should not vote for candidates who support “abortion rights” even if the victory of that candidate would not affect the abortion rate at all.

Let us start by recalling why, as Catholics, we recoil at abortion. It is the killing within the womb, a place which has throughout many cultures been used as a metaphor for that which is safe and enclosing, of a child by his own mother. We naturally shrink from a person who kills his own children (Medea remains unwelcome in polite society even to this very day) and there is something particularly odious, perhaps the violation of an implicit hospitality, about the killing of a child in the womb, when it is at its most helpless. So our opposition to abortion as a moral act is simply as a result of its being gravely — nay, revoltingly — wrong.

Why is it a legal issue, while other grave intra-familial sins, such as adultery, are not? Because abortions are performed by means of medical technology, and at this place and time in history the medical field is completely regulated by the government. It thus naturally became a matter of law whether doctors should perform abortions. This would have necessitated at least some government involvement either way, but the Supreme Court decided to go all in by making abortion a “right” — thus putting the government in the business of making sure that it was freely available throughout the nation.

Our current situation is, thus, not merely one in which the government fails to actively try to prevent abortions, but one in which the government actively certifies abortion as a procedure which doctors ought to make available and legally protects and provides it as a “right” which should not be impeded. For comparison, imagine if the law not only refused to punish wife-beating as a crime, but licensed marital counselors to provide “resolution by violence” facilities in which husbands could beat their wives secure in the knowledge that their “right” to beat their spouses was protected by the constitution from any local nuisance laws that mighty seek to impede it.

So while it’s true that “the government won’t make you have an abortion”, the government is very much actively involved in abortion: licensing it, protecting its availability from regulations inspired by local cultural sensibilities, and serving as a constant tempter that whispers in the ear those dealing with crisis pregnancies, “You always have the right to terminate.”

Abortion is, thus, both a horrific moral evil and also something in which the government has chosen to involve itself.

If we take both of these facts seriously, I find it hard to understand how we can reconcile ourselves morally with voting for a pro-abortion-rights candidate. For any office. Ever.

As yourself: Would we in our modern United States seriously consider voting for a candidate who said he firmly believed that racial lynchings should be legal? Even if he was running for an office which had no power over such matters, and even if we had reason to believe his election would in no way increase or decrease lynchings, we would recoil from voting for such a person because we would believe that such a person did not deserve to hold any office. Much the same if a candidate for office insisted that wife-beating should be legal, and was indeed the right of every husband.

We would refuse to vote for such a person because his promotion of such a grave moral evil as a legal right would mark him as a person unworthy and untrustworthy to be put in an office any of responsibility. And we would refuse to vote for him because we would think the less of ourselves for doing anything to benefit someone with such pernicious views.

It is for this same reason that we should, as Catholics, simply refuse to vote for any pro-abortion-rights candidate. It is not a matter of politics or divisiveness or “wedge issues”. It is simply a matter of moral decency.

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  1. “And we would refuse to vote for him because we would think the less of ourselves for doing anything to benefit someone with such pernicious views. It is for this same reason that we should, as Catholics, simply refuse to vote for any pro-abortion-rights candidate.”

    I agree that a person’s support for abortion, particularly the extreme resistance to any restrictions embodied by Senator Obama’s record, is indicative of a deeply flawed understanding of the human person and a deeply disturbing callousness towards human beings. At the same time, I think that wife-beating/racial lynchings are imperfect analogies in an important respect. Cultural context matters in evaluating moral actions. A person who supported wife-beating or racial-lynching in ‘modern America,’ rebuked by nearly everyone else in the society, would be a moral monster.

    Anti-Semitism provides a useful illustration, I think. There certainly is a strain, albeit mild, of anti-Semitism in some of Chesterton’s writings. While he was quick to denounce the virulent form that began to develop in Germany shortly before his death, it is not unfair to characterize some of his writings as mildly anti-semitic. In this respect, he was not particularly unique for his cultural circumstance, and it was certainly not a prominent feature of this writing. Now, someone who wrote the type of things he did today would be considered morally odious. Some might refuse to read him on these grounds. Nevertheless, I think that it would be a mistake to refuse to read Chesterton now, because of a flaw that was endemic in his culture. There was nothing particularly distinctive about his mild anti-semitism, except perhaps that it was much milder than many of his contemporaries.

    Similarly, Obama has been raised in a cultural milieu in which support for ‘abortion rights’ is a cherished value, and a litmus test for respectability. Columbia, Harvard Law, the Democratic party, these are all places in which support for abortion rights is utterly unremarkable – that’s what the culture wars are about. To me, Obama’s support for abortion rights is rendered more understandable and less odious placed in this context – a context which does not exist for wife-beating or racial lynching in modern America. A similar point could be made about slavery – the Church implicitly supported it at various points in its history as Dr. Curp discussed in an essay several years ago. Not to put too fine a point on it, but is St. Paul repugnant for accepting slavery as part of the social order?

    I am making the point rather more strongly than I would wish, and of course abortion is a worse evil than mild anti-semitism or slavery. Analogies are difficult, and always fail in one respect or another. Nevertheless, I think Obama’s support for abortion rights is somewhere between Chesterton/anti-semitism, the Church/slavery situation, and the wife-beating, racial lynching analogy. Voting for Obama is not quite like voting for a person who supports wife-beating or racial lynching in modern America; his views, while extreme, are not outside the mainstream of modern political discourse.

    One of the reasons I cannot support the Democratic party in any respect is that it is dedicated to the propagation of an ‘abortion rights’ culture that requires its politicians (see, e.g. Kennedy/Kerry/Biden) to vote for abortion rights as a precondition for national office. I think the post draws attention to an important consideration, but perhaps overstates the case.

  2. As Lincoln said about slavery in letter to A.G. Hodges on April 4, 1864, “If slavery isn’t wrong, nothing is wrong.” Abortion is an evil of such a vast magnitude, the deliberate destruction of the most innocent among us, that it makes a mockery of any pretense that our society has to observing a moral code. In a society where abortion is celebrated as a constitutional right, there is no evil that cannot, and will not, be embraced as a good depending upon passing intellectual fashions and popular prejudices. For Christians not to fight against abortion makes a sham of the faith that we say we have in an all-loving God who shed His blood for our salvation.

  3. Hey, Vox Nova guys, I got this one covered for you:

    So wait. You’re telling me that a whole bunch of bloated government programs isn’t enough to cover up the systematic slaughter of children?

    A free government colonoscopy here or there definitely cancels out the aforementioned slaughter. As such, Obama is the candidate that more truly reflects Catholic social teachings. Plus, being an omnipotent being of light, he will go back in time and uninvade Iraq.

    For all this, a million or two dead babies a year is a small price to pay.

  4. fus01,

    I think you make some solid points, and I’d meant to draw this out a little more in the post, but here, I think, is the key point: Moral evils are often not obviousl for what they are at the time. As you say, mild anti-semitism may not have seemed a distinctive quality in 1900.

    And yet, how is it that we develop the kind of total unacceptability of a moral evil that wife-beating or racial lynching have today? By directing moral opprobium at them even before there is anything resembling a consensus.

    In 1700, it would not have been seen as at all out of the ordinary in many parts of the Western World, for a man to beat his wife regularly. And yet, I would hope that if I lived then I would think much less of a man I knew to beat his wife — even if the overwhelming consensus of society was that this was not big deal.

    Similarly, I would say that a morally decent person should have been able to know in 1920 that racial lynchings were a hideously wrong act, and should have treated people who joked that apples and black men both looked good hanging on a tree appropriately.

    So while I wouldn’t say that Obama is a wicked person (actually, I don’t think that category exists to nearly the extent that people give it credit to — people do wicked things, but it’s not because they are wicked) I do think that he should be treated as if he is a wicked person unless he changes his position on this issue. The only way we can put things totally beyond the bounds of sociall acceptability is by treating them as if they already are — and then winning out in the cultural arena in the long run.

  5. Darwin,

    Your point about whether Obama is wicked is an interesting one. However, as I understand these things, we as Christians believe that evil is not something that has an ontological exististance, but that it is merely the absence of good. In that case, Obama has more than demonstrated an absence of good. Wouldn’t that make him, by definition, an evil man?

    /Not trying to flame…this is an honest question.

  6. Good post, Darwin. For many of us abortion is the primary issue because it is the most fundamental and glaring injustice of our state. The abortion issue is about the right to life, the fundamental reason for and justification of a state. It’s about being our brother’s keeper, caring for the poor and the least of these, and it’s about caring for the well being of women. Someone who can tolerate or call abortion a good or a right is someone who can go horribly wrong on any issue, if they’re right on another issue now, they’re only right by accident and it can change – for if it’s good to kill an innocent child in the womb because he is inconvenient, how much easier it is to kill handicapped, the infirm, or foreign populations.

    Unfortunately the victims of abortion are concealed from us. We hear not the screams, we see not the destruction of their bodies, we don’t get to give them a burial, we don’t see the destruction of the mother’s soul, of her body, of her psyche. I think this plays a role in how many Americans, including some Catholics, can be comfortable with the status quo or consider it a lesser of many issues.

    If all Catholics in this country, about a quarter of the voters, refused to vote for a pro-abortion politician, we’d be able to convert one party or both from the inside out, not just on the abortion issue, but all other life issues. But as it stands, as a body, we’re quite divided – torn between partisan politics and putting economic issues first. If I’m right, that as an unified bloc, us Catholics could easily transform this country on abortion, other right to life issues, and a host of justice and quality of life issues, it seems a great moral failure of the Church in America.

  7. Darwin makes a great point: If you’re really against abortion (as some pro-Obama Catholics claim to be), it makes no sense to say, “There is currently no consensus against abortion, and therefore we should give up ever trying to form a consensus against abortion.” The latter half is a complete non sequitur. If you really think something is evil, and if you realize that society isn’t in agreement, then you should be working all the harder to bring society to a consensus.

  8. It is not a matter of politics or divisiveness or “wedge issues”. It is simply a matter of moral decency.

    There is something else behind the life issues that makes this much more than single issue voting or wedge politics. Bill Clinton said it about abortion, but what the Democratic Party really wants is that religion be safe (that is, tamed), legal (not overturning the First Amendment any time soon, but…), and rare (let’s be more like Europeans and keep the churches as museum pieces, can’t we?).

    If you don’t believe this, then it’s probably because you’re not living in a place or running in the circles where this thought movement is taking shape. Obama and his allies aren’t saying this stuff in Ohio and Pennsylvania where they know it won’t play, but as the “clinging to religion and guns” soundbite captured, this kind of thing is playing well in NY, LA, and SF–in other words, in the circles of power where the platform of the Democratic Party is built.

    I live in Los Angeles. I also went to an “elite” university in the Bay Area. So I know all too well what is going on inside the belly of the beast. I see the electoral maps turning blue in “heartland” places like OH and PA, and all I can think is, “They have no idea.” All of those well-intentioned, working-class people (probably of a religious bent to some degree) voting Democratic because they think the Dems are for the little guy… All the while unaware that there is a latent agenda to wipe out religious practice as we know it in this country. Never forget just how much like Europe the Left wants us to become… That includes the dismal church attendance figures, too.

    It’s not going to happen overnight. It probably won’t happen in four years of an Obama administration, either. The groundwork is being laid, though. The life and family issues are the vanguard of the policy; first is the establishment of the “right” to abortion or gay marriage. Then there is the enforcement of these “rights” against religious conscience.

    Unless some of those well-intentioned religious people in the flyover states wake up and realize what the Left is all about in this country, we’re going to get the government we deserve.

  9. “The only way we can put things totally beyond the bounds of social acceptability is by treating them as if they already are — and then winning out in the cultural arena in the long run.”

    I agree with the larger point, but it is a two-pronged effort. Pro-lifers need to:

    1) Emphasize that abortion is morally repugnant so that in the long-term this view predominates.
    2) Work with people in the mushy middle currently to enact whatever abortion restrictions are feasible in today’s political climate (that would be a much broader array of restrictions if Roe was overturned).

    I think that these goals are in tension to a certain extent. One cannot vehemently denounce people who support abortion only in cases of rape or incest, for example, then expect such people to enthusiastically join you in advancing the pro-life agenda. I guess this is as appropriate a forum as any to be making the strongest case, since it is a Catholic blog, but I think comparing Obama to someone in the modern U.S. who supports lynching is not entirely fair given the cultural context.

    That said, perhaps a stronger denunciation is necessary, given the apparent indifference of bloggers like Morning’s Minion to the fact that a vote for the Democratic party provides support to the strongest force for the legalization and normalization of abortion in American society.

  10. Steve,

    Let me leave aside the question of whether evil is a deprivation (we agree on that, but I think it’s an irrelevant point to your question) for a second.

    I think one of the great modern errors is to classify persons as “good people” and “bad people” and then make assertions like, “No sane, well educated and good person would support X” as if “good people” is some sort of category. There’s some sort of an assumed underlying dualism of good vs. bad people which is then used to make “this must be basically okay because ‘good people’ support it” judgement.

    So my point was basically, I won’t want to attempt to classify Obama as a “bad person” in this modern parlance — I simply want to make it clear that he has endorsed bad positions and thus we should not vote for him.


    but I think comparing Obama to someone in the modern U.S. who supports lynching is not entirely fair given the cultural context.

    It’s perhaps a small distinction, but it is, I believe, and important one: I wouldn’t compare Obama to someone who supported lynching or wife-beating in modern America. I think there’s a big culpability gap there since, as you point out, he inhabits a culture where abortion is assumed to be a good.

    However, I think that we should, as Catholics, be no more willing to vote for him than for someone who supported lynching or wife-beating.

    That said, clearly you’re right that we need to work with those who partly agree with us. And in that sense, I’m quite open to voting for the “lesser of two evils” a fair amount of the time. (Lincoln was not, after all, an abolitionist — he just wanted to whittle away at slavery.)

  11. Good point – I thought about mentioning Lincoln in the prior comment. The border states like KY were not included under the Emancipation Proclamation (“I hope to have God on my side, but I must have KY”). In any case, thanks for the thought-provoking post.

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