A reader comments thoughtfully in an email:
I look at the weight of various issues: poverty, health care, death penalty, abortion, welfare, guns, education, etc. And I never get past the numbers of the scourge of abortion, to the tune of 1.3 abortions annually. NOTHING can stack up against that. That’s why I vote Republican.
And as far as it goes, there’s good sense here. Abortion is indeed a scourge, an “abominable crime” (as Gaudium et Spes calls it), and so this argument is a weighty one. If you don’t have the right to life, you don’t have any rights at all. The U.S. bishops’ statement Living the Gospel of Life insists, “Abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human life and dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental good and the condition for all others.” So the obvious conclusion seems to many to be, How could you not vote for the candidate who is on the right side of the weightiest moral-social issue there is?
I know the thinking, for it was once my own. I used to say, “What if you were voting in the election of 1860? If there any issue that would have outweighed Lincoln’s opposition to slavery?” In recent years, though, I find myself wishing it were that easy, and that’s never been more the case than this year. That quick and easy answer eliminates the need for a lot of careful thinking and discernment. But I think the situation in which we find ourselves is more complicated than that.
The older I get, the more convinced I am that Republicans use this issue to get votes, and they have little intention of doing anything at all about it. They talk it up at election time, give it a little lip service every so often to keep the pro-lifers on board, and then talk it up again four years later. It’s been that way throughout my adult life and goes back farther than that.
(The single notable exception to this, the one important example I can think of that pro-life Republicans can give to demonstrate the effectiveness of voting for a Republican president in the fight against legal abortion, is the fact that largely thanks to Republican Supreme Court appointees, partial birth abortion is now illegal in our land. Thanks be to God for that. A qualification: It should be noted as relevant that this is a 5-4 decision that almost wasn’t. One of 5 votes in favor of it came from Justice Samuel Alito, the Bush appointee who received his appointment following President Bush’s previous nomination for it, Harriet Miers, who was not confirmed and who would not have voted that way. So President Bush was clearly not all that concerned about the abortion issue.)
The empty anti-abortion lip service by Republicans this year is perhaps more obvious than it has ever been. To expect Mitt Romney to make, as President, any significant contribution in the struggle for the right to life of the unborn is somewhat laughable. Consider:
— His record up to now is a very strong indicator that he is pro-life, to the extent that he is, in the name of political expediency.
— He recently commented in a CBS Evening News interview (and if you’re not choosing your words carefully on the CBS Evening News, when are you?), “My position has been clear throughout this campaign. I’m in favor of abortion being legal in the case of rape and incest, and the health and life of the mother.” He said further, “Recognize this is the decision that will be made by the Supreme Court. The Democrats try and make this a political issue every four years, but this is a matter in the courts. It’s been settled for some time in the courts.”
It’s sort of funny how he has to qualify his statement about his consistency so narrowly, saying that his position has been “clear throughout this campaign.” That he did it without blushing with embarrassment is commendable. But beyond that laughability factor, a more important point is (and I thank Mark Shea for pointing it out), this sounds a lot like a careful way of saying he has no objection to Roe v. Wade.
— More recently, Romney’s own sister assured us of her brother that abortion law is “not his focus” and that “[h]e’s not going to be touching any of that.”
— And of course there’s the fact that Mitt Romney has already succeeded in watering down his own running-mate’s pro-life convictions. And they’d only been partners for a matter of days.
So, going back to my analogy with the 1860 election, what if Lincoln really had not been all that interested in freeing the slaves? What if, in 2012, the choice comes down to this (as I think it does, more or less):
On one hand, we have a guy who presents himself, at the moment, as being against, sort of, one of the most profound human rights violations that is legal today (that is, abortion) while almost certainly intending to do nothing about it. But he does on the other hand promise quite clearly to promote policies that disregard human dignity in a variety of other areas (policies that significantly weaken programs that help the poor survive and others than help keep millions from entering poverty in the first place and others which promise to increase our militarization beyond what even the military dared hope for, for example). He also promises to try to revoke — on day one — one of the most significant social justice successes we’ve seen in decades, which had, for decades, been advocated by the American bishops and supported clearly by the Catholic human rights tradition, right up to the present Pope — that is, making access to quality health care available to all.
OR, on the other hand, we have a guy who supports the status quo of permitting one of the most profound human rights violations that is legal today and who does nothing to oppose it (like the other guy). But early in his first term, he managed to enact one of the most significant social justice successes we’ve seen in decades, which had, for decades, been advocated by the American bishops and supported clearly by the Catholic human rights tradition, right up to the present Pope — that is, making access to quality health care available to all. Of course, he will he not work to to dismantle it, and he’ll work actively and perhaps with some effectiveness to diminish other weighty violations of human dignity.
Put more simply, perhaps the options are these: Four years from now, we’re either in the same place with abortion and in worse places with other big human dignity issues, or in the same place with abortion and in better places with other big human dignity issues.
Here Cardinal Ratzinger’s 2004 observation is helpful:
A Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in evil, and so unworthy to present himself for Holy Communion, if he were to deliberately vote for a candidate precisely because of the candidate’s permissive stand on abortion and/or euthanasia. When a Catholic does not share a candidate’s stand in favour of abortion and/or euthanasia, but votes for that candidate for other reasons, it is considered remote material cooperation, which can be permitted in the presence of proportionate reasons.
While it would be wrong for me to vote for Barack Obama beause he’s pro-choice, it would not be wrong to vote for him in spite of that, because I think Mitt Romney is pro-life in name only, pro-choice in practice, and anti-life in many ways. While it would be wrong for me to vote for Mitt Romney because he will support policies that hurt the poor and the environment (and because has chosen a Catholic with a profoundly anti-Catholic world view as his runningmate), it would not be wrong for me to vote for him in spite of that, because I think he’s going to do something effective for the unborn.
[See my follow-up post, of the next day, here.]