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Is the "Pro-Life Movement" Really Concerned with Reducing Abortion?

August 16, 2007

The institutional pro-life movement seems remarkably single minded, not on its determination to end the scourge of abortion, but in its tactics. The only legitimate way go achieve this aim, so they say, is to elect politicians who will nominate the kinds of judges that will overturn Roe v. Wade. Checkmate, and we can all go home.

But it is not so simple, is it? What is typically left unspoken are the manifold uncertainties that underpin this tactic. Will the judges even vote the right way on abortion decisions? Adherents of this tactic have been disappointed in the past. And one of the most recent favorites, current Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, deemed Roe v. Wade as settled law, stating that “There is nothing in my personal views that would prevent me from fully and faithfully applying that precedent.” Interesting for a Catholic judge, but then again, his Catholicism did not get in the way of his pro-death penalty rulings either. But I digress. Let’s assume the pro-life movement can muster enough judges to overturn Roe v. Wade. What happens next? Like Bush and Iraq, too many in the pro-life movement have not thought about this one. How many states will impose legal restrictions on abortion? How stringent will these restrictions be? And, most important of all, will the incidence of abortion be reduced. My personal view is, all other things equal, the rate of abortion will decline, but not by much. And this is simply not good enough.

Let’s look at a little history. It is by now conventional (and correct) wisdom that the Democratic party is hemorrhaging Catholic votes owing to their ill-conceived fealty to the “fundamental right” to abortion laid down by Roe v. Wade. It was not always this way. Catholics once formed part of the core Democratic constituency, jump-started by Al Smith’s failed 1928 presidential campaign, sealed by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal (especially when he invoked an encyclical by Pope Pius XI on the economy), and completed by John Kennedy victory (when he received 78 percent of the Catholic vote). At that time, the Democratic party was more reliably anti-abortion than the Republicans, and even Ted Kennedy would exclaim in 1971 that “abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life.” Serious Catholics, including Bobby Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, dominated the party.

Roe v. Wade changed everything. Given the power of incumbency, it took a while for this earthquake to finally shake through the system, rupturing the Democratic party. After the Democrats adopted a platform describing described abortion as a “fundamental human right” in 1984, leading luminaries like Geraldine Ferraro and Mario Cuomo were denounced from the pulpit by the plain-spoken Cardinal Archbishop of New York, John O’Connor. The nadir came when Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania was not allowed to speak at the Democratic Convention in 1992, owing to his staunch pro-life views.

This is where the Republicans and their evangelical allies stepped in. As none other than Richard John Neuhaus argued, at the time, “the Catholic Church stood alone in protesting the immediate evil and long-term implications of Roe v. Wade.” Opposition to the “right” to abortion was seen as a curious Catholic position. Evangelical fundamentalism, at the very time when it was beginning to exert some political muscle during the Nixon administration, was fully on board with Roe v. Wade. Two years prior to the decision, the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant association in the country) called for a liberalization of abortion laws. And for years afterwards, the Convention passed resolutions in favour of the “right to choose”. In fact, it was not until the election of Reagan, when the evangelicals assumed greater power, that they turned against abortion.

So why the enormous shift? Of course, Neuhaus assigns a charitable interpretation to the change of heart, dealing with increasing awareness of the plight of unborn. Occam’s razor suggests a more obvious solution, however. The evangelicals embraced the pro-life cause because it became politically expedient for them to do so. What most angered southern evangelicals at the time was not so much the slaughter of the innocent but forced racial integration. The evangelical right (who would shortly become the backbone of the Republican party) therefore co-opted the abortion issue as a veil to garner Catholic support, and to hide their real agenda– which included a retrograde approach to the role of women and race, a strong military in support of an American exceptionalist mission in the world, a preferential option for the rich, and a staunchly individualist economic policy lacking in social safety nets. It was the Trojan horse for them to push forward with a social agenda that did not have the moral clarity of abortion. In other words, they would play the seductive pro-life tune to seduce Catholics into becoming Calvinists.

It was a tactic that succeeded brilliantly. While Clinton won white Catholics by seven percentage points in 1996, Gore lost them by seven points in 2000, and Kerry (a Catholic himself!) by fourteen points in 2004. Nobody can deny the importance of the abortion issue in explaining these trends. Of course, the Democrats allowed this takeover to happen, themselves in the thrall of the most ugly and extreme pro-abortion lobbyists. Political analyst William Galston believes that refusing to sign the partial birth abortion ban was Clinton’s single biggest mistake in eight years, and I’m inclined to agree with him.

And so here we are. The political trends of the past quarter century have brought us to a place where pro-life Catholics have aligned themselves with the Republican party. Some hold their noses while doing so. Others inhale the fragrance with glee. And the institutional pro-life movement is boxed into the narrowest of strategies, one that places a premium on rhetoric, while not burdening politicians with the need to actually do anything. It begs the question: is the Republican party really serious about reducing abortion or is it a ploy for votes? The fact that Rudy Giuliani is currently that party’s presidential forerunner speaks volumes.

How easy it is to be pro-life! All you need do is talk about picking the kinds of judges that would (maybe) overturn Roe v. Wade and voting against (or vetoing) some marginal legislation with minimal impact on abortion rates. In the meantime, none of the core economic beliefs of that party are challenged. On the contrary, those very judges who are supposed to be pro-life are also the ones who vote solidly on pro-business lines (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), and also (for pro-lifers) have a curious attachment to the death penalty. And the unborn keep dying.

Can we do better? Yes, we can. We can develop a strategy that could even attain bi-partisan support. We need to encourage people not to have abortions. We start by saying that the ideal abortion rate is a zero rate. We must also acknowledge that economics matters. I showed in an earlier post that there is a statistical association between poverty and abortion rates and ratios. The abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level is more than four times that of women above 300% of the poverty level. And when asked to give reasons for abortion, three-quarters of women say that cannot afford a child. At the same time, black women are almost four times as likely as white women to have an abortion, and Hispanic women are two and a half life times as likely.

The pro-life movement needs to address these issues. It needs to push for a reduction in poverty. We need universal health insurance and adequate maternal primary health care. We need mandated maternity leave. We need subsidized childcare for families where both parents need to work. So far, so standard. Perhaps we need something far more radical. Maybe the government can offer a cash sum to all pregnant mothers who agree to bring their unborn child to term (this sum could be proportionately greater for women below the poverty level, or for those victims of rape and incest). The government could also give significant subsidies (through the tax code or directly) to families willing to adopt. And, as a last resort, the government must stand ready to fund orphanages willing to raise unwanted children with dignity and care, providing for all their basic needs. And the government need not do this directly: it could provide funds to churches to do it. This is real “compassionate conservatism”, not the con game peddled by Bush back in 2000.

Here’s the problem: everything I have mentioned costs money, a lot of money. It would call for hikes in taxes, perhaps substantially. And this is precisely why the current Republican party would never in a million years go near these proposals. For them, free market individualism and monetary gain trumps the gospel of life. But should that be true for Catholics too? We are all too painfully aware of the limitations of the Democrats on this matter, but this does not mean we should conned by sweet talk of the other side either. We need to think outside the box.

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