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Obama Addresses Abortion

April 30, 2009

Here are the exact words:

“You know, the — my view on — on abortion, I think, has been very consistent. I think abortion is a moral issue and an ethical issue.

I think that those who are pro-choice make a mistake when they — if they suggest — and I don’t want to create straw men here, but I think there are some who suggest that this is simply an issue about women’s freedom and that there’s no other considerations. I think, look, this is an issue that people have to wrestle with and families and individual women have to wrestle with.

The reason I’m pro-choice is because I don’t think women take that — that position casually. I think that they struggle with these decisions each and every day. And I think they are in a better position to make these decisions ultimately than members of Congress or a president of the United States, in consultation with their families, with their doctors, with their doctors, with their clergy.

So — so that has been my consistent position. The other thing that I said consistently during the campaign is I would like to reduce the number of unwanted presidencies that result in women feeling compelled to get an abortion, or at least considering getting an abortion, particularly if we can reduce the number of teen pregnancies, which has started to spike up again.

And so I’ve got a task force within the Domestic Policy Council in the West Wing of the White House that is working with groups both in the pro-choice camp and in the pro-life camp, to see if we can arrive at some consensus on that.

Now, the Freedom of Choice Act is not highest legislative priority. I believe that women should have the right to choose. But I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on. And that’s — that’s where I’m going to focus.”

There is very little new here, and those of us who supported Obama last year predicted this very course of action. Here I must point out that this choice was based on him being the relatively better option, and did not constitute an endorsement of the totality of his positions or his worldview. I must keep pointing this out, for the dualists keep declaring that supporting Obama did entail such complicity — but of course they do not feel responsible for the million dead Iraqis, the 4.5 million displaced, or the 5 million orphans, that arose directly from supporting Bush four years earlier. Then again, that’s what this peculiar American dualism is all about — support and never “betray” your own team, and demonize your opponent with hyperbolic and apocalyptic rhetoric. Sorry, but the rhetoric above is not the rhetoric of the “most pro-abortion president ever”. It is the rhetoric of a politician who is trying desperately to square the circle. And here it falls short.

Let’s look at the Declaration on Procured Abortion, the CDF document from 1974 that remains, in my view, the most succinct summary of Church teaching on abortion. It notes that the law has a number of duties in this area. Here is one of them:

“It is the task of law to pursue a reform of society and of conditions of life in all milieux, starting with the most deprived, so that always and everywhere it may be possible to give every child coming into this world a welcome worthy of a person. Help for families and for unmarried mothers, assured grants for children, a statute for illegitimate children and reasonable arrangements for adoption – a whole positive policy must be put into force so that there will always be a concrete, honorable and possible alternative to abortion.

…This is the law of charity, of which the first preoccupation must always be the establishment of justice. One can never approve of abortion; but it is above all necessary to combat its causes. This includes political action, which will be in particular the task of the law. But it is necessary at the same time to influence morality and to do everything possible to help families, mothers and children. Considerable progress in the service of life has been accomplished by medicine. One can hope that such progress will continue, in accordance with the vocation of doctors, which is not to suppress life but to care for it and favor it as much as possible. It is equally desirable that, in suitable institutions, or, in their absence, in the outpouring of Christian generosity and charity every form of assistance should be developed.”

Obama scores relatively well on this point — or at least, he has stated his intention to “combat the causes” of abortion. The proof will be in the pudding. I cannot emphasize this enough — his supposed pro-life predecessors failed to make this a priority, and indeed their socio-economic and health care policies probably contributed to abortion, which (as we all know) remains associated with poverty.

But of course, this is only one side of the coin. Obama cannot really square the circle, for there is a great tension in simultaneously declaring something to be a “right” and hoping to limit it. After all, as Aquinas said, the good is that which all things strive after. Again, let me quote the Declaration:

“These arguments [favoring liberal aborti0n laws] and others in addition that are heard from varying quarters are not conclusive. It is true that civil law cannot expect to cover the whole field of morality or to punish all faults. No one expects it to do so. It must often tolerate what is in fact a lesser evil, in order to avoid a greater one. One must, however, be attentive to what a change in legislation can represent. Many will take as authorization what is perhaps only the abstention from punishment. Even more, in the present case, this very renunciation seems at the very least to admit that the legislator no longer considers abortion a crime against human life, since murder is still always severely punished. It is true that it is not the task of the law to choose between points of view or to impose one rather than another. But the life of the child takes precedence over all opinions. One cannot invoke freedom of thought to destroy this life.

The role of law is not to record what is done, hut to help in promoting improvement. It is at all times the task of the State to preserve each person’s rights and to protect the weakest. In order to do so the State will have to right many wrongs. The law is not obliged to sanction everything, but it cannot act contrary to a law which is deeper and more majestic than any human law: the natural law engraved in men’s hearts by the Creator as a norm which reason clarifies and strives to formulate properly, and which one must always struggle to understand better, but which it is always wrong to contradict. Human law can abstain from punishment, but it cannot declare to be right what would be opposed to the natural law, for this opposition suffices to give the assurance that a law is not a law at all.”

I think here there is a crucial distinction that too few Americans in this debate are willing to make. Do people favor abortion as a right? Or do people merely oppose punishing those who choose abortion? The former is unacceptable in Catholic moral teaching, but the latter might be justified. The problem is that the boundary can be blurred. If the law says nothing about the right to life of the unborn, or the “right” to abortion for that matter, is that not still tacit approval? It might depend on the legal philosophy — in some traditions, what is not specifically banned is approved, while in others what is not specifically approved is banned. In the US tradition at least, the former interpretation is assumed, which suggests the need for an active prohibition in the positive law. That prohibition might opt to apply minimal penal sanctions, however, as a matter of prudence, but would clearly not license abortion providers. It is difficult to argue for a more “liberal” position than that in the natural law tradition.

But when Obama talks about abortion, he is still stuck in the wrongheaded support for a “right”. He is trapped by his own rhetoric, which limits his ability to really break the mold (as he clearly wants to).  Combating the causes of abortion is essential, but it is not enough. On the other hand, I could just as easily say that claiming to be pro-life when not taking action to combat the causes is also not enough (remember, “it is above all necessary to combat its causes”) — especially when the person in question has very little sway over the legal status of abortion in the first place. You see, the debate about abortion in the public sphere is not as simple as partisans on both sides make it — and the partisans need each other to define what they are against. We need to have the debate on purely Catholic terms. That means giving Obama credit for what he plans to do, but not holding back when it comes to the denunciation of this false right, this false law, either. He is not on our side, and Republicans are not on our side.

Where does that leave us? I have no ready-made solution, and neither does anyone else. Let me just end with another quote from the Declaration: “There will be no effective action on the level of morality unless at the same time an effort is made on the level of ideas.” That is where the action must lie. And let there be no doubt — the extremist and one-sided rhetoric against Obama on this matter hinder efforts to persuade. A consistent ethic of life, on the other hand, is a necessary starting point. All roads lead back here.

  1. ron chandonia permalink
    April 30, 2009 1:02 pm

    Sounds really good. But the bottom line is this: He continues to support abortion on demand, with public funding, and will continue to endorse policies and nominate officials in line with that view. However, he will smile as he does it, and his Catholic groupies will swoon in admiration.

  2. April 30, 2009 1:06 pm

    I completely agree with what Obama had to say on this issue.

  3. April 30, 2009 1:08 pm

    Yes, yes, Ron, because we think he’s the messiah, etc, etc. – It couldn’t be that he a competent, intelligent, likable, thoughtful and persuasive; no, it’s that he’s Hitler, swaying the masses with his magical, poisonous rhetoric.

    Sheesh. I hope the Republicans have plenty of camping gear, because they are going to be spending decades in the wilderness at this rate.

  4. April 30, 2009 1:09 pm

    “unwanted presidencies”?

  5. ben permalink
    April 30, 2009 1:32 pm

    I suspect that Obama thinks that one of the root causes of abortion is a lack of availability of contraception. Of course this view is false.

    The prevalence of abortion has a split in the understanding between the unitive and procreative elements of the conjugal act at its root.

  6. April 30, 2009 1:46 pm

    “The reason I’m pro-choice on rape is, well, look, I don’t think men take the decision to rape casually. They put a lot of thought and concern into it, and they have to weigh a lot of issues. And it’s a moral issue, an ethical issue.
    I think the way to reduce rape is to reduce the number of women out in public. You see, men are tempted to rape when they around around women. Let’s reduce rape.”

    The failure of his “supposed pro-life predecessors” is not a reason to give up. It’s a reason to vote for the authentically pro-life candidate in the primary. If Pat Buchanan, or Bob Dornan, or Alan Keyes had been nominated by the GOP and elected–as would have happened if every Catholic prioritized abortion–then abortion would be illegal (the Republicans fielded several opportunities), Terri Schiavo would not have been murdered, etc.

  7. Peter H. permalink
    April 30, 2009 2:15 pm

    You know – the guy sounds a good deal better in person than he’s made out to be. But it is true that he’s taken action to bring abortion back to a Clinton-era level, obviating pro-life political gains made over the past 8 years.

    MM, don’t be so tough on right-wing campers. Obama kind of asks for it, unintentionally. He sounds so sincere, and yet some of his actions are so fundamentally objectionable from a Catholic point of view, that it actually invites conspiracy theorizing. Because someone who talks that well, but does those kind of things – well, *something’s* got to be wrong with him, doesn’t it? Or at least it’s an unusually seductive explanation.

  8. April 30, 2009 2:26 pm

    The reason I’m pro-choice is because I don’t think women take that — that position casually. I think that they struggle with these decisions each and every day.

    This statement is completely consistent with Obama’s “above my paygrade” remark. Women should be able to have abortions because they think really hard about it first. Ergo, no restrictions on abortion are needed, nor should they be tolerated.

    I wonder if I could convince him that I think really hard about the implications and dangers whenever I drive, and that he should therefore abolish speed limits?

    I’m supposed to take this guy seriously? I know you guys don’t think much of my thought processes, but this is the kind of thinking you respect?

    MM, thanks for an actual post about Obama and abortion, with only a little bashing of Republicans and pro-lifers.

  9. April 30, 2009 2:35 pm

    “I could just as easily say that claiming to be pro-life when not taking action to combat the causes is also not enough.”

    What are the actions that need to be taken to reduce abortions; combating poverty, which is usually the main reason pro-choicers say is a cause (it is no coincidence Planned Parenthood have locations in inner cities). Poverty, the poor, witch will always exist (MK 14:7). Condom distribution; increases sexual immorality, which leads to abortion. Sex education in schools; an assault on our children by tacitly encouraging sex. Etc., etc., etc. All of these are pushed by the Democrat majority by the way. Abortion is human positive law gone very wrong because of these actions I contend.

    Exactly what is the way to combat abortion then that actually works. Throw money at the problem through more government programs, which only adicts those on these programs.

    If someone is actually thinking “Catholic,” then there would never be this discussion as everyone would vote with the mind of the Church on this issue, protecting the unborn, which the Church says is the CORE fundamental right that ALL other rights are bassed on (JPII E.V.). This is the action that is needed.

    BTW. I am a conservative that believes the Republican party deserves what it has received. Forget your ideals and reap the consequences.

  10. David Nickol permalink
    April 30, 2009 2:58 pm

    I wonder if I could convince him that I think really hard about the implications and dangers whenever I drive, and that he should therefore abolish speed limits?

    I wonder if I could convince you that if doctors and nurses and pharmacists think really hard, they should be able to follow their own consciences about what treatments to provide for their patients, or even inform the patients about, rather than presenting all the options and doing what they and the patient agree is in the patient’s best interests.

    I wonder if I could convince you further that medical aspects of sex and reproduction discussed with a doctor are different from traffic and speed limits.

    I’m supposed to take this guy seriously? I know you guys don’t think much of my thought processes, but this is the kind of thinking you respect?

    If Obama said or believed, as a general rule, that there should be no laws restricting things that people thought carefully about, then he shouldn’t be taken seriously. But that idea came from your “thought processes.”

  11. April 30, 2009 3:19 pm

    I’ll say that Paul is right; Minion did do a better job of not bashing Republicans in this post.

    However, Minion, you’re still not being fair in applying what you preach to Obama; you need to be tougher.

  12. Mark Gordon permalink
    April 30, 2009 3:32 pm

    I must keep pointing this out, for the dualists keep declaring that supporting Obama did entail such complicity – but of course they do not feel responsible for the million dead Iraqis, the 4.5 million displaced, or the 5 million orphans, that arose directly from supporting Bush four years earlier.

    You can be quite the dualist yourself, MM. Perhaps the “dualists” keep imputing blame to you for Obama’s position on abortion because you continue to impute to them responsibility for the depredations of the Bush regime.

  13. April 30, 2009 3:39 pm

    Poverty, the poor, which will always exist (MK 14:7)

    Christ’s clear intention in saying that was not to convey as a general rule for life, “and thus, focus your energies elsewhere.”

    He was speaking specifically of the fact that was going to be executed the next day – “guys, you’ll have lots of time for the poor later: just now, this is more important.”

  14. April 30, 2009 4:05 pm

    Mark — you are missing the point. I am not imputing these deaths to the Bush voters. I am merely using their own logic pointed right back at them.

  15. Kurt permalink
    April 30, 2009 4:16 pm

    I’m supposed to take this guy seriously?

    You are free to follow your own best judgment.

    this is the kind of thinking you respect?

    I respect the President.

  16. April 30, 2009 4:30 pm


    Iraq war was started in March 2003.

    Bush was re-elected in November 2004.

    So how is a vote for Bush in 2004 responsible for these deaths? Or in 2000 for that matter, when Bush was campaigning on decreasing American involvement in world affairs?

  17. David Raber permalink
    April 30, 2009 4:30 pm

    For those Catholics out there who do not take a strict “pro-life” view of the matter, I ask: What is the stance of your ideal political candidate on the issue of abortion?

    For those who do take a strict “pro-life” view, what is your vision of the legal and social situation in the US when you have what you want?

  18. April 30, 2009 4:37 pm

    For those who do take a strict “pro-life” view, what is your vision of the legal and social situation in the US when you have what you want?

    That the law would forbid and punish abortion at the state level, backed by a Constitutional amendment extending the protections of personhood to all the unborn. That society would retreat from the “if it feels good, do it” ethic that it now embraces, to one of responsibility and respect for both human life and God’s gift of human sexuality.

  19. April 30, 2009 4:53 pm


    I would say ideally a Constitutional Amendment criminalizing abortion in all 50 states, with allowances for the states to decide on whether or not to punish the mother.

    In conjunction with that, Congress should pass legislation supporting significantly crisis pregnancy centers as well as giving more support, through programs and legal protections, to mothers who wish to save the life of the child.

    Doing that is the goal of the pro-life agenda on the issue of abortion, which is what I think you were asking about. If you want further, I would like a repeal of the death penalty, an end to euthanasia, a ban on ESCR, an end to a utilitarian calculus on war on foreign relations, increased care for the poor through education and other measures, some sort of health care reform (done through charities, not by the government, though this is an area of prudential disagreement) allowing every to get the care they need, etc. Those were some of the things I thought off the top of my head; I’ll probably think of more later (an end to torture-just thought of one).

  20. Kurt permalink
    April 30, 2009 5:02 pm

    I agree with Michael Denton.

  21. David Nickol permalink
    April 30, 2009 5:03 pm

    Paul and Michael,

    Would the law criminalize abortion in the cases of rape, incest, authentic threat to the life of the mother, and fetal abnormalities?

  22. Mike McG... permalink
    April 30, 2009 5:51 pm

    *Excellent*, MM. These issues are complicated. In this essay you punch through simplistic categories and point to crucial distinctions that we all need to make.

  23. April 30, 2009 6:46 pm

    I envision a country where contraception is illegal, where doctors and pharmacists who engage in abortion and contraception are stripped of their licenses and thrown in prison.

    What’s so complicated about that?

    And let’s not forget that Obama is doing everything he can to strip away doctors’ conscience rights. So that means he will, by extension, take away *patients’* conscience rights. Parents won’t be able to refuse vaccinations, because doctors won’t have the freedom of conscience to let them. there are only a handful of NFP-only physicians in the country as it is, and their conscience rights will be removed. This means taht Catholics woh don’t want to be complicit in abortion and contraceptoin by material cooperation will not be able to go to their OB/Gyns or family doctors. As it is, the average OB/Gyn refuses to even listen about NFP. Now it will be impossible to get help with NFP from a physician, and they’ll try even harder to force patients to take birth control pills.

    Though I ahve a suspicion that most people involved in this site have not had the experience of trying to discuss NFP with an OB/Gyn.

  24. May 1, 2009 12:33 am


    Definitely criminal in cases of rape, incest, and abnormalities. “In defense of the mother” if everything has been done to try to save both lives. This is the church’s teaching of double effect, so that you can do what you need to save the mother’s life, as long as not desiring to kill the child.

    If you’re unfamiliar with this concept, I can explain more after I get night’s rest ;)

    • M.Z. permalink
      May 1, 2009 12:50 am

      Double effect doesn’t mean mom lives and child dies. The consensus view is that direct abortion cannot be done when the mother’s life is at risk. There may be other procedures available that do save the mother’s live and incidentally lead to the child’s death, but the mother’s deleterious health can’t make an abortion not an abortion.

  25. May 1, 2009 8:58 am


    Not sure if you were talking to me, but yes, you’re right about double effect. I hope I didn’t suggest otherwise.

    Indeed, I’ve heard some people say that they’re against abortion in all cases, because procedures meant to save the mother’s life which incidentally lead to the child’s [edit:mz] death aren’t really abortions.

  26. M.Z. permalink
    May 1, 2009 9:10 am

    Thanks for the clarification. Your language paralleled the language others that have misunderstood the issue, including myself at one time.

  27. David Nickol permalink
    May 1, 2009 11:26 am

    Definitely criminal in cases of rape, incest, and abnormalities.


    Would a Jewish woman be prohibited from obtaining an abortion if her life was in danger from the pregnancy? Jews have an even more ancient tradition than Catholics, and Jewish women are permitted (some would even say required) to have abortions if their life is in danger. Do you really believe Catholic belief should override the beliefs of other religions?

  28. May 1, 2009 11:55 am


    I am unfamiliar with Jewish traditions on the subject and so I can’t really comment on what they say.

    I can say that Church ‘s stance on abortion is not one rooted primarily in revelation, which would be particular to the Church (like going to mass) but one that is rooted in natural law and reason, which is accessible to all men. Life is sacred and is worth protecting, and one does not need to be Catholic to recognize that.

    Now I think we need to clarify what we mean by “getting an abortion.” I define abortion as an act with the intention of killing the fetus. This attacks the dignity of life, and so I reject that. However, I think that procedures done to save the mother’s life, which try to but recognize the difficult and perhaps the near impossibility of saving the child’s life are acceptable.

    So if a Jewish woman is told she should have an abortion, I would say she shouldn’t. If however a Jewish woman was told that she needs a procedure to save her life, and the chances of the child’s surviving are slim to none, I think it is an acceptable choice for the mother because (and this is the key difference) the death is an unintended and undesired consequence of the procedure whereas with an abortion the procedure intends to kill the child.

    I hope that that is clear. I’m not sure how more I could add, as I think we’re approaching territory that requires a bioethics or medical degree, which I sadly lack.

  29. David Raber permalink
    May 4, 2009 1:18 pm

    Michael Denton and others:

    In our pluralistic society, the problem is getting a substantial majority of people to agree that the Cstholic teaching on abortion is not just Catholic or Christian but “rooted in natural law and reason,” to use your words.

    Some Catholics may even have trouble believing that an ambryo of a few cells is an entity no different in ethical terms than an entity everyone recognizes as a human being, say, a potential mother or a baby.

    Anyone must recognize, I think, that a fertilized egg is what it is–a living thing of the human kind, if you will, a complete set of human DNA, and certainly a potential human being–but it is hard for me to see pure reason going beyond that into the spiritual realm of the soul. Then I ask, what legal protections are due to a potential human being? In reason, I would say, plenty–but not to the extent, for example, that a woman pregnant as the result of rape should be forced against her will to remain pregnant.

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