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Personally opposed -- to what?

by James Hitchcock

"Personally I am opposed to abortion, but I will not impose my views on others." This has become the favorite mantra of some Catholic politicians, but it does not stand up to analysis.

If the statement means anything, it has to mean that abortion is the taking of a human life, which is the most serious issue government can face. But those who repeat the mantra do not act as though they believe that.

If a politician truly thinks that abortion is a grave moral evil, but also truly thinks that he cannot support laws against it, that ought to be a source of great anguish to him, forcing him to ask himself how the lives of the unborn can be protected short of legislation. But I know of no politician who shows such anguish. Most seem to be more passionate about tax cuts than they are about what they purport to recognize as direct killing.

When this mantra was first formulated some years ago, I thought that those who repeated it could show their good faith by making passionate efforts to persuade people that abortion is wrong, using the public forum to change hearts and minds. But again, I know of no politician who has done so.

The closest such people come to trying to prevent the evil is to urge more programs to support pregnant women, especially the poor. But there are already a number of such programs, often run by pro-lifers, and it is simply not true that women have abortions only because they are poor.

But some Catholic politicians have indeed become emotional about the issue. If the taking of innocent human life does not arouse their passion, being told that they ought not to receive Communion does. The grave evil, it turns out, is not abortion itself but whatever consequences it has for those who support it. Abortionists are not to be castigated; bishops are.

"Personally opposed" politicians in effect acknowledge that they are complicit in a grave moral evil and argue that they must remain so because of the demands of politics, which is as cynical a view of politics as one can imagine. Bishops are accused of violating the Constitution, but it is those on the other side who are doing so, denying the Church the right to determine who is a member in good standing and demanding that it accommodate itself to the needs of politicians.

Since Senator John Kerry is the likely Democratic nominee for president, this has been defined as a partisan issue, bishops accused of tilting towards the Republicans. But this is an odd response. It would seem to make sense for Democrats to deflect attention away from themselves by pointing out that there are also Catholic Republicans who are pro-abortion, notably Governors George Pataki of New York and Arnold Schwarzenneger of California. Why Democrats went to define this as a partisan issue defies explanation. (The Republican Party is far more hospitable to pro-abortion people than the Democrats are to pro-lifers.)

Behind the "personally opposed" mantra is the implication that this is a matter of religious dogma, some odd Catholic belief which no one else shares. But the country is almost evenly split on the issue, and fully two thirds of the citizens oppose partial-birth abortion, which Senator Kerry and some other Catholics support. Pro-lifers do not ask people to accept a religious dogma; they ask them simply to look at the evidence, including photographs of unborn children and indications that they feel pain.

If the fetus is indeed a human being, the issue is not religious at all but political in the deepest sense. The undeniable fact is that there is no possible justification for the law's withholding its protection from any class of persons. Any politician who truly believes that the fetus is a person has an obligation to protect it, no matter how many voters may disagree.

James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. Dr. Hitchcock's The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life, Vol. 1 The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses and Vol. II From 'Higher Law' to 'Sectarian Scruples', were released by Princeton University Press September 2, 2004.

E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock

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