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Alito and the "A-Word"

by James Hitchcock
January 6, 2006

In how many ways is it possible to talk about abortion without using the word?

Many, as it turns out: theocracy, rigidity, dogma, erosion of freedom, anti-women, extremism, imposing values, etc., etc.

It is easy to see why those who favor abortion use such rhetoric -- the reality of the practice is extremely unpleasant, something that, even if tolerated, makes people queasy. Most Americans, despite more than thirty years of massive propaganda to the contrary, still feel such unease and do not embrace this “right” with much enthusiasm. Except in circles that are very hard core indeed, no politician can mount an electoral campaign primarily on this issue. It sounds better, therefore, to speak of “a woman’s choice,” as though it were on the same level as picking a new hair style, and nothing upsets the proponents of abortion more than attempts to talk about what is really involved in the practice.

The whole issue is about to be revived by the Senate hearings on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Indications are that he is pro-life, but he has necessarily acknowledged that the Court has made abortion a “constitutional right” and he has promised to be cautious in his approach to the issue. However, there are lobbying groups who estimate, realistically, that his defeat is crucial to the abortion cause. Some of his critics say so bluntly, but most dance around the issue with the kind of rhetoric alluded to above. The proverbial man from Mars, following the debate in the media, would never understand that it is mostly about abortion.

Judge Alito is accused, among other things, of being an enemy of civil rights and the right to privacy, but those accusations are mainly made by people for whom abortion is the one sacred cause. If he announced that, while he opposes affirmative action and supports wiretapping, he is strongly committed to abortion, he would pass with little difficulty. His critics would be glad to sacrifice those causes to the one they really care about. Religion figures in this in an odd way. Before President Bush sent Judge Alito’s name to the Senate, I would have bet that the next nominee would not be a Catholic, since, if he is confirmed, the Court will have an actual majority of five Catholics, something that would have been literally unthinkable even a decade or so ago. But the fact that there have been so few protests over this again shows how abortion is at the center of everything. Pro-life Protestants are more than willing to support a Catholic who appears to be on their side, while many of those on the other side depend on the leadership of Catholics like Edward Kennedy, Patrick Leahy, and Nancy Pelosi.

I doubt if most Americans ever heard the word “theocracy” until a few years ago, but now it is thrown about with abandon in the media and elsewhere. Properly understood, it means a society ruled by religious laws, as some Muslim countries are. As applied to Judge Alito it suggests that he intends, for example, to impose the Lenten fast on everyone by law. Now, however, it is a scare word used, once again, primarily to refer to people who think abortion is wrong. (Since abortion was illegal until 1973, the United States was apparently a theocracy for almost two hundred years without anyone realizing it.)

There are strong rational, even scientific, arguments against abortion. But it is a practice whose proponents are reluctant to utter its name, and the claim that it is a right guaranteed by the Constitution is a manifest absurdity. With no compelling arguments on their side, proponents of abortion can only rely on the raw judicial power that established such a “right” thirty years ago. Thus they have to try to discredit Judge Alito without being fully candid as to why they are doing so.

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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