Today’s post, my last in this series, is also likely to be the most controversial. I nonetheless hope that any discussion it engenders can still be reasonable. I decided not to post this series during an election season because the emotion and loyalties campaigns arouse make such discussion difficult. Voices in the Catholic media begin to treat the Church’s social teachings as ammunition to be used in defense of their predetermined party of choice rather than looking to the Church as a genuine guide. Sometimes the loyalty Catholics show to their candidates and parties borders on the idolatrous.
I’ve argued that for both theological and practical reasons, Catholics should prioritize opposition to abortion above other political issues. Today I’m going to get a little more specific in discussing what I think are the real world consequences of this argument. When we get to the point of concrete political decisions we have to be a bit more specific with our terms than I have been in my earlier posts. So when I say that I think abortion should be “issue number one” for American Catholics, I mean specifically that working to weaken and overturn Roe v. Wade must be our top priority.
There are lots of other ways to combat abortion, after all, such as volunteering in crisis pregnancy centers or subsidizing adoption, all of which are praiseworthy—but none of which are a substitute for overturning Roe.
The reason I say this is that Roe v. Wade made abortion a civil rights issue, rather than a matter of criminal law or, still less, private morality. Civil rights issues are important because they deal with categories or classes of people who, because of a legal injustice, are denied basic human rights. To use the language of Catholic social teaching, such groups are excluded from the common good. Roe v. Wade excludes an entire class of people—those not yet born—from the protection of law and all of society’s benefits. No candidate or party supporting Roe v. Wade can ever legitimately claim to be acting for the common good.
Furthermore, because it is so extreme, enshrining abortion on demand as a constitutional right, Roe has had the effect of making abortion an either/or issue. Our democratic system of elections, checks and balances, free press and public debate means that most of our laws are decent compromises—never perfect, but rarely abominable either. Roe v. Wade, on the other hand, because it was decided by judicial fiat, had the effect of short-circuiting all these processes and imposing a virtually unlimited abortion license.
All of this means that if Roe is reversed, we likely won’t end up with perfect abortion laws, just as we don’t have perfect civil rights laws, perfect health care laws, perfect criminal laws. But because Roe is so extreme, our normal legal processes for addressing social issues have been in effect suspended, and all the talk of making abortion “safe, legal, and rare,” which we have heard from every pro-Roe presidential candidate since Bill Clinton, is utter nonsense. Claiming to want to make abortion rare while defending Roe v. Wade is Orwellian doublespeak.
What does this mean, however, when we enter the voting booth? Most of my education as a Catholic has been in fairly liberal circles where being called a “single-issue voter” is akin to being labeled a troglodyte. At some point, however, I realized that at the end of the day almost everyone is a single-issue voter. Remember “It’s the economy, stupid” from Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign? The fact that the single issue is often something vague like “the economy” or “change” doesn’t seem to me to make it more important than something concrete, such as the death of more than a million aborted children every year. In fact, usually it means that one has simply succumbed to the emotive manipulations of campaign spinmeisters.
Lots of people vote based on party preference. But it’s hard for me to see how that’s nobler than voting based on one particularly important issue. Our two major political parties, after all, tend to be ideologically vague conglomerations of special interests, each with their own single-issues.
Unease with the notion of “single-issue voting,” however, is not completely irrational, and two cautions are in order.
First, even if you agree with me that abortion is the most important issue American Catholics confront today, that does not mean it is the only issue of importance. This means that just because a candidate is pro-life, he shouldn’t get a blank check on everything else. Many so-called Catholic “neo-cons” (a vague term I use reluctantly) hurt their credibility by too enthusiastically supporting President Bush on the war in Iraq after having been won over by his pro-life stance on abortion and generally positive policies toward religious faith. Catholics need to be fiercer in defending our independence. Political idolatry is a danger for both liberals and conservatives.
Second, recognizing that abortion is objectively the most important issue doesn’t mean that we must concentrate all of our efforts as individuals on that issue. People have different callings to work on different issues. I know it’s unfashionable to defend our Catholic bishops, but I think that right now they are setting a pretty good example of how to do this. They’ve been firm and forceful on the priority of abortion, but they’ve also expended a great deal of energy on issues like immigration reform and opposition to the death penalty. (Whether their efforts get fair coverage in the media is another matter.)
So, if “single-issue” means “only issue,” we’re making a mistake. But if it means “decisive issue,” I think we’re on solid ground.
Perhaps it might be best not to speak of abortion as a “single-issue” but as a “disqualifier.” In other words, if a candidate takes the egregious stance of supporting a constitutional right to abortion on demand (i.e., supporting Roe v. Wade) he disqualifies himself from receiving my vote. Such a “disqualifier” is particularly important for presidential and U.S. senate candidates, whose decisions determine the justices on the Supreme Court. Another pro-life justice is the only realistic way of overturning Roe.
It is perhaps theoretically possible to imagine a politician taking a morally worse position than support of Roe—someone who promised to restart the slave trade, for example, or to launch nuclear weapons at major foreign population centers to free up more room for us—but no existing legal structure matches the evil of that Supreme Court case and all that followed it.
To put my argument in the starkest terms: voting for a pro-abortion candidate requires one to finish the sentence, “He supports legally killing 1.2 million innocent children per year, but that’s okay because…”
I don’t think there’s any rational, morally defensible way for that sentence to end.
The truth is ugly, but it is something we must face: voting for Roe means voting for the legal killing of more than a million of our sisters and brothers every year. We must do everything in our power to see such injustice overturned.