[This is the “Catholic version” of this post; it contextualizes my thoughts about abortion into the question of if Catholics can support pro-choice policies. The post above this one is the “non-Catholic version” of the same argument, for those who aren’t interested in the religious questions.]
[This is why being a blogger is so cool. I mean, a real writer would never be able to do unprofessional $#!+@ like this.]
Over on the Dallas News blog, Rod Dreher responds to an op-ed by his colleague Bill McKenzie (unfortunately, the Dallas News blog software doesn’t seem to include permalinks to particular entries). Here’s the best bit:
Besides, it is Catholic teaching that the Eucharist is literally the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It is the responsibility of the Catholic clergy to get Catholics to heaven, not to help us all live with untroubled consciences, or to provide for social and political comity. Catholicism teaches that it is a very great sin to receive Holy Communion in a state of mortal sin — which a lawmaker who backs abortion rights with his vote almost certainly is in. Nobody has to believe in Catholicism or practice it, but those who profess it are obliged to try their best to live by its rules — and those who are responsible for teaching and upholding the rules have their duty too.
Look, I think the bishops ought to discipline pro-choice Catholic politicians, but I could be wrong about this. I am certainly open to hearing an argument that this move would be imprudent, given current circumstances. But I want to hear an argument made on Catholic terms, taking seriously the Catholic Church’s understanding of itself. I don’t find much value in an argument that tells me why Catholics ought to be better liberal Protestants.
Okay, let me try to answer that. I’m not a Catholic – and, given my admitted ignorance of Catholism compared to most Catholics, it’s likely I’m making a fool of myself. But I think it’s possible to argue that, even given acceptance of Catholic doctrine, a Catholic can also be pro-choice or vote in clear conscience for a pro-choice politician.
Please note that I’m not defending John Kerry’s motives in particular; I don’t know what’s going on in Mr. Kerry’s heart, and neither do the folks who have been criticizing him. It’s not possible for me to know if Kerry is a sincere Catholic or not. All I’m saying is that it’s perfectly possible for a sincere Catholic to hold pro-choice views.
First, let me state a few points, which I hope that Mr. Dreher is willing to agree to for the sake of argument:
1) All Catholics, if they accept the teachings of the Catholic Church, must be anti-abortion. By “anti-abortion,” I mean that they must work to make abortion as rare as humanly possible. For a politician, this means supporting legislation which she believes will make abortion as rare as the government can make it.
For the purpose of this discussion, I’m going to be using “Catholic” as shorthand for “Catholics who accept the teachings of the Catholic Church and are therefore anti-abortion.” No offense is intended towards Catholics who don’t accept those teachings.
2) “Pro-life,” for the purpose of this argument, refers to the position that abortion should be illegal except where the mother’s life is in danger. (I realize that many Catholics argue that “pro-life” refers to a larger tapestry of policies; I respect that, but it’s not what I’m discussing at this moment).
3) “Pro-choice” refers to the position that abortion should be legal in almost all circumstances.
4) It is possible to be a Catholic and yet disagree on what exact policy is the best policy for achieving a particular outcome. To quote from the US Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on War and Peace:
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So if all Catholics must be against abortion, doesn’t it follow that all Catholics must be pro-life?
I’d argue not. For a Catholic to support the pro-life position, she would have to believe that supporting the pro-life position, in the current political climate, is the policy that would lead to the greatest reduction in abortions. But there are legitimate reasons to doubt that’s true.
First, even if legal abortion could be entirely banned, it’s unclear that this would actually reduce the real number of abortions by a significant degree. Before the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade ruling, American women had somewhere between 200,000 and 1.2 million abortions a year in the U.S.. Although measuring something as hidden as illegal abortions is always difficult, the best pre-Roe scholarly assessment came to a figure of about a million abortions a year (“…prior to the adoption of more moderate abortion laws in 1967, there were 1 million abortions annually nationwide, of which 8000 were legal….” From Christopher Tietze “Abortion on request: its consequences for population trends and public health,” Seminars in Psychiatry 1970;2:375-381, quoted in JAMA December 9, 1992).
Another option is to look at what happens to birth rates; an significant increase in abortions should lead to a declining birth rate. So if Roe caused a big increase in abortions, the birthrate in the US would have dropped post-Roe. So what actually happened?
Year Births Birthrate 1973 3,136,965 14.9 1974 3,159,958 14.9 1975 3,144,198 14.8 1976 3,167,788 14.8 1977 3,326,632 15.4 1978 3,333,279 15.3 1979 3,494,398 15.9 1980 3,612,258 15.9
Similarly, what happened when Poland banned abortions in the 1990s? If pro-life policies reduce abortion significantly, there would have been a spike in Poland’s birthrate. But Poland’s birth rate remained steady. (See Reproductive Health Matters (Volume 10, Issue 19 , May 2002): “The restrictive abortion law in Poland has not increased the number of births.”)
Pro-life laws may prevent a few abortions; but they don’t prevent enough to be measured statistically, or to have a noticeable effect on birthrates. That may seem counterintuitive, but it actually makes sense. Why? Because most women don’t have abortions lightly. They have abortions because they are feeling very determined, or perhaps very desperate, and the anti-abortion laws don’t seem just to them. When something is desperately wanted by consumers – and when that something is fairly easy to supply – outlawing it won’t make it actually unavailable. Just look at the market for pot; and the proportion of casual pot smokers is far higher than the proportion of casual abortion patients.
Here’s another statistic to consider: Which countries have the least abortion? Belgium has an abortion rate of 6.8 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44. The Netherlands, 6.5. Germany, 7.8. Compare that to the USA’s rate of 22. Even better, compare it to countries where abortion is illegal: Egypt, 23; Brazil, 40; Chile, 50; Peru, 56.
According to the World Health Organization:
If pro-life laws are the best way of reducing abortion, then why are the world’s lowest abortion rates found in pro-choice countries like Germany and the Netherlands, while some of the world’s highest abortion rates are in countries that outlaw abortion?
Statistically, there’s no evidence that outlawing abortion lowers abortion rates; and there’s quite a lot of reason to think that it doesn’t.
Now, you may not agree with that statement, Mr. Dreher. But can you honestly say that you couldn’t possibly be mistaken about that; and that it’s impossible for a Catholic of good will to disagree with you on this question?
But what about “moderate” pro-life laws – those that don’t seek to ban abortion? As Fr. Rob Johansen asked on his blog,
Fr. Rob assumes that it is not possible for any reasonable Catholic to disagree that these bills are desirable and will reduce abortion.
However, it’s unclear that either of these restrictions would actually reduce the number of abortions. Parental notification laws don’t make it impossible for most teenagers to obtain abortions; they just make it likely that teenager will put off obtaining abortions illegally (for instance, with a false ID, or by traveling to another state) until after the pregnancy is more developed. This is problematic, because late-term abortions are much more dangerous for the mother.
The Partial Birth abortion ban is blatantly unconstitutional and will be overturned by the Supreme Court before ever becoming active law. Furthermore, even if it unexpectedly becomes active law, it will not prevent a single abortion; it doesn’t ban any abortions, it only instructs doctors on what method to use. Why is Kerry – or any Catholic – obliged to support legislation that will not prevent a single abortion?
(I feel obliged to mention that Fr. Rob is mistaken about what “every responsible medical organization” says. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said that “partial birth” abortions “may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman, and only the doctor, in consultation with the patient, based upon the woman’s particular circumstances, can make this decision.”)
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There’s no evidence that any pro-life law will reduce abortion by any significant degree in the United States.
What will reduce abortion? If the examples of the Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium – countries that have incredibly low abortion rates – are any example, we should consider reducing abortion by reducing the demand, rather than reducing the supply. As Ono Ekeh recently wrote in National Catholic Weekly:
Pro-life moderates and liberals embrace the “demand-side” approach. This approach seeks to reduce the number of abortions by addressing the social issues that compel too many women to contemplate what would normally be unthinkable. If social conditions were changed so that women were empowered, and if we effectively addressed issues such as health care, child care, family leave, wage inequity, domestic violence and other women’s issues, we could reasonably expect a significant reduction in the number of abortions in the United States. For instance, 21 percent of abortions in the United States are a result of inadequate finances. This category of women, though not exhaustive, represents a very fixable opportunity. Consider the following simplified example. If a woman for whom inadequate finances were the primary reason to consider an abortion is confident that there would be assistance to compensate for her lack of finances, the lack of finances then weighs less in her deliberations.
This demand-side approach will take time and does not immediately make abortions rare, but our goal is to change a culture, not just a law. This approach is a steady tide that lifts all boats of human dignity. It seems that this is a reasonable means of attaining the goal of a culture of life even if different from the process laid out by traditional pro-lifers.
Given that traditional pro-lifers cannot, as far as I know, point to even one country in which pro-life policies have resulted in a low abortion rate, it’s time for those who seriously oppose abortion to consider the demand-side approach to abortion reduction.
Even if you don’t agree with that, I don’t think anyone can fairly say that no reasonable Catholic could agree with that. To quote the pastoral letter again, “People may agree in abhorring an injustice, for instance, yet sincerely disagree as to what practical approach will achieve justice.” All Catholics agree that abortion is an injustice; but pro-choice Catholics and pro-life Catholics sincerely disagree on what practical approach will reduce abortion.
The disagreement is over means, not ends; and I don’t think bishops should discipline Catholic politicians over a disagreement in means. As Mario Cuomo once said, “there is no church teaching that mandates the best political course for making our belief everyone’s rule, for spreading this part of our Catholicism. There is neither an encyclical nor a catechism that spells out a political strategy for achieving legislative goals.”
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Finally, regarding the current presidential race, the matter of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) should be considered. George Bush chose to defund the UNFPA, removing the $34 million US contribution, due to accusations that the UNFPA supports coerced abortion in China. Many people believe these accusations were not true (both a Bush State Department team, and a British inspection team including a well-known critic of UNFPA, found that the accusations were not true).
UNFPA does not provide support for abortions or abortion-related activities anywhere in the world. In fact, they prevent abortion, by providing family planning services and birth control in developing countries all over the world. They also help prevent AIDS, provide medical care which makes pregnancy and childbirth safer for mothers and babies, and work to prevent and treat obstetric fistulas. (Follow this link for more posts about UNFPA).
According to UNFPA, “UNFPA estimates that $34 million applied to family planning programmes could prevent some 800,000 abortions, 4,700 maternal deaths and 77,000 infant and child deaths annually worldwide.”
It’s certain that John Kerry, if elected president, would refund UNFPA – which in turn could prevent hundreds of thousands of avoidable abortions.
There’s virtually no evidence that pro-life policies will reduce abortion. There is, however, a strong possibility that having John Kerry in office will prevent thousands of abortions; not in some theoretical far-off time, but immediately, next year.
You may not agree with all this.
But do you feel that you couldn’t possibly be mistaken about that?
More importantly, do you deny that someone could believe all this, in good faith?
If your answer to those two questions was “no,” then I think you have to agree that it’s possible for a Catholic politician, of good will and out of sincere opposition to abortion, to endorse “pro-choice” methods of reducing abortion – and to support John Kerry for President.