Listening to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry talk about his position on abortion (“We believe that what matters most is...not narrow appeals that divide us, but shared values that unite us...”), I hear loudly in the background the sonorous voice of Mario Cuomo, our foremost “philosopher-politician,” as the Boston Globe has lately crowned him. It is twenty years since Cuomo delivered his famous speech at Notre Dame, in which he defined what has become the established rationale for prochoice Catholic politicians. In a recent New York Times op-ed piece on Kerry and the Catholic bishops (“A Political Sacrament,” May 28, 2004), I dismissed that speech as a piece of “ancient sophistry.” That brought a message from the former governor of New York urging me to reexamine his words. And so I have. I have also tracked Cuomo’s statements on the abortion issue in this political season and discussed the matter with him by phone.

A whole new generation—including Senator Kerry—has come of political age since 1984, when Cuomo’s speech was seen as a defense not only of his own prochoice politics but also those of Geraldine Ferraro, a Catholic congresswoman from New York who was that year’s Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States. Since then, Cuomo’s apologia has been enshrined in books by and about him, highlighted in recent histories of American Catholicism by John T. McGreevy and Peter Steinfels, and echoed by the forty-eight members of Congress who recently asserted that “As Catholics we do not believe it is our role to legislate the teachings of the Catholic Church.” It is, then, a kind of benchmark statement that is worth revisiting to see what his arguments were and whether they hold up.

Mario Cuomo, it should be recalled, served three terms as governor of New York. In 1984 there was talk of his running for president eventually, which later he nearly did. In the month or so before his Notre Dame speech he was the subject of a flattering cover story in Newsweek, to which I contributed a piece on Cuomo the Catholic. He had already been invited to Notre Dame to speak on the relationship between religion and politics when he happened to catch a Sunday morning interview with then-Archbishop John J. ­O’Connor on a local New York City TV channel. Under questioning, O’Connor said he could not see how a Catholic in good conscience could support abortion rights. When asked if excommunication should be leveled against any Catholic politician who did, O’Connor said he’d have to think that over. A thicker-skinned politician might have let the comment pass, especially one so casually made. But Cuomo took it as a personal challenge. At Notre Dame he would respond.

In his speech, the governor declared that as a Catholic and as a matter of conscience, he regarded abortion as “sinful.” But this, he insisted, was his “private” view as an “obedient” Catholic raised in the “pre–Vatican II” church. As a politician and public official, however, Cuomo said, he was not obliged to work for laws that reflected Catholic “dogmas,” citing among other examples the fact that the bishops themselves no longer sought through laws to oblige non-Catholics to observe church teachings on birth control. While acknowledging that abortion is a graver moral issue than contraception, Cuomo further argued that it would be both wrong and impractical to seek laws restricting abortion. He gave two reasons. First, such laws would oblige non-Catholics and Catholics who disagree with the church’s teachings on abortion, thereby violating their religious freedom: “We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.” Second, since there is no public consensus in support of antiabortion legislation, any efforts to pass such laws would be divisive and unenforceable: “The values derived from religious belief will not—and should not—be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus.”

At this point it is worth noting what Cuomo did not say, as well as what he did. Never once did he say that abortion was evil, intrinsically or otherwise. Never once did he say—as the bishops had, as he himself could have—that opposition to abortion as a matter of public morality is a defense of the human rights of the unborn. Never once did he say the abortion dispute is a disagreement over the scope of social justice. He did not say these things, and never has, I believe, because doing so would make his position difficult if not impossible to defend. He did not say these things, and never has, because, as I think his record makes clear, he does not believe them to be true. In his book A People Adrift, Peter Steinfels has cautioned against twisting Cuomo’s argument “into the crude formula, ‘I am personally opposed to abortion but I don’t want to impose my view on others.’” In fact, Cuomo’s argument strikes me as even cruder than that. It says that his reasons for thinking abortion “sinful” are not only “private” but sectarian as well. Thus, while formally rejecting the notion that Catholic opposition to abortion on demand (another phrase he avoids) violates separation of church and state, Cuomo advances a rationale (the church has told him so) that bolsters the case for advancing just such a charge. It was, withal, a carefully crafted speech. Cuomo sought to defend both his docility toward church teachings and his right—indeed, his duty—to act against them.

In a public dialogue on religion and American politics just published by the Brookings Institute (One Electorate under God?), Cuomo repeats the arguments he made at Notre Dame (applying them to church teachings on stem-cell research as well) in order to defend his continuing support for unrestricted abortion rights. But as Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, points out in a devastating rebuttal, the fact that any religious body opposes the killing of the unborn—or owning slaves, or the exploitation of workers—does not mean that laws protecting the unborn, outlawing slavery, or requiring workers be paid a just wage violate the freedom of religion of those who do not accept those teachings.

But what are we to make of Cuomo’s argument, first elaborated at Notre Dame, that there is no public “consensus” regarding abortion? I take it he meant—and still means—that there is no political majority to support any restrictions on public access to abortion, not to mention recriminalization. Politically, he may be right. But how would Cuomo know since he has never mustered the political courage to test his own assumptions?

In fact, there has long been a moral consensus regarding abortion that, if anything, now tilts toward the prolife position. Indeed, if there were no such current running counter to Roe v. Wade, abortion would no longer be a political issue. Even at the time of Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech, polls showed that while most Americans supported the right to abortion, pluralities of various sizes believed that abortion should be restricted to the rare and so-called hard cases of rape, incest, and immediate physical harm to the mother. A 1987 study of why women have abortions, conducted by the prochoice Alan Guttmacher Institute, showed that most women chose abortion for a mix of three reasons: giving birth would interfere with work, school, or other responsibilities; lack of financial support; and lack of a relationship—or “relationship problems”—with the father usually. By the middle 1990s, the number of women identifying themselves as prolife began to match those identifying as prochoice. Last year, a poll sponsored by another prochoice organization found that 51 percent of women wanted abortion either not permitted or restricted to the hard cases. This April, a Zogby poll found that 56 percent of all Americans would abolish or severely restrict abortion rights—a figure that reached 60.5 percent among those eighteen to twenty-nine years of age.

Given his celebrated intellect and powers of persuasion, Cuomo might have nurtured this emerging moral consensus into political expression. In his Notre Dame speech he conceded as much: “And surely, I can, if so inclined, demand some kind of law against abortion not because my bishops say it is wrong but because I think that the whole community, regardless of its religious beliefs, should agree on the importance of protecting life— -including life in the womb, which is at the very least potentially human and should not be extinguished casually.”

This teasing way of letting his listeners know that he was aware that this argument and option were open to him was, in fact, Cuomo’s way of telling them the option was merely private—a “prudential” judgment that no one could make for him. But his words led not a few in his audience to assume that he would use his influence to modify his party’s embrace of abortion on demand, should the opportunity arise. God knows, he had his chances.

In 1988, the Democrats dropped from their platform a mild statement recognizing “the religious and ethical concerns which many Americans have about abortion.” Cuomo said not a word of objection. At the 1992 convention in New York City, where the Clinton forces proclaimed the Democrats the party of “the big tent,” Cuomo again stood by as the Clintonites silenced the prolife Catholic governor of Pennsylvania, Robert P. Casey. Casey, who was at least as liberal as Cuomo and far more effective as a governor, had asked to read a minority report challenging the platform’s endorsement of abortion as “a fundamental right” deserving of government funding. Instead, in introducing Clinton to the convention, Cuomo twice denounced Republican opposition to abortion. I was standing just behind Governor Casey’s empty seat when Cuomo brought the delegates to their feet in extended applause with this line: “We need a leader who will stop the Republican attempt, through laws and through the courts, to tell us what god to believe in and how to apply that god’s judgment to our schoolrooms, our bedrooms, and our bodies.” Stripped of the overheated partisan rhetoric, is this god he so derides not the same god who privately instructs Cuomo the Catholic that abortion is “sinful”? Here we see the whole intent of Cuomo’s Notre Dame speech—the spurious justification of a Catholic politician who wants it both ways.

When I spoke by phone with Cuomo in June, I asked him why he did not deploy the same passion on behalf of abortion that he used in fighting the consensus—even in New York State—supporting capital punishment. “The argument I made against capital punishment,” he said in quick reply, “was not a moral argument” (emphasis his). But the truth is that Cuomo never gave a speech that did not glisten with the sweat of moral conviction, and his campaign against capital punishment was no exception. In One Electorate under God?, he explains his opposition to state-sanctioned capital punishment: “I am against the death penalty because I think it is bad and unfair. It is debasing. It is degenerate. It kills innocent people.” That is exactly the kind of moral argument prolife people make against abortion and its funding by government.

Neither logic nor consistency has been the hallmark of our foremost “philosopher-politician.” He has convinced himself, it seems to me, that “moral” arguments can proceed only from what he calls religious “dogmas,” and thus cannot be used in making arguments in the public square. And this is precisely the kind of reasoning that sustains the prochoice position of this year’s most prominent Catholic politician, John Kerry.

In my conversation with Cuomo, he impressed on me the need for a churchwide Catholic discussion of “When does life begin?” According to biographer David Maraniss, Bill Clinton once put the same question to a Baptist pastor, who cited Genesis in assuring him that life begins—as it did for Adam—at the first drawing of breath. But Catholics are not biblical fundamentalists who can anchor abortion rights with a biblical story. That would indeed be arguing abortion from a purely religious perspective. The Catholic argument is broader, advancing philosophical, political, and even biological warrants. I reminded Cuomo that a human embryo can never turn out to be a cat or dog, which is why the church-wide discussion he wants would quickly prove moot.

After reviewing Cuomo on the subject of abortion, it is clear to me where he stands. He is not sure that a developing fetus—never mind an embryo—is really human. The human “family” that he so often summons up in his political rhetoric is not wide enough to include the unborn. Catholics have every reason to repudiate the argument he has bequeathed to prochoice politicians of both parties.


Mario Cuomo responds: Persuade or Coerce?

Kenneth L. Woodward, author of Getting Religion, was the religion editor of Newsweek for thirty-eight years and is currently writer-in-residence at the Lumen Christi Institute.

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Published in the 2004-09-24 issue: View Contents
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