Dear Senator Kerry...


As the first Roman Catholic nominated for the presidency by either major party in forty-four years, your candidacy has raised much interest and considerable controversy within the hierarchy as well as among Catholics in the pews. Even Rome has weighed in with regard to the question of whether a Catholic legislator who has consistently voted to support unrestricted access to abortion is, by so doing, formally cooperating with evil. You have made a point of identifying yourself as a believing Catholic. You profess to be a man of faith, and to believe, as the church teaches, that life begins at conception. Yet, despite the church’s longstanding opposition to legalized abortion, you have made support for Roe a litmus test for anyone you would nominate to the Supreme Court, and you have opposed every effort to restrict or overturn that deeply flawed decision. You have said that abortion is “a very complicated, incredibly important moral issue that people have to face.” You are right. What you think the moral issues are, however, is not clear. Given your position, it is hardly surprising that many Catholics, as well as other Americans, have doubts about your sincerity and conviction. In response, you have resorted to the specious explanation that a vote to restrict access to abortion would impose Catholic doctrine on others, and thus violate the separation of church and state. Opposition to abortion is not, of course, a uniquely Catholic view, or necessarily even a religious one. Many secularists as well as religious believers see abortion as the unjustified taking of innocent human life, an act that civilized society should permit only in the most extreme cases. You, on the other hand, are a supporter of the most permissive abortion law in the world. Perhaps it is your position, Senator Kerry, that abortion is a constitutional question, one that judges, not legislators, will decide, and that legislation such as the partial-birth abortion ban is therefore futile. Or perhaps you reason that if Roe were overturned, abortion would quickly be legalized by state legislatures and thereby would remain widely available; in short, doing away with Roe would do little to reduce the number of abortions. Or perhaps you are convinced that the law is an inappropriate tool to use in changing hearts and minds about a question as deeply personal as a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy. Or is it that you think the church’s opposition to abortion in all circumstances (even in cases of rape or incest), is so rigid and abstract that it is an affront to a rape or incest victim’s fundamental dignity? Perhaps you are convinced that translating the church’s teaching into law would indeed violate the religious beliefs of Jews and others who have traditionally put the mother’s health before the life of the fetus. Perhaps, most of all, you think that opposing abortion without seriously understanding the consequences of overturning Roe is an empty gesture, one that does not really address the cultural and moral circumstances that compel women to choose abortion rather than welcome new life. If coupled with a genuine recognition of the moral imperative to reduce the number of abortions, any or all of the concerns mentioned above could provide a defensible rationale for keeping abortion legal. So far, however, Senator Kerry, you have not bothered to make such arguments. Instead, you have been content to pander to absolutist abortion-rights groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America and NOW, which insist that the only moral question abortion raises is a woman’s right to privacy, and that any limitation of that right is unthinkable. There are at least two problems with this stance. First, it does not reflect the views of most Americans, who continue to think that, while abortion should remain legal, not every abortion should be permitted. Why a woman has an abortion matters morally, as does the age of the aborted fetus. Second, as Daniel Callahan wrote in Commonweal years ago (“An Ethical Challenge to Prochoice Advocates,” November 23, 1990), “If the prochoice movement presents itself as principally a movement about the rights of women, it is likely to lose in the long run. The abortion issue is broader, deeper, and more complex. It is about those rights, but it is also about the welfare of families and children, about the obligations of males toward women and toward the children they procreate, and about the family and the place of childbearing within it.” Like you, Senator Kerry, Callahan thinks abortion should remain legal and must, in the end, be a personal decision. But he warns that prochoice advocates must move beyond a simplistic defense of private choice to engage the substantive moral questions abortion raises. “Trust the moral issues to public debate,” Callahan wrote. So should you.

Published in the 2004-08-13 issue: 
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