Moral Accountability

On the question of Obama and abortion (yes, that again), three kinds of arguments were made by Catholics who did not believe that voting for Obama was an obvious error or proof of diabolical possession. (Not all of these were Obama supporters.) Some, taking their cue from the bishops, argued that one could sometimes vote for a prochoice candidate in spite of his position on abortion, depending on circumstances too many and various to cover comprehensively in any voting manual. Others argued thatone should vote for Obama because he was prochoice. Finally, some argued thatone could vote for Obama because he was prolife, at least functionally.

This last argument figured prominently in the advocacy of Catholicsin Alliancefor the Common Good, which sponsored and publicized a study purporting to show that, while state restrictions on abortion hardly affected abortion rates, federal and state programs designed to help the poor lowered those rates dramatically. The second of these findings seemed at least plausible, but the first was, to say the least, surprising. The conclusion drawn by Catholicsin Alliancefor the Common Good and others was that Obama's policies would mean fewer abortions overall,andthus that he was, in the most important sense of the term, more prolife than John McCain.

This argument bore the thrilling charge of paradox, but it didn't bear much scrutiny. On, a website devoted to shaming Obama's prolife supporters, Michael J. New argues persuasively that the original version of the study was riddled with methodological flaws. One of its two authors, Professor Michael Bailey of Georgetown University, decided to take his name off it. The other author, Joseph Wright, replaced the original study with an updated version, which is considerably more modest -- not to say inconclusive -- in its findings. Catholicsin Alliancefor the Common Good removed the original version of the study from their website, with neither an explanation nor an apology.

The argument that Obama was the real prolife candidate was always, at best, a piece of wishful thinking. The fact that in this case Catholicsin Alliancefor the Common Good seem to have misled themselves before they misled others is no excuse. They should have mentioned that several previous peer-reviewed studies had concluded that state laws restricting abortion often did have an important impact on abortion rates, as one would expect them to. There are plenty of good reasons to support more government spending on programs for the poor, and it is not unreasonable to assume that by relieving the material anxieties of women who are poor and pregnantone will also reduce the number of abortions. But this reasonable assumption does not, by itself, translate into good social science. By invoking a dubious study Catholicsin Alliancefor the Common Good needlessly undermined their own credibility, and New is right to call them out.

But while we're on the subject of moral accountability, it would be good if New and others in his corner would stop pretending that every Catholic who supported Obama, or defendedhis supporters, did so by flogging a bad study or paltering with the meaning of the word "prolife." In the rhetorical tap dance that prefaces New's critique of Wright's study, New writes,

Not surprisingly, this study had a substantial impact on the debate over sanctity of life issues during the 2008 Presidential election. Self proclaimed pro-lifers who support Democratic Presidential nominees can be found in every election cycle. However, this study gave Doug Kmiec, Nicholas Cafardi, and others intellectual legitimacy in arguing that pro-life voters should vote for liberals, even if they favor abortion-on-demand and its public funding, in order to advance the pro-life cause.

In fact, neither Douglas Kmiec nor Nicholas Cafardi borrowed their intellectual legitimacy from this study. They did not need to. Each of them had his own arguments, some of them better than others. After you dismiss the Catholics in Alliance study, those arguments remain. Kmiec and Cafardi never said that state restrictions on abortion are ineffective, nor do they oppose such restrictions. Both would like to see Roe v Wade overturned, though Kmiec does not think this will happen soon, no matter who is president, and Cafardi seems to think it will never happen.One may disagree with Cafardi's position on the grounds that it is a counsel of despair.One may despair of Kmiec's buoyant optimism about Obama's willingness to find common ground with prolifers. Whatone may not do is decide that they are only "self proclaimed" prolifers because, in the last presidential election, they supported a prochoice candidate despite his position on abortion.

Ifyou area prolife Catholic and a single-issue voter, then of course the issue was straightforward -- you could not vote for Obama. I think the single-issue approach involves either a misunderstanding or a miscalculation, but I also think it is honorably prophetic. If you are a prolife Catholic who agrees with all or most of the Republican Party's agenda, then you had every reason to vote for McCain. But if you were, for example, a prolife Catholic who disagrees with most other elements of the GOP's platform, who finds both its foreign and economic policies reckless and unjust, then the issue was, well, not so straightforward.

Moral accountability, it turns out, is a complicated thing. Those who seek to enforce it must be able to make the right moral and intellectual distinctions, and they must steer clear of guilt-by-association arguments. Finally, if they think that Kmiec and Cafardi were not only wrong but disingenuous, they should say so outright and rename their site "Calling Their Bluff." In its mission statement, the site's founders write,

The Moral Accountability Project trusts that those self-identified pro-life and pro-marriage Catholics and Evangelicals who helped to put Barack Obama into a position to accomplish his goals were sincere in their admiration for him. We are willing to believe that they genuinely hope that he will go back on his pledges to attack pro-life laws and repeal pro-marriage policies.

But there is a big difference between that phrase "self-identified pro-life" and New's term, "self proclaimed prolifers." The latter comes with an unbecoming sneer.


Correction: This post originally attributed the study in question to "Catholics United for the Common Good." That was incorrect. The study was sponsored by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Catholics United is another organization. They have no offspring. My apologies to both groups.

Matthew Boudway is senior editor of Commonweal.

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