Prolife & Prochoice


I was not surprised when Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) shocked a group of abortion-rights supporters last month by telling them that prochoice and prolife groups need to work together to reduce unwanted pregnancies. In 1994, just about two years into the first term of the Clinton presidency, I had the opportunity to ask the first lady whether her husband had had any recent contact with then Pennsylvania Governor Robert P. Casey. Presumably because of his outspoken defense of unborn human life, Casey had been denied an opportunity to speak at the national convention that nominated Bill Clinton. “We make sure to let him know when we’re coming into Pennsylvania,” she replied. I suggested that a more direct and personal outreach to the popular prolife Democratic governor was needed.

This prompted the first lady to ask how the abortion debate might be raised to a more civil, constructive, and respectful level of discourse. I suggested she might invite prolife thinkers to elaborate moral arguments (as opposed to arguments from authority, or based on emotion, fear, or threat) for their position. And I added that she should think about articulating a moral argument, rather than just a rights-based one, for her position on choice.

Now, a decade later, in the aftermath of a presidential election that appears to have turned to some significant extent on “moral values,” New York’s Senator Clinton finds herself at the leadership level of a Democratic Party struggling with these questions. Casey said repeatedly before his death in 2000 that the party was “losing its soul” by refusing to make room, in its policy deliberations, in its national platform, or on its presidential ticket, for a moderate prolife position.

This may well be the time for the party to engage in a wide-ranging discussion about abortion. Indeed, the party already seems to be moving in that direction. In Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democrats now have a prolife Senate leader. Former Indiana Congressman Tim Roemer, also prolife, is a candidate for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. If and when Democratic leaders do revisit the abortion issue, compromise will be necessary, from both the party and its prolife critics. First, the Democrats should be prepared to place some restrictions on abortion. Second, if restrictions are imposed, Catholics and others in the prolife movement should consider endorsing only noncriminal penalties for those who violate the law. Civil penalties and other regulatory actions could give the law some teeth while placating those who fear the recriminalization of abortion.

To be clear, let me say that I oppose abortion under any circumstances, but I am willing to yield some ground here to those who conscientiously disagree, in the hope that the compromise-not on principle but on policy-would mean a significant reduction in the number of abortions in America.

I believe that most people in the United States believe that there should be restrictions on abortion. Therefore, by narrowing its permissibility, the Democrats would be more in line with public opinion. But just raising this question will surely trigger strong opposition from defenders of a woman’s unrestricted “right to choose” to terminate the life within her womb at any stage of her pregnancy. Some conscientious persons may not identify human personhood with human life at its earliest stages of existence. But there is no denying that “it” is alive, and will, if permitted to continue living, become a human person. As Bob Casey used to say, “It certainly isn’t going to become a rhinoceros!”

Not resorting to criminal penalties would, in my view, show a respect for both freedom of choice and freedom of conscience of those who see life, but not human life, and the potential for personhood, but not an actual person, in a human embryo. I can disagree with anyone who sees neither human life nor the potential for human personhood in an embryo, but I can still respect the dignity of those who, in good conscience, hold that view.

Can a law that bans some abortions yet does not entail criminal penalties be passed? I think so. Anyone who has watched the debate over partial-birth abortion knows that room is being made for prochoice candidates to support a ban on the procedure, which they see as morally indefensible. Why can’t room be made for Democrats to support restrictions on abortion, or prolife politicians to support civil instead of criminal penalties for those who violate the law?

In his 1995 speech at the University of Notre Dame, Bob Casey said abortion is “like a bone in our throat. We can’t swallow it. We cannot assimilate it. We cannot become comfortable with it, because it’s fundamentally contrary to what we believe as Americans....Every poll shows a vast and growing unease with the abortion license and the industry that serves it. I believe a prolife consensus already exists in America. And it grows every time someone looks at a sonogram.”

Whether the prolife consensus Casey saw still is (or ever was) there, Democrats are now going to have to look for a solution to this issue within their own tradition of concern for the poor and the vulnerable. If a consensus is there, they have to find it and build on it. If not, they might think about building a consensus for the good of the nation, not just for the good of the party.

Democrats shouldn’t apologize for big government so long as it is a positive influence that does for citizens through social programs what citizens cannot effectively or efficiently do for themselves. The unborn cannot do anything for themselves. It would be a beautiful irony if the debate over meeting the needs of the unborn could become the route the party takes back to the winner’s circle in national elections.

To brush this consideration aside as idealistic and impractical would be to miss the truth that there is, on occasion, nothing so practical as the right ideal. This time in the nation’s political history may be such an occasion.

Published in the 2005-02-11 issue: 

William J. Byron, SJ, is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. He is an Army veteran of World War II and received his college education on the GI Bill.

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