It’s election season in America again. And since January 22nd, 1973, U.S. conservative voters have had their political autonomy held hostage by a single court decision. Roe v. Wade, by the very gravity of the issue it decided, forever changed the American political landscape, forcing conscientious pro-life voters to focus on this issue to the virtual exclusion of all others and constraining the field of candidates they are willing to vote for to those who have “the best chance of winning.”
Both Democrats and Republicans garner enormous political capital based on the emotion stirred up by abortion. Democrats rally their base over fear that the “right wingers” will once-and-for-all put an end to the “Constitutional guarantee of a woman’s right to choose.” Republicans talk about being “pro-life” and protecting the “sanctity of life.” Some candidates run on platforms that explicitly mention proposed legislation or even a “Human Life Amendment” to the Constitution. Each party rallies hundreds of thousands of voters (if not more) to their cause by playing on the abortion-related fears of American citizens.
And election after election, nothing of substance changes. Sure, some policies get switched around, federal funding for programs that include abortion is redirected, but at the end of the day, there is no statistical difference in the number of abortions performed as a result of a change in the party in office. Should we be surprised? An issue that grants each party so much power provides the greatest benefit to both by being kept in stasis, never moving too far in one direction or the other, always capable of generating fear that a sea change is just around the corner if “the other guy” gets elected.
In all of the politicking, two important facts get ignored by many pro-life voters:
1.) Abortion is a moral problem, not a political one; it must thus have a moral solution. Politics can’t fix it.
2.) The United States of America is a Federal Republic with a Constitution and a system of laws; while Roe was a manifest usurpation of the Constitution and laws of the United States, there are only certain courses of action available for legal remedy to Roe, all of which must be evaluated based on their probability of success and permanence.
The first of these two points is seemingly obvious, but difficult to grasp on a pragmatic level. Abortion is murder – but not just any murder. It’s murder of the most innocent human life on a mass scale – unprecedented in history – that we have somehow rationalized to the point where it’s merely debated, and we are supposed to be able to “agree to disagree.” The sheer gravity of the situation must be taken into account as we evaluate both the urgency of the issue and the seeming paucity of options we have to redress it.
In this nation, many people believe sincerely that abortion is a legitimate moral choice. Some do so by denying the truth of what it is. Others are more direct – a trend which I suspect will intensify as medical technology continues to make the reality of unborn human life more irrefutable. In her infamous 1995 essay, Rethinking Pro-Choice Rhetoric: Our Bodies, Our Souls, noted Feminist Naomi Wolf wrote a stunning admission about the truth of abortion:
Now, freedom means that women must be free to choose self or to choose selfishly. Certainly for a woman with fewer economic and social choices than I had — for instance, a woman struggling to finish her higher education, without which she would have little hope of a life worthy of her talents — there can indeed be an obligation to choose self. And the defense of some level of abortion rights as fundamental to women’s integrity and equality has been made fully by others, including, quite effectively Ruth Bader Ginsberg. There is no easy way to deny the powerful argument that a woman’s equality in society must give her some irreducible rights unique to her biology including the right to take the life within her life.
But we don’t have to lie to ourselves about what we are doing at such a moment. Let us at least look with clarity at what that means and not whitewash self-interest with the language of self-sacrifice.
War is legal: it is sometimes even necessary. Letting the dying die in peace is often legal and sometimes even necessary. Abortion should be legal; it is sometimes even necessary. Sometimes the mother must be able to decide that the fetus, in its full humanity, must die. (emphasis mine)
This is not a problem government can fix. We cannot slap a law on this gaping intellectual and spiritual wound and think that our society will survive. The country is divided roughly in half on the issue of abortion, which leads to the second point – using our current approach and tactics, we do not have the political will to change the law of the land.
Some have discussed a Human Life Amendment to the Constitution. While noble, this would invariably fail to garner enough votes to pass muster. A constitutional amendment outlawing abortion would require a simple majority vote in both houses of Congress and a two-thirds majority passage by the 50 states. And even if an amendment were able to be drafted that would bring in more of the fence-sitters, it would surely include exception clauses for rape, incest, and life of the mother. If such an amendment were to pass, we would then transition from a jurisprudence that interprets an implicit right to abortion within the 14th Amendment to one that grants an explicit right under specific circumstances, even if it outlaws it in all others. This is a toehold in judicial precedent that can be exploited and expanded over time.
Others rely on what I like to call “judicial roulette” – voting for any presidential candidate who might have a chance at installing a justice on the Supreme Court, who in turn might vote pro-life if a new challenge to Roe comes before the Court. But of course, there’s the problem of the judicial litmus test. Both Justices Alito and Roberts had to be extremely circumspect in their positions on the abortion issue, with Roberts going so far as to re-affirm that “Roe is the settled law of the land” during his confirmation hearings. We don’t know for certain how they would vote even if they had the chance (Roberts has been extremely disappointing on key votes like the Affordable Care Act) and yet these justices were considered pro-life victories in the arena of judicial appointments.
History is more sobering. Five of the justices that decided Roe (Burger, Brennan, Stewart, Blackmun, and Powell) were Republican appointees. Similarly, five of the justices that upheld Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (Blackmun, Stevens, Souter, O’Connor, and Kennedy) were also Republican appointees – with Blackmun being the only common justice between the two decisions. Nine pro-abortion Republican justices in the two major abortion cases to ever come before the Supreme Court, each time comprising the majority? Forgive me if I have little confidence that the next Republican president will pick someone who will turn the tide.
Even if we were to go out on a limb and assume Roe could be overturned, would it mean abortion would once again be illegal in this country? No. Overturning Roe would create no federal ban on abortion rights. It would simply return the issue to the individual legislation of the states in accordance with the 10th Amendment.
So what does all of this mean for the Catholic voter?
In my opinion, it is long past time that we vote our consciences, not the party line. Candidates who favor the centralization of power in the federal government, foreign interventionism, and big government spending while offering no realistic solutions to abortion are not good options for the future of our nation. Every time we grit our teeth and vote for the candidate they nominate, they give us another one like him the next time, only just a little further to the left. Incrementalism has a funny way of sliding down that slope. We do it in good conscience, of course, thinking that by holding our noses and pulling the lever we’re taking one for the team because this time things are going to change for the better.
Have you ever watched Charlie Brown try to kick a football? It’s a lot like that.
In the mean time, our country is slipping through our fingers. We are going broke. We owe more money than we can possibly hope to repay, both to our own citizens and to foreign governments. We are involved in unnecessary, unconstitutional, and arguably immoral wars and conflicts around the globe. We are facing an energy crisis that needs real solutions. We have all but lost our manufacturing sector, and with it, our ability to be self-sufficient in a world that grows weary of American dominance. Our borders are dangerously porous, and our culture is falling apart. What kind of a future are we leaving to our children?
Ironically, there has been real legislation proposed that would address the abortion issue directly and immediately, so we can focus on the other problems facing our nation. The Sanctity of Life Act (introduced several times by former Congressman Ron Paul – with very little Republican support) would have defined all human life and legal personhood as beginning at conception while simultaneously stripping the federal courts of jurisdiction over the issue, thereby returning the issue to the states. This would not only be an appropriate interpretation of the 10th amendment limitation on federal powers, but would effectively accomplish the same thing as overturning Roe – with far less waiting and political maneuvering to appoint willing justices to the Supreme Court.
I submit that while there are individual Republicans who are serious about the issue of abortion, the party as a whole is not. They win elections by using this issue to rally their base to the voting booth, and that makes legal abortion far too valuable a gambit to willingly surrender.
The stark reality is this: we may be watching the last gasps of a dying republic. So as the election debates once again heat up and Catholics try to choose morally acceptable candidates from a series of less-than-desirable choices, the only advice I can offer is to be careful who you vote for. Make sure that it’s someone whose policies you really support, instead of just the candidate you think has the best chance of winning. Under the present circumstances, reasonable moral arguments can be made to vote for someone who isn’t as strong as we would like on abortion (since no candidate is likely to initiate substantive legislative changes on this issue) if he were able to provide some other, compensatory benefit that might help stabilize the nation’s future. If we ever want better choices, we need to send the message that we’re not just going to accept empty promises and the status quo. In the mean time, betting all our chips on the issue least likely to be affected by the actions of a sitting president may lead to the election of someone who will at last cost us the country, and all the policies that matter most along with it.
A version of this article was originally published at CatholicVote.org on June 21, 2012. It has been slightly updated to reflect the present election cycle.