"It is...Our will that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations which have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another. They are to be avoided not only as 'profane novelties of words,' out of harmony with both truth and justice, but also because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: 'This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved' (Athanasian Creed). There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim 'Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,' only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself." -- Pope Benedict XV, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum 24 (1914)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

"Pro-choice" vs. "Pro-abortion"? Or, "Pro-choice" = "Pro-abortion"?

Posted by Carl Olson on Thursday, October 09, 2008 at 02:13 AM

A reader responds to my linking to Bill Donahue's parody with some consternation:

The problem with this parody, of course, is that Obama is pro-choice rather than pro-abortion. This is not to say that a pro-choice stance is morally defensible. It is not. But one would be unfairly slandering Obama to say simply that he is pro-abortion because of his pro-choice stance. Obama has spoken out and worked consistently to lower abortion rates. The moral problem with an Obama candidacy is its opposition to making abortion illegal. Legal abortion, however, is not the same as abortion accepted on a moral level.

For Obama to support the act of abortion would be for him to support an intrinsic evil. To say simply, however, that it is not the place of the state to restrict abortion is a morally wrong decision and an indefensible political stance. It is not, however, the same as an anti-racist supporting a racist. It might be the same as an anti-racist supporting someone who thinks racism is a terrible thing but does not think that the government should criminalize the racist practices of private businesses or people. This would be a troubling moral stance, to be sure, and not necessarily one that is defensible. It is not, however, fairly characterized in Donahue's parody.

I think that valid arguments could be made against pro-life Catholics who support Obama, but the overly-simplistic approach to the problem taken by this site and others only does a disservice to Catholic moral reasoning.

Well, goodness, I do dislike being perceived at being overly-simplistic, so let's see if I can be a little more complicated this time around. Let's start with the statement: "Obama is pro-choice rather than pro-abortion."

First, what does that mean? I ask the question seriously. In other words, what does it mean when someone says, "I am pro-choice"? What is being chosen? What choice is being supported, upheld, and favored? And why is that choice being supported, upheld, and favored? I think it is fair to say that most of those folks who use the description "pro-choice" claim they support a woman's right to choose to either bring a pregnancy to term or to terminate the pregnancy; they uphold a woman's right to make choices about her body, especially when it comes to issues that are sexual and reproductive in nature; and they favor the government abstaining from any infringement upon those rights and choices.

In common parlance—and political parlance as well—being pro-choice is primarily about a woman's right to either have a child or terminate her pregnancy. Which is why, for example, the NARAL site states, "In 1973, the Supreme Court guaranteed American women the right to choose abortion in its landmark decision Roe v. Wade. In Roe, the Court issued a compromise between the state's ability to restrict abortion and a woman's right to choose. ... Making abortion access more difficult and dangerous is a key tactic of the anti-choice movement. ... The anti-choice movement's ultimate goal is to outlaw abortion in all circumstances." Numerous other examples could be given, but it should be fairly evident that the word "choice" is primarily aligned with abortion, which is why "anti-choice" almost always means "anti-abortion."

What the reader above insinuates (and others argue more directly) is that it is unfair to describe Sen. Obama as "pro-abortion" when he 1) doesn't force women to have abortions, 2) denies that anyone is really "pro-abortion", and 3) supposedly works for a lessening of the number of abortions. But this is mere sophistry, built largely on the notion that only those who force women to have abortions are actually pro-abortion.

But this defies both commonsense and a logical use of language. In his parody Donahue used the the example of racism and supporting David Duke, but I think we are better served here if we use the example of slavery, for two reasons: 1) it provides a more specific example of behavior than does racism (which can be construed in very vague ways) and 2) it closely parallels abortion in how it involves ownership and control of another person and the denial of that person's rights.

Now, which of the following could reasonably be considered "pro-slavery"?:

• Believing that slavery should be enforced on a certain group of people. (Yes, obviously.)
• Supporting the right of others to be able to have slaves if they choose so. (I would say so.)
• Insisting that the decision to have slaves is a matter for the potential slave owner to decide for himself and that such a decision should be protected by law. (Again, I would say so.)
• Demanding that the government should not be involved in keeping people from having slaves if they so choose, and supporting legislation to that end. (Yes, without a doubt)

These actions and stances are all "pro-slavery"—that is, they each, in various ways, are in favor of the practice and reality of slavery even though not all of them are based on the belief that everyone in a certain group or class of society should have slaves. Put another way, the merely complacent position of believing that slavery is alright for some people can be fairly construed as being "pro-slavery," even if the person with that perspective never acts upon it. But if they do act upon it and work actively for the right to own slaves, etc., there can be no doubt that they support slavery and are thus "pro-slavery."

But what if such a person said, "When it comes to slavery, I am 'pro-choice,' not pro-slavery"? What would a reasonable person think? The reader states, "But one would be unfairly slandering Obama to say simply that he is pro-abortion because of his pro-choice stance." This misrepresents the character of Sen. Obama's position: he is not pro-abortion because he is pro-choice; rather, he is "pro-choice" because he is pro-abortion. In blunt terms, the descriptive "pro-choice" is a semantic sleight of hand which suggests that the coin is in the hand wishing to have a "right to choose" when it is actually in the hand choosing the right to kill an unborn child. For those who say they are "pro-choice," the real concern is the one doing the choosing, while for those who are pro-life, the concern is the one who has no choice at all.

So what is the difference between choosing to have a slave and choosing to have an abortion? Simply this: the unborn are not accorded the same rights as those who are born, that is, those who could be made slaves. Or, put differently, the issue is the moral status of the unborn compared to the born. "Most supporters of abortion choice," writes Dr. Francis Beckwith in Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge, 2007), "agree with pro-life advocates that the question of abortion's permissibility rests on the moral status of the unborn: abortion is prima facie unjustified homicide if and only if the unborn entity is a full-fledged member of the human community (i.e., a person or a subject of moral rights). Most abortion-choice advocates also agree with pro-life supporters that the unborn entity is a human being insofar as it belongs to the species Homo sapiens. Where they disagree is over the question of the moral status of the unborn. These abortion advocates argue that the unborn entity is not a person and hence not a subject of moral rights until some decisive moment in fetal or postnatal development" (p. 130).

The reader states, "The moral problem with an Obama candidacy is its opposition to making abortion illegal." Again, let's use the analogy: "The moral problem with Mr. Smith is his opposition to making slavery illegal." If Mr. Smith is opposed to slavery being illegal, it follows that he is in favor of it being legal. And if he is in favor of slavery being legal, he is pro-slavery. Likewise, Sen. Obama is pro-abortion; there is simply no way a person can look at his record (see this NARAL PDF) and conclude that his protection, promotion, and providing for "choice"—that is, abortion—is anything but "pro."

The reader—who is a Catholic making a case for Catholic support of Sen. Obama—states, "Obama has spoken out and worked consistently to lower abortion rates." Likewise, the NARAL fact sheet mentioned above states, "In addition to his pro‐choice record, Sen. Obama has cosponsored legislation that would prevent unintended pregnancy and reduce the need for abortion." It then lists these three pieces of legislation:

• Sexual Assault Survivors Emergency Treatment Act, H.B.320, introduced on 1/13/99 (Illinois State Senate).
• Prevention First Act, S.20, introduced on 1/24/05 (U.S. Senate).
• Unintended Pregnancy Reduction Act, S.2916, introduced on 5/19/06 (U.S. Senate).

Each of these prominently features the use of contraceptives as an essential means of reducing abortions. The "Sexual Assault Survivors Emergency Treatment Act" states, for example, "Within 120 days after the effective date of this amendatory Act of the 92nd General Assembly, every hospital providing services to sexual assault survivors in accordance with a plan approved under Section 2 must develop a protocol that ensures that each survivor of sexual assault will receive medically and factually accurate and written and oral information about emergency contraception..."

The 2005 "Prevention First Act" has some 95 references to "contraceptives" and "contraception"; it is also known by these titles: "Emergency Contraception Education Act," "Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraceptive Coverage Act," "Family Planning State Empowerment Act," and "Truth in Contraception Act."

In similar fashion, the 2006 "Unintended Pregnancy Reduction Act" is described in this way: "To amend title XIX of the Social Security Act to expand access to contraceptive services for women and men under the Medicaid program, help low income women and couples prevent unintended pregnancies and reduce abortion, and for other purposes." It also states, "A woman should have equal access to contraceptive services to help prevent an unintended pregnancy and to pregnancy-related care if she does become pregnant."

In 2007 Sen. Obama stated, in support of The Prevention Through Affordable Access Act, that:

We must do more to help low-income women and college students access affordable contraceptive drugs. No woman should be turned away from university clinics and health centers because the cost of prescription drugs is out of reach. Access to contraceptives is essential to lowering the rate of unintended pregnancies in this country, and we need to make sure these drugs are affordable and accessible. I thank Planned Parenthood and this bill’s co-sponsors for supporting this common-sense and necessary legislation. [emphasis added]

In other words, the central component of Sen. Obama's work in reducing abortion rates is increasing the use of contraceptives and access to contraceptives. And what does the Catholic Church teach about contraceptives? The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states:

Also to be rejected is recourse to contraceptive methods in their different forms [524]: this rejection is based on a correct and integral understanding of the person and human sexuality [525] and represents a moral call to defend the true development of peoples [526]. On the other hand, the same reasons of an anthropological order justify recourse to periodic abstinence during times of the woman's fertility [527]. Rejecting contraception and using natural methods for regulating births means choosing to base interpersonal relations between the spouses on mutual respect and total acceptance, with positive consequences also for bringing about a more human order in society. ...

All programmes of economic assistance aimed at financing campaigns of sterilization and contraception, as well as the subordination of economic assistance to such campaigns, are to be morally condemned as affronts to the dignity of the person and the family. (pars. 233, 234)

Are Catholics to believe, then, that two evils—abortion and contraception—together somehow make a right? Or that the use of one evil (contraceptives) to reduce another evil (abortion) is somehow morally agreeable and acceptable? Does the end justify the means? Of course not. The sad ironies are that 1)contraceptives are essentially forms of abortion many contraceptives actually act as abortifacients, and 2) the evidence strongly suggests that the number of abortions increase as use of contraceptives becomes more common.

As Pope John Paul II noted in Evangelium vitae, "But despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree. ... The close connection which exists, in mentality, between the practice of contraception and that of abortion is becoming increasingly obvious. It is being demonstrated in an alarming way by the development of chemical products, intrauterine devices and vaccines which, distributed with the same ease as contraceptives, really act as abortifacients in the very early stages of the development of the life of the new human being" (par 13).

A couple of further quick points: the argument has also been made by some that Sen. Obama will reduce abortion through education. As someone who was subjected to "sex ed" in the 1980s, forgive me for being a bit cynical about such an approach, especially if such education insists on being "neutral" when it comes to objective moral judgments. Authentic education comes from a specific system of belief about the value of human life and the purpose and meaning of human sexuality, not from a utlitarian, value-free series of classes that will most likely ignore or scoff at abstinence, never mind traditional virtues and beliefs about sexuality.

The argument has also been made that Sen. Obama will reduce abortion by somehow reducing poverty. This assumes that poverty is a primary motivation for women to have abortion and utilizes a pragmatic approach that largely ignores the moral dimensions of life issues. It also assumes that Sen. Obama would be able, if elected president, to reduce poverty. But, without going into the specifics of his economic policies or arguing about their strengths and weaknesses, why can't it also be argued that he might actually increase poverty and thus increase the number of abortions? After all, the actual result of his economic policies won't be known unless he is elected and they are implemented. It is, in other words, a crap shoot. Is that a responsible way to approach such matters?

Finally, returning to the analogy of slavery: imagine that someone who described themselves as "pro-choice" when it came to slavery supported legislation with the following language:

A man's decision to buy, trade for, own, and control a slave is a personal choice. As such, decisions regarding slavery are best made by certain men, in consultation with other slave owners or trusted associates, without governmental interference. A government may not--

(1) deny or interfere with a man's right to choose--
(A) to buy and own a slave;
(B) to sell a slave for financial gain or
(C) to terminate a slave where termination is necessary to protect the physical life or financial health of the slave owner and his family

He may call himself "pro-choice" when it comes to slavery. I may call him "pro-slavery." Regardless, this much would be clear: the white man/slave owner would enjoy rights, protection, and moral status, while the slave would not. The slave, in fact, would be legally considered either non-human or sub-human, and that legal status would mean a life of subjection, denied the basic rights due every person.

Perhaps this is a good place to remark that those who would say that fair wages, good working conditions, affordable housing, decent healthcare, global warming, and such are equal to abortion in terms of moral weight seem to forget that when an unborn child is killed, they will never have an opportunity to have a job, own a home, get medical check-ups, or breath air (whether clean or polluted). Social justice means nothing if it doesn't protect the unborn.

Those who call themselves "pro-choice" do so because they support the right to choose death for unborn children. They are "pro-abortion." Sen. Obama is pro-abortion. The most recent example of this fact is his strong public support for the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which he has co-sponsored. On June 17, 2007, he told the Planned Parenthood Action Fund that, "Well, the first thing I’d do as president is, is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That’s the first thing that I’d do."

The USCCB has strongly condemned FOCA and has linked to this National Committee for a Human Life Amendment page, which states:

FOCA is a radical bill. It creates a “fundamental right” to abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy. No governmental body at any level would be able to “deny or interfere with” this right, or to “discriminate” against the exercise of this right “in the regulation or provision of benefits, facilities, services, or information.” For the first time, abortion would become an entitlement the government must condone and promote.

FOCA would go well beyond the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in imposing an extreme abortion regimen on our country. No other piece of legislation would have such a destructive impact on society’s ability to limit or regulate abortion. It would eliminate a broad range of laws—informed consent laws; parental involvement laws; laws promoting maternal health; abortion clinic regulations; government programs and facilities that pay for or promote childbirth and other health care without subsidizing abortion; conscience protection laws; laws prohibiting a particular abortion procedure (e.g., partial birth abortion); laws requiring that abortions only be performed by a licensed physician; and so on.

Does this sound like the sort of legislation that would be co-sponsored by someone serious about reducing the number of abortions in the U.S.? Does it sound like the sort of Act that would be supported and championed by someone who is really against abortion?

Honestly, I'm not here to say, "Vote for this person" or "Don't vote for that person." My point is simply this: as a Catholic, be honest about the facts and don't let the misuse of language mislead you about the reality of things.

The great German philosopher Josef Pieper, who stood up the Nazis and suffered for it, wrote:

The reality of the word in eminent ways makes existential interaction happen. And so, if the word becomes corrupted, human existence itself will not remain unaffected and untainted. ...the abuse of political power is fundamentally connected with the sophistic abuse of the word, indeed, finds in it the fertile soil in which to hide and grow and get ready, so much so that the latent potential of the totalitarian poison can be ascertained, as it were, by observing the symptom of the public abuse of language. (Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, pp. 14, 32-33).

And that, folks, is my not-so-simplistic response.

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