10/16/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Why Can't I Be Pro-Choice and Pro-Life?

Now that John McCain has re-energized the Republican right by choosing a running mate who is ardently "pro-life," the topic of abortion will once again play a big role -- possibly a decisive one -- in a presidential campaign. See for instance David Kirkpatrick, "Abortion Issue Again Dividing Catholic Votes," front page NYT 17 September.

Just in case you've forgotten, abortion politics played a crucial role in the re-election of George Bush. In Colorado, for instance, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver (right where the Democrats just held their quadrennial jamboree) threatened to excommunicate any Catholic in his diocese who voted for John Kerry. It did not matter that Senator Kerry was the first Roman Catholic to be nominated for the U.S. presidency by a major political party in 44 years, or that he was personally opposed to abortion. Since Kerry did not think abortion should be re-criminalized, the Archbishop argued that voting for him was mortally sinful. Presumably, His Excellency leaves heaven wide open to voters for candidates who support such things as the war in Iraq, torture, capital punishment, the criminal neglect of the nation's real needs, and the political exploitation of the Catholic church.

Fortunately, Archbishop Chaput's fellow prelates are much more reasonable. Last November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that they did not aim to tell Catholics how to vote. Each voter, they said, should be guided by his or her own conscience and judgment of each candidate as a whole. Though "a candidate's position on a single issue that involves an intrinsic evil, such as support for legal abortion... may legitimately lead a voter" to reject that candidate, the bishops also state that Catholics "are not single-issue voters." On the contrary, they say, Catholic teaching on the dignity and sacredness of human life compels Catholics "to oppose torture, unjust war, and the use of the death penalty; to prevent genocide and attacks against noncombatants; ...and to overcome poverty and suffering." Nations, they say, "are called on to protect the right of life by seeking effective ways to combat evil and terror without resorting to armed conflict except as a last resort, always seeking first to resolve disputes by peaceful means."

In the spirit of the bishops' statement, then, does the phrase "pro-life" fit a candidate who not only aims to re-criminalize abortion but also supports or condones unjust war, torture, the bombing of populated areas, the death penalty, and the unconscionable neglect of poverty and suffering, as in the federal government's response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina?

And in light of the bishops' statement, why can't I be pro-choice AND pro-life?
"But pro-choice means pro-abortion, which means pro-death. So you can't possibly be pro-choice and pro-life."

OK, I confess. On two key points I'm pro-death. I would dearly love to kill the idea that pro-choice means pro-abortion, and that pro-life can mean only pro-criminalization of abortion. These two notions have so thoroughly poisoned the well of political discourse that we can scarcely recognize the water of life itself. But that is what we need to start drinking again.

First let me tell you something about my own life.

I'm the ninth and last child of a Boston-based obstetrician who delivered more than eight thousand babies in the course of a long and distinguished career and who vehemently opposed the legalization of abortion throughout his life. In a professional article, he even argued that abortion was never even therapeutically justified, let alone justified on any other grounds. I admired him greatly, and I know all too well that I owe my very life to my parents' willingness to let procreation run its course, no matter how prolific. But I also know that many young women who become pregnant now have nothing remotely like the support furnished to my mother, who regularly got several weeks of rest after each delivery and whose only job was being a mother and wife. That is just one reason why I do not believe that all pregnant women should be legally forced to bear children.

Does this mean that I support abortion? Absolutely not. There's a huge difference between supporting anything and opposing the criminalization of it. Basically, it's the difference between sin and crime. Though the bishops ignore this difference altogether, it was clearly recognized by the two of the greatest saints in the history of Christendom: Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

Consider first what Aquinas wrote about prostitution. He found it unequivocally evil because it violates natural law and fails to provide for the care of offspring. He called it a "sin committed directly against human life" and therefore a "mortal sin" binding the soul to spiritual death.

But guess what? He also thought civil authorities should tolerate it. And for backup on this point, he quotes another great saint -- Augustine. "In human government," Aquinas writes, "those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils, lest certain goods be lost, or certain evils be incurred: thus Augustine says [De Ordine 2:4]: 'If you do away with harlots, the world will be convulsed with lust.'" (SUMMA THEOLOGICA 2-2.10.11).

Unlike the bishops, Aquinas and Augustine both understood the difference between sin and crime, between divine law and human law. Since human law aims not to promote eternal salvation but to ensure temporal order, it cannot -- says Aquinas -- "forbid all vicious acts" (SUMMA THEOLOGICA 1-2.96.3).

To see the difference between sin and crime is also to see the difference between supporting a sinful act and opposing the criminalization of it. Do Archbishop Chaput and his fellow prelates all believe that we should criminalize divorce, adultery, and the killing of innocent civilians -- including children -- in bombing attacks on our enemies? If not, may I infer that that the bishops support all of these things? But if they don't support divorce or adultery or the killing of civilians in bombing raids, why do they claim that any politician who does not want to criminalize abortion "supports" it? If Sarah and Todd Palin were free to make the morally courageous choice of bearing a child whom they knew to be afflicted with Down's Syndrome, why must any pregnant woman with a defective child be denied the moral freedom to choose? Do we really believe the government should usurp the power of a woman's conscience? Do we really think motherhood should become a labor of law -- not a labor of love? And what would happen in this country if we suddenly decided to criminalize the exercise of a right that for 35 years has been treated as constitutional? Instead of ensuring "temporal order," as human law should, re-criminalizing abortion would bring legal chaos.

Why then do so-called "conservative" politicians call so loudly for laws against abortion? Let me venture to say why. Calling for laws against abortion is the easiest and cheapest way of appearing to support "life" while taking no other steps to do so -- even while promoting an agenda of death.

Let's recall some of the actions taken by Governor and then President George W. Bush, who partly owed his re-election to the bishops' ardent -- if sometimes indirect -- support for his "pro-life" agenda. In March 2003, he launched a wholly unnecessary war (firmly opposed by Pope John Paul II) that has taken the lives of more than 4500 American soldiers, maimed or mentally traumatized at least 30,000 more, and killed almost 90,000 Iraqi civilians. In March 2005, just about the time that he flew into Washington to sign the bill that called for re-inserting a feeding tube into the abdomen of Terry Schiavo, a six month old boy named Sam Hudson died after a Texas hospital removed his feeding tube because his mother could not afford to pay for it. The Texas Futile Care Law, which gives health care providers the right to overrule indigent family members in deciding when to end a life, was signed by Governor George Bush. During his six years as Governor, George Bush also compiled a record of executions unmatched by that of any other governor in modern American history. Rejecting all but one of the appeals for clemency that came to his desk, he approved the executions of 150 men and two women, including a mentally retarded man and a born-again Christian named Karla Faye Tucker Brown, who had made herself an inspiration to her fellow inmates. He mocked her appeal for clemency and did not even bother to read many of the others.

Did the thought of these executions ever cross the mind of the president as he knelt at the bier of the first pope in history who unequivocally rejected capital punishment? In 1997, thanks to the persevering efforts of Sister Helen Prejean, John Paul II revised the Catholic catechism to make it oppose capital punishment under all conditions, no matter how grave the crime. And three years ago, the Catholic bishops of America launched a vigorous campaign to end the death penalty once and for all.

This is just one of the many ways in which the Catholic church and its members can rediscover what it means to be truly "pro-life." In my dictionary, pro-life does not mean pro-criminalization. It does not mean forcing every woman who becomes pregnant to bear a child, regardless of her physical, financial, or psychological capacity to do so. It does not mean pre-empting her right to make a moral choice. It means instead a commitment to see that every pregnant woman who wants to bear a child gets the pre-natal care she needs, and that every infant born into this world gets the care that he or she needs to grow and thrive. When we are now spending ten billion dollars a month on war and killing in Iraq and Afghanistan, why can we not spend a microscopic fraction of that amount to ensure the health of all pregnant woman and their children?

To be truly pro-life in the public sphere is to oppose everything that leads to the proliferation of death, starting with unjustified wars. It is to favor all policies that nurture life and health, such as adequate health care for all. It is to work for the preservation of this green and fragile planet against everything that threatens its very existence. It is to do everything we can to ensure that our children and grandchildren do not inherit a planet irretrievably cooked to death, a burden of debt so staggering that they cannot hope to pay it off, a world of conflicts that we do not know how to settle except by launching more wars, spilling more blood, ruining more lives, killing more children.

That's what I mean by pro-life.

The original version of this post grossly misrepresented the November 2007 statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. With apologies to them, I offer this revised version.