The Preeminent Issue of 2020
I ruffled a few feathers online the other day when I shared this article by Carrie Gress in the National Catholic Register about the logical inconsistency in being personally opposed to abortion but politically pro-choice. To my surprise, it wasn’t the article itself that caused the stir, but my caption: “If a politician cannot get this most fundamental human rights issue correct, then I cannot trust them to get literally any other policy position correct.”
Now, of course my caption is an oversimplification. Do pro-choice advocates get some things right? Certainly! Look at the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for example, may she rest in peace. While she was severely misguided on the issue of reproductive rights, she also achieved some indisputably good things, including securing rights for women to attend state-funded schools and obtain mortgages and bank accounts without a male co-signor, as well as protections for pregnant women in the workplace. In contrast, there are undoubtedly pro-life advocates who get things gravely wrong. You don’t have to look very far down President Trump’s Twitter feed, for example, to see plenty of instances of ad hominem attacks that have no place in decent society, let alone in the President of the United States.
My greater point, however, is that abortion is a fundamental issue. As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states in the introductory letter to Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, “The threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority because it directly attacks life itself, because it takes place within the sanctuary of the family, and because of the number of lives destroyed” (emphasis added).
As Catholics, we uphold the dignity of life from conception until natural death. This includes, of course, things like fighting for an end to racism and discrimination, providing food, shelter, and medicine for the poor, caring for immigrants, repealing the death penalty, and opposing laws that promote euthanasia, just to name a few examples. As important as each of these concerns are, however, none of them matter if there is not first a right to life, because it is from the right to life that all other rights flow. Put more simply, if one does not have a right to life, then why does it matter if someone has access to healthcare or is discriminated against or executed for a crime?
Abortion is an intrinsic evil. Many of the other issues facing our society right now simply are not in the same category – not because they aren’t of great concern, but because the debate surrounding these issues centers on the best way to combat them rather than on the moral nature of the issue itself. I’ve never met anyone who thinks racism is a good thing, or that women should be fired for getting pregnant, or that it is positive for children to be separated from their families at the border. I’ve met plenty of people who disagree about the best way to fix the underlying problems causing these issues, but I’ve never seen any well-meaning individual on either side of the political spectrum who celebrates the existence of any of these problems.
Catholics are free to disagree on the means of achieving various policy goals. For example, Catholics can reasonably disagree on the best way to care for the poor, provide healthcare access, or implement immigration policies. We are not free, however, to promote policies that are directly contrary to Catholic moral teaching, the clearest example being that we cannot support policies that seek to advance an intrinsic evil such as abortion. And if a politician can get this crucial foundational issue correct, then, generally speaking, there is a greater probability that he or she will have a solid philosophical framework for getting other issues concerning the dignity of life correct.
The most recent data available suggests that 862,320 abortions were performed in the United States in 2017. Abortion doesn’t occur in isolation, however, for it is, as the USSCB also notes, a direct attack on the family. Each of those aborted children had two parents, meaning the true number Americans affected by abortion in 2017 is 2,586,960 (not including, of course, those grandparents, siblings, and extended family members deprived of the joy of meeting this new family member).
By contrast, there have been 230,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in the United States as of the time of this writing. And while I am not by any means trivializing the horror of these deaths, when you consider the extreme overhaul to our economy, daily way of life, means of conducting business, and engaging in social activities many were willing to undergo to potentially reduce the numbers of deaths caused by COVID-19, it suddenly seems a bit odd that we are not also willing to undergo some similar measure of personal and community sacrifice in order to protect the most vulnerable population of all: the unborn.
If life begins at conception and we seek to protect it at that stage, then we have given expression to the great value we place on life itself – even when that life is small or at present unable to contribute to the greater good of society. That value can then inform the way we think about all other social issues. On the other hand, if life begins at conception and we permit the destruction of that innocent life for any reason or no reason, then what we have on our hands is nothing short of genocide. There is then no reason to protect life at any other stage once it becomes inconvenient or a drain on resources.
The abortion issue is, as I have written before, a battle we must play the long game on. It’s going to take more than the reversal of Roe v. Wade and constitutional amendments. It’s going to take a radical societal shift in the way we view and value human beings. As Fyodor Dostoyevesky writes in The Brothers Karamozov, “Without God, everything is permitted.” Getting society to accept and uphold the dignity of life at all stages is going to require us to be willing to invite God back in the public square.
One small way we can do that is by supporting candidates who are also pro-life advocates. By doing so, we are not de facto endorsing the ways those imperfect candidates may fail in other areas. Instead, we are casting a vote for the inherent dignity of all life and promoting a philosophical lens through which society can think about and work together to solve all other social issues.
We, the Church Militant, have work our work cut out for us. Luckily, we also know Who the ultimate victor will be.