In his 1858 debates with Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Abraham Lincoln argued not for an immediate national abolition of slavery but for preventing its spread into the new territories. Lincoln understood that if slavery’s growth were arrested as the rest of the nation expanded, it would eventually die on the vine. His argument was aimed at voters in northern and western states who, while not ready for abolition, were either morally uneasy about the extension of slavery or worried about its economic effects on their states. Lincoln spoke to these concerns. At the same time, he was forthright in expressing his ultimate goal: to put this evil institution “in the course of ultimate extinction.”
In a 1995 article I wrote for Atlantic Monthly (later republished in the Human Life Review), I suggested Lincoln’s strategy as a model for how we should approach abortion: not by seeking the politically impossible goal of an immediate abortion ban but by pushing various means of limiting it, including parental consent laws, tough regulation of abortion clinics, and 24-hour waiting periods. Above all, I urged, we must do as Lincoln did, speaking out publicly against a grave moral wrong.
On my first reading of “Beyond the Stalemate,” Peter Steinfels’ article in the June 23 edition of Commonweal, it seemed similar to mine, at least in its overall approach to the issue. Recognizing abortion as a moral wrong, it nevertheless warns of the futility of seeking an immediate ban, arguing instead for a pragmatic strategy. Steinfels professes to be an orthodox pro-lifer, fully grasping the biological fact that human life begins at conception. But, he contends, in a pluralist society not everyone agrees with that belief. Some believe that life begins later, at three months, or six months, or at birth, or even later. In recognition of this great diversity of opinion, he thinks that “individual Catholics,” while holding to their own “moment of conception” line with “family and friends,” would be wise to draw its political line in the sand at a later period, when an unborn child begins to take on recognizably human features. He recalls that “many years ago” he suggested eight weeks, implying that he may now be more flexible.
This is what I got from the first reading. But successive readings revealed other themes in this lengthy essay. I will try to pry them out by using a single line of inquiry. Here is the question, stated simply and ungrammatically: Who’s he talking to?
An essay implies a proposition, something “put forth” in public, and that always implies an audience worth appealing to—an audience of friends, or at least potential friends. My article, for example, was aimed at two distinct but overlapping audiences: my friends in the prolife movement and those in the “mushy middle,” Americans uneasy about abortion but reluctant to overturn Roe v. Wade. To the former I offered a practical political strategy, and to the latter an invitation to ride with us as far as they felt comfortable. Where is Steinfels’ audience? To whom is he directing his advice to drop the public insistence that life begins at conception, moving it instead to a later point?
He couldn’t be appealing to the pro-life movement, and here is the reason: He doesn’t like the pro-life movement. He is disdainful of it. In his article it is always a “they” and a “them,” never a “we.” Indeed, he has drawn up a bill of indictment against it. It has never properly distanced itself from “confrontational, authoritarian, and even misogynist” spokesmen. Pro-life activists spout “harsh rhetoric, political absolutism, moral righteousness,” and harbor retrograde “attitudes toward women and sexuality.”
The movement has allowed “aggressively evangelical and sometimes antifeminist militants” to become its “public face.” It has handed the news media “images of angry people blocking clinics and shouting at women.” At one point he seems to link the entire pro-life movement to the gaffes of a couple of Republican Senate candidates in 2012, probably referring to Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s assertion that a woman’s body can prevent pregnancy in a “legitimate rape” and Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock’s calling a pregnancy resulting from rape a “gift from God.” Painting with a very broad brush, Steinfels claims that the ideas voiced by Akin and Mourdock “have long floated around anti-abortion circles.”
And those circles, Steinfels believes, are entangled with the highest circles of the Republican Party. “Was it necessary for the National Right to Life Committee to make Karl Rove its July 4 keynote speaker in the midst of the 2008 presidential election?” The answer to Steinfel’s rhetorical question appears a few pages earlier in his article. It is a photo, in 1980, of two very earnest-looking women, “Democrats for Life,” typing out pro-life delegate lists for the upcoming Democratic Convention. That turned out to be an historic convention, because it was the first time the national Democratic Party gave a full-bore endorsement of abortion. Calling abortion “a fundamental human right,” it insisted that any funding for “reproductive” procedures must include abortion. Since then, the party has increasingly hardened its position and muzzled its pro-life voices. The last chapter of the “Democrats for Life” played out in 2010 when its tiny remnant in the House of Representatives caved in to pro-abortionists in the fight over the Stupac amendment to Obamacare. Led by Michigan Representative Bart Stupac, they tried to insert into the bill an amendment barring any use of the funds to finance abortion. Ground down by an incessant barrage of threats and enticements, they ended up settling for a weak, virtually meaningless executive order whose enforcement rests with the most radically pro-abortion president in our history. Feeling betrayed, pro-life voters defeated some of these congressmen in the 2010 primary elections (which Steinfels characterizes as retaliation “for not toeing the right-to-life” line).
Looking again at that photo of the “Democrats for Life,” I wonder if those two dedicated women, if they are alive today, are still Democrats. What I know for certain is that most like them have been driven out of the party and into the waiting arms of Karl Rove and other GOP organizers. If “Democrats for Life” has become an oxymoron, the responsibility rests mainly with the Democrats.
So it doesn’t seem that Steinfels is directing his heartfelt appeal to pro-life leaders. And he is certainly not going to waste his time talking to Republican leaders. Is he perhaps seeking a conversation with his Church? Here the answer is more complicated. On the one hand, Steinfels professes loyalty to the Church’s teaching on abortion, even suggesting that this loyalty has created many tensions in his friendships and his career. On the other hand, his essay is peppered with little asides about the Church, most of them uncomplimentary. He complains about its “closed all-male clerical leadership,” its “prudery” and hypocrisy during his childhood, and its continuing “male bias.” He longs for the days when the bishops hewed to the “consistent ethic of life” or “seamless garment” of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, without acknowledging how well this served pro-abortion Democrats who could now call themselves “pro-life” because, while consistently supporting abortion, they also supported nuclear freezes and welfare programs. He has very slight regard for the present crop of American bishops, whom he accuses of misinterpreting church “prudential” doctrine and meddling in electoral politics.
If Steinfels is disdainful of pro-life leaders, scornful of Republicans, and angry at his Church, where is his intended audience, the people to whom he is appealing? Who’s he talking to?
He’s talking, of course, to the regular readers of Commonweal. Commonweal Catholics are Catholics of a certain age whose liberal or progressive world-view was shaped by paradigms derived from the Civil Rights period of the early 1960s, with subsequent antiwar, feminist, and environmental tracks layered on over the next 10 years. Its politics are liberal or progressive, and in this respect it is at about the same place in the ideological spectrum as certain other Catholic magazines, such as America and the National Catholic Reporter. Its views are also similar to those taught in Catholic theological schools and the liberal arts departments of almost all Catholic universities today.
I do not speak disparagingly of Commonweal Catholicism. I once shared its political outlook, though I no longer do because I have come to believe that it trusts too much in big government. But I respect it for its vision of what a good society should look like. It is a noble vision, and I would be happy to live in such a society if it were attainable by the means it proposes.
It has two prominent features that I want to discuss. They are in tension with one another, and it is this tension, I believe, along with Steinfels’ attempt to resolve it, that provides the key to understanding the subtext of his article.
The first is what I will call ecumenism. In the strict sense, ecumenism means dialogue and cooperation between different religious faiths. And in that sense it squarely fits the socially committed Catholics who once marched with equally committed Protestants and Jews, protesting Southern segregation and the Vietnam War. These reform movements seemed to fit their faiths as easily as the antislavery movement fit the Second Great Awakening of American Protestantism in the nineteenth century. The inspiring biblical tropes of black preachers, so familiar to the adherents all three faiths, sacralized social reform. “Let my people go,” was the demand alike of Moses and Martin Luther King.
But as the years went by, an ecumenism of a broader, more dubious kind began to emerge. It started becoming clear that many of the marchers for peace, civil rights, women’s rights, and the other rights were not adherents of any religion; some of them, indeed, probably shared Gloria Steinem’s hope that religion would just go away, so we can “raise our children to believe in human potential, not God.” But by this time there was so much solidarity among the liberal reformers that even profoundly different attitudes toward religion couldn’t spoil the music. And why should they? “They have their own reasons, maybe Marxism or secular humanism, but what does it matter? We have ours. Ours come directly out of our Catholic faith.” They could then point to the Church’s long tradition of helping the downtrodden, seeking peace, respecting strong women, welcoming the sojourner, freeing the imprisoned, and seeing the goodness of God’s creation. By 1970 it appeared that the entire agenda of the American left, from black liberation to environmentalism, could be fitted into a framework of orthodox Catholicism. Nihil obstat!
Then came Roe v. Wade. The regular readers and writers of Commonweal were dismayed and hurt when so many of their friends on the left cheered the decision and joined the movement to expand and subsidize it. (Some of this hurt is evident in Steinfels’ allusion to the “many tensions” in “my personal relationships.”) This brings us to the second earmark of the kind of Catholicism I am describing. Whatever else they are, Commonweal Catholics are not Pelosi Catholics. They have enough moral intelligence to know that there is something seriously wrong about killing children in the womb. They also know that you can’t honestly search through centuries of Catholic teaching and find anything but the harshest condemnation of abortion. They know that abortion is a plank that cannot be nailed to even the most liberal Catholic platform.
At first they tried reasoning with their secular friends, appealing to their better angels. “Who is more vulnerable than a little baby in the womb?” Tugging at the heartstrings didn’t work, because, their friends said, “We don’t think it’s a baby.” So they pulled out their biology books, showing them that the moment a sperm cell penetrates an ovum there appears a new, genetically unique human being. But none of it worked, not even with the new sonograms. Their friends adamantly refused to acknowledge the fetus as a baby because, to them at least, it doesn’t look like a baby.
So now we come to the underlying point of Steinfels’ argument. Addressing a Commonweal audience, he is setting forth the following proposition: In order finally to resolve the unfortunate tension that has arisen between ourselves and our pro-choice brethren on the left, let us offer them a grand bargain. Henceforth, we will eschew any more public rhetoric about a “moment of conception”—if you will just agree with us that at some point in the pregnancy the occupant of the womb can be called human and thus entitled to the same legal protections we give to the already-born.
“I am not backtracking,” he insists. He’s still convinced, by science and faith, that new human life emerges from the union of sperm and egg. It’s just that—well, everything’s more ambiguous than he used to think. Each stage in embryonic development brings important transitions, so there is, he says, no “magic moment.” Our pro-choice friends are right, maybe not philosophically but in terms of “our everyday sense.” The fetus is so small! Using a simile commonly found in pro-choice literature, he compares the fertilized ovum to the dot at the end of a sentence, adding his own intensifier: Even when the embryo gets a heartbeat, it’s still no bigger than a quarter-inch space inside a parenthesis. He finds it hard to imagine “that anything so small can be the bearer of rights that would outweigh the drastic impact that its continued existence might have on the life of its mother or her family.” It looks like even the eight-week marker he once proposed is no longer good enough to justify the child’s “continued existence.”
But “I’m not backtracking.” He insists that he still holds to his original view that life begins with conception. But it won’t sell. It’s “counterintuitive.” His solution, then, takes the form of bifurcation. At home, among ourselves, our family, and close personal (presumably Catholic) friends, we should stick with the “moment of conception.” That’s fine. But out in our “diverse, pluralist” society, we should settle on some (admittedly arbitrary) date later in the pregnancy, when the baby takes on a more human appearance.
The attentive reader may be reminded of the famous bifurcation proposed by New York Governor Mario Cuomo at Notre Dame University in 1984, when, after insisting that as a Catholic he was “personally opposed” to abortion, Cuomo declared that he had no right to force non-Catholics to observe precepts more or less peculiar to his religion. But Steinfels is not putting abortion in the same category as missing Sunday mass. He recognizes it as a killing procedure. It’s just that he’s not quite sure what it is it is killing. Is it a dot at the end of a sentence, or a baby, or something in-between, like a parenthesis? He just doesn’t know anymore. So he wants to keep everything as loosey-goosey as possible: Make the legal protection of human life “not from conception but from the point where not one but a whole constellation of converging arguments and intuitions can be brought to bear.” Whatever that means.
The Grand Bargain
Thus the bargain he thinks he and his Commonweal Catholics should strike with liberals of the abortionist persuasion. We will lay off “moment of conception,” if you will agree that there should be some restrictions on abortion at some later stage of pregnancy.
It is, I believe, a bad bargain, and for three reasons. First, it is logically flawed. If, as he says at the outset, he sees no philosophical reason to depart from his original pro-life position, why is he departing from it now? Because of intuitions, feelings? Do feelings trump reason? Then why argue reasonably?
Second, it underestimates the dramatic significance of conception. Conception is the big bang. It is what sets off the whole continuum of growth toward an adult human being. Conception begins it all, and what follows is just a matter of growing up, which has a decent chance of occurring if the child is fed and watered and not put to death. Conception is a “magic moment,” and if we deny or belittle the significance of that moment, we start down the familiar slippery slope. Why forbid the killing at eight weeks? Why forbid it at 24 weeks, or 28? Why not go all the way with Kermit Gosnell?
Third, Steinfels’ proposal is futile. The bargain will have no takers. The activists on the other side will never, never agree to support meaningful limits on abortion. Earlier in this essay I noted Steinfels’ reference to the insensitive and/or ignorant remarks of Republican politicians like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock when discussing abortion. Now, listen to the Democrats. In 1996, then-Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) debated partial-birth abortion with then-Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI). In the course of the debate, Santorum asked a hypothetical question: Suppose a baby targeted for abortion were accidentally delivered alive. “Would you allow the doctor to kill the baby?” Feingold’s reply was that this “should be answered by the doctor, and by the woman who receives advice from the doctor.” (Feingold later altered his answer in the Congressional Record, then accused the National Right to Life Association of misquoting him. He backed off when Douglas Johnson, Legislative Director of National Right to Life, offered to play a C-SPAN tape of his actual remarks. ) Three years later the topic came up again in the Senate, and this time Santorum questioned California Democrat Barbara Boxer about when legally-protected human life begins. Boxer, unconsciously recalling the practice in pre-Christian Rome, said it begins “when you bring your baby home.”
A final example (though others can be cited) involves a young Democratic senator in the Illinois state legislature that was considering a bill to ban the killing of babies born alive after failed abortions. The senator voted twice against the bill and verbally assailed it as “an undue burden” on the woman. That legislator is now President of the United States.
If this is where leading Democrats draw the line—outside the womb, with a baby you want—what are the chances of bipartisan compromise on limiting abortion to any month in pregnancy? Meantime, we will have signaled them that we aren’t really serious about our long-held commitment to protect human life “from conception to natural death.” They will pocket our concession and use it to advance their cause. We will have given away the store and incentivized them to ask for more.
Despite his criticisms of the pro-life movement and the present leadership of the Catholic Church in America, Steinfels acknowledges that they have achieved “something remarkable. Four decades after Roe, abortion remains a serious moral issue despite a concerted effort to have it accepted as a routine medical procedure.” The pro-abortion forces “are morally committed, ideologically single-minded, well-organized, well-funded and well placed in the nation’s cultural and socio-economic elites.” If, despite these great odds against the pro-life cause, abortion still remains morally questionable, “Catholic teaching and the Catholic bishops deserve a great deal of the credit.” This is undoubtedly true. I remember one of my students in the fall of 1973 telling me that on the previous week she had gone in for “a routine abortion.” I cannot imagine her, or anyone else, using that kind of language today.
But if the Church and the pro-life movement deserve credit for keeping the life issue alive, one has to ask this: Could they have done it if they had compromised and watered down their commitment to protecting life “at all stages”? Could they have won this crucial battle if they had played “let’s make a deal” with the pro-abortion forces, working out some day, or week, or month, when human life begins—like politicians bargaining over numbers on a tax bill? Moral absolutism, holding fast to what is doctrinally and biologically certain, has held the line against the abortion lobby for the past 40 years. Today—with an Administration wholly committed to routinizing abortion—is no time to go wobbly.