More on Double Effect and Abortion

More on Double Effect and Abortion July 10, 2008

Since this was brought up in the context of criticizing some of my recent posts, I feel to need to go deeper into it. The argument goes like this:

“Setting aside our grave duty as Catholics [to conscientiously object to the abortion legal regime] is a causeof our ability to make common cause with pro-choicers. But under double-effect, it is not permissible for the good effect we seek to be caused by a bad effect of our act or by an evil act or omission.”

In responding, let me consider the specific case of voting for a pro-choice politician, and give him the hypothetical name Barack Obama. (My original post was making a more general point, of which voting was a subcategory, but since most critics always seem to bring it back to my purported dizziness for Obama, I will deal with this directly.) Church teaching is very clear here, and it is indeed a direct application of double-effect reasoning. Formal cooperation in evil mean that a person “freely participates in the action(s) of a principal agent, or shares in the agent’s intention”. If a Catholic voted for Obama because of his support for “abortion rights”, then this quickly become formal cooperation in evil. But if he or she does not share that intention, then the door opens to voting for Obama.

More precisely, an act that may lead to foreseeable evil consequences can be permitted if the act in itself is not evil; the evil effect is not intended as a means or an end, and the good attained is proportionate to the evil arising from the act (there is a good essay by Christopher Decker than spells this out in the context of voting). And this indeed is the position of the US bishops: if you support any position held by a candidate that is intrinsically evil, then you are guilty of formal cooperation in evil. But otherwise, Catholics can vote for that person for “truly grave moral reasons.”

Now, of course, the debate shifts to these proportionate reasons. There are those who argue that because abortion is so grave, no conceivable proportionate reason presents itself. But this is a flawed reading, for we must consider not only the other good policies that the candidate is likely to enact, but the likely effects of his position on the incidence of abortion itself. Again, it is nothing more than double-effect reasoning in action. A number of questions must therefore be then posed. First, how much power will the politician have to affect the evil act? Second, would he or she be effective in bringing about the policy? Third, if the policy is enacted, would it be effective in achieving its ends? And of course, the relative gravity of the good and evil effects must be considered.

You can see where I am going here. Catholics can arrive at different answers to these questions. Some focus in the over-riding necessity of appointing certain judges who might overturn Roe v. Wade, which might lead to a lower incidence of abortion. Others see this as a risky strategy, with too many downsides, and calculate that other policies introduced by this candidate may better lower abortion rates, alongside better policies on other core issues.

One issue that does not get nearly enough discussion is the huge chasm between abortion rhetoric and reality, evidenced by the likes of Tom Delay and Karl Rove adopting the pro-life mantle, while simultaneously providing direct support to people engaged in forced abortion in the Northern Mariana islands. This is an extreme case, but it suffices makes the point. Is supporting these people a valid form of conscientious objection to legalized abortion? I would not think so.

Now, there are some who deny the legitimacy of my reasoning, not because they favor Republicans (which is the most common reason), but because they earnestly feel that any accommodation with the pro-choice lobby amounts to setting aside a grave duty to object conscientiously to the current legal regime, which as Catholics we know is out of step with the natural law and thus can never be supported. This act of omission is therefore seen as formal cooperation in evil. But this is an incorrect reading, for reasons noted above. It is not how the Church reads it in the particular case discussed above. I repeat what I have said all along: supporting a pro-choice person does not mean supporting the pro-choice position of that person. To say otherwise is tantamount to ascribing formal cooperation in evil to every voter who supports any politician supporting any intrinsically evil act. In that case, everybody should just stay at home and sit on the sidelines.

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