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Obama Addresses Abortion

Obama Addresses Abortion April 30, 2009

Here are the exact words:

“You know, the — my view on — on abortion, I think, has been very consistent. I think abortion is a moral issue and an ethical issue.

I think that those who are pro-choice make a mistake when they — if they suggest — and I don’t want to create straw men here, but I think there are some who suggest that this is simply an issue about women’s freedom and that there’s no other considerations. I think, look, this is an issue that people have to wrestle with and families and individual women have to wrestle with.

The reason I’m pro-choice is because I don’t think women take that — that position casually. I think that they struggle with these decisions each and every day. And I think they are in a better position to make these decisions ultimately than members of Congress or a president of the United States, in consultation with their families, with their doctors, with their doctors, with their clergy.

So — so that has been my consistent position. The other thing that I said consistently during the campaign is I would like to reduce the number of unwanted presidencies that result in women feeling compelled to get an abortion, or at least considering getting an abortion, particularly if we can reduce the number of teen pregnancies, which has started to spike up again.

And so I’ve got a task force within the Domestic Policy Council in the West Wing of the White House that is working with groups both in the pro-choice camp and in the pro-life camp, to see if we can arrive at some consensus on that.

Now, the Freedom of Choice Act is not highest legislative priority. I believe that women should have the right to choose. But I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on. And that’s — that’s where I’m going to focus.”

There is very little new here, and those of us who supported Obama last year predicted this very course of action. Here I must point out that this choice was based on him being the relatively better option, and did not constitute an endorsement of the totality of his positions or his worldview. I must keep pointing this out, for the dualists keep declaring that supporting Obama did entail such complicity — but of course they do not feel responsible for the million dead Iraqis, the 4.5 million displaced, or the 5 million orphans, that arose directly from supporting Bush four years earlier. Then again, that’s what this peculiar American dualism is all about — support and never “betray” your own team, and demonize your opponent with hyperbolic and apocalyptic rhetoric. Sorry, but the rhetoric above is not the rhetoric of the “most pro-abortion president ever”. It is the rhetoric of a politician who is trying desperately to square the circle. And here it falls short.

Let’s look at the Declaration on Procured Abortion, the CDF document from 1974 that remains, in my view, the most succinct summary of Church teaching on abortion. It notes that the law has a number of duties in this area. Here is one of them:

“It is the task of law to pursue a reform of society and of conditions of life in all milieux, starting with the most deprived, so that always and everywhere it may be possible to give every child coming into this world a welcome worthy of a person. Help for families and for unmarried mothers, assured grants for children, a statute for illegitimate children and reasonable arrangements for adoption – a whole positive policy must be put into force so that there will always be a concrete, honorable and possible alternative to abortion.

…This is the law of charity, of which the first preoccupation must always be the establishment of justice. One can never approve of abortion; but it is above all necessary to combat its causes. This includes political action, which will be in particular the task of the law. But it is necessary at the same time to influence morality and to do everything possible to help families, mothers and children. Considerable progress in the service of life has been accomplished by medicine. One can hope that such progress will continue, in accordance with the vocation of doctors, which is not to suppress life but to care for it and favor it as much as possible. It is equally desirable that, in suitable institutions, or, in their absence, in the outpouring of Christian generosity and charity every form of assistance should be developed.”

Obama scores relatively well on this point — or at least, he has stated his intention to “combat the causes” of abortion. The proof will be in the pudding. I cannot emphasize this enough — his supposed pro-life predecessors failed to make this a priority, and indeed their socio-economic and health care policies probably contributed to abortion, which (as we all know) remains associated with poverty.

But of course, this is only one side of the coin. Obama cannot really square the circle, for there is a great tension in simultaneously declaring something to be a “right” and hoping to limit it. After all, as Aquinas said, the good is that which all things strive after. Again, let me quote the Declaration:

“These arguments [favoring liberal aborti0n laws] and others in addition that are heard from varying quarters are not conclusive. It is true that civil law cannot expect to cover the whole field of morality or to punish all faults. No one expects it to do so. It must often tolerate what is in fact a lesser evil, in order to avoid a greater one. One must, however, be attentive to what a change in legislation can represent. Many will take as authorization what is perhaps only the abstention from punishment. Even more, in the present case, this very renunciation seems at the very least to admit that the legislator no longer considers abortion a crime against human life, since murder is still always severely punished. It is true that it is not the task of the law to choose between points of view or to impose one rather than another. But the life of the child takes precedence over all opinions. One cannot invoke freedom of thought to destroy this life.

The role of law is not to record what is done, hut to help in promoting improvement. It is at all times the task of the State to preserve each person’s rights and to protect the weakest. In order to do so the State will have to right many wrongs. The law is not obliged to sanction everything, but it cannot act contrary to a law which is deeper and more majestic than any human law: the natural law engraved in men’s hearts by the Creator as a norm which reason clarifies and strives to formulate properly, and which one must always struggle to understand better, but which it is always wrong to contradict. Human law can abstain from punishment, but it cannot declare to be right what would be opposed to the natural law, for this opposition suffices to give the assurance that a law is not a law at all.”

I think here there is a crucial distinction that too few Americans in this debate are willing to make. Do people favor abortion as a right? Or do people merely oppose punishing those who choose abortion? The former is unacceptable in Catholic moral teaching, but the latter might be justified. The problem is that the boundary can be blurred. If the law says nothing about the right to life of the unborn, or the “right” to abortion for that matter, is that not still tacit approval? It might depend on the legal philosophy — in some traditions, what is not specifically banned is approved, while in others what is not specifically approved is banned. In the US tradition at least, the former interpretation is assumed, which suggests the need for an active prohibition in the positive law. That prohibition might opt to apply minimal penal sanctions, however, as a matter of prudence, but would clearly not license abortion providers. It is difficult to argue for a more “liberal” position than that in the natural law tradition.

But when Obama talks about abortion, he is still stuck in the wrongheaded support for a “right”. He is trapped by his own rhetoric, which limits his ability to really break the mold (as he clearly wants to).  Combating the causes of abortion is essential, but it is not enough. On the other hand, I could just as easily say that claiming to be pro-life when not taking action to combat the causes is also not enough (remember, “it is above all necessary to combat its causes”) — especially when the person in question has very little sway over the legal status of abortion in the first place. You see, the debate about abortion in the public sphere is not as simple as partisans on both sides make it — and the partisans need each other to define what they are against. We need to have the debate on purely Catholic terms. That means giving Obama credit for what he plans to do, but not holding back when it comes to the denunciation of this false right, this false law, either. He is not on our side, and Republicans are not on our side.

Where does that leave us? I have no ready-made solution, and neither does anyone else. Let me just end with another quote from the Declaration: “There will be no effective action on the level of morality unless at the same time an effort is made on the level of ideas.” That is where the action must lie. And let there be no doubt — the extremist and one-sided rhetoric against Obama on this matter hinder efforts to persuade. A consistent ethic of life, on the other hand, is a necessary starting point. All roads lead back here.

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