By Richard Doerflinger
The Catholic News Agency reports that, at a recent panel discussion hosted by the National Catholic Reporter, Sister Simone Campbell offered to explain President Biden’s position on abortion for us.
Campbell is executive director of the “Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice,” about which more below. What she claims about Biden’s abortion position, based on a conversation with him, is that “he has a very developed approach to it. . .for him, it hinges on religious liberty, and that he will not force his religious belief on the whole nation.”
Far from being “very developed” this seems a parroting of the old “personally opposed, but” position that Democrats such as Mario Cuomo and the Kennedys used decades ago to dodge the contradiction between their alleged private belief and their public actions. In this case, it’s not even remotely relevant to our current situation on abortion. Its use as a defense of President Biden cries out for several observations.
First, pro-life Americans would heave a huge sigh of relief if Joe Biden were to refrain from imposing his beliefs about abortion (religious or otherwise) on the nation. The reality is that he has expressed support for an agenda that does force those beliefs on the rest of us.
Reversing a position he held for four decades, he believes that all Americans should be forced to fund the destruction of unborn children with their tax dollars, “making sure everyone has access to care – including reproductive health care – regardless of income, race, zip code, health insurance status, or immigration status.”
He has endorsed the “Equality Act,” which threatens to force even Catholic health facilities to provide abortions or be punished for violating federal civil rights laws. And he supports legislation to “codify Roe,” a euphemism used by supporters to promote a “Women’s Health Protection Act” that would attack any state, local, or federal law that may have the effect of delaying, or in any way reducing “access” to, abortion – including laws that have remained in effect even under Roe v. Wade.
The belief that seems to lie as the basis of these positions is that abortion is routine “health care” – that pregnancy is merely a “physical condition” of a woman (as the Equality Act puts it), not a situation in which the obstetrician has two patients to care for. In other words, at least until birth, the child is something like a disease, and abortion is the cure. (I say “at least” because almost all Senate Democrats also oppose a bill to treat children born alive during an abortion attempt as children.)
This is something like a religious belief, though not a belief consistent with Christianity. (No Christian denomination has ever renamed the Annunciation as “the Infection.”) Unlike most religions, this belief that at birth a disease becomes a human being is not only beyond scientific facts but contrary to them. And it would be imposed on an unwilling citizenry that opposes public funding of abortion and supports various restrictions, including bans (at least) on late-term abortions.
Second, what about the claim that respect for unborn human life is itself a “religious belief” that cannot be written into law? That argument has been decisively rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court for over forty years. When the ACLU and others tried to invalidate the Hyde Amendment as an unconstitutional “establishment of religion” (specifically the Catholic religion), the Court famously replied: “That the Judeo-Christian religions oppose stealing does not mean that a State or the Federal Government may not, consistent with the Establishment Clause, enact laws prohibiting larceny.” [Harris v. McRae, 448 U.S. 297, 319 (1980)]
The Court found that government has a legitimate secular interest in encouraging childbirth over abortion. It also slapped down the claim that abortion is merely a medical procedure like any other: “Abortion is inherently different from other medical procedures, because no other procedure involves the purposeful termination of a potential life.” (Id. at 325) The Court’s majority opinion was written by one Justice who voted for Roe (Stewart) and signed by two others who did so (Powell and Burger).
In later decisions, the court abandoned the biologically incoherent term “potential life” and spoke simply of government’s legitimate interest in respecting “the life of the unborn.” [Planned Parenthood v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833, 877 (1992); Gonzales v. Carhart, 550 U.S. 124 at 157, 158 (2007)] In the latter case, the court found that this interest was sufficiently weighty to ban an especially gruesome abortion method used after the third month of pregnancy.
Whether that interest is sufficient to warrant other laws forbidding abortion is an open question for the Court. But President Biden’s stated position, treating abortion as a positive good that must be accepted and supported by all Americans, goes far beyond any debate on whether it should be legal.
To be sure, when asked by CNA last August about her Network’s position on abortion, Sr. Simone said, “That is not our issue. . . .I’m a lawyer. I would have to study it more intensely than I have.” Her recent statement suggests that she has not yet done so.
Third, it is not a problem for a Catholic to specialize in advocacy on a particular issue or set of issues in our society. The problems begin when Campbell’s Network claims to be a “Lobby for Catholic Social Justice” overall and declares on its web site that its agenda is shaped: by Gaudium et spes from the Second Vatican Council; by Pope Francis’s critique of a “throwaway culture”; and by the lives of great lay Catholics like Dorothy Day and Cesar Chavez.
The Vatican II document cites abortion first among the “abominable crimes” that “poison civilization.” [GS 27, 51] Pope Francis has repeatedly condemned abortion as part of that throwaway culture, at one point crying out, “How many of our brothers and sisters are victims of today’s throwaway culture, which breeds contempt above all towards the unborn, the young and the elderly!” And by all accounts, Day (who deeply regretted the abortion she had undergone before her conversion) and Chavez (who had a devotion to our Lady of Guadalupe) rejected abortion as part of Catholic social justice.
To ignore the unborn is something more than a mere lack of interest in one specific issue. Catholic social teaching is based on the insight that the dignity of the human person is inherent in simply being a member of the human family, because each member is created in the image and likeness of God. That is why each human being, “from conception to natural death,” as Pope Francis has said, has equal and inestimable value, and each enjoys fundamental human rights beginning with the right to life. To ignore this foundation is to imply that there are no fundamental human rights – only privileges, for select people who have certain valued qualities. The structure of Catholic social teaching then unravels. There cannot be any “disposable” people.
One is therefore tempted to describe the Network Lobby for Catholic Social Justice as a “cafeteria Catholic” social-justice lobby, one that recognizes only those issues of justice that also happen to be endorsed by secular liberals who lack a basis in Catholic teaching. If it also seeks to provide cover for pro-abortion politicians who not only reject that teaching but also plan to attack the consciences of those who believe it, the organization’s error will become even more grave.
Editor’s note. This column first appeared on the website The Catholic Thing. Copyright 2021. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.