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“Personally Opposed, But…” Five Pro-Abortion Dodges
By Todd M. Aglialoro
Crisis Magazine April 2004
In that passage from Orthodoxy so familiar that it is almost now cliché, G. K. Chesterton wrote that there are a thousand angles at which a man may fall but only one at which he stands. By this he argued for the unique, enduring character of orthodox Church doctrine, of the one, true, upstanding strand of Right Teaching. Though the same tired heresies may reappear to contest it—mutated, renamed, warmed-over—the old, wild truth remains standing, “reeling but erect.”
This well-worn lesson takes on a new freshness, I think, when applied to the culture war. The wild truths that inform Christian ethics—our insistence on a moral universe, on a real human nature with its own teleology, on the transcendent significance of human acts and human relationships—also reel but remain erect in the face of perennial challenges. We are not gods. Moral truth is something we discover, not invent. From the Garden of Eden to the Supreme Court of the United States, we have fought the same battle under different banners.
In what is probably the modern culture battle par excellence, the fight against abortion, we see displayed with perfect clarity the principle of a single upright truth (that directly killing an unborn child is an evil and a crime) being contested by a rotation of errors; taking turns or working in tandem, passing in and out of fashion, each seizing upon the vocabulary, events, and moods of the cultural moment until the next comes along to supplant it.
In some cases cultural developments render one of them obsolete. In the years shortly after Roe v. Wade, abortion debates inevitably featured three words the pro-abortion side considered a trump card: “blob of tissue.” This factually empty but sound-bite–perfect catchphrase made a great impact with its implication that the fetus was roughly equivalent to a ball of snot. Which put abortion about on par with picking your nose: bad form, a messy affair that ought to be kept private, but nothing to get overly excited about.
Of course, advances in the study of human embryology, most notably the window to the womb afforded by the sonogram, all but pulled the teeth from the “blob of tissue” canard. The 1980 film The Silent Scream, an ultrasound depiction of an abortion at eleven weeks, provided a chilling, graphic look at abortion’s inner workings. And today, expectant mothers keep pictures of their “blobs of tissue” on the refrigerator. They make copies and stuff them into Christmas cards.
So that particular line was no longer viable. But it wouldn’t be the last. More would follow, and we who are engaged in the culture have surely heard most of them. However, even for those who have heard them all, I think it can be valuable to gather them up and define them; to identify their originators, exemplars, and champions; to understand their appeal; and to consider how to counter them. Let us now look, then, at five (a nice number, though by no means exhaustive) of history’s most insidious pro-abortion arguments.
1. ‘Don’t Say the “A” word’: NARAL
Names are important to propagandists. One could hardly imagine, for example, Planned Parenthood enjoying the status it does had it not in 1942 dropped “American Birth Control League” in favor of its current benevolent-sounding moniker. What if Greenpeace had instead called itself “Vegan Freaks Against Ambergris”? Would society still look on that organization in the indulgently tolerant way it does today? Would Bono still play its benefit concerts? There are some things we are just never meant to know.
Early last year, in a calculated PR move, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) changed its name to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Amazingly, the new name is even more cumbersome than the old. “NARAL” juts out at the front like “Nokia” before “Sugar Bowl.” But this name change was not about streamlining signage and business cards. It was an attempt to deflect notice from the singular object of NARAL’s 30-plus years of existence—unlimited access to abortion-on-demand—and toward broader, more high-minded, and less gruesome concepts of gender equality and personal self-determination. The change was timed to coincide with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign depicting the new-and-improved NARAL not so much as an advocate of “abortion rights” as a defender of women’s suffrage, satellite TV, and 31 Flavors.
Semantic games have always been part of the battle, of course. No one—no one, mind you—is “pro-abortion.” Folks are “pro-choice,” “pro–reproductive rights,” or, slightly more courageously, “pro–abortion rights.” In each case, even the last, the emphasis is steered away from the repugnant reality of abortion itself—a sure loser in focus groups time and time again. Whenever we debate abortion or write a letter to the editor, we engage in a struggle for the linguistic high ground.
But NARAL’s gambit takes things to a new level. By all accounts, abortion’s popularity is waning steadily. Recent polls show high school and college students reporting pro-life leanings in growing numbers. The pro-life side’s rare propaganda advantage in the partial-birth abortion debate has riveted public attention with clinically graphic descriptions of the violence abortion inflicts on the unborn.
Clearly, the long-term survival strategy, from NARAL’s perspective, is to make the abortion debate about anything but abortion.
It can be wearying sometimes, but the counter-strategy is continually to return the debate to where it belongs: the humanity of the unborn child and his right to life. It may also be effective to ask just why abortion is so repugnant to so many.
2. ‘Personally Opposed, But...’: Mario Cuomo
It is these days thoroughly engrained in abortion discourse; its premises taken for granted and its logic never questioned. It is all too common for a politician, clergyman, or fellow parishioner to claim that he is “personally opposed” to abortion but wouldn’t dream of “imposing” that opinion on a public with diverse religious and ethical beliefs—and then sit back, secure in the feeling that his is an ironclad position.
Yet this line about being “personally opposed, but…” has only the appearance of reasonableness, acquired through sheer repetition. It also fits perfectly in a society valuing tolerance above all other virtues, conflict-avoidance over tackling unpleasant truths.
Some might trace this attitude back to John F. Kennedy, who as the price of the presidency swore that he would not let his Romish religious convictions dictate his politics. And if you want to point to JFK as a kind of spiritual grandfather to the “personally opposed, but…” position, you’ll get no argument from me. But in its full form it must be credited not to Kennedy but to the former governor of New York, Mario Cuomo.
In a 1984 speech at the University of Notre Dame (at the invitation of the notorious Rev. Richard McBrien) titled “Religious Belief and Public Morality,” Cuomo laid out the basic premises of the “personally opposed, but…” line, by way of reconciling his soi-disant devout Catholicism with his political support for abortion-on-demand. Skillfully equivocating Catholic teaching on abortion with Catholic teaching on contraception and divorce, as well as a presumed Catholic perspective toward nuclear weapons, he asks, would it be right for a Catholic to make (or sign) laws forbidding divorce? Withholding state funds for contraception? Instituting a unilateral nuclear freeze?
“Should I argue,” he asks, “to make my religious value your morality? My rule of conduct your limitation?” Clearly not, is his conclusion. Not, absent a democratic consensus, in a society of varied and sometimes flatly contradictory moral values, a society in which even the collective voice of Christianity is not monolithic on issues but fractured and sectarian. Not, he notes, when “there is no Church teaching that mandates the best political course for making our belief everyone’s rule, for spreading this part of our Catholicism.”
The forceful case made by Cuomo in his speech (he quotes for support, in places, Michael Novak and even Pope John Paul II; the whole thing makes for fascinating reading) touches only on the context of politics, and mostly from the politician’s perspective. But its spirit has crept out of the corridors of power into general society. It is the spirit that makes the saying “If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one” sound to some ears like a devastating rejoinder. The spirit that gives rise to slogans like “You can’t legislate morality,” when in fact the morality that protects human rights and thus the common good is the first and best thing worth legislating.
It is also the spirit that animates our next argument.
3. ‘Safe, Legal, and Rare’: Bill Clinton
Among politicians only Bill Clinton could devise a line like this, during his 1996 campaign, brilliantly triangulating liberal abortion-on-demand orthodoxy with Middle America’s broad-based distaste for the practice. Ultimately nonsensical yet somehow familiar and reassuring, like a couplet from Dr. Seuss, this buzz phrase became an instant and enduring success, for two reasons.
First, it validated the internal conflict that the majority of Americans were (and still are) experiencing over the abortion question. They were conscious of a natural sense of revulsion toward abortion itself, yet unwilling for whatever reason to sign on whole-hog with the pro-lifers. Clinton let them know that he felt their pain and that his administration’s policy would include a subtle nod toward the general feeling that abortion is a Bad Thing (which ought to be “rare”) but would not place restrictions on its availability (“legal”) that might send women to back alleys (“safe”). Thus he accomplished an unprecedented political feat: co-opting the vaguely antiabortion sentiments of the masses and mollifying the blood lust of the radical pro-abort left with one simple statement.
“Safe, legal, and rare” also subtly but definitely realigned the terms of the abortion debate. No longer would the question center on whether the aborted fetus was a blob or a baby; no longer would it be necessary to make tortured distinctions between public and private morality. In the first place, safety and legality are conservative concepts, not radical ones. Now the pro-choicer could consider himself a guardian of the status quo—an American tradition, even. In the second place, with the word “rare,” the focus shifted away from abortion itself (which we now presumed to be beyond debate) and toward abortion’s presumptive root causes. The abortion issue was now really a health-care or poverty or education issue—right in the liberal Democrats’ wheelhouse.
To be truly pro-life, they could argue, meant to “get over this love affair with the fetus” (as former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders put it, with typical elegance) and instead pay attention to alleviating the conditions that led women to get abortions in the first place. Implied here, of course, is a kind of false dichotomy: The qualities of justice and mercy are not strained, nor must the interests of the mother and unborn child be necessarily set at odds. But the argument worked by playing into multiple stereotypes: pro-lifers as single-issue fanatics, misogynists, icy-hearted grinches. And it allowed politicians to spin abortion questions into Great Society sermonettes.
Pro-abortionists’ next major tack would ratchet to a new level the lip-biting empathy invoked by “safe, legal, and rare” and that slogan’s tacit admission of abortion’s unpleasantness. But at the same time, it would rebuke the Clintonian strategy of ignoring or spinning away from the question of abortion itself.
4. ‘Embrace the Guilt’: Naomi Wolf
Feminist-at-large Naomi Wolf is perhaps best known for her work as a consultant to Al Gore’s presidential campaign in 1999-2000. Charged with creating, ex nihilo, a personality for the vice president that would play better with women voters, Wolf devised the “alpha male” strategy, which began with Gore donning earth tones and lumberjack duds and ended (mercifully) with his PG-13 smooch of Mrs. Gore on convention night. In years previous, Wolf had been credited with identifying the “soccer mom” constituency while advising Clinton’s reelection bid and caused numerous stirs with her books and publications on gender conflict and female sexual “liberation.”
But in an earlier writing—an article for The New Republic in 1995—she caused quite a different kind of stir. In it she claimed that her recent firsthand experience of pregnancy and childbirth had given her a new perspective on the abortion debate, a perspective she believed her fellow feminist pro-choicers needed to hear and act on.
In “Our Bodies, Our Souls,” Wolf called for “a radical shift in the pro-choice movement’s rhetoric and consciousness about abortion.” Self-deluded by their long practice of dehumanizing the unborn (what she termed “the fetus-is-nothing paradigm of the pro-choice movement”), pro-choicers, she argued, were falling dangerously out of touch with the reality of abortion and women’s experiences with it. In order to avert the loss of credibility and thus political influence the abortion movement would suffer thereby (although to her credit, Wolf also cited the need simply “to be faithful to the truth”), she asserted the “need to contextualize the fight to defend abortion rights within a moral framework that admits that the death of a fetus is a real death.”
This remarkable essay is liable to engender, in the pro-life observer, the same kind of cognitive dissonance that “safe, legal, and rare” does. In it Wolf admits bluntly that the fetus is a live human being with a certain value and that abortion undoubtedly kills that human being. She laments the prevalence of casual, “‘I don’t know what came over me; it was such good Chardonnay’ abortions.” She insists that abortion calls for a period of “mourning” and recommends spiritual “mending” ceremonies for women who abort, for vigils outside abortion clinics “commemorating and saying goodbye to the dead.”
Yet her practical aim all along is to help other pro-abortionists develop a better strategy for keeping abortion legal.
Wolf avoids adopting conventional pro-life convictions by assigning the significance of the guilt and blood and killing to interior categories only. “If I found myself in circumstances in which I had to make the terrible decision to end this life,” she writes, “then that would be between myself and God.” For the unhappily pregnant woman, oppressed by patriarchal society and burdened by this fellow-victim inside her womb, abortion is not a social injustice but a personal “failure”; an evil to be borne and acknowledged and slowly atoned for.
For its frank admission (and thus diffusion) of the evidence that abortion kills a living human being, and its conclusion that this evidence doesn’t logically require prohibition of abortion—and in fact may even lend its perpetrators a certain tragic nobility—Wolf’s argument is a powerful one. Its effects live on in every pro-choice apologist who tries to imbue his position with moral gravity—or, as with our next case, in those who invoke the name of God.
5. ‘Pro-Faith, Pro-Family, Pro-Choice’: The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice
Some abortion advocates pick up Wolf’s ball and run even farther with it. For some, God might be not merely patiently tolerant, even sympathetic, toward this business of feticide; He may in fact positively endorse it, as the exercise of a mature and devout conscience. For sure, the landscape is dotted with liberal churches and associations of them, each self-defined as “pro-choice.” But the biggest and best organizational representation of the religious pro-abortion folk can be found within the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC), Planned Parenthood’s collar-and-chasuble lackey.
Beginning with the assertion that “most people of faith are pro-choice because of their religious beliefs, not in spite of them,” the RCRC attempts to build a case for abortion on both sectarian and interreligious principles. First, compassion: “People who follow Jesus…should bring healing and wholeness to those in distress,” claims one of the canned sermons the group offers as a resource. This means not forcing them into back alleys for their “healing” abortions and not forbidding them to opt out of the life-threatening ordeal of childbirth. Of course, there’s good ol’ freedom of conscience, too. Didn’t Jesus “emphasize the moral agency of each person”? By this He compels us to believe that a woman’s “life, health, and freedom…are more important than the potential life in her womb.”
Not convinced? Then there’s the cleanup issue: religious freedom. Church and state are separated in this country; without this separation we would be in danger of losing the freedom to believe and worship freely. “And at the center of religious freedom is keeping the government out of personal moral decisions such as terminating a pregnancy.”
This rather bald assertion is a kissing cousin to the “libertarian” pro-abortion argument one is beginning to hear more frequently (which I do not treat fully here due to space limitations): According to this argument, the whole question hinges on whether “the government” has the right to interfere with personal medical decisions. Here the RCRC simply substitutes “moral” or “religious” for “medical.” The antiabortionist’s affront is not to the presumed sacrosanctity of medicine but to the cherished American ideal of religious liberty, of which the right to an abortion has apparently become iconic.
One could spend a great deal of time deconstructing the RCRC—its sophistic mastery of religious vocabulary and concepts; its historical place in the disintegration of American mainline Protestantism; its clever self-positioning as an “equal but opposite” voice in the abortion debate and thus its successful bid to neutralize the natural advantage the pro-life side enjoys in religious contexts.
But I will make just one other observation: It’s the pro-abortion side that always wants to turn this into a religious issue. Sure, there’s no shortage of biblical positivist pro-lifers, but by and large, the pro-life side would like to frame the debate in social-justice terms. One needn’t be a Christian to oppose murder or to look at a sonogram. Conversely the pro-abortionists need desperately to paint the issue as a struggle against religious zealotry.
To these folks it is always an effective—and unexpected—rejoinder to ask that they stop talking about God so much.
Wesley Clark and the Eclipse of Reason
There may be a thousand angles at which a man can fall and an equal number of ways to justify killing the unborn, yet all pro-abortion arguments really boil down to one root fallacy. General Wesley Clark, once a pretender to the Democratic presidential nomination, expressed it quite well to a New Hampshire newspaper earlier this year. Keen to display his abortion credentials (having entered the race too late to attend the NARAL fund-raiser at which the other major candidates had already pledged their obeisance), Clark claimed to oppose all restrictions to abortion, up to the point of complete delivery. After fumbling for a moment with a follow-up question about where life begins, he replied, “Life begins with a mother’s decision.”
Here we have a philosophical phenomenon aptly summarized by the title of Bernard Nathanson’s second film, The Eclipse of Reason. Here we have nothing less than a fundamental crisis of being at the heart of our culture: a legal and societal status quo wherein a person is defined (and thus has rights apportioned to him) not by what he is but by how another person feels about him. This has been underscored in the debate over the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. If “life begins with a mother’s decision,” kill a pregnant woman on the way to an abortion clinic and you’ve committed one murder; kill a pregnant woman on the way to buy baby clothes and you’ve committed two.
The human mind can barely contain such a violent conflict of premises, forced together against the laws of nature and reason like identical poles of powerful magnets. How much more can the national soul contain it?
Todd M. Aglialoro is editor for Sophia Institute Press.