Obama, McCain, and Freedom of Choice

As the presidential campaign enters its final days, we seem to be seeing an intensified effort to condemn Barack Obama for “making total unrestricted abortion in the United States his number one priority as president” (Peter J. Smith, LifesiteNews.com). Obama is quoted as having said at a meeting with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund that “the first thing I’d do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act.” Likewise, a few American Catholic bishops — apparently ignoring the more balanced view of their colleagues expressed in their 2007 pastoral letter on “Responsible Citizenship” — have all but threatened excommunication for any Catholic who votes for a candidate who is openly “pro-choice.”

      However, if one takes the time to read the 2007 version of the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) that Obama co-sponsored along with eighteen other senators, it is not a question of removing all restrictions on abortion. According to the argument presented in the bill itself, it is primarily an effort to codify what was already decided by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which although it removed most restrictions on first and second trimester abortions, allowed the various states to set their own restrictions on abortion — or even forbid it — during the final three months of pregnancy.  What this bill proposes instead is a uniform standard, one that says that “It is [i.e., will be] the policy of the United States that every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child, to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability, or to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability when necessary to protect the life or health of the woman.” 

Granted that what is “necessary to protect the life and health of the woman” is less of a restriction than allowing abortion only in the case of rape or incest — which latter seems to be Senator McCain’s latest view on the matter. However, in a joint statement issued just this week by the heads of two committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, while upholding the general teaching of the pastoral letter regarding the importance of other life issues that need to be addressed, neither the effort to increase support and care to women to make abortion unnecessary (the Democratic platform position) nor even the overturning or reversal of Roe vs. Wade (McCain’s aim) would be enough. Both are seen as necessary.

Nevertheless, Obama feels that “it is time to turn the page” on the culture wars of the 1990s, believing that a consensus on these matters for the most part has already been reached. But the consensus may not be exactly what he may think it is. A poll conducted jointly by the People and the Press organization and the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life in 2005 revealed that only 29% of U.S. citizens believe that Roe vs. Wade should be overturned.  In fact, even among evangelical Christians less than half (48%) and only about a third of Catholics (32% - although a more recent poll sponsored by the K of C finds the number to be 64% among “practicing Catholics”) want to see that landmark decision reversed. In addition, despite the rhetoric of the extreme pro-life advocates, only 15% of the Evangelicals and 11% of Catholics believe that abortion should never be permitted for any reason whatsoever. 

      Unless opinions have changed over the past three years, it appears that another consensus has also been reached, at least among most believers and even a slight majority (51%) of non-believers, that it would be a good thing to reduce the number of abortions, and that to do so more restrictions, like requiring parental consent for an abortion when a teenage mother is involved — a restriction that even 67% of non-religious people believe should be the case — should be in force.

      All this is not to say that mere opinion can serve as the final criterion as to what is right or wrong.  McCain and his minority may in fact be occupying the moral high ground on this issue.  However, it is to say that, for a democracy to effectively function without a breakdown of law and order, a consensus of some sort reflecting the opinion of the majority has to be reached — even while protecting the rights of the minority who may disagree.   And it is also to say, at the same time, if one finds oneself in such a minority, like those who would reverse Roe vs. Wade or even go so far as to not permit any abortions under any circumstances, the burden is on them to provide a more persuasive rationale for their position. Otherwise, if unable to provide a more compelling argument, they are probably going to have to be resigned to adhering to their own standards for themselves without trying to force compliance to their views from those who see things differently.

R W Kropf 10/23/08                                                  Obama&FreeChoice.doc    08-10-23.html