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 CNS Story:

GUEST COMMENTARY Sep-10-2008 (870 words) xxxa

Politics and abortion: What's the choice?

Catholic News Service

Responding to editors' requests for a regular sampling of current commentary from around the Catholic press, here is an editorial titled "Politics and abortion: What's the choice?" It appeared in the Sept. 4 issue of The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Diocese of Davenport, Iowa. It was written by Frank Wessling, the paper's retired news editor.

Very smart politicians have their weaknesses, just like the rest of us. They tend to be vulnerable where they've been compromised by the need for money and for 51 percent approval in the electorate. How do we recognize such weakness? We wonder about certain things.

For example, we don't necessarily know how Barack Obama and John McCain would answer a question about abortion if they were in a secure room with one other person and a guarantee that what they said would never become public. All we know is what they say and do in their public personas as political officeholders -- and now as candidates for the presidency.

When asked in a recent public forum about abortion, both men, both smart and experienced men, performed predictably. Both also left unanswered questions when that issue was brought up by the Rev. Rick Warren during his Aug. 17 televised joint interview. Why did Obama sound as if he was not prepared? Why was McCain not called on his inconsistency?

Obama did not seem ready for Warren's question on when human rights begin. He replied with evasions about "whether you're looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective," and pleaded ignorance because the answer would be "above my pay grade."

It's more than odd that Obama punted that question so badly. He certainly has had to think about it and cope with it more than once. As someone looking for success in the Democratic Party, he surely knows how tender and sensitive the issue of abortion is for many people when they consider voting for Democrats. The party hooked its fortunes to the abortion "choice" position decades ago. Every Democrat since has had to walk the minefield between an activist pro-choice wing in the party -- along with its money -- and the wavering Catholic vote that once favored Democrats for their social consciousness but now feels homeless.

Perhaps Obama was groping for a fresh way to avoid a direct answer on the question of when human life begins. It's a hard one to answer honestly when you have a militant constituency on your back insisting on a pregnant woman's "choice" to kill a "fetus." If you say, yes, human life is surely present when human sperm and ovum are joined, and that life should be considered in the orbit of human rights, then it's very hard to explain why that life does not deserve full protection in our law. The easier way is to fudge and fuzz and declare the answer unknowable.

McCain spoke up with an orthodox "at the moment of conception." But while he talks the right talk on the issue, he falls off the walk when it comes to action. McCain is on record as favoring embryonic stem-cell research, which requires the sacrifice of lives far beyond the "moment of conception."

The reality is that politics and the law cannot resolve our society's ambivalence over abortion. Politics and law operate with the language of individual rights and opportunity, with emphasis on the individual. The unborn person simply does not have enough presence to command a hearing on those terms. This becomes apparent when considering how the libertarian wing of the Republican Party views abortion: Government and laws are not the answer to anything. They believe in maximum liberty for the individual -- the born individual, that is; the one with the power.

Obama has at least arranged -- or allowed, as these things are done -- a party platform plank on abortion that also supports more assistance for pregnant women through prenatal and postnatal care, income support programs for those who need the help, and access to adoption services.

But neither of our major political parties is centered on a fundamental pro-life stance. One is compromised by an individualistic philosophy that neglects distributive justice. The other takes an absolutist, extreme position for "choice" that makes unborn life invisible. Conscientious voters won't feel comfortable in either camp, although many individual candidates offer better value than the standard for either party.

The politics of this country will not allow an end to abortion, or even significant limitation. Wishing so will not change that well-documented reality. The Republican Party has had years of opportunity to actually move in that direction with nothing to show for it. The Democratic Party wears blinders. Even if the unlikely occurred, and Roe v. Wade were overturned by a future Supreme Court, legalized abortion would still be demanded by a majority of Americans. Political battling would spread among the states while few, if any, lives would be saved.

Neither party deserves our trust as a true pro-life carrier of values. Our judgment about voting comes down to whether we prefer tolerating the status quo on abortion in favor of more attention to distributive justice, or risk a decline in equality across this society for the chance of change on abortion.


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