The Church and Abortion: Can a Politician Be Anti-Abortion and Pro-Choice

The Pope made news last week when he gave an interview suggesting that pro-choice politicians should be excommunicated for taking the pro-choice position on abortion. While the Vatican subsequently backtracked, there has been renewed interest in the position of the Catholic Church on this issue.

I think that what has largely been missing from this discussion is that one can still be profoundly pro-life, and believe that abortion is a tragic event, while still also believing that criminal sanctions will be counter-productive for a variety of reasons. I therefore found the following commentary by Father Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, to be very interesting:

While traveling to Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI responded to a question about Mexican politicians who voted to legalize abortion. From his answer, reporters inferred that he endorsed comments by Mexican churchmen that the politicians should be excommunicated. The pope’s press spokesman later issued a statement approved by the pope that said the pope did not intend to excommunicate anyone. In response to questions, AP reports that the spokesman said, “Legislative action in favor of abortion is incompatible with participation in the Eucharist. ... Politicians exclude themselves from Communion.''

As Governor Romney eloquently said during the Republican presidential candidates’ debate, each church has the constitutional right to determine its internal policies, for example, who can go to Communion and who cannot. This is not a violation of the separation of church and state. The Quakers, for example, would have every right to excommunicate a member who voted in favor of war. Whether they should or should not is an issue to be debated and decided by the church.

In talking about abortion, it is important to distinguish a person’s position on the morality of abortion from a person’s position on whether the state should criminalize abortion. A person who feels that there is nothing wrong with abortion is clearly taking a position contrary to the position of the Catholic Church. But it is a separate question whether abortions should be criminalized.

Many canon lawyers and moralists believe that a politician could be against abortions and still oppose criminalizing it for prudential reasons, for example, because he believes such laws would be unenforceable, divisive and politically unrealistic. He may believe that a more realistic approach is to enact programs (healthcare, childcare, welfare, employment) that will reduce the number of abortions by giving women a real choice, by empowering them to say yes to life. These politicians point to the fact that there were fewer abortions during the Clinton Administration than during the Bush Administration. Raising the minimum wage, for example, would reduce more abortions than outlawing partial birth abortions. Such a politician could say, “I am opposed to abortion and will do everything possible to reduce the number of abortions short of putting women and doctors in jail.”

So far, the vast majority of the U.S. Catholic bishops oppose denying Communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians and voters. During the 2004 presidential election, only about 10 to 12 bishops of the approximately 190 diocesan bishops spoke out in favor of denying Communion. When the bishops meet in Baltimore this November, the question of denying Communion to pro-choice politicians will once again be debated when they vote on a new statement on “Faithful Citizenship.”

Thomas J. Reese, S.J.

Found on the Dallas News Religion Blog.

When I was an elected official, I found that the pro-life/pro-choice debate often had more to do with political campaign fundraising rather than any genuine action that would have any hope of reducing the number of abortions. Indeed, the real successful efforts to reduce the number of abortions (such as adoption tax credits) often go unnoticed by both sides in this debate.

Unlike many people who talk about abortion, my wife and I had to confront the issue head on in making difficult decisions about the fertility treatments that we would, and would not, undergo. When it became clear that the only options available to us would destroy a potential life, we instead decided to adopt. The Pope would have been proud. We made a profoundly pro-life decision that arose out of our religious convictions, and it was an easy call. And remember--I am the father of an adopted child. I am profoundly grateful that my son's birth mother decided to give birth to my son.

I believe that abortion is almost always the wrong moral choice, and indeed, the position of the Episcopal Church is the same. The position of the Church is that "[w]hile we acknowledge that in this country it is the legal right of every woman to have a medically safe abortion, as Christians we believe strongly that if this right is exercised, it should be used only in extreme situations. We emphatically oppose abortion as a means of birth control, family planning, sex selection, or any reason of mere convenience."

But like the hypothetical Catholic politician in Father Reece's commentary, I believe (as does my Church) that criminalizing abortion "would be unenforceable, divisive and politically unrealistic." Four million abortions, most of them illegal, take place in Latin America annually, and up to 5,000 women are believed to die each year from complications from abortions. In contrast, in the United States, where abortion is legal, the abortion rate reached a twenty-four-year low during the 1990s, is below that of Latin America, and few women die from complications from abortion. And we live in a religiously pluralistic society where my views on abortion are not accepted by all Americans.

So what should we do? Those of us who believe that abortion is a tragic choice, whether we are pro-choice or pro-life, should take seriously that our goal should be to take steps that will reduce the number of abortions in the United States. To me, an investment in anti-poverty programs, women's health care (including contraception), adoption incentives, and support for pregnant women and their families, will do far more to reduce abortion than the current divisive (and ultimately ineffective) debate on abortion that we now have.


One misses the point in dragging "religion" and specifically "Catholic" teaching into any discussion on abortion. The first question that must be answered is what happens in an abortion? The second question concerns the humanity of the "fetus" (latin for young offspring) or unborn child? If the fetus is an innocent human being, then regardless of ones religion, it is wrong to kill this human being. The law which once protected the child in the womb must be addressed in order to correct the error enshrined by Roe v. Wade. Catholic teaching and her emphasis on the protection of all innocent human life requires those who embrace such teaching to act in accord with such teaching and not to disregard it to he detriment of others.
A politician who does not follow the Church's teaching while stating in public his/her opposition to said teaching is causing scandal to those who are members of the church and to the public at large. Honesty would require that the individual refrain from joining in an action that states "communion" with Christ and the teachings of His Church.
Finally while i agree that we must do all that we can to reduce the number of abortions through various means, the truth is that the law is a teacher and for some people the fact that abortion is legal gives them permission ot consider it as a "choice." Since we generally do not give people who wish to do harm to others the license to choose whether to hurt another without the ramifications of criminal sanctions, I question why we as a nation should want to allow abortionists to kill children and not want laws to prohibit such enterprises.
Chuck Blanchard said…

Welcome to my blog. It has been quite a while since we last spoke. As always, you express your point well and fairly. I think that one possible answer to your point is this: while the law undoubtedly plays a role in shaping attitudes and behavior (that is a lesson from the Civil Rights movement), the history of criminal sanctions both in the United States pre-1973 and in Latin America suggests that de jure prohibition of abortion will not necessary mean de facto protection of the unborn.

It seems to me, therefore, that even a poltical leader who believes that abortion is the taking of a human life may decide that his or her energy is better spent on other, more effective measures to reduce abortions. And, given the sharp split on the basic issues of abortion in the American public, he or she may also decide that fighting for criminal sanctions will be ineffective and counter-productive.

(I might add, however, that a vote for public funding of abortions by that political leader would be very hard to reconcile with the stated belief that abortion is the taking of human life. That causes me to have doubts about whether Guiliani, for example, really accepts Catholic teachings on abortion.)

One final point, that I need to think about a bit more: There are some opponents of abortion who do so because they view an unborn child (fetus) as fully human. I think there are others, however, who oppose abortion, but who do without necessarily recognizing the fetus as fully human. (How else could they justify abortion in the case of rape or incest). In other words, the pro-life position consists of a variety of views on the status of the unborn child. Again, I need to ponder that a bit more.

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