Essay # - 7"Personally Opposed, But..." -

   When you hear someone say that he or she is personally opposed to abortion but doesn’t believe it should be legally restricted, a number of different things might be going on, and you need to ask them some probing questions in order to tell whether they might be open to persuasion, and if so what arguments might reach them.

   First, you need to ask whether they concede that abortion is morally wrong. Being “personally opposed” expresses a rather fuzzy negative attitude. It might mean that they find it aesthetically displeasing, feel vaguely uncomfortable with it, or would not have one themselves. But if they genuinely believe it to be morally wrong in all or at least some cases, the next question is why they believe this. There are any number of things that are morally wrong, but not appropriately matters for legislation and they may think abortion belongs in this class. But if they say they believe abortion is wrong because it involves taking an innocent human life, and they really believe this, then this is the sort of thing that is appropriately a matter for the law. To fail to protect helpless human lives is to permit them to be killed. There is no neutral ground.

   The primary purpose of laws forbidding abortion, of course, is saving the lives of unborn human beings. But there is an important secondary purpose also. The law has an important role as moral teacher. Many people have grown up with inadequate moral and religious education. So if the highest court in the land says abortion is legally permissible (and worse yet, that women have a right to it), then they will conclude that it is not morally wrong. Women will be more likely to let themselves be pressured into an abortion against their consciences. If they then suffer from intense feelings of grief and remorse, many people will dismiss such feelings as inappropriate; they should just get over it. This makes the situation of such women even more painful than it already is. Our laws need to help form citizens’ consciences by making clear that abortion is a serious matter and that each abortion involves a tragic loss.

   The phrase “personally opposed, but...” is most commonly used by Catholics. Evangelicals politicians, by contrast, are generally quite willing to jump into the political fray and fight to get pro-life laws passed. One reason for this difference may be that the legacy of their immigrant past still lingers in Catholic culture. Catholic immigrants were not from the elite classes in their own countries and at first Catholic schools here were primarily oriented toward vocational skills combined with some basic catechetical instruction. The immigrants felt vulnerable and socially inferior and were consequently timid about challenging the dominant culture. These days are long past, of course; Catholics have arrived. But we need to work on realizing our power and being confident enough to insist that our views be heard.

   The other reason why Catholics may be less willing to go out on a limb politically for the pro-life cause is because too many of them received an education which failed to distinguish clearly enough between something which can be supported by rational arguments and Church rules binding only on Catholics like not eating meat on Fridays. Those who think of opposition to abortion as a distinctively Catholic belief, then feel that to make it illegal would be to impose their own distinctive religious views on non-Catholics. But although the media often represent pro-life beliefs as peculiar to Catholics, the conviction that abortion is wrong is one Catholics share with Moslems, Mormons, Evangelicals, Orthodox Jews and even many non-religious people who have been persuaded by pro-life arguments.

   Politicians who say they are “personally opposed, but...” may only be signaling that they are open to compromise on the issue. We are a democracy, and the pro-life movement does not at present have enough votes to pass the strong laws we would like to see. But if they fail to act in any way to restrict abortion, they may lack the courage of their convictions and just be drifting with the prevailing winds (and the Democratic Party platform). To persuade such politicians we need to point out to them that the kind of extremely permissive abortion laws we now have are not what most Americans want. As recently as the McGovern campaign (1964) even a false allegation that he favored abortion on demand seriously hurt him with voters. And even now a vast majority of the American public favors some legal restrictions on abortion. In fact, recent surveys conducted by Gallup and PEW indicate that the majority of Americans now identify themselves as “pro-life,” and that such attitudes are on the rise. So capitulating to the well organized and well financed abortion lobby cannot be justified on the grounds that their constituents want this. All those who recognize that abortion is the taking of an innocent human life must work together to attain as much legal protection as possible for the unborn.