A consistent ethic of disingenuousness
Whatever one thinks of President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame's commencement -- and I think it was a PR triumph for both Obama and the university -- Obama's appeal for a more civil debate about abortion is probably a vain hope. That's partly because, as Obama said, "at some level the views of the two camps are irreconcilable." But another reason is that advocates on both sides of the debate are often disingenuous and even dishonest about their real positions.
Let's take the Catholic bishops first. Conservative critics of Notre Dame like to stress that the bishops have spoken, saying in 2004, "The Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."
But this statement is murkier than it seems, which may be why a majority of U.S. bishops didn't condemn Notre Dame's invitation to Obama. Opposition to abortion may be a fundamental principle, but does it equate to support for every anti-abortion initiative in the political process? Apparently not. Last year the archbishop of Atlanta opposed a proposed amendment to the Georgia state constitution that declared, "The paramount right to life is vested in each human being from the moment of fertilization...."
Granted, Archbishop Wilton Gregory's problem with the amendment was that he wanted pro-lifers to focus on a federal Human Life Amendment rather than state-by-state efforts. But once the church acknowledges a distinction on abortion between the goal and particular tactics, it accepts that one can be anti-abortion, as Obama claims to be in a rather pallid way (why else suggest that the number of abortions need to be reduced?) and still oppose a particular anti-abortion policy, whether it's Georgia's amendment or the Mexico City policy, repudiated by Obama, of withholding U.S. funds from family-planning groups that used their own money to offer abortion services.
The most slippery argument propounded by the bishops -- and other anti-abortion activists -- concerns the reach of Roe v. Wade. "Recent polls showing support for Roe v. Wade describe Roe as the decision which legalized abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, a flagrant distortion of the truth. Roe created an unlimited right to abortion and most people think an unlimited right to abortion is wrong." The problem with this argument is that it's directed at people who oppose unlimited abortion, not all abortion, and rests on the assumption that some abortions -- those late in pregnancy when the fetus resembles a live baby -- are worse than others. But the actual Catholic position is that all abortions are equally repugnant.
But it isn't just pro-life partisans who play games with their own positions. Anticipating Obama, Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2005 said pro-lifers and pro-choicers should find common ground in supporting efforts, including exhortations in favor of "teenage celibacy," to reduce unwanted pregnancies. She also dusted off her husband's mantra that abortions should be "safe, legal and rare." But if choosing abortion is a fundamental constitutional right, one that trumps any state interest in outlawing or limiting abortion, why do we want it to be rare?
Getting back to Notre Dame, liberal Catholics who argue that Catholicism is not a "single issue" faith and that Catholics need to support what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin (cited by Obama in his speech) called a “consistent ethic of life” comprising opposition to abortion and support for anti-poverty efforts and world peace. But if you really believe, as Catholicism supposedly does, that abortion is the moral equivalent of the Nazis' extermination of the Jews, then a politician who supports legal abortion should be ostracized even if he or she takes the right position on national health insurance or nuclear disarmament. It pains me to say this, but I think at least some liberal Catholics who wrap themselves in the "seamless garment" of a consistent ethic of life don't believe, deep down, that abortion is the outrage the bishops say it is.
Neither may the bishops: If abortion is truly murder, why do bishops condemn abortion clinic bombers? Most bishops presumably had no problem with the United States violently opposing Hitler. And if abortion really is murder,why do so many anti-abortion activists stop short of proposing that women who have abortions be treated as criminals? That position may make sense as a political tactic, but it's illogical and intellectually dishonest. So is most debate about abortion.