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A consistent ethic of disingenuousness

abortionBarack ObamabishopsNotre Damepro-choicepro-liferight to lifeRoman Catholics

Obama Notre Dame 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.

Hillary 2008 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.


Comments () | Archives (18)

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Kate Cooper

This whole business is the height of Hypocracy by the Catholic church and its supporters - The death penalty is against Church Doctrine - Yet Havethye banned Bush from any activities awards etc? He who as govenor of Texas killed more people then any other govenor is history! NO! This just more church politics and propaganda.


Oh Come On! Even aspirin can be something that one can use but the best case scenario is to make its use "rare". Why? Ideals Dear.


Your arguement (about the Catholic Bishops being inconsistent in referring to abortion as murder..and condemning the bombing of abortion clinics) is illogical. The Bishops do not approve of the random slaughter of imprisoned murderers, either. I certainly have never heard of any Bishop proposing that prisons be bombed, for example. Many are uncomfortable with the death penalty. While they condemn the crime of murder, Ithey teach that anyone may repent their sins, be forgiven and be redeemed.. They do not approve of war, but recognize that it is sometimes a necessary evil to prevent further crimes-as in the case of a mass murderer such as Hitler, for example.


"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?"

And why are so many pro abortionists against the death penalty for murderers.

Sir, your argument is intellectually vacant.


Ho hum . . .

Another day of let's try mixing oil and water.

And all the while Washington sinks into the swamps of the Potomac.

And Notre Dame looks for an offensive line.


I completely agree. Unfortunately, the difficult questions surrounding abortion will never be answered in a meaningful and satisfactory way if we continue to have disingenuous people leading the debate. So, if abortion is to be outlawed, what about victims of rape and incest? How are you supposed to tell the difference if the victims never report the crimes, which they usually don't? What about poverty? Abortions are highest amongst women living in relative poverty, with no visible means of support or financial independence. What about the babies?

The poverty rate in America would soar. We'd have more people in poverty than ever, and they'd be the people who can do the least to help themselves - single mothers and children. As a means of supporting them, welfare would have to be expanded, which would probably mean raising taxes, or else just let them starve.

What about pregnant teens? No matter how much we may want to fool ourselves that abstience only education works, evidence proves it does not. Neither necessarily, does sex education or increased availability to contraception. So does America become the land of pregnant teenagers? I'm not saying there aren't answers to these questions. And neither am I totally opposed to outlawing abortion. I'm a Catholic and I'm pro-life. But in the hysteria of 'Stop killing babies!' from the Right, and 'Stop telling me what to do with my uterus!' from the Left, these questions have gone unanswered.

Larry Gonick

The Church also opposes the death penalty. Where were the Catholilc protesters when the previous President, who supported the death penalty—vigorously, one would have to say, judging from Texas history—spoke at Notre Dame?


One reason (besides a likely anti-abortion leaning) that Obama might call for the reduction of abortions would be for compromise. He has put special emphasis on unity and the end of "politics as usual" throughout his campaign and presidency, and has in some cases done a good job of recognizing those with ideals that are very different from his. I agree that their is quite a difference between "pro-abortion" (a slimy term) and pro-choice. I do think, however, that it is naive to suggest that the element of his (a politician's) speech regarding abortion is a clear window into his own ideology.
I really did like the point you made on bishops condemning clinic bombers. That's quite a thing to think about!

Saint Michael Traveler

Are those who call themselves prolife would also advocate elimination of capital punishment and war?

Do you believe in the sanctity of life? I believe that capital punishment is barbaric. Life of a fetus must be protected unless the life of the mother is seriously in danger of death because of the pregnancy or serious medical problems. The decision for aborting fetus must be made jointly by the pregnant woman and her physician.

Do you believe wars are barbaric?
Wars are waged for honor, fear, and resources. Analyses of wars suggest that many are waged by acts of aggression for the territory and natural resource of another nation.

Geoffrey Blainely in "The Causes of War" (1973) indicates that "The vanity of nationalism, the will to spread ideology, the protection of kinsmen in an adjacent land, the desire for more territory or commerce, the avenging of a defeat or insult, the craving for greater national strength or independence, the wish to impress or cement alliances --- all these represent power in different wrappings. The conflicting aims of rival nations are always conflicts of power". Sometimes, war is empowered by religion. But, the hidden motive is to capture the resources of the other nation, force her will, and increase its sphere of influence.

If you believe in the sanctity of life, you can not select between war, capital punishment and abortion.


An opposition to abortion on the basis of Christian tenets valuing human life leads to fundamental questions of when human life begins, or at what point a fetus becomes a baby etc? For many people, the same Christian tenets preclude the death penalty and risking the life of soldiers in unnecessary or politically motivated war.

Why is so much less publicity given to these questions within the context of Christianity and especially Catholicism? Why is there not an outcry when speakers who support the death penalty, including President Obama, speak at Catholic institutions?


this article is faulty in so many ways. The arguments are poor and it follows the thought process of a middle school
student. Is incredibly mediocre. I am a catholic and am also pro-choice so please do not blame my comment on bias regarding the issue discussed here. The arguments are childish on both sides. Mediocre writing and poorly argued.I am not offended by the topic, i am dismayed at the quality of the article itself.

clive coogan

I was born in 1960 and baptized in Montreal, Quebec to Roman Catholic parents. While I was being dipped into the Holy Bird Bath, native children across Canada were still being subjected to the horrifying tortures and forced sterilization programs in residential schools, 60% of which were run by the Catholic Church. Project Paperclip - a CIA program begun in 1946 utilizing ex-Nazi researchers in medical, biological warfare and mind control experiments - used native children from Canadian residential schools as involuntary test subjects, under agreements with the Catholic, Anglican and United churches. These illegal tests continued until the 1970’s while the ambassadors to the Vatican were sipping Brunello with the Pope.

Birth control education at my Catholic High School consisted of being forced to watch abortion films at the age of 13. When addressing what you believe to be your role in fulfilling divine intervention, consider the Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928 passed in Alberta, allowing any inmate of a native residential school to be sterilized upon the approval of the school Principal. While it may be easy for those arrogant Catholics to justify interfering in the lives of women in the name of Christ, it is abhorrent that one can so easily bury the recent past to justify ones own perceived sanctity.

I am no longer a practicing Catholic because the doctrine of the church is motivated once again by it’s egoistic mission to dictate morality and regain the political power it once held so dear. The only divine purpose for it’s continued pro-life hypocrisy is to ensure that this flock of demonizers continues to multiply rapidly in developing third world countries.

Hats off to Obama for standing proud and fearlessly before this institution and inspiring a new generation of Catholic Americans to chart a new course with humility and respect for others.


I see about 6 paragraphs against Catholics who are against abortion. I see only about 1/2 paragraph "for" the liberals who try to play both sides of the fence. I see no paragraphs against those who are pro-abortion rights.

Where is the argument "for" abortion itself? There is none. The left continuously shifts the focus to the rights of the woman without explaining why it is a good thing to not allow the child to be born.

Please answer the question for once, "Why is taking the life of an unborn child a good thing?" If the pregnant woman was murdered, the murderer could be charged with 2 counts, not just one in many jurisdictions. Yet a woman and her doctor can take that unborn's life and the left will celebrate her right to do so.

I do not believe abortion is a right. I believe there are circumstances where abortion could be allowed. I do not believe that all abortions should be illegal. We all have a long way to go before the issue is resolved. However, there is disingenuousness on both sides of the argument and that is not shown in this article. The pro-abortionists use the politically-correct "right of the woman" argument instead of the more accurate "right to kill the baby" argument.

Jeremy Bentham

Mr. McGough limits his disingenuity to two instances.

In paragraph 6 ("But it isn't just pro-life partisans who play games ...") he seems to assert all "fundamental constitutional right(s)" need be exercised aplenty. His "[W]hy do we want it to be rare?" abounds in sophistry as a mean cliche. Certain rights' power remain in their reserve.

Concluding in pretense, McGough lobs clinic bombers into a civil debate. When has additional violence furthered resolution? And I'll consider "treating" a woman acting within the law criminal once our author gains gestational function.


"And why are so many pro abortionists against the death penalty for murderers"

Are you being deliberately obtuse? How many people on death row have been found innocent with the advent of DNA evidence?

If you can't tell the difference between a fully formed human outside the womb and a 64 cell blastocyst, maybe you should be taking some science classes instead of posting on the internet.


Larry and Michael --

It is the inability of folks like you to distinguish between totally innocent babies and convicted murders, attacking terrorists, invading soldiers, etc. that is most baffling to many of us.

If you can't see any moral distinction there, then we've got big problems as a nation. (...and they accuse *us* of being simpletons...)


This article is getting closer to the truth than most others ever attempt. I hope the author will continue with this line of thinking in the future.

The political gabbing to attempt to appease the opposition is frustrating. Why do we as a country create the environment where Obama has to squirm so much when answering a simple question about when human life begins. He should be able to answer that question as a Christian, as Keyes had challenged him in Illinois to do. Jesus was conceived (began) in the womb. What goes for Jesus goes for the rest of us. That has always been the correct Christian belief.

When we allow our poly-ticks to be more honest then we as a nation can make better decisions. Then we may not get so many ticks making bad laws.

J Henson

"[T]he church is motivated once again by it’s egoistic mission to dictate morality and regain the political power it once held so dear. The only divine purpose for it’s continued pro-life hypocrisy is to ensure that this flock of demonizers continues to multiply rapidly in developing third world countries" -- so writes Mr. Coogan, who takes his hat "off to Obama for standing proud and fearlessly before this institution and inspiring a new generation of Catholic Americans to chart a new course with humility and respect for others". Is it because that he is "no longer a practicing Catholic" or that he is a Canadian that Mr. Coogan feels excused from the President's call for "fair-minded words"?



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