In last fall’s presidential election pro-life voters were faced with a difficult moral choice emblematic of the politics of abortion in general: Does moral principle demand a vote for a marginally pro-life candidate with a chance of winning, or does it demand a vote for a completely pro-life candidate who has little to no chance of winning? Judie Brown of the American Life League, among others, took pro-lifers to task for choosing the former principle rather than the latter in their support of George W. Bush. (For purposes of this discussion, I will accept the claim that Bush is “marginally” pro-life, although the accuracy of the term is debatable.) Pointing out that Bush supports exceptions for rape, incest, and life of the mother, she reminded voters that “every abortion is a direct attack on God, as Pope John Paul II pointed out in Evangelium Vitae , and therefore a politician who favors this violence, even if only in limited circumstances, is not pro-life. He or she is at odds with God’s commandment: ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ I cannot in good conscience cast my vote for someone who favors the total destruction of even one baby, even when I am challenged with the argument that the ‘other guy’ is even worse . . . . It is not . . . our job to get ‘the lesser of two evils’ elected.”

The election, of course, is now long over, but so long as America remains a democratic republic the dilemma will continue in various forms. What, then, is the responsibility of the pro-life voter? Judie Brown’s implication that it is morally illicit to vote for a candidate who supports abortion, even in limited cases, while immensely attractive for those who feel deeply the horror of abortion (as I do), is based on a principle that is deeply flawed and therefore politically dangerous. In the seductive guise of moral purity, it represents a failure to distinguish between degrees of cooperation in moral choice and collapses an ethic of political choice into an individual ethic. In so doing, it virtually removes pro-lifers from effective engagement with politics, and surrenders “the world” to moral evil.

In saying all of this, I should make it clear that my argument is not that all pro-lifers have a responsibility to temporize with evil. People can legitimately disagree over the best course of action in the circumstances, and there are sufficient grounds to make it at least plausible that cooperation with the establishment (the “marginally pro-life”) will not serve the ultimate purpose of ending abortion in America. But this is a calculation of prudence, and differs greatly from the argument that it is morally illicit to support a “marginally” pro-life candidate. It is this last argument that merits careful examination and strong refutation.

What are the principles at stake? First, it is never morally licit to choose an intrinsic evil, such as abortion. The classic case is “Sophie’s choice,” where the mother is asked to choose which child she will spare from death, or both will be killed. The correct choice (though some ethicists disagree on this point) is to refuse to choose even if both children will be killed, and even if one could be saved, for if she chooses, she is cooperating in the evil.

“Sophie’s choice” should be differentiated from “the case of the runaway train.” Here, you are driving a runaway train (that is, with no brakes) which reaches a split in the tracks. On the one side is one person; on the other side are two people. In this case, your responsibility is to choose the “lesser evil,” which is the track with only one person. This case differs from the first in that it does not involve cooperation with moral evil (you are not willing or causing the driving force of the train), and that necessity therefore demands a choice.

Both of the these types of cases, in turn, should be distinguished from “the principle of double effect” in which, under certain circumstances, one must choose a good even with the knowledge that an evil will result. The conditions are: 1) the moral object must not be evil; 2) the evil result is tolerated, not intended; 3) the good effect doesn’t result directly from the evil effect; and 4) there must be a proportionate reason for doing the act. The classic case here is ectopic pregnancy, in which the fallopian tube must be removed, even when the result will be the death of the child. Here the moral object is to save the life of the mother, and the action to achieve that object is removal of the fallopian tube, not the direct killing of the unborn child. The death of the child (a great material evil) is tolerated (not directly intended or caused) because the moral object (the life of the mother) is sufficiently proportionate to it.

Before we can ask into which of these categories a vote for a marginally pro-life candidate should be placed, we must distinguish multiple levels of cooperation with evil. In every abortion, for example, there are multiple persons involved to various degrees. There is the mother, the father (perhaps), the abortionist, the assistants at the clinic, the receptionist, etc. But there is also the manufacturer of the medical instruments that make abortion possible, the owner of the building in which the abortion takes place, the citizens who know abortion is transpiring and yet refuse to help the baby, the judges who gave the woman the “right” to have the abortion, the executive who enforces the “right,” the grocery store that sells the abortionist food and consequently takes “blood money,” and so on, ad infinitum.

Is each of these individuals equally culpable for the murder? Are there some on this list who are not culpable, although they may indirectly have assisted in the murder? We can treat this problem by distinguishing between formal and informal, mediate and immediate types of cooperation. Formal cooperation means that the person intends the same end as the person with whom he or she is cooperating. An example would be the cooperation between the mother seeking the abortion and the abortionist. Both are culpable for the evil in which they cooperate. Informal cooperation refers to a circumstance in which a person does not intend the evil end of the person with whom he or she is cooperating; the extent of moral culpability depends upon the immediacy of the help offered to the person committing the immoral act. Immediate informal cooperation is thus illicit even though the evil is not intended. For example, when the abortion nurse hands the doctor the suction curettage device while telling herself “what this doctor is doing is evil,” she is still culpable. At some point, however, immediate informal cooperation becomes mediate and lessens significantly in culpability. That is, there is some point at which your cooperation with evil intentions is so attenuated that you are no longer culpable for the deeds of the evildoer.

With these principles established, I propose that a vote for a marginally pro-life candidate, under certain circumstances, is (at the very least) an instance of informal, mediate cooperation with evil and corresponds most closely to the principle of double-effect outlined above. Consider the conditions: Is a vote for a marginally pro-life candidate, in this case George W. Bush, an intrinsic evil? No. There is, after all, no commandment that says, “Thou shalt not vote for George Bush.” But does my vote for George Bush make me complicit in abortions that he deems acceptable? Once again, the answer is no, for this case constitutes an informal, mediate cooperation at best. In voting for Bush our intention is to save lives (thus placing it in the informal cooperation category). Nor will our vote directly result in the death of any children (thus the cooperation is not immediate). George W. Bush will not directly kill any unborn children. Abortion law is permissive, not dictative (which is why America is not Nazi Germany; there is no government-sponsored pogrom here). Theoretically, the “right” to abortion could be protected without a single abortion taking place.

In fact, most voting falls under the informal mediate cooperation category. If voters treated perfect consistency and goodness as necessary attributes of candidates for office (assuming we each could discover this down to the last detail before they received our vote), virtually every vote we could cast would be sinful. In choosing a political candidate one must weigh a variety of factors. Among those factors, sanctity of life is foremost, and has a priority above all others. But this is not the only consideration. For example, if a candidate is anti-abortion, but also a Nazi or Fascist or certifiably insane, then one would have to consider the costs involved in choosing him or her. Another factor is the ability to choose the greatest good in the circumstances, so long as that good does not directly involve us in an evil.

“But,” the Judie Brown party might ask, “by protecting the ‘right to kill’ by law in those cases, isn’t Bush cooperating with evil in an illicit way?” It depends. Bush did not create the situation we presently live in. It was handed to him. Thus he must deal with circumstances as they are given. Those circumstances are such that there is virtually no protection for the unborn. In this case he would not be protecting the right to kill the unborn in limited cases, but would be preventing the killing of the unborn in all but those cases. If we were living in a time before Roe v. Wade , the situation might be different.

But still, one might say, “Bush does support the ‘right’ to abortion in some cases, and surely this isn’t good.” To which one must reply: Of course it isn’t, but what are my responsibilities? One responsibility is to achieve the greatest possible good under the circumstances. We live in a regime that protects the right to abortion on demand. How can we best save lives under these circumstances? There is strong reason to believe that a Bush presidency will result in the saving of at least some lives that would otherwise be lost. Note that we are not agreeing to the killing of some to save others. The killing will happen regardless. We are agreeing to the saving of as many lives as we can, and we are willing to tolerate the lesser evil because that is a reasonable choice which meets all of the criteria for double-effect above: our object is to save children (a moral good); we do not intend the death of children in the exceptions; we are not saving the children by killing others (remember, they will die regardless); and the saving of the single life is sufficiently proportionate to the necessity.

Is this, then, to justify a horrendous toleration of evil? Wouldn’t it be best to remove ourselves entirely from it? No. Living in this world nearly always involves some toleration of evil for the sake of a greater good, or to avoid a greater evil. This principle was set forward by Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae (II-II, q.10, a.11) using the government of God as the archetype: “Human government is derived from the Divine government, and should imitate it. Now although God is all-powerful and supremely good, nevertheless He allows certain evils to take place in the universe, which He might prevent, lest, without them, greater goods might be forfeited, or greater evils ensue. Accordingly in human government also, those who are in authority rightly tolerate certain evils lest certain goods be lost, or certain greater evils be incurred.” (Incidentally, both Aquinas and Augustine tolerated prostitution on these grounds.) Of course, government tolerating an evil is not identical to choosing a political candidate, but on examination there is no reason why the same principle should not apply to both cases. Perhaps more to the point is St. Thomas More, recently designated by John Paul II as “patron saint of statesmen.” In the Utopia , in the context of a dispute over whether the philosopher has the responsibility to offer counsel to kings, the character Thomas More responds with the following:

If you cannot pluck up bad ideas by the root, or cure long-standing evils to your heart’s content, you must not therefore abandon the commonwealth. Don’t give up the ship in a storm because you cannot direct the winds . . . . You must strive to influence policy indirectly, urge your case vigorously but tactfully, and thus what you cannot turn to good, you may at least make as little bad as possible. For it is impossible to make everything good unless all men are good, and that I don’t expect to see for quite a few years yet.

Of course, there is a point at which temporizing with evil is no longer licit, as when a regime becomes so thoroughly unjust that revolution is required. Few pro-lifers sincerely believe America has reached this point, however.

As for those who worry that all engagement with the contemporary world implies cooperation with evil, a number of options present themselves. While some are called to engage the world “as it is””that is, to work within the muddy circumstances in such a way that they can bring out the greatest good”others are called to a more contemplative life, in which they engage the world through prayer and mortification. In so doing, they assist lay persons, who are primarily called to engage the world directly. In addition, still others may judge that under the circumstances politics will not change the world, and thus that they should build small communities which will be “leaven” to the world. Finally, some may choose to engage the world in a symbolic fashion, by sending a message, rather than by temporizing with the circumstances. Thus they might choose to vote for a consistently pro-life candidate who has no chance of winning the election. They may do this because they believe that temporizing under the circumstances will only make things worse and that through their symbolic resistance they are planting a seed that will eventually bear fruit. All of these are legitimate responses to our situation, and it would be foolish to reject any one of them for lack of moral purity. On the contrary, what must be rejected is precisely the view of those who treat their refusal to engage directly with the world as evidence of their own moral superiority. This false conception of ethical purity inappropriately denigrates the tremendous good that Christians are able to achieve in the world through various disparate practices.

Judie Brown and others are to be commended for reminding voters that abortion is always murder, even in so-called exceptions. They are right to challenge pro-lifers not to become complacent about the horrors of abortion policy in America today. But our common work on behalf of the unborn cannot tolerate divisiveness based on a false understanding of prudence and a misguided quest for moral purity.

Nathan Schlueter, a new contributor, is Assistant Professor of Political Science at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa.