Jeffery Toobin, staff writer at the New Yorker and senior legal analyst for CNN, continues a well-worn liberal tradition in his latest Talk of the Town column, “Not Covered”—that of accusing his conservative opponents of hypocrisy. Toobin, a fully credentialed abortion-supporter, is unsurprisingly distressed about the Stupak-Pitts Amendment that was added at the last minute to the final version of the House healthcare bill. He begins his reflection with the tired observation that “abortion is almost as old as childbirth”—as if its early appearance in the history books somehow makes it legitimate. As I recall, Cain whacks Abel only four chapters into Genesis, and nobody’s saying murder is any less repulsive because of that.
But how Toobin begins his essay is not nearly as interesting as where he ends it. In his final paragraph, after giving an unsurprisingly biased summary of the history of abortion rights in this country, Toobin warns his readers:
The opponents of abortion aren’t vexed—they are mobilized, focused, and driven to succeed. The Catholic bishops took the lead in pushing for the Stupak amendment, and they squeezed legislators in a way that would do any K Street lobbyist proud. (One never sees that kind of effort on behalf of other aspects of Catholic teaching, like opposition to the death penalty.)
It’s a throwaway, really: red meat to an audience Toobin knows all too well, and loves to feed. In a parenthetical phrase, Toobin claims that the Catholic hierarchy is being hypocritical in that it lobbies more aggressively against abortion than capital punishment. I’m sure Toobin thought he was scoring an easy point when he wrote that sentence. For most readers of the New Yorker, I’m sure he did.
What’s troubling, though, is how frequently these kinds of tricks are being used in our national debates. It simply doesn’t matter whether or not the indictment is true. The damage, it is assumed, has been done, the point taken. In this case, for example, Toobin ignores the fact that numerous Catholic organizations, intellectuals, and bishops have been outspoken critics of the death penalty in the United States, right alongside the USCCB. He also, knowingly or not, makes the common mistake of assuming that all Catholic teachings are equal in their weight and importance—and would therefore somehow merit equal lobbying efforts. (As it happens, though, abortion is, unlike capital punishment, viewed by the Catholic Church as an intrinsic and immutable evil.)
I wonder what Toobin expects from the Catholic bishops at a time when abortion has suddenly become one of the most prominent issues on the national stage. Does he really count on bishops to give equal attention to topics that are, politically speaking, nonissues when everyone from Planned Parenthood to Emily’s List is focusing on one thing, and one thing only: making abortion coverage part of healthcare reform? I doubt it.
I think instead that, for Toobin, all of the nuances and intricacies of Catholic social teaching were completely beside the point—not to mention too complicated to flesh out for a thousand-word article. Toobin simply wanted to finish off his column with a twist of the knife, a little reward for the readers that stayed with him till the end. But what does it say about the level of our public discourse when the lead article in one of the leading magazines in this country has to resort to simple and dishonest insinuations of hypocrisy to drive home his point? Certainly nothing good.
What we really need at this critical time in our nation’s history is the willingness to listen honestly to those who disagree with us and engage their thinking with arguments that are rigorous, legitimate, and based in truth. Toobin’s charge of Catholic hypocrisy meets none of those standards.
Ryan Sayre Patrico is assistant editor of First Things.