The worst aspect of an Obama presidency, I have been telling friends for months, will be his Supreme Court appointments. They will set the so-called constitutional right to an abortion in concrete for years to come. While this remains true, Sen. Obama’s victory challenges pro-lifers in two ways.
We need first to recognize that politics is the art of the possible and that political battles can never be won by attacking our friends. During the annual march on Washington each January, some pro-lifers have had nothing better to do than to stage confrontations with pro-life members of Congress whose support they consider insufficiently militant. I received such an attack myself, during a previous presidential campaign, when a listener found the decibel count of a strong pro-life homily I preached too low. This is madness.
Second, we need to recognize that, for some years to come, abortion will be with us; we must support the kind of limitations on the practice which are in force in most other countries. To oppose such limitations on the grounds that they do not banish all abortions is also madness.
Beyond replacing political naivete with political savvy, the task before pro-life people now is to concentrate on the only task that will bring success in the fight for life: changing hearts and minds.
“For too long we’ve been asking politicians to do for us what we need to do ourselves,” a militantly pro-life Catholic bishop told me on election day. He was right. Of course our laws should protect the weak and defenseless. And who is more vulnerable and defenseless than the baby in the wombor Grandma in a nursing home whose mind has gone ahead of her and whose care is costly? We need to realize, however, that laws that do not enjoy wide popular support are useless, or worse.
Americans went down that road in the 1919 with Prohibition, the constitutional amendment that criminalized the buying and selling of alcoholic drinks. Intended to end the distribution of strong drink, it merely transferred the trade to a new class of criminals, called bootleggers. Born in 1928, I can still remember my father’s friends saying to him in jest a year and more after Prohibition’s repeal in 1933: “Dudley, this is awfully good whisky. Who’s your bootlegger?” Laws that are mocked and widely disregarded with impunity by respectable people harm society by weakening respect for law in general.
In a notable pre-election speech in St. Louis, former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee spoke about three legal innovations which he had witnessed in his adult lifetime: limitations on smoking, requirement of access to public places for the handicapped, and requirement of seat belts for drivers and passengers of automobiles. In each case, Huckabee pointed out, people were first persuaded that the proposed change was beneficial. Then, laws were enacted to mandate the change.
Pro-lifers need to heed this lesson. For too long we have been demanding the passage of laws which, though happily supported by a growing number of our fellow citizens, still fall short of the acceptance needed to make them effective. Considering our president-elect is, as Princeton professor Robert P. George demonstrated brilliantly in his October 14 article for Public Discourse, not merely pro-choice but militantly pro-abortion, we need to shift the battle from the legal front and concentrate on changing hearts and minds.
A good entry point for persuading people that abortion is wrong is pointing out the chilling similarities between the arguments for slavery in the 1850s and those used to defend abortion today. Like today’s pro-choice people, slaveholders said they weren’t forcing others to own slaves. They simply pleaded for the right to do what they wanted with their “property.” That word disguised, of course, the fact that human lives were at stake. The question of pro-choice people today, “Doesn’t a woman have a right to do what she wants with her body?” similarly disguises the fact that exercising these so-called rights involves taking a human life.
The slaveholders’ pro-choice argument also lives on today in the bumper stickers that read: “Against abortion? Don’t have one.” Would those who display that sticker display one which said: “Against slavery? Don’t own one”? They’d be ashamed. (For further information about the parallels between pre-Civil War slaveholders and pro-choice people today, see the book by federal judge John T. Noonan, A Private Choice.)
When Americans are as ashamed of abortion as we now are of slavery, the battle will be won.
Fr. John Jay Hughes serves the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri and is author of No Ordinary Fool: A Testimony to Grace.