Thursday, January 25, 2007

Must We Say What We Mean?

On the Senate floor yesterday, John Kerry announced that he will not run for President in 2008.  For a Catholic pro-choice politician, the abortion issue was especially treacherous ground in the 2004 campaign.  In the second presidential debate in 2004, Kerry was asked what he would say to a voter who believed abortion is murder.  Kerry said that he would give this response: "I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins. I'm a Catholic, raised a Catholic. I was an altar boy. Religion has been a huge part of my life. It helped lead me through a war, leads me today. But I can't take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn't share that article of faith, whether they be agnostic, atheist, Jew, Protestant, whatever. I can't do that."  [Read the entire debate transcript.]

Although Kerry is often ridiculed for his opaque and byzantine answers, the position he expressed is a common approach among pro-choice Catholic politicians and neatly fits the liberal model of addressing the abortion conundrum.  As Thomas Nagel puts it, "Liberals propose to 'bracket,' or set aside, the question whether abortion is morally wrong, and to defend the legal right to abortion on the ground that women's liberty in a personal matter of this kind may not be overruled simply because of the religious convictions of the majority." In the debate, Kerry did not say whether he himself accepts the Catholic position, but whether he does is irrelevant: Kerry's answer attempts to "bracket" the question in the exact way that Nagel describes.

Michael Sandel, on the other hand, argues that "liberals cannot defend the right to abortion without implicitly denying that the fetus is a person." To adopt a pro-choice stance is to deny the validity of the Catholic position, for if Catholic doctrine were correct that the fetus is a person, one could not morally permit abortions to occur.  Viewed from this perspective, Kerry's attempt to bracket the question fails.  As Amy Sullivan puts it in her November article in the New Republic, Life Term: "What [voters] likely heard in Kerry's convoluted abortion explanation was that he wanted credit for being opposed to abortion, but he wasn't so Catholic that it meant anything to him."

Is there any way out of this bind for pro-choice Catholic politicians?  It would surely be a political death knell for any such candidate to dismiss outright the religious belief that life begins at conception, and just as fatal to embrace it.  Whether one agrees with Nagel or Sandel on the merits, it seems that pragmatic pro-choice politicians have no choice but to adopt Nagel's approach, deflecting what is in one sense the crucial issue of abortion.  You can read an exchange between Sandel and Nagel (both of whom, incidentally, are pro-choice) on this topic in the New York Review of Books.

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I don't think this is an impossible situation. Say that you believe the fetus is a life and should be cared for as such, but that you understand millions of women are placed into situations where they choose to make a terrible choice. Instead of the almost entirely ineffectual solution of banning abortion, we should be focusing on how to change their hearts and minds and, in the meantime, providing sex education, health care, and other programs which will help women stay out of these tough situations.

Someone more pithy than me could figure out how to condense that into a soundbite, but it doesn't seem problematic to acknowledge that a culture of life can be fostered without imposing restrictions that will come down hardest on the poorest and weakest members of society.

Posted by: Charles | Jan 25, 2007 8:19:27 PM

Excellent blog, and very timely. Keep up the great work.

Posted by: John D. Lovi | Jan 26, 2007 7:52:10 AM

the issue sandel raises seems to me quite straightforward. if at some specified point in the conception-gestation-birth process the organism is a "person", abortion is murder. therefore, to assert an individual right to abortion one must conclude that the organism is not at that point a person.

nagel's rather confusing reply seems to distinguish between laws enacting morality and individual rights but not between laws in general and individual rights. the constitution sets out - with less than perfect clarity - rights that can't be trumped by political decree. because of the lack of clarity, there is legitimate debate about when enacting morality conflicts with such rights. but there is no debate about prohibiting murder.

so the issue reduces to whether the organism is at that point a person. sandel's framing of it as a moral question - for some it is, for others not - may be debatable, but the need to address it seems beyond dispute.

since nagel is (I infer) a lawyer and a first class thinker while I am neither, I have to entertain the possibility (likelihood?) that I'm wrong. but where?


Posted by: ctw | Jan 26, 2007 8:01:42 AM

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