To call abortion a recurring Democratic platform plank would be reasonable, but to call it a sacrament? That is surely an over-exaggeration. Right? Not if you consider how central it has been to Democrats’ words and actions for more than a half-century. Supporting abortion has become a non-negotiable requirement for every Democratic candidate above the level of dogcatcher. Opposing abortion, even in its most brutal “partial birth” form, is attributed to misogyny, mental deficiency, or both. Supporting abortion is the touchstone of judicial fitness. Lacking that touchstone destroyed Robert Bork and seriously threatened Clarence Thomas. More recently, despite his brilliance and admirable judicial record, Brett Kavanagh has been viciously attacked on the mere suspicion that he might not fully support Roe v Wade.
But there is another, even more substantial reason for referring to abortion as the Democrats’ sacrament—because they treat their approval of it as an article of faith rather than a matter of judgment or opinion. Accordingly, they assume that to discuss it in a critical manner, compare arguments for and against it, weigh the evidence, apply logic, and decide which view of it is more reasonable is not just undesirable but unthinkable. For them, to wonder “could my view of abortion be mistaken?” is not just unpleasant but a breach of faith, a moral failing. Indeed, even to listen to someone else express such a view is a betrayal of a sacred conviction that is absolvable only by shouting down the unbeliever.
Because the Democrats’ view of abortion is a matter of near-religious faith, one might expect its rationale to have been consistent over the years. Yet instead it has changed rather significantly.
When the Supreme Court passed Roe v Wade in 1973, it argued that there were two important values at stake. In the Court’s words, “the State does have an important and legitimate interest in preserving and protecting the health of the pregnant woman . . . and . . . it has still another important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life.” (The word “potentiality” was unfortunate, as I will show later.) Roe, 410 U.S. at 162
At that time, most supporters of abortion regarded it as a necessary evil—that is, a sad but necessary procedure to protect the lives of women who experience serious complications in pregnancy, rather than self-defense against an unwelcome, not-yet-human intruder. Over time, however, supporters gave less and less emphasis to the second value, protecting human life. The new argument was that a woman has a fundamental right to make decisions over “her own body” in consultation with her doctor, the shorthand for which became “reproductive rights.”
Making the case solely for women’s rights and essentially ignoring the fetus created difficulties for Christian, especially Catholic, politicians:
Joe Biden resolved the matter this way: “With regard to abortion, I accept my church’s position that life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it . . . on others . . . I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women can’t control their body [sic].”
John Kerry took a similar position: “I am a Catholic . . . But I . . . can’t legislate or transfer to another American citizen my article of faith . . . I believe that choice [about abortion] is a woman’s choice. It’s between a woman, God and her doctor.”
Ted Kennedy had a dramatic change of opinion in a relatively short period of time. In 1971 he staunchly supported the rights of unborn children. At that time he wrote to a constituent: “While the deep concern of a woman bearing an unwanted child merits consideration and sympathy, it is my personal feeling that the legalization of abortion on demand is not in accordance with the value which our civilization places on human life. . . Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized — the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old. . . When history looks back at this era it should recognize this generation as one which cared about human beings enough to . . . fulfill its responsibility to its children from the very moment of conception.” However, two years later, after Roe was decided, he completely reversed his position and became the most vocal supporter of abortion in the U.S. Senate, arguing that he could not impose his personal belief on others.
Now for some non-Catholic Christians; indeed, a family of them:
Bill Clinton was reportedly uncertain where to stand on abortion until he consulted his pastor, who advised him that whether abortion is permissible or not may be debatable, but it definitely is not murder. Clinton then adopted the position that it should be “safe, legal, and rare.”
Hillary Clinton’s position has been more difficult to parse. In 1993 she stated that under her proposed health care plan abortion would be “widely available.” That was at the same time her husband was saying it should be safe, legal, and rare. (Emphasis added) Then in 2008 she said, “I believe that the potential for life begins at conception . . . [and that] abortion should remain legal, but it needs to be safe and rare.”
Recently, Chelsea Clinton, who may be thinking of public office, reportedly stated, “When I think about all of the statistics that are painful about what women are confronting today in our country and what even more women confronted pre-Roe and how many women died and how many more women were maimed because of unsafe abortion practices . . . that’s unconscionable to me . . . [and] as a deeply religious person, it’s also unchristian to me.” She then added, “It is not a disconnected fact . . . that American women entering the labor force from 1970 to 2009 added three and a half trillion dollars to our economy.” The implication of the latter remark is that abortion, far from being a curse, is really a blessing, at least in the economic sense.
If Democrats did not hold the right to an abortion as a matter of faith, they would likely be willing to ask the kind of probing questions they apply to other issues, questions like these:
What does the term “the potentiality of human life” mean when applied to a woman’s fetus?
That phrase, remember, was used by the Supreme Court in Roe v Wade, and subsequently by Hillary Clinton, among others. The dictionary defines potential as “not yet actual but capable of becoming so.” In other words, the Court was asserting that a fetus is not human but could be if allowed to be born.
The Court’s formulation is fallacious, and this judgment is not theological or philosophical speculation, but scientific fact. Dianne Irving separates fact from myth in her very readable scholarly article, “When Do Human Beings Begin?”
The subject, of course, is complex, and her treatment of it goes well beyond the focus of this essay. The relevant parts are these:
[From a scientific standpoint] there is absolutely no question whatsoever that the immediate product of fertilization is a newly existing human being [and] . . . not a “potential” or a “possible” human being. Itis an actual human being with the potential to grow bigger and develop its capacities . . . The immediate product of fertilization is genetically already a girl or a boy . . . Although it is customary to divide human development into prenatal (before birth) and postnatal (after birth) periods, birth is merely a dramatic event during development resulting in a change in environment.
Dr. Irving also makes clear that the question of when a human person begins is philosophical rather that scientific, but she implies that the answer may not be different. I would add that what Irving explains from a scientific standpoint is consistent with human experience—a human fetus has never developed into a dog, a platypus, or anything else than a human being, so to limit its being to potentiality rather than actuality is absurd.
That learned Supreme Court justices embraced a scientific myth rather than the facts is difficult to understand, given that their decision effectively reversed the understanding of fetal humanness. That several generations of Democrat legislators have embraced the same myth is no less puzzling.
Is it reasonable for Democrats to claim that to vote according to their personal beliefs would “impose” those beliefs on others?
On the contrary, it is ridiculous! Beliefs are not only the basis of personal perspectives, but also of philosophical and moral judgments, including those that legislators are responsible for making. Consider how legislators decide how to vote on other issues; for example, the government’s role in the health system, permitting school vouchers for parochial schools, changing gun control laws, and balancing the federal budget.
They would begin by examining the issue that the proposed legislation addresses, determine what impact the legislation is likely to have, and on that basis judge whether it is in the interests of their constituents (and the nation) to support the legislation. Central to this analytical process are the legislator’s beliefs about right and wrong, fairness and unfairness, justice and injustice, and the limitations of government, among others. Such beliefs are philosophical, religious, or a blend of the two.
The Democrat legislators who live in fear of “imposing” their personal beliefs on abortion somehow manage to have no concern about expressing their views on health care, school vouchers, gun control, a balanced budget, or any other issue! Why the difference? Either because they have traded their religious opposition to abortion for the liberal cause of “reproductive rights” but don’t dare admit it, or because they need a noble-sounding excuse for their political expediency.
Does supporting abortion advance the cause of women’s rights? Does doing so serve the national interest?
Making abortion a women’s rights issue qualifies as a classic example of the Yiddish concept of chutzpah, the defining example of which is the man who killed both his parents and then threw himself on the mercy of the court because he was an orphan. What is similar about abortion is the fact that it has destroyed the lives of seventy million human beings since 1973, half of them women. Moreover, the leaders of the movement to rob them of life have been women!
By any sane measure the right to life is the most fundamental human right because, absent that, no other rights are possible. That has been the case with the 35 million women who were denied their right to life by abortion. Furthermore, consider the likelihood that, if allowed to live, those women would have each had one daughter, on average. With that in mind, imagine how many doctors, lawyers, judges, scientists, humanitarians, scholars, inventors and stateswomen have been lost to our nation because of abortion.
To summarize the facts, for almost half a century Democrats have made the foundation of their political platform a process of death rather than of life. (The pretense that they did so to save women’s lives is just that, a pretense; the fact many actually believe it only makes it more shameful.) Moreover, they have used as their foundation for this platform a lie (that fetal life is only potentially human), a fallacy (that legislating according to one’s convictions is inappropriate), and an absurdity (that denying life to human beings in utero is a tribute to women).
For millions of individuals to champion a thoroughly irrational cause with incomparable fervor for half a century without ever seeing the illogic, delusion, and hypocrisy that surround it cannot be explained by simple misunderstanding or thoughtlessness. The only satisfactory explanation is that something powerfully motivating was involved, something quasi-spiritual or religious. That something was the transformation of abortion into a secular sacrament.
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, including Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness, The Art of Thinking, and Beyond Feelings. His latest book is Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. He writes for the Detroit-based Catholic Journal.