Pro-life Movement: Limit the Harm Done?

Guest commentary by Johanna Dasteel

Democratic and Republican politicians alike view the abortion issue as just that: An issue worthy of compromise. It has devolved into a political game that the pro-life movement has perpetuated just by the sheer virtue of our participation in it.

Rep. Bart Stupak has become the whipping boy of many in the pro-life movement. But, in all likelihood, he may not have a clue as to what his great sin was. His priority, as he stated repeatedly, was to pass health care reform, but he couldn’t ignore that it included taxpayer-funded abortions, so he kept talking about what was bothering his conscience. 

I believe that his line of thinking is shared by many self-professed, pro-life politicians. Abortion is ugly; it makes people uncomfortable. This is where the thought process probably ends with most pro-life politicians. And while “ugly” and “uncomfortable” are enough to motivate a person to work to reduce the number of abortions, it is not enough to motivate one to end the killing all together. It does not inspire the necessary outrage and courage to win. Only a sense of severe injustice and an understanding that killing preborn human persons is a fundamental affront to the dignity of every human person can do this. We are in the midst of the most gruesome holocaust in our world’s history, legitimized by a dehumanization of our very own progeny. Compromise as a remedy will not suffice. 

By focusing on merely reducing the number of deaths with laws that do not address the root of the problem—the injustice of it all—we allow the injustice to remain unaddressed for a longer period of time. In the end, more lives are lost. 

A clarification: This is not a criticism of the efforts of those heroic sidewalk counselors who, more than anyone else I know, change the hearts and minds of abortion-vulnerable mothers.  This is about legal efforts.

For decades, the strategy of too great a part of the pro-life movement has been to “limit the harm done” with regulatory laws that explicitly provide for allowing some abortions, but not others; or to make abortion facilities and the killing in those facilities more “humane” by making them cleaner and requiring that mothers be informed of the fatal violence of which they are about to submit their children. All the while, these same organizations have abandoned any expectation and therefore, ceased efforts, of winning back the right to life of the preborn.

Stupak did not limit the harm done in the way that many pro-life groups would have liked, so those same groups wanted him to resign to limit the harm done to the cause. However, he just followed the pro-life movement’s example of compromise and did the best he could in the circumstances provided. He wanted to negotiate a limitation of the harm that would be done by a bill he desperately wanted to pass. 

Many Catholic and non-Catholic pro-life leaders alike defer to one paragraph of a papal encyclical for their rationale of this strategy. Paragraph 73 of Evangelium Vitae reads in part:

[W]hen it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality.  This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather is legitimate and proper to limit its evil aspects. (emphasis added)

By this, it seems all parties, including Stupak, have acted rightly and in accord with the directive set out in EV and, accordingly, all parties can continue on their chosen courses unabated. But why would Pope John Paul II give such a directive that seems to legitimize our disjointed efforts? Short answer: He wouldn’t. Another relevant section of Evangelium Vitae immediately precedes the former quote:

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or read to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favoring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations—particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation—there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned …

Put in its proper context, the quote used to justify a compromising strategy for the pro-life movement is, in fact, not a directive for citizens at all, but rather, a moral directive for legislators with an otherwise uncompromising pro-life record. This in no way is a permission slip for Catholic citizens to be focusing on regulations instead of emancipation and abolition. 

Our movement has been indicted by situations approximating that encountered with Rep. Bart Stupak, propping up politicians as heroes who have “fallen from grace” on too numerous an occasion. The disunity and confusion of Stupak and the pro-life movement are due to an accommodation of compromise. Unity and clarity are only found in an adherence and commitment to truth—not just in theory, but in action. 

Creating arbitrary and discriminatory distinctions between those who may be killed and those who may not and whose deaths taxpayers may pay for are not policies that EV #73 permits us, as Catholic citizens, to support, let alone hold as a standard (read: “status quo”) for advocacy or scoring politicians.

The simple and bold proclamation of the Gospel, that every person possesses inherent dignity by virtue of being a son or daughter of God, is what will win this fight on behalf of our preborn brothers and sisters. We must merely be His instruments and let that Gospel be heard from our lips and known by our work. We must never be party to confusion in our advocacy. Our world is suffering; people are dying. Young people’s minds our clouded by our confusion. The only way to penetrate the fog that obfuscates their understanding of principles, virtue, justice and love is to confront them with the unveiled and unguarded truth. 

In order that the world understand our advocacy and be compelled to join us, we must adhere to the uncompromising message that every human being is a person, deserving constitutional protection, no matter the economic and societal effects. The abolition of slavery and the subsequent civil rights movement affected relationships, the economy and civilization. But whose heart was not pierced by the man holding the sign that simply proclaimed, “I am a man.”  This is the message of the human personhood movement. 

Johanna Dasteel is ALL’s senior legislative liaison.