Catholics ponder abortion rights

obama planned parenthoodThe big religion story with voters this year has been white evangelicals. Will they remain supporters of pro-life Republican candidates or will they drift leftward? Despite the thousands of column inches devoted to the topic, it looks like they've remained largely in the GOP camp -- although anything could happen. But the real religious swing vote in this and most elections are Catholics. And there hasn't been enough coverage of the various factors that motivate this large and diverse group.

Catholics are told to consider any number of issues when voting, be it poverty, war or the environment. But abortion, according to the church, is a foundational issue above them all. Some Catholic leaders emphasize the importance of the abortion issue and others attempt to elevate the importance of non-abortion issues. It's actually quite difficult to properly characterize the importance of the abortion issue within Catholic teaching while explaining that Catholics aren't directed by the church how to vote in individual elections -- even when it's between a pro-life candidate and a pro-choice candidate. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has written and spoken a great deal about abortion in the public square and Associated Press reporter Eric Gorski writes about the latest incident in a balanced article:

Chaput, without getting into much detail, called Obama the "most committed" abortion-rights major-party presidential candidate since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision on abortion in 1973.

"To suggest -- as some Catholics do -- that Senator Obama is this year's 'real' pro-life candidate requires a peculiar kind of self-hypnosis, or moral confusion, or worse," Chaput said according to his prepared remarks, titled "Little Murders."

The Obama campaign has been promoting an unusual-suspect sort of endorsement from Douglas Kmiec, a Catholic law professor and former legal counsel in the Reagan administration.

Kmiec wrote a book making a Catholic case for Obama. He argues the Obama campaign is premised on Catholic social teaching like care for working families and the poor and foreign policy premised on peace over war. Democratic efforts to tackle social and economic factors that contribute to abortion hold more promise, Kmiec said, than Republican efforts to criminalize it.

One reader took issue with Gorski's claim that Chaput didn't go into detail. Here's what Chaput had to say in his remarks:

To suggest - as some Catholics do - that Senator Obama is this year's ''real'' prolife candidate requires a peculiar kind of self-hypnosis, or moral confusion, or worse. To portray the 2008 Democratic Party presidential ticket as the preferred ''prolife'' option is to subvert what the word ''prolife'' means. Anyone interested in Senator Obama's record on abortion and related issues should simply read Prof. Robert P. George's Public Discourse essay from earlier this week, ''Obama's Abortion Extremism,'' and his follow-up article, ''Obama and Infanticide.'' They say everything that needs to be said.

Chaput definitely went into detail about his concerns regarding Kmiec's activism on behalf of Obama, some of which was included in the AP story:

While applauding Kmiec's past record, Chaput said: "I think his activism for Senator Barack Obama, and the work of Democratic-friendly groups like Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, have done a disservice to the church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, undermined the progress pro-lifers have made, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue instead of fighting within their parties and at the ballot box to protect the unborn."

The article has plenty more details and context, which help provide the nuance necessary for Chaput's remarks and the position of the Catholic left. And the piece ends with a statement from Catholics United, a group that argues for the importance of issues other than abortion.

The one thing that I wonder about stories involving Kmiec is how his position on abortion should be described. He is definitely personally opposed to abortion and has a history of pro-life activism. But he also wrote a pro-Obama editorial for the Los Angeles Times this last week that seems to argue for an effectively pro-choice governance. He characterizes opposing views on abortion as rooted in religious differences and describes the importance of people with differences coming together:

The way out is to remember that when there are differences among religious creeds, none is entitled to be given preference in law or policy.

Sometimes the law must simply leave space for the exercise of individual judgment, because our religious or scientific differences of opinion are for the moment too profound to be bridged collectively. When these differences are great and persistent, as they unfortunately have been on abortion, the common political ideal may consist only of that space

I'm in the process of reading Kmiec's book -- Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question About Barack Obama -- and his thoughts are a bit difficult to nail down. But it seems clear that he is arguing that a country which lacks religious consensus on abortion must default to a pro-choice position.

You can call that a pro-life view but I am not sure how much daylight, if any, there is in practice between Kmiec's view and that of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice ("Abortion is between a woman and her God"). It's even different than arguments that pro-lifers should be willing to support Obama despite his support for abortion. I'm not sure how to handle the issue, since self-identification is usually preferable. But if Kmiec is arguing that abortion should be legal because of a lack of consensus on the issue, it makes it a bit difficult to call him pro-life. How is that position different from that of pro-choicers such as former Gov. Mario Cuomo or Sen. Joe Biden? kmiec That question wasn't answered by another article, this time from the Washington Post, that described Catholic electoral divisions. Still, it's a really interesting piece of reportage with plenty of color about how Catholics are duking it out over abortion. The article begins with a pro-life activist calling parishioners to encourage them to vote on the abortion issue. Then:

"The stakes here are just so much greater," said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "If you're one of those Catholics who makes abortion the absolute priority -- the issue of all issues -- and Obama wins, you could say goodbye for the rest of your life to Roe v. Wade being overturned. At the same time, [people] . . . also think there are other issues and that the last eight years of the Bush administration have raised questions about economic and social justice -- core Catholic issues -- that simply have to be addressed."

The reporters explain the importance of the Catholic vote and reveal that McCain is winning them by an increasingly wide margin -- now at 54 to 41 percent. The article highlights prominent Catholics who support Obama and gives some of their arguments. For instance:

In [Kmiec's] recent book, "Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Questions About Barack Obama," he contends that overturning Roe v. Wade would not end abortion, and that the bigger priority should be addressing "the economic and cultural and social circumstances that force women to believe that they must make a choice against life."

Again, how is that view different than that of many pro-choice activists? How is that view different than Sen. Barbara Boxer's or Sen. Hillary Clinton's?

I realize that this is a difficult question for journalists to answer, but it seems that the designation of pro-life must have some standard. Should Kmiec be given that designation even though his policy views have radically changed? If everybody is pro-life, if everybody is anti-abortion, then those terms have no meaning.

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