Abortion is Beyond Politics
Are politicians inherently untrustworthy? Certainly, a lot of people think so, and not without reason. After all, at least in a democracy everything a politician says or does has to be measured against the question of whether doing or saying that thing will help his chances of election or re-election. One unfortunate consequence of this is it can be extremely difficult to figure out whether a politician actually believes what he says he believes, or whether he is simply crafting his words to appeal to the greatest number of people, in the hope that doing so will help him secure or keep the power that he craves.
Sometimes, one is left wondering whether the politician himself even knows what he believes. It’s not uncommon for certain career politicians to become so accustomed to choosing their words or policies based upon whether they will help or hinder their chances of election or re-election, that they completely lose sight of their own convictions on important matters, if they ever had any to begin with. These are the politicians who passionately declare a certain belief one year, because the polls show that it is popular, and who will just as passionately declare the opposite belief a few years later, because the polls have changed.
Few exemplify the slippery insincerity of the career politician more than our “Catholic” president, Joe Biden. President Biden’s views on abortion, for example, have “evolved” so much over the years that they are now almost the polar opposite of his previous views. In the late 1970s and early 80s, Biden opposed Roe v Wade, claimed to be “personally opposed” to abortion, and even voted against putting rape and incest exceptions into Medicaid funding laws. But as the Democratic party became more and more extreme, so did Biden. Now, he fully supports abortion in all cases. And recall that in the 2020 presidential election race he announced that he opposed the Hyde Amendment: the bipartisan amendment, which he enthusiastically supported for decades, that prohibits government funding of abortions.
Biden has similarly “evolved” on matters of sexuality. Until 2012, Biden opposed same-sex “marriage,” opposed government funding for schools that supported homosexuality, and voted for the Defense of Marriage Act. Now, he’s an enthusiastic supporter of even the most-extreme innovations of the LGBT movement, including artificial hormones and body-mutilating surgery for gender-confused children and teens.
These flip-flops are so extreme that one is tempted to think that it’s not so much that Biden “evolved,” as that he never had any convictions to begin with. It’s merely that his lust for power kept him chasing after and adopting views that were acceptable to the rich and powerful Democratic supporters and kingmakers whose support he needed. For Biden, and so many other politicians, it isn’t that he won the election because he believes certain things that are popular with voters, as it is that he believes (or claims to believe) certain things that are popular with voters so that he might win the election.
Standing Firm Against the Whims of the Mob
To those politicians who actually believe certain things because of an honest conviction that those things are truly better than the alternative, and who are willing to suffer for their convictions, this approach to politics is nothing short of staggeringly cynical, and ultimately pointless.
After all, isn’t the point of being a politician not simply to obtain power, but rather to obtain power with a view to making the world a better place by promoting the common good? But if you don’t even know what you believe will make the world a better place, and chase after popular opinion like a greyhound racing around a track chasing the mechanical rabbit, then aren’t you ultimately little more than a slave – a slave to the whims of the mob – no matter how much power you think you wield?
Every so often, thankfully, one does hear a politician acknowledge just this, i.e., that the point of politics isn’t victory or power, but truth and the common good. Take, for instance, some recent remarks by former Vice President Mike Pence about abortion.
“I think defending the unborn first and foremost is more important than politics. I really believe it’s the calling of our time,” Pence told The Hill recently. Pence continued, “As I said in the immediate aftermath of the Dobbs decision, it may take as long to restore the sanctity of life to the center of American law in every state in this country as it took us to overturn Roe vs. Wade, but I believe that restoring the inalienable right to life to American law is that important.”
In another recent interview, Pence praised Governor Ron DeSantis for signing a “heartbeat” law, which bans abortion after 6 weeks. “I want to commend Florida and their governor for moving the heartbeat bill,” he told Fox and Friends. “I’m pro-life; I don’t apologize for it.”
Unfortunately, these remarks stand in stark contrast with the views of Pence’s former boss, President Trump, who has increasingly been distancing himself from the pro-life movement’s focus on abortion as a fundamental issue of human rights, an issue that precedes and goes far beyond politics. Instead, Trump has been criticizing the pro-life movement’s single-minded focus on protecting every preborn human life, arguing that it risks leading to political losses at the polls.
Trump’s 2024 campaign also recently announced that he opposes any federal role in regulating abortion, something for which pro-life groups have roundly criticized him. If abortion truly kills a human being (as Trump has said in the past, he believes) then clearly the federal government has a key role to play in protecting the right to life of the preborn. But instead, the Trump campaign is treating abortion as just any other political issue—important so long as it leads to victory at the polls, but to be abandoned the moment it comes with political costs.
Church Teaching on Politics and Morality
This view of politics is profoundly contrary to the view espoused by the Catholic Church. Whereas modern politicians have a habit of pretending that morality and politics are two completely separate things, the Church has always made it clear that politics is simply the realm in which moral truth is converted into practical law.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the law can or should reflect the totality of the moral law in every respect. There are important questions of prudence, about how and when governments and law should actively legislate and police moral truths in ways that promote the common good. However, it is certainly the case that politicians cannot advocate for certain laws that grossly contravene the moral law, particularly in grave matters that affect human dignity and fundamental rights, because they keep their “personal views” out of politics.
“Just as every economic decision has a moral consequence,” wrote Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in veritate, “so too in the political field, the ethical dimension of policy has far-reaching consequences that no government can afford to ignore” (Apostolic Journey to the United Kingdom, 2010).
Pope Benedict XVI expanded upon this idea at length in paragraph seven of Caritas in veritate, in which he explained how politics must necessarily be used to promote the “common good.” This common good, he explained, “is the good of ‘all of us’, made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society. It is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it.”
Wanting, and working towards achieving the common good, he said, “is a requirement of justice and charity.” Every Christian, he said, is called to promote the common good, to the extent that he or she has influence in the state. “This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbor directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis,” he added.
As the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) notes in their “Doctrinal note on some questions regarding the participation of Catholics in political life,” while political pluralism can be a great benefit to the common good, ultimately democracy “succeeds only to the extent that it is based on a correct understanding of the human person.”
The CDF adds, “Catholic involvement in political life cannot compromise on this principle, for otherwise the witness of the Christian faith in the world, as well as the unity and interior coherence of the faithful, would be non-existent. The democratic structures on which the modern state is based would be quite fragile were its foundation not the centrality of the human person.”
In a rebuke to those fair-weather politicians who appeal to public opinion to justify taking immoral positions, the CDF notes, “no Catholic can appeal to the principle of pluralism or to the autonomy of lay involvement in political life to support policies affecting the common good which compromise or undermine fundamental ethical requirements.”
In other words, there is not and cannot be any stark division between politics and ethics. It is not possible to be a Christian, on the one hand, and a politician, on the other, and to act as if these two things can be kept separate. One’s Christian identity and convictions must necessarily inform and guide one’s political actions.
Human Life: The Center of the Common Good
Ultimately, as Vice President Pence quite rightly noted, there are few “political” questions more important than how a society treats human life. Indeed, these questions are so critical, that in the end they are not really “political” at all.
A culture that cherishes human life from fertilization until natural death is a culture that has recognized the innate dignity and inestimable value of every human life. For us in the United States (indeed for every country), this culture is the kind of culture that can sustain democratic commitments to respect, virtue, decency, and true tolerance, even as it provides legal protection for the inalienable right to life. On the other hand, a culture that devalues lives is a culture that cannot sustain itself over the long haul.
The killing of a preborn child in abortion is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified, no matter how “popular” abortion may be with the citizens of a particular state. This is why the question of abortion in law can never be reduced to a matter of popular opinion or polling, and why any truly ethical politician would never abandon advocacy on behalf of the preborn simply because doing so might threaten his or her chances of election.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that politicians can’t be prudent in how and when they address the issue, to maximize their chances of making a positive difference. Neither, however, can a politician simply ignore the issue, because of possible negative political repercussions.
Are those who perform an abortion and those who cooperate willingly in this action guilty of grave sin? Yes. Moreover, they are also guilty of a grave injustice that wounds the entire body politic. As such, any legal system that fails to protect the lives of the preborn cooperates in such an evil.
In Evangelium vitae, Pope St. John Paul II acknowledges that there are cases in which a politician, an elected official, is faced with whether to vote in favor of a more restrictive abortion law, “in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on” (no. 73). The pope states that even though that law still permits abortion in some cases, failing to protect some human beings, “an elected official could licitly support” such a law, provided that the elected official makes it clear that he opposes all abortions.
However, what is not licit (not permissible), is simply to treat abortion as if it were any other political question. “Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize,” wrote the sainted pope. “There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead, there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.” Pope St. John Paul II added, “In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to ‘take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law or vote for it’” (no. 73).
The reason for this should be obvious. As Vice President Pence pointed out, abortion is “more important” than politics. It is literally a matter of life and death. It involves a moral imperative that cannot be shirked by any politician by appealing to public opinion.
Here we can recall the vice president’s words in June of last year, in response to the overturning of Roe v. Wade:
Now that Roe v. Wade has been consigned to the ash heap of history, a new arena in the cause of life has emerged, and it is incumbent on all who cherish the sanctity of life to resolve that we will take the defense of the unborn and the support for women in crisis pregnancy centers to every state in America. Having been given this second chance for Life, we must not rest and must not relent until the sanctity of life is restored to the center of American law in every state in the land.
Amen to that!
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing email@example.com.