I have already said quite a bit (see here and here) about the tension — and I believe ultimate incoherence — of liberal Catholics’ attempt to have their cake and eat it too on the abortion question, an attempt that rests on the device of stressing their “personal” opposition but their refusal, ostensibly because of their respect for the wall of separation between church and state, to impose their personal religious belief on others. Now Kerry, speaking last weekend to editors in Dubuque, joins Cuomo and Califano with, characteristically, a rather blunt, unsubtle version of that argument that goes farther than they did, affirming that he believes life begins at conception.
I oppose abortion, personally. I don’t like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception. But I can’t take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist . . . who doesn’t share it. We have separation of church and state in the United States of America
Astute readers will have noticed that I haven’t myself taken any position on abortion itself. It is a wrenching issue, and I believe reasonable, principled people can disagree about it. I am also not unsympathetic to the bind pro-abortion Catholics find themselves in. Still, I believe that trumpeting both “personal” opposition but active political support is an unsuccessful, pusillanimous, straddling cop-out, reminiscent as I argued in my earlier posts of Stephen A. Douglas’s “personal” opposition to slavery while working as hard as he could politically to enable its expansion. Can you imagine Cuomo/Califano/Kerry saying they “personally” don’t like slavery, would never themselves own a slave, but don’t feel they have the right to legislate that belief “on” an actual or would-be slaveholder?
But what of the “wall of separation”? Let us imagine two scenarios.
Scenario One: imagine that C/C/K as governor of a state in a world without Roe v. Wade is presented with a bill passed overwhelmingly by the legislature severely restricting abortion for purely secular reasons (killing innocent life is wrong, etc.). Does “he” (my composite Cuomo/Califano/Kerry) seriously believe that the principle of separation of church and state would bar him from signing such a bill? Indeed, if he didn’t sign it wouldn’t he then be imposing his own personal opinion — that the state should not impose its views on pregnant women — on the majority of people as represented by their legislators?
Scenario Two: Imagine that C/C/K as governor of a state with severe restrictions on abortion (passed for purely secular reasons and still in our world without Roe) is presented with a bill legalizing abortion by overturning those restrictions. Imagine further that the record reveals that the assumption underlying and sentiment fueling this reform can be fairly described as heavily religious and even vaguely protestant — a belief that in contested matters of morality the individual conscience is sovereign and that the state has no business trespassing on the deeply personal and private (and hence protected) territory where individuals, with guidance only from God, decide moral questions. To be consistent with recent comments in this world, wouldn’t Gov. C/C/K have to veto such legislation as breaching the wall of separation between church and state? Does anyone seriously believe Gov. C/C/K would veto such pro-choice legislation?
I believe in the separation of church and state, and independent of that belief I’m confident that the Constitution commands it (although the contours of that “it” are not self-evidently clear). But I do not believe that principle precludes either pro-life or pro-choice legislation in most instances. [ADDENDUM 7/7: As I pointed out in a comment to this post, the pro-life position has many sources other than Catholic or even religious doctrine, just as the pro-choice position is not exclusively secular. It makes no more sense to say that the "wall of separation" prevents Catholic politicians from supporting pro-life policies than it does to say that it prevents protestants from supporting pro-choice policies.]
Finally, I would have no quarrel with C/C/K if they said something like, “This is a difficult issue. I don’t like abortion. But I also abhor interfering with a woman’s right to choose. On balance, if forced to choose, I believe the woman’s right is more fundamental than the right of the unborn child to be born alive.” My complaint is that they try to hide behind a “wall of separation” to avoid making a hard choice, and that the wall (whatever its exact dimensions) does not offer them such protection.
UPDATE II (July 8)