Life Begins … Life Ends

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.


See Captain Ed’s impressive post, “Kerry Flip-Flops On Life.” (Link via Susanna Cornett)

UPDATE II (July 8)

See similar comments in The American Spectator, pointed out to me by Lane Core’s, whose own generous comments are here.

Say What? (16)

  1. Andrew Lazarus July 6, 2004 at 8:12 pm | | Reply

    Let’s not forget to balance out with some “pro-choice” Catholic Republicans, like George Pataki and Rudy Giuliani. Somehow their Communion practices never get questioned (although I suppose Giuliani is already excluded from Communion over his marital history).

    Be that as it may: I happen to think, John, that your argument for legal abortion is better than Kerry’s, but the Kerry argument isn’t universally invalid. For example, it would be preposterous to imagine Joe Lieberman introducing legislation to restrict pig meat, or Orrin Hatch coming down against coffee—even though the religions to which they adhere strongly condemn pork and coffee respectively. And it is even more far-fetched to imagine their congregations excommunicating them over their failure to work towards any such laws.

    Indeed, as I understand it the Catholic Church has, very recently by its standards, soured on capital punishment and no one is remotely talking about Catholic politicians and capital punishment, except in this exact context of trying to defuse the abortion controversy. I wonder if the difference is about the innocence of the fetus, or is it really about ambivalence towards the sexual revolution?

  2. John Rosenberg July 6, 2004 at 11:49 pm | | Reply

    Andy, Good points.

    First, I hope everyone will believe that if any pro-choice Republicans made the same arguments as C/C/K, I’d make the same criticism of them.

    Re Lieberman/pork and Hatch/coffee, these are like fish-on-Friday and are hardly comparable to the abortion issue. BUT (and here these issues do resemble the abortion debate), if there were also non-denominational reasons to restrict access to pork (mad pig disease?) or coffee (say it were determined that coffee lowers IQ), I can’t imagine President or Governor Lieberman or Hatch refusing to promote or sign restrictive legislation for fear of legislating “on” people who don’t share their religious objections. Catholics, after all, don’t have a monopoly on opposing abortion.

    Capital punishment, on the other hand, is similar. Assuming that the Church holds both abortion and capital punishment to be immoral (as I think it does, but I’m not the one to ask), I would argue (indeed, I have argued in my three posts) that it makes no sense to say “I agree with the Church’s position(s) but as president/governor/legislator/judge I can’t impose my sectarian view on others” because, among other reasons, those views are not sectarian simply because one or more sects believe them.

    If the pro-choice Catholics agree with the Church’s positions, they should have the courage to act accordingly (the anger of their “base” notwithstanding) because the “wall of separation” does not provide them sufficient cover to hide behind. If they disagree with the Church’s positions, they should have the courage to say so and risk whatever discipline, if any, the Church deems appropriate.

    Whether or not there should be any discipline, such as refusal of communion, is a matter for the Church and its members to decide, as is the question of whether or not having different degrees of discipline for bucking Church doctrine on abortion and on capital punishment is inconsistent. Maybe one doctrine is deemed more important than the other. In any event I don’t have an opinion on that either, and even if I did there’s no reason for anyone to care about it.

  3. nobody important July 7, 2004 at 8:12 am | | Reply

    Nobody is forcing John Kerry, or any other Catholic politician, to run or serve. If they have a moral conflict concerning abortion, torn between their faith and public office, they could always stay in the private sector. It seems to me the real conflict is between their ambition and their faith.

  4. meep July 7, 2004 at 10:02 am | | Reply

    Just to let you know the Catholic party line (being Catholic myself):

    Here’s a link to the relevant section in the Catechism:


    Scripture specifies the prohibition contained in the fifth commandment: “Do not slay the innocent and the righteous.” The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.’

    ‘Innocent’ doesn’t mean anything with regard to guilt – it means not threatening other life. It’s perfectly ok to kill in self-defense or to defend others – it’s ok for a cop to shoot an insane person who’s firing randomly on a crowd of people, for example.

    The death penalty is in 2266-2267. The paragraphs about abortion are 2270-2275, and Euthanasia are 2276-2279. Civil legislation is noted as well. War is treated in 2307-2317.

    In any case, the current teachin of the Church is this: war can be just as a defensive measure, capital punishment can be just if that’s what civil justice and public safety require — but one should strive to avoid both. Euthanasia and abortion are not acceptable at all (where the death of the fetus or old/sick person is the primary effect desired… if one must induced early labor to save a mother’s life, that’s a different situation. The death of the baby is a secondary effect, and its death is not a desired end. Likewise, removing a patient from a heart-lung machine or respirator isn’t necessarily Euthanasia.)

  5. Laura July 7, 2004 at 1:25 pm | | Reply

    As John says, you don’t have to be Catholic to be pro-life.

    I know one atheist who adamantly opposes abortion because he knows in his heart that it’s WRONG.

    Another one opposes it because he believes it is bad for society: it desensitizes people to murder and to dehumanization of the helpless.

    These are a far cry from “I have to oppose abortion because I’m Catholic, but if you want to have one that’s OK with me.” Gosh, look to your conscience and generate some principles.

  6. John Doe July 9, 2004 at 2:25 am | | Reply

    High quality videos of fetuses will eventually persuade Americans that they are ‘alive’ and abortion–after the first trimester at least–is wrong, even if it remains legal.

    And of course Kerry has no principles.

  7. ELC July 9, 2004 at 9:22 am | | Reply

    This, from Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger last month; he is the Vatican’s chief authority on doctrine, after the pope, of course: “3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

    Also, you may or may not be interested to know that Kerry has been formally accused of heresy in the Boston Archdiocese’s court, on account of his position on abortion, and the demand is made in the accusation for his formal excommunication.

  8. fenster moop July 9, 2004 at 10:41 am | | Reply


    I see your point in this, and I give you a lot more credit that some of the other commentators that are kneecapping Kerry without much serious soul-searching. But just because partisans of both sides persist in making abortion a black-and-white issue is no reason for me to drop my belief that it is, like many human matters, complex. Nuanced, even, to use a word that suits Kerry just fine.

    The West is fighting an intolerant enemy that considers intolerance to be perfectly reasonable. If Allah says “x”, then “x” it shall be. Part of the genius of Western Civ is tolerance, which is, when you think about it, a very weird and counterintuitive idea. I may think “x”, but since you don’t, we need to find some way to deal with it. Better to be inconsistent than kill one another. Or, as Fenster Moop has written, hypocrisy is the handmaiden of all great things.

    Representative democracy related to this concept of tolerance, as it creates its own necessary ambiguities. Representative democracy concept cannot mean that representatives of the people must always vote their conscience. It would be illogical and silly to demand that representative only obey the inner light and ignore the wishes of their constituents. Another paradox, to be sure, but a useful one nonetheless.

    So, while I agree with you that Kerry is being political here, I don’t find his gaming outside the norm or beyond the pale.

    Sure, if you think abortion is the most, most, most imporant issue, then one might expect conscience to be a more significant guide. But you know what I think? It’s not the most important issue. Bigger than fish on Fridays, but less than a whole lot of other things.

    Like most Americans, I suspect, I kind of agree that something like life begins at conception, that abortion is never a really good idea, that its moral weight increases over the term of the pregnancy, that early abortions ought to be easier, that late-term abortions ought to be harder and that partial birth abortions ought to be illegal. I don’t think that is way incosistent with what Kerry is saying, and clubbing him with Church doctrine strikes me as too much a partisan move.

    Fenster Moop

  9. John Rosenberg July 9, 2004 at 12:39 pm | | Reply

    Fenster – As usual I appreciate your comment, and your kind words. I suspect that on the great spectrum that is the blogosphere, not to mention real life, we are pretty close together, and where we differ probably has more to do with emanations and penumbra than real substance.

    Nevertheless, since agreement makes neither news nor interesting comments, here are some additional responses. I would like to agree with you altogether about tolerance, or at least make others think I do, but at bottom I fear that I’m less tolerant of hypocrisy than you. Sure, a certain amount of it is necessary to grease the wheels of democracy; we can’t have a country of 300 million people and their representatives always going around acting on their consciences all the time. Still, hypocrisy about life and death is not the same as about, say, price supports for peanuts. There is a reason, and a good one, that we respect people (and that includes politicians) who say what they believe on important matters even when it is unpopular. We, or at least I, like people who have the courage of their convictions. Kerry seems to be lacking here, although whether he lacks the courage or the convictions, or both, isn’t clear.

    To point this out hardly seems to be “clubbing him with Church doctrine,” especially when the clubber is not a member of the Church or an adherent of the doctrine. The point, or at least my point, is that Kerry himself claims to accept the doctrine, or most of it. But to switch to a church of which I am a communicant, and a doctrine I do admire and accept, clubbing Kerry (and don’t forget Cuomo and Califano, and Pataki and the liberal Catholic Republicans insofar as they follow the same path) seems to me quite analagous to Lincoln’s clubbing Douglas with the Declaration of Independence. Now, you could reply that the cost of that was the civil war and over 600,000 American casualties, but that’s another discussion.

  10. fenster moop July 9, 2004 at 1:10 pm | | Reply


    I thought you’d write a response that would make me think harder, and you did. Let me step out from my penumbra into the light of day for a moment and take another quick shot. Then I’ll scurry back.

    You are quite right that we have different tolerances for hypocrisy on this issue. On some issues–like Iraq–I draw the line at too much dissembling since I think clarity is called for. On others–like abortion–I find myself much less troubled.

    That’s less a defense than an observation of my own behavior, so it’s worth asking myself why I feel that way. It’s probably that I think enough is at stake in Iraq–and at stake in terms of what politicians actually communicate, and do–that I want to sniff out waffling. But to me, abortion–while nominally about LIFE AND DEATH, like Iraq–is mostly shadowplay when it comes to the politics of it.

    On this issue, the fringes seem to dominate the debate, creating the perception of slippery slopes to Hell in both directions. But I think–or hope– that there’s a big dumb middle out there in America (and thank God for it) that is unlikely to permit the return of back-alley abortions in God’s name, or a willy-nilly frenzy of partial birth procedures in Gloria’s. So the politicos twist, turn and dance. With all due respect, yawn. I just don’t see it as an update to slavery. And I don’t see it like Iraq, where policy is much more in flux, and the express views of politicians like Kerry are part of a critical iterative process between leader and led.


  11. John Rosenberg July 9, 2004 at 1:36 pm | | Reply

    Fenster – Very good points. My excuse now for this short reply not being more erudite and persuasive (thank goodness for excuses!) is that I have to run pick up my wife Helene at the pool, and I like to think that all (7) of my readers would regret the consequences if I am too late.

    I have to think more (always hard), but I probably agree with you in large part on abortion as an issue. In addition, it is inescapably a more personal, private issue than slavery or Iraq (though of course it is not entirely personal/private). I think the crux of our difference is that I regard my postings on this as being primarily about Kerry and you read them as being primarily about abortion. I see myself being critical of his character more than about the nature of his stance on abortion, as I tried to make clear somewhere back there. One could (indeed, many have) criticized him in similar fashion on just about every other issue, including Iraq. Gotta go….

  12. fenster moop July 9, 2004 at 1:48 pm | | Reply


    In retrospect I suppose you are right that you were talking more about Kerry than abortion proper, and I teased the latter into the foreground.

    So, back to basics: is K. a dissembling weasel? You betcha!


    PS: although note that noted Kerry-basher Mickey Kaus is now saying that he expects that he will end up voting for K., albeit reluctantly. Perhaps my semi-defense of K. above represents my own unconscious at work, preparing me, another 9/11 Democrat, for that same long, sad journey.

  13. The Black Republican July 10, 2004 at 11:24 pm | | Reply

    “…then the voter sins mortally.”

    EWTN puts out an impressive statement of principle for pro-life voters.

  14. Ex parte Fide July 11, 2004 at 8:25 pm | | Reply

    “…then the voter sins mortally.”

    EWTN puts out an impressive statement of principle for pro-life voters.

  15. ELC July 12, 2004 at 2:59 pm | | Reply

    “Representative democracy related to this concept of tolerance, as it creates its own necessary ambiguities. Representative democracy concept cannot mean that representatives of the people must always vote their conscience. It would be illogical and silly to demand that representative only obey the inner light and ignore the wishes of their constituents. Another paradox, to be sure, but a useful one nonetheless.” It’s not at all a paradox, it’s a false dilemma. Nobody is asking any legislator to “ignore the wishes of their constituents”. The paradox is that they do so pretty much all the time, until an event horizon encompasses an election. And, as I have said in other venues, I don’t know of any politician of any kind who votes based solely on the wishes of his constituents. In the case of legislators, all of them engage in debate about the pros and cons of legislation, which usually resorts to far more than mere recitation of what their constituents want and involves the application of moral and philosophical principles; that is, an appeal to conscience. That’s why we call it parliamentary debate, no?

  16. Liberal Catholics October 20, 2012 at 1:52 pm |

    [...] Life Begins … Life Ends (Kerry in 2004) [...]

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