By Valerie Schmalz
Some Catholics are asking if they would be justified in casting a ballot for an outspoken abortion-rights advocate in the belief that the candidate's economic policies are more likely to reduce abortions than any legal restrictions.
The issue has come to the fore with the presidential candidacy of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, among the strongest supporters in Congress of abortion rights. But some Catholics argue that Obama's economic philosophy and opposition to the war in Iraq are more comprehensively in line with Catholic social teaching than the views of Republican Sen. John McCain, who supports embryonic stem cell research but otherwise hews to pro-life positions.
Several influential opinion-makers -- including Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, former editor of America magazine, Pepperdine University law professor Doug Kmiec and two Democratic-leaning organizations, Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good -- contend that economics trumps law.
Most pro-life activists respond that while they support economic aid to pregnant women, they also say no economic policy can substitute for outlawing abortion. And some say the economic argument should be viewed with special caution because some of its strongest proponents have a history of working for the campaigns of pro-choice politicians.
"The argument that we ought to lay aside the 'divisive' legal fight against abortion in favor of solutions that will bring about a real reduction in abortions is very appealing, but, ultimately, distracting. We need to do both," said Jack Smith, a Catholic diocesan newspaper editor and longtime pro-life activist.
But some, like Father Reese, say the legal battle has already been lost. "Those wanting to do something about abortion must face the political reality that abortion is not going to be made illegal in the United States," he wrote in a post to a popular blog. "Granted that fact, then the political question has to change from 'Who will make abortion illegal?' to 'Who will enact programs that will reduce the number of abortions?'"
But legal expediency is not the only criterion that should guide voters, said Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.
"I think I want to take my chances with those who are willing to protect life from its beginning," he said. "We have to exercise a preferential option in favor of the defense of human life. The unborn are, in many ways, the most vulnerable of the poor."
In September, Bishop Finn and Kansas City, Kan., Archbishop Joseph Naumann published a joint pastoral letter on the responsibilities of the voter titled "Our Moral Responsibility as Catholic Citizens."
"Everybody who I see running for public office cares about people," Bishop Finn told Our Sunday Visitor. "But I think we have to see what kind of fundamentals they are working from. Are they choosing policies and issues rather than working from fundamental and unchanging life principles?"
The question of economic policies in the abortion debate has begun to receive some attention but so far little scientific grounding. A recent study, not yet peer-reviewed, by Pennsylvania State University political scientist Joseph Wright found that more financial support for pregnant and parenting people -- including higher employment for men -- equates to fewer abortions. (see sidebar). He studied government program data over the ten years ending in 2001.
The results were welcomed by pro-life Catholics who support candidates who support abortion rights but also stronger social programs. "Defending life actually coincides with the needs of the working family," said Catholic law professor Kmiec, author of "Can a Catholic Support Him? Asking the Big Question about Barack Obama" (Penguin, $12).
Chris Korzen, Catholics United executive director, said asking whether abortion should be illegal is "part of the problem. ... I don't feel that is the most effective way of dealing with the tragedy of abortion."
Some critics of Catholic groups supporting pro-choice candidates call them disingenuous. Republican Catholic columnist Deal Hudson blasted Catholics United on his blog at InsideCatholic.com for running an advertisement calling McCain insufficiently pro-life because he opposed a portion of recent child insurance legislation -- but passing over the fact that Obama opposed prenatal care in the same bill. "When I saw this ... I thought of the word 'duplicity,'" Hudson wrote. "Catholics United pretends to care about the pro-life issue but fails to criticize, or even mention, the abortion extremism of Barack Obama."
Both Catholics United and a similar organization, Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, say their goal is to open a dialogue. Alexia Kelley, executive director of Catholics in Alliance, said: "There is a moral imperative for Catholics to ensure that women and vulnerable families have the support they need to choose life." Kelley workedfor four weeks as religious outreach coordinator for the Democratic National Committee during the presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry in 2004. Unlike Kerry, Kelley said her organization supports legal protection for the unborn. As a 501(c)(3), the non-profit is prohibited from making political endorsements, she said.
"We support all effective ways to reduce, prevent and end abortion. We are particularly concerned that polarization of the debate has prevented dialogue and investigation into what are the things that can be done now and in future," Kelley said.
From a practical standpoint, Bishop Finn noted that if the Freedom of Choice Act is enacted, both sides agree that all limitations on abortion will be null and void, whether or not Roe v. Wade is overturned. That would include state laws mandating parental notification, informed consent, and any other nuances that restrict immediate access in all three trimesters. Bishop Finn noted a new Guttmacher Institute study showed a drop in teen abortions attributable to greater parental involvement and teens' decision to wait to initiate sexual activity -- gains that he said could be credited to parental involvement legislation and abstinence programs.
"Economic factors affect the abortion rate," said Pennsylvania State University political scientist Joseph Wright, author of a study funded by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
He said a review of data from 1982 to 2001 showed that government payment programs influenced abortion rates. In addition, Wright found that higher male employment lowered abortion rates by about 11 percent. Wright, whose 12-page policy paper is posted on the website of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, but not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, concluded:
Abortions increased by 15 percent on average when state governments capped welfare payments after a set number of children (2 or 3), the "family cap" enabled by 1996 welfare reform legislation passed by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton. The legislation was passed despite strong opposition from the U.S. bishops.
Abortions dropped 20 percent on average when Temporary Assistance to Needy Families or welfare payments increased.
Eliminating Medicaid-paid abortions would reduce abortion by 10 percent on average. The U.S. bishops advocate eliminating Medicaid abortions, which are available in some states, including California. Because of the Hyde Amendment, no Medicaid abortions are paid for with federal funds.
Valerie Schmalz is an OSV contributing editor.