In American politics, abortion is where the rubber meets the right. The right is leading with a glass jaw on this issue. It should not take a genius among Democrats to break it. But it does take someone willing to be forthright about contraception, prenatal care, tobacco and the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church.
For readers who want the meat and want to skip the megillah:
* The Catholic Church is afraid of being too aggressive in American politics lest the old "Catholic politicians are puppets of Rome" is revived,
* Most American Catholics disagree violently with Church doctrine on contraception, and * The right is in bed, so to speak, with the tobacco industry and other industries that manufacture non-pharmaceutical abortifacients. Abortion is rife with wedge issues that tear apart the right.
Here's the megillah:
Kerry received two questions related to abortion in the final debate.
The first from moderator and Bush buddy Bob Schieffer was: "The New York Times reports that some Catholic archbishops are telling their church members that it would be a sin to vote for a candidate like you because you support a woman's right to choose an abortion and unlimited stem-cell research. What is your reaction to that?"
Kerry's response ran 363 words and did not answer the question.
Bush, for all his bungling in the rest of the debate managed to say this: "I think it's important to promote a culture of life. I think a hospitable society is a society where every being counts and every person matters.I believe the ideal world is one in which every child is protected in law and welcomed to life. I understand there's great differences on this issue of abortion, but I believe reasonable people can come together and put good law in place that will help reduce the number of abortions."
It is a monstrous misrepresentation of Bush's actual policy, but it sounds congenial and respectful and middle-of-the-road, which scores a lot of points.
Here is my answer to Schieffer: "Your question implicitly links abortion to stem cell research. That's misleading, since stem cells are not obtained from abortions. They are from parents who had trouble having children and used in vitro fertilization. The extra embryos would be thrown in the trash if they weren't used for research.
As for certain leaders of the Catholic church threatening candidates or, worse, voters, with punishment for holding views different than theirs, I remind them that as recently as 1960, many Americans were hesitant to elect a Catholic president for fear that Rome would dictate to him. Like John Kennedy, I will never cave in to that kind of pressure.
Fortunately, these leaders who have used their position in this way do not represent the official position of the Catholic Church. The church recognizes that there are many wrongs in this world: war, the indiscriminate use of the death penalty, and most especially, the neglect of the poor that leads to millions of senseless deaths every year.
As a Catholic, I regard abortion as a wrong-- but as one wrong among many. We know how to reduce the number of abortions: better education for our children and better availability of contraceptives, especially making them more affordable for those for whom the cost would be a burden. Those are the real solutions, not passing more laws. In the 1950s, abortion was illegal-- but just as common as it is today.
As for unwanted pregnancies, let each prospective mother consult her conscience, her doctor, her priest, her God. As a Christian, I am forbidden to judge her by my personal beliefs-- and much as certain Catholic leaders would like to have it-- their positions on abortion and stem cell research are their personal beliefs.
Let me end with this. There is enormous hypocrisy in the debate on abortion. The truth is that a third of pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion. It's believed that many of these are due to smoking, other environmental risk factors, and the fact that many pregnant mothers can't afford proper prenatal care. Those who believe in a culture of life can take positive steps, rather than tearing down others."
358 words. And it answered Schieffer's question head on.
Kerry's other question on abortion came in the second debate.
The question from Sarah Degenhardt was "Senator Kerry, suppose you are speaking with a voter who believed abortion is murder and the voter asked for reassurance that his or her tax dollars would not go to support abortion, what would you say to that person?"
On paper, Kerry did a little better with 316 words, with his best line: "I can't take what is an article of faith for me and legislate it for someone who doesn't share that article of faith." But overall, his answer made me cringe.
Here's my answer: "Sarah, one-third of pregnancies end in spontaneous abortion. Surely God is not a murderer. Therefore, as a Christian, I would counsel any voter who views abortion as murder to ease up a bit. Remember Jesus's words on judging others. Judgment is God's prerogative.
But the question is a good one, one that comes up again and again in different contexts. Some people believe that war is a kind of murder. Some of them feel so strongly that they refuse to pay their taxes to support it. Henry David Thoreau, one of America's best-known authors, went to jail rather than support the war against Mexico.
There are other people who feel that corporations are murdering the earth through global warming. Some have gone so far as to damage property or even, as with the Unabomber, taken life. Surely such acts are wrong. But others engage in constructive action: developing renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar.
Americans often disagree with governmental actions. They disagree with what corporations do. They disagree with what their neighbors do. But being an American means that as much as we might disagree with others or with our government, we are committed to work with one another, to persuade and not coerce, to try to understand the problems that underly the wrongs we see, to try to take positive steps and not tear down and destroy.
As a committed Catholic, I personally oppose abortion. Indeed, everyone-- even those who support freedom of choice-- agree that the fewer abortions, the better. I believe the answer is before our nose: better childhood education and more affordable access to contraception for those who can't afford it. As your president, my job would be to bring together those who support freedom of choice and those who oppose it to try to get us to our common goal, of making sure every child is wanted."
314 words, Mr. Kerry. And it answers her question.
Yes, the leisure of editing makes many things possible that are difficult before a live audience of millions. And it assumes that candidates are actually capable of standing up and saying clearly, "I am a Christian. I'm not here to impose that view on you."
But my point is that there is a theologically-consistent position on choice. To explain that position means teaching people some history, but candidates ought to be doing just that. People would probably like it.
Best of all, some honesty would absolutely destroy the power of the religious right. If people ever got a true account of the history and politics of abortion, and how they have consistently lied, supported industries that manufacture abortifacients, blocked medicines and healthcare to the poor, and blocked solutions to very real problems that lead to unwanted pregnancies, the parachurch bleachers would empty.