Hillary Clinton’s selection of Virginia governor Tim Kaine as her running mate has reignited the debate about whether Catholic politicians can support pro-choice policies but remain “personally opposed” to abortion. In June, Kaine explained his position on Meet the Press:
I’m a traditional Catholic. I’m personally opposed to abortion and personally opposed to the death penalty. . . . I deeply believe, and not just as a matter of politics but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions. So I’ve taken a position which is quite common among Catholics. I’ve got a personal feeling about abortion, but the right role for government is to let women make their own decisions.
First, saying you’re a traditional Catholic because you personally oppose abortion only puts you to the right of a handful of radicals who love abortion and think it should be some kind of sacrament. Most people, including Catholics (as Kaine himself admits) personally oppose abortion. What makes someone a traditional Catholic is if he actively opposes abortion, so a traditional Catholic politician would seek to outlaw the procedure. Pope St. John Paul II explains why this is the case in his encyclical The Gospel of Life:
Civil law must ensure that all members of society enjoy respect for certain fundamental rights which innately belong to the person, rights which every positive law must recognize and guarantee. First and fundamental among these is the inviolable right to life of every innocent human being. . . . The legal toleration of abortion or of euthanasia can in no way claim to be based on respect for the conscience of others, precisely because society has the right and the duty to protect itself against the abuses which can occur in the name of conscience and under the pretext of freedom (71).
“Don’t like abortion, don’t have one”?
Trying to garner support from pro-life advocates by highlighting one’s personal opposition to abortion completely misunderstands why pro-life advocates oppose abortion in the first place. If pro-lifers merely disliked abortion in the same way they dislike other nuisances, then it would make sense to tolerate abortion as these “personally opposed” politicians claim to do. This is the thinking behind the pro-choice slogan, “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one!”
However, abortion is not a nuisance to be disliked but an act of evil that dismembers tiny human beings. It must be stopped. To pro-life advocates, “Don’t like abortion? Don’t have one!” is as silly as saying, “Don’t like rape? Don’t rape anyone!”
If you want to stop a “personally opposed, but pro-choice” politician in his tracks, ask him, “Why are you personally opposed to abortion?” If he is Catholic and says, “Because that’s what my Church teaches,” ask him, “Do you agree with the Church’s teaching that abortion causes ‘irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society’ and that a fundamental right is ‘every human being’s right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception?’” (CCC 2272-2273).
Even activists on the other side understand that if abortion does not involve the killing of person with a right to life, then there is no reason to be personally opposed to abortion. For example, Jodi Jacobson lambasted the idea of Clinton choosing Kaine as her VP in an article on Rewire, saying, “This is unacceptable. The very last thing we need is another person in the White House who further stigmatizes abortion, though it must be said Clinton herself seems chronically unable to speak about abortion without euphemism.”
Politicians like Tim Kaine claim it would be wrong if the government intruded into our lives in order to regulate our choices even if some of those choices, like abortion, are morally problematic. But this seems disingenuous, given that those same politicians routinely support government intruding into our lives to regulate even our mundane choices. These include government’s attempts to ban soda, trans fat, incandescent light bulbs, the ability to work apart from a union, and the choice to attend a charter school. The libertarian channel Reason TV even poked fun at how many of these “choices” pro-choice advocates at the 2012 Democratic National Convention were comfortable outlawing.
On a personal note, I remember speaking to a group of pro-choice students at a university who said that the government should not take away the choice to have an abortion. I told them that I too believed that the government shouldn’t be allowed to meddle with most of our private choices. I then asked them if the government should take away an employer’s choice to fire someone because of his sexual orientation. They said “Of course!” so I asked why should the government be allowed to take away that choice.
The students sensed where I was going with my argument and said, “Well, that’s different because that choice harms someone. We shouldn’t tolerate their intolerance.” I smiled and responded, “Does the choice to abort harm the unborn child? I mean, isn’t abortion the ultimate act of intolerance because it does not tolerate a baby’s presence in the womb?”
“Voting” over “feelings”
Imagine if a pro-life politician justified his position by saying, “I’m personally opposed to outlawing abortion, but I can’t take away a legislator or a voter’s choice to make abortion illegal.” If pro-choice voters wouldn’t be suckered into voting for someone who claims to agree with them in principle but acts against them in practice, then pro-life advocates should not be suckered into voting for a candidate who says things they want to hear but then turns around and votes for policies they oppose.
As Catholics, we have a moral duty to exercise our right to vote (CCC 2240). In exercising this right, we should not vote for someone merely because he feels the same way we do about certain issues. That’s a good criterion for picking a friend or a significant other, but politicians have the ability to enact public policies that affect the common good of society. Therefore, we must elect politicians based on how they will act in office, and it is our responsibility to elect representatives who will act in the interests of all human beings—from conception to natural death.