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The flaw in Rudy’s abortion stance

Andrew Nesi | Thursday, August 30, 2007

If nothing else, Rudy Giuliani has courage. Say the name “Rudy” to any non-Notre Dame fan and the first image that comes to mind is Giuliani, in a dust mask, walking the streets of lower Manhattan on Sept. 11. While President Bush and Vice President Cheney jetted around the country to undisclosed, secure locations, Rudy walked into the heart of the problem.

Recently, though, Rudy’s courage has been manifested in a very different, but very dangerous, way. After obscuring his view on abortion in the first Republican primary debate, Giuliani decided to be honest about his position that abortion ought to be legal. Rudy told Americans, “In my case, I hate abortion. But ultimately, because it is an issue of conscience, I would respect a woman’s right to make a different choice.” Giuliani would later definitively insist that he finds abortion “morally wrong.” In an age when, as author Kevin Phillips reports, “Evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals” make up “some 40 percent of the [Republican] electorate,” that sort of honesty takes courage indeed.

Of course, Rudy is not alone in this illogical “personally opposed but should be legal” position. Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, a Catholic Democrat, famously detailed the same argument in a speech at Notre Dame in 1984. Cuomo argued that Catholics need to “weigh Catholic moral teaching against the fact of a pluralistic country where our view is in the minority.” In 2004, John Kerry said, “I oppose abortion, personally. I don’t like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception.” Still, Kerry maintained, “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.” Surely, the list does not stop there; Democrats (and, in Giuliani’s case, the occasional courageous Republican) frequently take the “personally opposed, but…” position.

But this position on abortion has a significant flaw. No matter where on the ideological spectrum you fall, you cannot honestly and logically maintain that abortion is both a moral wrong and ought to be legal. Simply put, a person can’t have a right to do a definitive moral wrong, and that seems to be precisely what Cuomo, Kerry and Giuliani find abortion to be.

Presumably, Rudy believes abortion destroys a human life. His Catholic background, together with his lack of any equivocation or confusion about the morality of abortion, suggests that this destruction is the reason he finds it morally wrong.

If abortion is “morally wrong” because it amounts to the destruction of innocent children, though, nobody – no matter his “courage” – can claim it ought to be legal. In this view, abortion is tantamount to murder. And it is safe to say that nobody, religious or otherwise, would entertain the idea that you can be “personally opposed” to murder but “respect a [person’s] right to make a different choice.” As speakers at the Michigan Catholic Conference once asked, “If it is morally permissible for us to say every woman has a right to make her own decision regarding abortion … why can’t everyone have an equal right to decide whether or not to shoot his neighbor?” If you believe abortion is the moral equivalent of murder, there is no room for negotiation on its legality.

Maybe Giuliani’s “courage” will carry him farther than Cuomo or Kerry, all the way to the White House in 2008. When Rudy says that he finds abortion “morally wrong,” he tries to maintain some credibility with the much discussed Christian base of the Republican Party. That is, even though he is pro-choice, he tries to speak the same moral language as does the base to which he is trying to appeal. I can only hope, though, that America stops lauding politicians for their “courageous” ignorance and reclaims some critical intelligence as a nation of voters.

The very fact that he is being seriously considered suggests an even scarier reality for the so-called Religious Right: Perhaps, for most people, abortion is not as black and white as they want – and proclaim – it to be. It isn’t just that society on the whole is confused about the morality of abortion. Many people are conflicted about whether abortion is “morally wrong.” Most people don’t “hate” abortion in the absolute sense that “hate” implies.

They weigh the circumstances of the abortion to determine its morality and our feelings toward it. They want to know when, why and how the abortion is performed before they pass judgment. They’re iffy about the morality and legality of abortion. And the moment they admit that, the position against the imposition of a morality becomes infinitely more logical and appealing.

No politician, though, can admit this internal confusion publicly – lip service to society-wide “complexity” notwithstanding. For most, abortion is not an absolute, but we always speak about it as if it must be. To admit personal conflict about abortion, though, would be a demonstration of the sort of political – and personal – honesty that we rarely see in politics.

It would be the most courageous position of all.

Andrew Nesi is a junior American Studies major from Fairfield, Conn. Last fall, his lung collapsed, possibly as the result of a bad case of mono and an ill-timed breakup. He can be reached at anesi@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.