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The preeminence of life; a rejoinder

Observer Viewpoint | Friday, October 28, 2005

Letters Oct. 13, 14, and 25 by Professors Donald Kommers, Alexander Hahn and James McKenna defending Dean Mark Roche’s encouragement to vote for pro-abortion presidential candidate Kerry are disappointing. They do make valuable points, as did Roche in last year’s New York Times op-ed; the need to ease the financial pressure which makes pregnancy especially challenging for women who are poor is an example. (Indeed, much wonderful work aimed at relieving this problem is done by pro-life crisis pregnancy centers which provide support for pregnant women in need.) But there is too great a tendency by these four faculty members to rationalize Kerry’s pro-abortion position and to fail to acknowledge the gravity of the harm which his abortion advocacy causes.

As Roche correctly pointed out, abortion is like slavery 150 years ago: it is the moral issue of our age. But would the dean have written of a candidate in 1850, “He’s wrong about slavery, but good on other issues”? By what logic can we expect a candidate, unable to recognize the inherent evil of intentionally killing innocent unborn children, to make sound moral judgments about other issues? The dean correctly identified the evil of abortion, but then drew the wrong conclusion: That the best way to reduce the prevalence of abortion was to vote for the most strongly pro-abortion presidential candidate in our history.

Roche’s op-ed was based on a fallacy: Erroneous statistics promoted by Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and others implying that electing a Republican president would likely lead to a higher abortion rate, and the election of Kerry to a lower one. Two recent reports disprove this. The Alan Guttmacher Institute reports that abortion totals, rates and ratios have all declined since George W. Bush took office in January of 2001. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control also reports a decrease in abortions following President Bush’s 2001 inauguration. And the abortion decline in the ’90s was not due to pro-abortion President Bill Clinton; it occurred because of advances in ultrasound and the national debate over partial-birth abortion (both of which raised awareness about the victim of abortion), and because of efforts by pro-life volunteers at crisis pregnancy centers providing help to pregnant women.

What does the Democratic Party platform say about abortion? “We stand proudly for a woman’s right to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade” – proud support for abortion on demand. And Kerry may have changed his position on a lot of issues, but never on abortion. As evidenced by his Senate voting record and his relentlessly unequivocal position during the campaign, he was the most pro-abortion presidential candidate ever. Roche excused his Party’s and his candidate’s support for legal abortion on demand: “The moral condemnation of abortion, however, need not lead to the conclusion that criminal prosecution is the best way to limit the number of abortions.”

The pro-life movement is not about pointing the finger of blame at those who have had abortions. It’s about preventing deaths in the future. It’s about clarity of teaching, and eschewing moral relativism and situation ethics when it comes to matters of life and death.

Biology shows that a unique, separate human life begins at conception, when sperm and egg unite. This first cell contains 46 chromosomes, 23 from the mother, 23 from the father. From conception onward, the unborn child develops continuously: Within three weeks, the baby’s heart is beating; by six weeks, the baby’s brain waves can be measured. The blood coursing through the baby’s body is not the mother’s, but the baby’s, and can be a different blood type than the mother’s. By 11 weeks the baby has fingerprints, all organs are present and all body systems are active.

“Criminal prosecution” of the mother is not the pro-life movement’s goal. The woman is the second victim of abortion. Women and girls are often pressured into getting abortions – by circumstances, by the culture. Were it not for the societal stamp of approval which results from abortion’s legality – and the social pressures and expectations which that brings – most women would not feel pressed to consider such a destructive act. For women who do resort to abortion, the emotional scars (not to mention the physical ones) sometimes last a lifetime. A much more positive, humane, compassionate solution for an unwanted child than abortion is adoption.

Would there be illegal abortions if the unborn child were protected by law? Some, no doubt, but many fewer abortions than now. There are approximately twice as many abortions in the U.S. today as there were prior to Roe v. Wade.

Professor Kommers says Roche was advocating the “art of the possible” regarding abortion. But his op-ed advocated an outcome that would have made it impossible to protect the child in the womb. Kerry famously promised during last year’s campaign, “I will support only pro-choice judges to the Supreme Court. Some may call this a litmus test.” He repeatedly pledged he would nominate only justices who support Roe v. Wade. His election would have made legal protection for unborn children impossible for a generation or more. Why? Until Roe v. Wade is reversed by the Court, those state legislatures to which Kommers referred are powerless to defend the child in the womb. State lawmakers, bound by Supreme Court rulings, cannot protect the 3,500 babies who are killed every day by elective abortion.

Professor McKenna, a favorite of some of my children – including a daughter currently in his class – emphasizes “the centrality of conscience rather than mere obedience to public authority,” which, he says, was also Dean Roche’s point. But corresponding with our duty to follow our conscience is our obligation to educate it. That’s where some of our institutions are falling short.

I did not describe Roche as a “proponent of abortion,” or misrepresent his “values, beliefs and purpose,” as McKenna said. I wrote not about the dean’s motives, but about the consequences of his readiness to embrace a candidate who is, indeed, a “proponent of abortion.” Roche himself wrote about the evil of abortion, but our principles must inform our actions. Our endorsements of candidates should reflect our priorities.

As for McKenna’s asking why single out Roche, it’s because we properly expect more from those in leadership; we look for a higher standard, especially when they act in the name of Notre Dame. As I said Oct. 12, my intent is not to be personally critical of Roche, about whom everything I hear is exemplary. This difference of perspective about emphasis and priority concerning a very serious issue is but a learning opportunity for us all.

My use Oct. 12 of words such as “mistaken” and “damaging” refer to Roche’s understanding of the pro-life effort, and the effect of his op-ed on the pro-life cause, respectively. I did not say that what he wrote was “advocacy of abortion,” as McKenna said. Rather, what he wrote showed a tolerance for abortion that is disturbing. Why cede the Democratic Party to those who promote abortion, rather than fighting for the soul of the Party and returning it to its life-affirming traditions of the recent past, a heritage of defending the “little guy” and protecting those at the margins of life?

Notre Dame is a Catholic university, but even if it were not, we here could clearly recognize abortion as the ultimate violation of the most fundamental human and civil right of a living human being – the right not to be killed. No reference to religion is necessary to understand that.

The key point which the dean’s op-ed misses is that the law is a teacher. And in a system of government such as ours, it is each citizen’s responsibility to work for just laws that protect the weak from those who would do them harm. We must have the willingness and courage to teach the college generation the truth about abortion; they need and deserve that from us, and their children’s lives will depend on it. This is our duty as professors and parents – especially in a nation with government “by the people.” We all are accountable.

Anthony J. LauingerNotre Dame parentOct. 27