I was very sorry to see the recent falling-out between Colorado Right to Life and National Right to Life. I was even more disturbed to see the American Life League commend Colorado Right to Life for putting "personhood before politics" in the dispute. This is more of the same old pro-life infighting which only the Devil loves.
Quarrel over Partial Birth Abortion Ban
The quarrel began when James Dobson of Focus on the Family announced his view that the Supreme Court's upholding of the ban on partial birth abortion was a victory for the pro-life movement. Colorado Right to Life does not agree with that viewpoint, and was apparently incensed that a prominent pro-life Coloradan should express it. Consequently, Colorado Right to Life joined with two other groups to purchase full-page newspaper ads to display an open letter to Dobson, attacking Dobson himself, Focus on the Family, and other pro-life organizations which welcomed the Court's ruling. The ads were published in the Washington Times and the Gazette of Colorado Springs, where Focus on the Family is based.
It is very hard for me to understand the twisted logic which leads to this sort of public, internecine attack, and I confess that if I were a donor to Colorado Right to Life, I would be upset to see the organization using my contributions in such a manner. Apparently the National Right to Life Committee, with which Colorado Right to Life was affiliated, had the same reaction. National Right to Life broke ties with the Colorado group, ending its affiliate status. When this became known, the American Life League, which was also one of the signatories of the open letter, went further in its June 15th electronic newsletter Communique, and commended Colorado Right to Life for putting "personhood before politics" in its attack on Dobson and its break with the principles of the National Right to Life Committee (which the letter also attacked). Even given the long-standing quarrel between ALL and NRLC, the mind boggles.
Gonzales v. Carhart
The recent case in which the Supreme Court upheld Congress' ban on partial birth abortion, Gonzales v. Carhart, is understandably controversial among pro-lifers. The Court majority stated that one of the reasons it ruled as it did is that the ban on partial birth abortion outlaws only a certain type of abortion while leaving plenty of alternatives, and so it does not limit the prevailing abortion license. For this reason, many pro-lifers do not regard it as a victory, or at least not one to be happy about. The open letter made this case very strongly and in considerable detail (while also attacking Dobson's initially too-rosy description of the decision along with inadvertent errors made by some Focus on the Family staff in disseminating information about it). While this wholly negative view of the ruling is comprehensible, I find it one-sided and unpersuasive. More to the point, one must ask whether a positive view of the decision is so despicable from a pro-life perspective as to demand public attack by one respected pro-life group against another.
Having admitted the worst about the decision, let's look at some of the reasons why it might be reasonable to regard it as a victory for the pro-life movement. First, it was the first time the Court had upheld a restriction on any abortion procedure, signaling that abortion is not completely untouchable by law. Second, it was widely perceived to be a pro-life victory, both by those in favor of abortion and by the mainstream media. The Associated Press story of April 18th offered the following typical assessment: "The Supreme Court's conservative majority upheld a nationwide ban Wednesday on a controversial abortion procedure in a decision that sets the stage for additional restrictions on a woman's right to choose."
The decision was also portrayed as a pro-life victory in the dissent filed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer. "Today's decision is alarming," wrote Ginsberg, and she continued:
Ultimately, the Court admits that "moral concerns" are at work, concerns that could yield prohibitions on any abortion. See ante, at 28 ("Congress could…conclude that the type of abortion proscribed by the Act requires regulation because it implicates additional ethical and moral concerns that justify a special prohibition.")
Moreover, Ginsburg accused the majority of adopting a way of thinking which "reflects ancient notions about women's place in the family and under the Constitution — ideas that have long since been discredited." She was also concerned that the strong line the Court had heretofore drawn between pre-viability and viability of the fetus is now blurred, and that the problem of medical uncertainty, formerly used to justify abortion, was in this case used to justify restriction of abortion. Ginsburg left no doubt, from an expressly feminist perspective, that the ruling failed to continue the Court's unequivocal past protection of a woman's right to abortion.
The Real Issue
Disagreements about the decision notwithstanding, these reflections show that it is at least not unreasonable for a committed pro-lifer to regard the decision as a step in the right direction and, therefore, a victory. Consequently, it is in fact unreasonable to mount a public pro-life attack on someone who so regards it. Therefore, one has to ask why Colorado Right to Life chose to attack Dobson in this way, and why American Life League approved Colorado Right to Life's stand. The answer is that the quarrel is not really about Gonzales v. Carhart.
What we have here is a slightly different version of a long-standing ideological quarrel between those, on the one hand, who believe it is moral to work for and be thankful for measures which restrict abortion without demanding full respect for the personhood of the unborn child, and those, on the other hand, who believe that it is not acceptable to work for or rejoice in anything but a complete victory based on that personhood. In this context, what so disappoints the latter group is that the Supreme Court has not ruled in favor of the personhood of the fetus. Therefore, by this group's logic, it is wrong to regard the decision as something favorable to the pro-life cause. This same ideological quarrel has marked efforts to secure many different kinds of restrictions on the abortion license over the years.
Now, as a prudential question — as a matter of tactics — this disagreement is perfectly legitimate. It is important to question whether in pressing for a small restriction one is sacrificing the opportunity for a larger gain, or even a complete victory. It is also important to ask whether pro-life support for a modest restriction, which leaves the main issue undecided, makes it easier for everyone to deny the personhood and rights of the unborn child. One must in fact seriously consider the pros and cons of each initiative, the short and long-term benefits, and the short and long-term drawbacks. Moreover, all of this must be evaluated in the context of what is possible. In other words, there are many legitimate tactical questions on which disagreement among equally-committed persons is not only possible but likely.
No Contest Ideologically
But philosophically there is no contest. What we are seeing in the aftermath of Gonzales v. Carhart is the same ideological quarrel we have seen over various legislative initiatives to restrict abortion, initiatives which have proposed to gain a little ground without insisting on victory at the level of principle. Is it immoral to support a restriction which does not uphold the entire pro-life position? Does such support mean one has put politics ahead of personhood? In his 1995 landmark encyclical on the Gospel of Life, Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II considered this precise question and gave a very clear answer. He said No. It is worth quoting the passage at length:
A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favouring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations — particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation — there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.
Whatever may be said of the possibilities which faced the justices who upheld the ban, the principle enunciated in the quoted paragraph certainly governs our response to laws that actually get passed and legal decisions which actually get made. If the law or the decision can be construed as limiting the harm done by an unjust law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality, then it can be supported and even welcomed.
I grant again that there can be prudential differences in these assessments, but I see in this particular episode a continuing failure on the part of certain pro-lifers to grasp a fundamental moral principle. It is indeed morally good to labor in the pro-life cause for a larger and more perfect solution; but it is morally evil to attack those who work for smaller and less perfect solutions because they have concluded that this is what the art of the possible demands. Until recently, I thought that we as a pro-life movement had largely put aside such unproductive infighting. As I said at the outset, this is something only the Devil loves.