On July 15, 2009, the Italian parliament surprised pro-lifers by calling upon the Italian government to seek a resolution at the United Nations condemning forced abortion. The legislative effort was led by Rocco Buttliglione, one of the most well-known Catholic politicians in Europe. Pro-lifers applauded. Two days later, pro-lifers were again surprised when Dr. Buttiglione gave an interview in an Italian newspaper in which he reportedly said that his past support for criminalization of abortion was a “mistake,” and that he supported joining “pro-choice” politicians in finding “common ground” aimed at reducing abortion.
In the exclusive interview with the Friday Fax on July 28, Dr. Buttiglione responds to pro-life concerns, clarifying his recent statements as well as explaining the significance of his recent legislative victory.
Q: Your recent remarks on abortion have generated a lot of interest…
A: Quite a big mess! Let’s try to put them in some order…
Q: Very well. You have been credited with successfully coordinating the passage of a motion on the issue of forced abortion passed by the Italian parliament on July 15, 2009. Could you please explain what the motion addressed, and why it is significant?
A: Let me speak first about the situation in Italy toward unborn life to give some background. In Italy, we held a referendum on abortion in 1981 and we pro-lifers lost, 68 to 32 percent. It was a terrible defeat. You have to understand that the situation in Italy was very different from that in the United States. In the United States, abortion was imposed on the American people by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade. The people never voted for abortion. In Italy the people freely chose abortion – a tremendous defeat for the cause of life.
In following years, we have had a great struggle, and the situation has improved. Pope John Paul II had a tremendous impact on the culture. We had a referendum on bioethics a couple of years ago, on embryo research, that we won, and no one expected us to win – actually, it wasn’t us who won, but the Holy Spirit! Now we know, however, that if we held another referendum on abortion, we would lose. Not as badly as we lost in 1981, but we would still lose.
On the other hand, while there is no majority in favor of banning abortion in Italy, there is a majority that thinks that abortion is too widespread, and something should be done to reduce abortion.
We have thus undertaken several initiatives. One initiative concerns how late can an abortion take place. While philosophically we know that an embryo is a human being, there is no consensus on banning early term abortions. But people think that the abortion of a fetus older than 20 weeks is unacceptable. So we are trying to pass a resolution that bans abortion after 20 weeks.
We are also trying to implement portions of our existing law that have useful provisions about preventing abortion.
Q: And the July 15 action by parliament?
A: So this is the background to the parliamentary motion that was passed on July 15. Let us seek a United Nations General Assembly resolution that bans the use of abortion as an instrument of population control. It is a continuation of the struggle of the Holy See at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994 and the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995.
In parts of the world, in China in particular, abortion is compulsory, and one needs a permit to have a second child. But also in other parts of Asia, in Africa, and even Latin America, we see mothers being blackmailed. Programs that say “We will give you bread, but only if you accept an abortion.” We see this being done by UN agencies, which fund such programs.
So the idea is why not seek a UN resolution that would call for a ban on the use of compulsory abortion. This would be a resolution that should unite those who are “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” Because what happens in China is against both choice and the child. The mother wants to defend the life of the child, but the freedom of choice is destroyed, as is the life of the child.
So we tried to pass a resolution in Italian parliament and, against all expectations, it did succeed.
Q: Did you achieve consensus?
A: For the most part, the “pro-choicers” did not vote for us, though some did. But they did not vote against us either. The majority abstained, which is not bad.
And now we have started a campaign worldwide to bring this issue to the UN General Assembly. And to do so, we hope to bring together “pro-choice” and “pro-life” people – though I want to make one thing clear, no one has renounced principles. Both sides will continue to struggle against each other on other issues, but at least on this one, we can be united.
Q: You mentioned a worldwide campaign. Can you explain what you hope will happen at the European Parliament, where Carlo Casini will bring a similar motion?
A: We are now working on an initiative in the European Parliament, led by Carlo Casini along with Magdi Cristiano Allam. And also in the Council of Europe, where Luca Volontè, a member of my party, is taking the lead. I have already been to Poland to lobby popular support, and I plan other trips throughout Europe. And we will seek at least the benign neutrality of the United States.
Q: With respect to the United States, what will be your outreach?
A: That I don’t know yet. We know that it is important to seek positive contact with the Obama Administration. Obama had promised the Holy Father that he would do something to reduce abortion.
On the other hand, I know that there is a struggle over life in the United States, and I do not want to do anything to damage pro-lifers in this struggle. So I also want to talk to them, and win their support. I also want to reassure pro-lifers that we are not giving up on the life of one single child. We are not making an exchange, accepting the killing of a certain number of unborn children, in exchange for saving the lives of certain others. That is emphatically not what we are doing, and we do not renounce our principles.
Q: When will you come to the United States?
A. I don’t know yet. I shall meet with a group of friends, including [former United States Ambassador to the Holy See] Mary Ann Glendon, in August in Italy and discuss with them what is best.
Q: Is true common ground possible?
A: There is only a limited setting where we pro-lifers and they pro-choicers can unite in a struggle together – that is where the freedom of choice of the woman is crushed, as well as the life of the child. I don’t think we need to give true pro-choicers any bribe to convince them to join the struggle with us. If it is true, as they claim, that they are not for abortion but rather for freedom of choice, then this gives them the chance to join with us to prove it.
If they don’t, then they really are not pro-choice, but pro-abortion. They like abortion. They don’t think that human life must be supported, but one must reduce the world’s population by any means necessary.
Also, this initiative forces people to make up their minds. Up until now, the label “pro-choice” could be a cover for a national socialist ideology of lifeboat ethics: Because there are too many people on earth, all means are acceptable to reduce population. We see that in third world countries, abortion has been much more cruel and widespread than in Western nations.
So now we shall see if common ground is possible.
Q: As you know, some pro-lifers have expressed worry about the common ground approach, as it can play into the hands of those who seek to divide the pro-life movement.
A: Yes, I have committed blasphemy!
Q: What is your impression of these worries?
A: My impression is “But why not?” I can understand one can be against compromise, where one starts to say some abortions are bad, while others are good. That would be completely unacceptable. But we are not going to do that.
What will happen is that with respect to some abortions – those that are coerced – both sides will be united in condemning them as bad. With respect to the other abortions, we will continue to say that they are bad, while the other side will say that they are acceptable. We were struggling against each other before, and we will continue to struggle against each other.
Ultimately, I think our position in Western countries is strengthened by the initiative to condemn forced abortion, because it makes it more evident that the foetus is not part of the body of the woman, and it makes clear that abortion is a moral evil. It is not publicly prosecuted, but it is a moral evil. In this sense, I think that it strengthens our position, though legally it does not change anything.
Q: Do you believe it was a “mistake” to seek to defend the life of the unborn child, even where the mother seeks an abortion, as the media has reported?
A: There is one point where I was misquoted, or rather, quoted out of context, giving a wrong impression. I have said it is right to defend the life of the child, even against the mother. It is right, but very difficult, perhaps impossible. We have to defend the rights of the child, but also to strengthen the freedom of the mother, giving alternatives to women, in the confidence that the freer the woman is, the less likely that she will accept the death of her child.
Q: But was it a “mistake” to oppose depenalization of abortion?
A: My statement was simplified. I did not say it was wrong to seek to defend the rights of the child through the use of the penal code. I did not say that. The life of the child should be defended with all possible means. With penal law? Yes, of course, with penal law, where possible. But this is not possible in Italy today, so we must rely on other means. We must realize that we do not have a consensus on an abortion ban.
But another point is, we relied too much in the past on penal sanction. That is only one element in the strategy to defend life, but not the only one element. And I reiterate, if we do not remove the causes that lead so many women to abort, we will not win our battle against abortion. We will not win our battle against abortion relying only on penal sanction.
Q: What would you say to political leaders in other countries, particularly in the Americas, where there is tremendous pressure, from United Nations agencies, from non-governmental organizations, to depenalize abortion? We saw just the other day, for example, Amnesty International attacking Nicaragua for its laws protecting unborn life…
A: I would say to them, defend your laws against abortion, and complement it right away with good policies in defense of motherhood, and for the support of mothers, because if you don’t do that, sooner or later the pressure will be so strong that you will be beaten. But if you complement them with good laws for mothers, you will succeed in keeping your laws. You cannot pit the support of the mother against the penal defense of the life of the child. They are two parts of one strategy to defend life. It is always better to have two legs. Of course if you only have one leg, then you must learn how to walk with just one leg. It is not impossible, but it is not easy.
Q: But even if you do address the needs of the mother, will that cause the other side to stop pressing for abortion legalization? You see Nicaragua, for example, where laws protecting unborn life were strengthened, and according to initial Ministry of Health statistics, rates of maternal mortality decreased. Nevertheless tremendous pressure has been placed on the country’s legislators to depenalize abortion.
A: To a certain extent you will always be attacked, because there is a pro-abortion lobby that is not interested in the choice of women, that is really not interested in women. They are fanatically convinced that the world’s population has to be reduced by any means. If they could get away with infanticide, they would be for infanticide too. So you must always be prepared to be attacked.
But you must think positively too. Each nation should design a strategy for defense of life, particular to that nation’s needs. We do not pretend that Italy is a model, because I know that while such a strategy may be successful in Italy, that is based on prudential judgments that respond to the political situation in our country today. That may change tomorrow, just as there may be differences between countries today. We must understand that the battle for life must be adapted for different cultures and socio-political situations. In Italy, we hope that in 10 or 15 years we might have a pro-life majority that we do not have today – if we do the right thing today.
So if you are in a country where the majority of people are pro-life, you will adopt one strategy. But in countries where you are in the minority, you must make alliances.
The ideal is to have legal protections to defend the life of the child, and good policies for the mother.
Q: Given the differences in each country, is it practical to build a network to work to “reduce abortion,” when that may undercut efforts to defend life in certain countries?
A: Of course we need a network, but what we do within the network is different from what we may do in our own countries. So when I speak of a network, I think of the efforts to form coalitions at Cairo and Beijing, where you had to be interconnected in order to be able to effectively battle together at the global level. So the struggle for life has two levels, one is local, and the other is global. On the one hand you need to have a local strategy, but you must also remember that the question of abortion is one that encompasses the whole of mankind.
Q: The late John Paul II was a closer personal friend of yours. Did you and he ever speak about the tension between pragmatism and principle in trying to build a Culture of Life?
A: Yes, of course. You can never support a position that is intrinsically evil. You cannot vote for a bill that sacrifices the life of one single child. You can support a bill that protects the life of some children, even if protection is not extended to all. You save those you can save and you do not give any assent to the death of those you cannot save. In our Italian situation we have a concrete example. Some pro-choicers were ready to vote our resolution if we had said we want the UN to condemn coercive abortions and to support non-coercive abortions. We said: we cannot. And they did not vote in favor but simply abstained.
Q: Turning back to the question of common ground with the Obama administration, do you think you have done enough to assuage the concerns of pro-lifers in the United States that you are not abandoning them?
A: It is important to make things clear, because I know it is easy in the press to try to break the unity of the pro-life movement. Of course I want to be able to speak on friendly terms with the Obama Administration – I know this is blasphemy to many pro-lifers in the United States! But on the other hand I want to be understood by American pro-lifers, and I do not want to break the unity of our front.
At one level American pro-lifers should understand that as U.S. citizens they can speak freely in their country, and they have the right to say things that a foreigner should not say, much less a foreigner who is a politician in another country, one who is trying to win support of the government of the United States for an important pro-life initiative in the UN General Assembly.
Q: I suppose then you are not willing to answer whether you believe that President Obama truly wants to reduce the number of abortions…
A: I can answer this way: I can only hope so.