For more than 30 years, Catholics politicians in America have justified their support for abortion on the basis that while they are “personally opposed,” they should not impose their religious beliefs on society at large. The argument has always been a poor one, but it has never made less sense than it does today.

This line of reasoning got its start from the late New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, in a speech at Notre Dame in 1984. He said: “As a Catholic I accept the church's teaching authority. … I accept the bishops' position that abortion is to be avoided.”

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He added: “my wife and I were enjoined never to use abortion to destroy the life we created, and we never have.” Still, he maintained that abortion should be protected legally.

Cuomo argued that the “legal interdicting” of abortion “given present attitudes” would be “legislating what couldn’t be enforced and in the process creating a disrespect for law in general.”

Such an argument by a Catholic politician was bogus then, and it is untenable now.

First, these politicians concede that abortion “destroys” a human life. Then they say they don’t want to impose that view on others.

Just how does that logic work? On what other issue could a government official allow something to continue that they agree directly kills the innocent on a massive scale?

Or remove “abortion” from the proposition and replace it with another evil, for example, racism and see how many of us would agree:  “Of course, I am opposed to racism, but do not ask me to overturn apartheid.”

One wonders how often the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was told to stop trying to impose his religious views on others.  We can all be thankful he did not listen.

Rev. King did not have to “believe” in the equality of the races.  It is a lesson taught by science that all of us are obligated to respect.  And it is the same respect for science that informs the Catholic Church’s teaching that it is wrong to intentionally kill human life in the womb.   

There is a second more serious problem. The argument rests on the assumption that legally restricting abortion is the minority view.  That simply is not true.

Cuomo posited: “Our public morality, then -- the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives -- depends on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values derived from religious belief will not -- and should not -- be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus.”

Without conceding his point, the fact is there is a broad consensus to restrict abortion.

According to Marist polling we commissioned, about eight in ten Americans want substantial restrictions on abortion. A solid majority would limit abortion at most only to rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.

And by a margin of 23 points – 60 percent to 37 percent – most Americans now say abortion is “morally wrong.” By contrast, only about one in 10 Americans say they want no restrictions of abortion.  

“Pro-choice” politicians now impose on the country a view held by only a tiny minority.

The irony is that these Catholic politicians claim that they agree that abortion is the morally repugnant killing of the innocent. They know that it kills a million human beings a year in this country alone — a number equivalent of the total number of people killed in Auschwitz.

The Catholic position  – that abortion takes a human life, is morally wrong, and should be substantially restricted -- is not only backed up by science, it is now the public’s consensus by a wide margin.  

Cuomo’s idea is now bankrupt in another way. In defending his “pro-choice” stance, he stated in 1984: “We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.”

Indeed, the opposite has occurred. Catholics are increasingly facing government “force” to commit actions they see as immoral – including providing abortion services and health insurance coverage. These actions have – in many cases – been aided and abetted by those “personally opposed.”

Cuomo was wrong. Our rights have not been protected as a result of his political strategy—just ask the Little Sisters of the Poor.

It is time for new thinking by Catholics in public office.  I would suggest two options.

First, they should embrace the American consensus on abortion restrictions and stop acting in opposition to their own conscience and the will of the American people.

Or they could take what I would call the John F. Kennedy option.

Campaigning for president in 1960, Kennedy said: “But if the time should ever come … when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.”

Let’s hope today’s public servants become that conscientious.

Carl Anderson is CEO of the Knights of Columbus and a New York Times bestselling author.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.