The abortion debate is weakening an already strained American democracy
The leak of the draft Supreme Court opinion on abortion has the political pot boiling over, but to what end? Whatever the result, American democracy is unlikely to be the beneficiary.
I write on this issue with some discomfort as it is deeply personal. I also recognize that I will never experience the need to make the decisions with which women are faced.
I had to oversee family planning programs as the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, programs that provided women with the wherewithal to decide when they wanted to carry a baby. I recall arguing that one benefit of making modern contraception and other family planning techniques available was to reduce unwanted pregnancies and thus limit abortions.
Unfortunately, we couldn’t offer the full range of reproductive services available to women in rich countries, in part because of a highly restrictive legal interpretation of the Helms Amendment that prevented agency officers even from counseling the victims of rape.
It was also uncomfortable to see President Joe Biden being attacked by pro-choice advocates because he sometimes avoids using the word “abortion.” As a practicing Catholic, the president’s defense of a woman’s right to choose is an even more powerful endorsement of our society’s commitment to liberal democracy, individual rights and the rule of law. In this, whether or not he uses the word, he may be the most effective advocate available to the pro-choice cause.
Despite his religious beliefs, Biden understands the unique American experiment in creating a secular society that both protects an individual’s right to his or her own moral code and separates government and religion for the purpose of protecting the religious and non-believers alike. In promoting a woman’s right to choose in the context of American pluralism, the president is capturing the essence of the American idea. He is effectively refuting the narrowness and exclusivity of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion. For this, he should be praised.
In a courageous and deeply thoughtful address at Notre Dame University in 1984, titled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” the late Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, explained how the seemingly irreconcilable is reconciled in American politics and law.
“The Catholic who holds office in a pluralistic democracy,” he said, “who is elected to serve Jews, and Muslims, atheists and Protestants, as well as Catholics — bears special responsibility. He or she undertakes to help create conditions under which all can live with a maximum of dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where everyone who chooses may hold beliefs different from specifically Catholic ones.”
Even Pope Francis has warned American bishops to tend to their pastoral duties and stay out of politics. Good advice! Some bishops have threatened to withhold communion from pro-choice political leaders. Back in 1984, Cuomo seemed to be chiding these church leaders when he said, “Certainly, although everybody talks about a wall of separation between church and state, I’ve seen religious leaders scale that wall with all the dexterity of Olympic athletes.”
Catholic doctrine on abortion is not going to change. A fetus, even in its earliest stages, is considered to be a life even if it isn’t viable outside the womb. The justices who fashioned Roe v. Wade based their decision on “viability,” and used the best science available at the time. This is a constitutional interpretation, not a theological one. Yet, Roe is accepted as the law of the land, even by a majority of Catholics who can continue to practice a more restrictive moral code if they wish. Few are comfortable with the effort to politicize such a personal issue, but that hasn’t deterred politicians.
In the 50 years since Roe was decided, reproductive services have become available more widely even to the poor. Women can access advisory and other services from organizations like Planned Parenthood. Contraceptives are more universally available and unwanted pregnancies and abortions have decreased in recent decades. Yet, those who want to stop abortions also want to reduce the availability of these services. This will mostly impact the poor and the result will be more and less safe abortions.
The debate will go on and nothing polarizes as much as an issue involving morality. Other democracies have somehow managed to avoid the personal privilege issues that only serve to aggravate tensions among the populace. Unfortunately, our politicians tend to weaponize them to divide and conquer. They do the health of our democracy no favors.
Hopefully, the justices of the Supreme Court will come to recognize that their role isn’t political; it is to preserve pluralism and in this case a precedent that has proven to be workable. The leaked opinion that would eliminate Roe v. Wade does exactly the opposite.
J. Brian Atwood is a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute. He served as administrator of USAID in the Clinton administration.
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