Thursday, October 30, 2008

How can a pro-life person vote for Barack Obama?

I have had lengthy e-mail exchanges with two persons, one my Evangelical Christian niece, the other a Roman Catholic acquaintance, who are concerned that they can't vote for Obama in the US election because he is pro-choice. Because it's an important issue, I thought I'd share a slightly altered version of the letter I sent to my Roman Catholic friend. (Perhaps I'll share my notes to my niece too, in due course. We'll see.)

Before I do that, however, I'll mention an article by Connie Brook in THE NEW YORKER (November 3rd) called "Odd Man Out", about Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, who is described as "a graduate of a Catholic high school, who is pro-life and supports school prayer". Brook quotes Hagel (who enjoys a good relationship with Obama and has indicated that he would serve in his cabinet if asked) thus: “There was a political party in this country called the Know-Nothings. And we’re getting on the fringe of that, with these one-issue voters—pro-choice or pro-life. Important issue, I know that. But, my goodness. The world is blowing up everywhere, and I just don’t think that is a responsible way to see the world, on that one issue." I'd like to emphasize that the 'blowing up' to which Senator Hagel refers entails loss of life as well.

Thus spake a pro-life Republican.

Here now is my [amended] response to Jennifer, whose letter to me had cited Christifideles Laici, Pope John Paul II's 1988 "Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation," as well as observations made by Mother Theresa.

Dear Jennifer:

Neither the Pope nor Mother Theresa has had a child, or lost a child, or had to face the cruel choice of terminating an ectopic pregnancy, or had a child who has been raped and is pregnant come to them, devastated. I respectfully submit that we who bear and have borne and raised children have something to say on these matters.

I don’t believe in abortion. I do believe that those who don’t "play the game” ought to be a little less arrogant, a little more respectful, a little more like Jesus when they spout the rules.

These are important issues, complex ones, that we need to talk more, and more intelligently, and more honestly, about. Take ectopic pregnancies. Up until roughly the middle of the last century, the Catholic Church forbad the termination of these pregnancies, never mind that the foetus was unquestionably doomed. Then in the 1940s the Church reinterpreted the teaching to allow the foetus to be aborted. (One wonders how many women died carrying those doomed babies before that reinterpretation?) I think the principle applied here is called the principle of double effect, according to which, in order to save the mother's life, the taking of the life of a foetus that without question will not survive is permitted. The decision admits a value that seems not to have been recognized before, which is that the mother's life is a life that counts as well.

Here's something else that is pertinent: we don’t know when conception occurs. We do know about some things that bear on the matter. We know that the zygote that forms identical twins often doesn’t split till days after the egg is fertilized. Does that mean that one human being exists when the sperm enters the ovum and that that single human person splits into two people when the fertilized egg splits at three or four or five days old? These things have ethical implications. The Catholic Church is aware of them; I certainly didn’t dream them up – it’s the rumination of (at least some) Catholic thinkers, scientists and ethicists, that I’m repeating here.

We also need to remember that if a woman does not feel that she has done wrong in having a pregnancy terminated, she has done no wrong. Sin is in the will: it occurs when a person commits an act that is evil, in the full knowledge that it is gravely wrong. It is therefore true that many of those who abort babies are not guilty of any sin. Nor are these babies shut out of heaven – also a teaching of the Catholic Church, albeit, if I'm not mistaken, a recent one.

I believe that we arrive at wisdom and discernment in our decisions by prayer, meditation, contemplation of the Word of God, and fasting, in deep humility and with a great reluctance to judge. That is what I, at any rate, feel that I am called to – a journey far more difficult than mere observation of The Law. That Old Law is, after all, fulfilled in a New One, and according to that New Law – "Thou shalt love the Lord the God with thy whole heart and thy whole soul and thy whole mind and all thy strength; and thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself..." – I am very hard put to see Sarah Palin and John McCain as loving their neighbours.

And I know there’s no guarantee that what they say they will do about Roe vs Wade, they will in fact do, or be able to do. Nor is there any guarantee that, the law having been changed, women will keep their babies. People know how to get abortions, and doctors will always be found to perform them.

One needs to decide, then, what one wishes: the ‘righteous’ satisfaction of having a law enacted, or the real triumph of building a society in which men and women revere sex for the happy gift it is and have babies that they want and keep.

So I would rather pray for courage on the part of women who carry babies in these last days. I would rather pray for a media that stops reducing the relationships of men and women to mere rutting, a mating that is without context or grandeur or grace. I would rather pray for an America that does not exploit parents who wish homes of their own in which to raise their children, an America that works to supply jobs that can support families, an America that provides parents and children with adequate medical care, and the opportunity for a sound education.

I would prefer to pray for an America that doesn’t incarcerate young black men in disproportionate numbers, depriving so many children of their fathers.

And I remember Jesus who knew when he was here that invoking laws never drew anyone to holiness. He rarely threatened people with the law – most markedly the merchants in the temple and the Pharisees. He told stories instead, and called people that way to the great challenges of virtue.

Prayerfully and pro-Obama,