As thousands gather again this year at the March for Life in Washington, Americans remain divided over abortion and our body politic is fractured by rancorous debates over health care reform. Surely, cynics threw in the towel long ago. Is there any hope for those who still believe in common ground, civil dialogue and bipartisan efforts to address the most contentious issues facing our nation?
Few rulings in American history reverberated across the political and cultural landscape with such seismic impact as the Roe v. Wade decision. Hailed as a historic breakthrough for women’s rights by some, others blasted the decision as a grave affront to the sacred dignity of human life. Decades passed, ideologies hardened and bumper-sticker slogans ruled the day. The abortion culture wars rewarded the shrillest voices and became a potent “wedge issue” for politicians seeking a push in the polls.
Despite significant challenges to finding common ground that remain today, a new generation of Catholics and evangelicals reject the confrontational battles of the past. We are pushing for more productive bipartisan coalitions to help reduce the number of abortions by preventing unintended pregnancies and encouraging robust policies that support pregnant women. A 2008 poll conducted by Public Religion Research, sponsored by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, Faith in Public Life and Sojourners, found that 81 percent of Catholics and 83 percent of all voters want elected officials to back policies that help prevent unintended pregnancies, expand adoption opportunities and increase economic support for vulnerable women. In Congress, this holistic agenda is reflected in proposals such as the Pregnant Women Support Act as well as the Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, a bill co-sponsored by pro-life Rep. Tim Ryan and pro-choice Rep. Rosa DeLauro. While these efforts will not magically erase the bitterness and division over abortion, they offer hope for new coalitions and fresh solutions.
It is also critical that we move beyond the false divide between “pro-life” and “social justice” advocacy. Ensuring that women and families have access to quality health care will make abortions less likely and save thousands of lives every year. A recent study from researchers at Harvard Medical School estimated that 40,000 Americans die each year because they lack health care. The abortion rate for women living in poverty is more than four times higher than for those earning 300 percent above the poverty line. At a time of economic crisis, any serious effort to prevent abortions must find pragmatic solutions to difficult socioeconomic realities. The Senate health-care proposal provides significant support for pregnant women, including $250 million over 10 years for pregnant and parenting teens.
Let’s also remember that Catholic social teaching is clear that seeking peace, caring for the poor and most vulnerable, “promoting the common good in all its forms” — in the words of Pope Benedict XVI — are all nonnegotiable. Catholicism is not a single-issue religion, and no political party has a monopoly on moral values. Access to quality health care, fighting global poverty and taking seriously the threats of climate change are all fundamental life issues.
Some religious leaders and pro-life organizations must also reassess their rhetoric and extreme tactics if they expect to persuade the public. Listen to Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas speaking at a Gospel of Life Convention last year:
“We are at war! Harsh as this may sound it is true — but it is not new. This war to which I refer did not begin in just the last several months, although new battles are underway – and they bring an intensity and urgency to our efforts that may rival any time in the past. But it is correct to acknowledge that you and I are warriors – members of the Church on earth -often called the Church militant.”
This proverbial call to arms alienates all but the already converted choir and is even jarring to many who view abortion as a moral tragedy. When Sen. Ted Kennedy died in August of 2009, the American Life League – a group that bills itself as a “Catholic pro-life education organization – fired off a shameless e-mail to supporters asking them to buy “Bury Obamacare with Kennedy” signs. Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston faced such venomous criticism after he participated in Sen. Kennedy’s funeral Mass that he offered these sobering words to elements of the pro-life movement who believe their cause is best served by shrill attacks:
“At times, even in the Church, zeal can lead people to issue harsh judgments and impute the worst motives to one another. These attitudes and practices do irreparable damage to the communion of the Church. If any cause is motivated by judgment, anger or vindictiveness, it will be doomed to marginalization and failure.”
Just days after Barack Obama’s election, Bishop Blase Cupich of South Dakota cautioned his fellow bishops lining up to denounce the president’s views on abortion at a national meeting in Baltimore that “a prophecy of denunciation quickly wears thin.” Six months later, the University of Notre Dame became the epicenter of anti-abortion protests after the president accepted an invitation to give the commencement address. Many Catholic bishops criticized the decision to invite the president. Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue who has called the president an “agent of death,” led a protest that included an airplane flying graphic images of an aborted fetus. Standing before graduates, President Obama encouraged a more respectful tone on abortion characterized by “open hearts, open minds and fair-minded words.” He acknowledged the moral dimension of abortion, emphasized support for pregnant women and called for greater access to adoption. An editorial in the Vatican newspaper commended the president for seeking common ground. A few months later, Pope Benedict XVI held a cordial meeting with Obama that was a model for prudent engagement.
Winning hearts and minds in a pluralistic democracy of contested values demands more than fist-shaking denunciations. It requires people of faith to bring reason and civility to the always imperfect task of translating moral absolutes into the messy reality of legislating. If those on opposing sides of this polarizing issue embrace a spirit of greater humility, compassion and critical introspection, enemies become potential allies and old assumptions begin to fade. Comprehensive efforts to reduce abortions are a cause for hope that the pro-life and pro-choice communities should embrace. After more than three decades of political paralysis and legal gridlock, the time has come to break new ground.
Image by Anna Levinzon