Catholics must focus on the battle for hearts and minds to be successful in the effort to end abortion.
The United States will make history this month, inaugurating its first African-American president on January 20, a day that nearly coincides with another momentous event 36 years ago: the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that found a right to abortion in the U.S. Constitution.
That ruling sparked a culture war that continued through the last election cycle. As the certainty of Barack Obama’s victory grew—and as Catholics began to move toward him, eventually giving him 54 percent of their votes—a vocal minority of bishops from Pennsylvania to Texas to Colorado all but said it was morally impossible for a Catholic to vote for him because of his pro-choice record.
For whatever reason the powerful rhetoric surrounding abortion failed terribly in convincing Catholic voters to swing to the GOP, as they did in 2004. As sociologist Father Andrew Greeley put it—somewhat harshly—in his post-election column in Chicago’s Sun-Times, “Ranting at others because they are ‘killing babies’ may be emotionally satisfying, but it doesn’t change people’s minds.”
Sociological data seems to support Greeley’s conclusion: A 2007 Century for American Progress analysis of American attitudes on abortion found that 60 percent of Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, with an equal number opposing a constitutional amendment banning it.
An October 2008 survey by Faith in Public Life found that even among Catholics a majority (54 percent) support legal abortion in all or most cases; 71 percent of Catholics 18 to 34 didn’t consider abortion an important issue in determining their vote for president. Such data led Catholic Obama supporter and legal scholar Nicholas Cafardi to conclude that Catholics “have lost the abortion battle—permanently.”
Whether Cafardi is correct or not—the U.S. bishops rejected his conclusion at their annual meeting in Baltimore in November—the results of the last election and consistent American support for legal abortion should give the pro-life movement pause. Thirty-five years of costly lobbying and court battles have accomplished very little in changing public support for legal abortion or reducing the abortion rate, with one in five U.S. pregnancies currently ending in abortion.
That does not mean advocates should abandon efforts to affect laws that regulate it. Catholic supporters of Democrats have long argued that progressive social policy will do more to reduce abortion than prohibiting it. Passage of the Support for Pregnant Women Act, which includes measures such as eliminating pregnancy as a pre-existing condition for health coverage, would put that moral logic to the test. At the same time Catholic support for Democrats may fade quickly if the Freedom of Choice Act, aimed at overturning some state-level restrictions on abortion, passes.
But there are more than legal questions facing the pro-life movement. The gap between Catholic rhetoric against abortion and Catholic action on behalf of pregnant women is arguably one reason why Catholics have been unsuccessful in convincing Americans that abortion ought to be illegal. Many parishes have pro-life committees, but their service to pregnant women is nowhere near what would be required if abortion were not an option.
Most parishes have among their members medical professionals, social workers, business owners, and educators who together could craft new, creative, and far more comprehensive approaches to ministry to pregnant women than diaper and formula drives, street protests, or prayer circles, as valuable as those may be.
Such efforts may not directly lead to legal restrictions on abortion, but they may inspire the kind of personal commitment and service that would give actual women real choices about whether to carry a pregnancy to term.
“Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words,” St. Francis of Assisi is alleged to have said. Catholicism offers a prophetic vision of the value of human life from its microscopic beginning to its natural end. It’s time we buttressed that vision by equally prophetic service to women and their children, born and unborn.
This article appeared in the January 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 1, page 8).