By Ramesh Ponnuru & Robert P. George
A guide for the perplexed
During the vice-presidential debate in 2012, Joe Biden claimed to agree with his church’s teaching on abortion but to be unwilling to impose it on other citizens. It was a statement that depended for its political effectiveness on widespread ignorance about what the Catholic Church actually teaches about abortion.
The Church takes note of the fact that modern embryology has placed beyond doubt the status of the human embryo, from its very formation and earliest developmental stage, as a distinct living member of the species Homo sapiens: a human being. This is not a theological claim; it is a statement of scientific fact. What the Church teaches is that every member of the human family — irrespective of race, sex, or creed, but also, and equally, irrespective of age, size, stage of development, location, or condition of dependence — is the bearer of inherent and equal dignity and, as such, is entitled to legal protection against violent assault.
The Church additionally recognizes that this teaching is fully available to natural reason: Its content can and should be affirmed even by those who have no belief in or access to revelation. So abortion is not the sort of wrong (or sin) that law and the state have valid reasons for tolerating. On the contrary, it is precisely the sort of grave injustice and violation of fundamental human rights that it is a central duty of law and the state to prohibit.
The Church does not teach, as Biden would have people believe it does, that abortion may legitimately be treated by the law and the state the way they treat, say, the obligation to be grateful to benefactors or the duty to avoid dishonoring parents. For government to permit abortion, the Church teaches, is for government itself to commit an injustice against its victims — denying a disfavored class, the unborn, protection it affords to all others. To be responsible, or partially responsible, for the injustice of the law in exposing unborn children to legally authorized lethal violence is to be complicit in grave injustice.
The logical problem in Biden’s claim of fidelity is very like the one faced by anyone, Catholic or not, indeed religious or not, who takes the “personally opposed, but pro-choice” position on abortion: The reason to oppose abortion at all is also the reason to prohibit it. Psychologically, it is possible for one sincerely to wish that no one ever had an abortion while supporting its legality and even its subsidization. But support for those policies necessarily entails willing the denial of basic human rights to one category of human beings: a grave injustice no matter the victim class. And because nearly everyone believes that he himself and those others he considers worth protecting should enjoy these basic rights, support for those policies involves a violation of the Golden Rule.
So, though abortion and slavery differ in many respects, they are alike in not admitting of the option of the “personally opposed, but . . .” position. The reason to be against slavery — its radical denial of the equal dignity of the victim and thus its grave injustice — is the reason for prohibiting it. It is precisely the same with abortion.
The pro-life position is based on an inexorable following of premises to conclusions. Most of those who hold it understand that they must follow these premises through to their implications for voting, too. To grasp the grave injustice of abortion is to take on some responsibility to work to end it both as a social practice and as a legally permissible option. And while citizens have other responsibilities, too, the injustice of abortion has a gravity that means it must be weighed more heavily than ordinary political issues, even important ones — a point the U.S. Catholic bishops and modern popes have made repeatedly. A fundamental issue of human rights cannot be traded against a fairer or more economically efficient top tax rate, for example.
The individual pro-life voter is not responsible for ending abortion, because he cannot achieve that goal. He is obligated, however, to do what he can, which is to cast his vote in solidarity with the unborn victims of abortion. Very often it will not be difficult to determine what this obligation means in practice: In a general election where two candidates differ in their commitment to justice for the unborn, the pro-life voter should nearly always back the one who has more of it.
But complications can arise. Some races may involve multiple candidates. Consider an election in which the top two candidates are a committed supporter of abortion and an equivocating opponent of it, while a candidate running distantly behind them is a solid pro-lifer. Two pro-life voters who are equally concerned about justice for the unborn may reach different prudential judgments about which candidate to vote for.
The necessity of prudential judgment in some cases is sometimes exploited to attenuate the general obligation of solidarity. Because the modern Democratic Party has become ever more committed to abortion and more hostile to legal protection for unborn children at any stage, pro-lifers who agree with Democrats on issues other than abortion have sometimes labored to find ways to rationalize voting for Democratic candidates who pledge to ensure that unborn children are exposed to lethal injustice (though, of course, they prefer different, more euphemistic language).
They advance many and varied arguments to reach the desired conclusion. They note that several Republican presidents opposed to abortion have appointed Supreme Court justices who, once on the bench, voted to uphold Roe v. Wade and nullify protections for unborn children; that even if Roe were overturned, it would not make abortion illegal, let alone abolish it; that abortion rates have fallen under Democratic presidencies as well as Republican ones. They contend that Democratic policies on health care, poverty, and the environment will save lives that would be lost under Republican policies. These considerations, they say, undermine, even defeat, the pro-life case for putting great weight on a candidate’s stated position on abortion policy.
These rationalizations are fatally flawed.
Typically they are flawed for the same reason the “personally opposed” position collapses into incoherence: They ignore the particular injustice of treating an entire class of persons, unborn children, as nonpersons with no right to life. That’s the main (though not the only) thing wrong with arguments that other issues — climate change or health care, for example — should be given weight equal to that given to abortion. Whoever is right about what health-care arrangements are best, the advocates of none of them argue for the direct killing of, or the permission to kill, large numbers of people because they belong to a disfavored class. It’s what’s wrong with the argument that overturning Roe won’t prohibit abortion by itself: In addition to being (as a practical matter) a prerequisite for prohibiting abortion anywhere in the U.S., overturning Roe will definitely accomplish the goal of excising a vicious anti-principle read into our fundamental law (with no warrant in its text, logic, structure, or historical understanding) by judges who acted in a grossly prejudiced manner against unborn children. It’s what’s wrong with a focus on the abortion rate to the exclusion of abortion law.
And while it’s true that Republican appointees to the Supreme Court have often disappointed us on Roe, it’s also true that Democratic appointees in the last 50 years have never been welcome surprises. Every single one of them votes to strike down any meaningful legal protection for unborn children that comes to the Court. (Pro-lifers’ success rates with Republican appointees have also been getting better over time.) Biden, like Obama and Clinton before him, has an “abortion rights” litmus test for the Supreme Court. Yes, that’s right: Biden has expressly pledged to deny appointment to the Court for anyone who does not support what amounts to an unlimited right to abortion.
On a somewhat different plane are arguments that abortion must be weighed against other moral evils. Several such arguments have been made to dissuade pro-lifers from voting for President Trump. He supports the death penalty, which a significant number of opponents of abortion consider to violate the sanctity of human life. He has advocated war crimes. Worst, he imposed a zero-tolerance policy at the border that had the predictable effect of separating large numbers of children from their parents. He and some of his aides reportedly welcomed this humanitarian catastrophe as a deterrent.
There are three things to consider when evaluating such issues. The first is the gravity of the evil. Even if it is wrong to execute someone judged guilty of murder even in a fair trial (as we believe), it is not on the plane of injustice of killing the innocent, nor does the Catholic Church regard it as such. The second is the scope of the evil. Abortion kills nearly 1 million unborn children each year in the United States; executions are less common than death by lightning strike; Trump, for all his many faults and failings, has not followed through on his disgusting bluster about killing terrorists’ relatives. And the third is that an argument against voting for a candidate who opposes abortion is not an argument for voting for a candidate who supports it. If both leading candidates for an office fail a threshold test of moral acceptability, it remains possible to choose an independent or third-party candidate, write someone in, or abstain.
This third point is particularly worth stressing in the case of Biden, who not only supports the legality of abortion but gives every indication of supporting it at every stage of pregnancy, and who shockingly and shamefully discarded his decades-long opposition to taxpayer funding for abortion (only hours after reaffirming it). He is allied to a speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who says that the next set of budget bills will include such funding. His current position on this question annihilates any possible case for Biden as someone who would reduce the number of abortions, even if (contrary to what justice in fact requires) his opposition to a right to life for the unborn could be overlooked.
To vote for a candidate for president is to have an infinitesimal effect on the outcome of the election, but to wholly determine whom one wills to be president. And while one need not will all that the candidate one votes for endorses, one’s choice must be fair, that is, in accord with the Golden Rule, applied bearing in mind the gravity, scope, and scale of the greatest injustices and violations of human rights at issue in a society and in contestation between candidates and parties. The pro-lifer who votes against Biden may not keep him from winning. He will, however, at least refuse to join in tolerating a massive violation of human rights for hundreds of thousands of victims of direct and intentional lethal violence. This is true of the pro-lifer who votes for Trump; it is true as well of the pro-lifer who, moved by objections to President Trump on the basis of human rights or other weighty reasons, votes for a different pro-life candidate or for no presidential candidate at all. The choice between those options can reasonably be influenced by all kinds of considerations, including even how close the election seems to be in one’s state.
Neither of us has endorsed Donald Trump. Both of us have been intensely critical of him on issues of personal character and, in some cases, public policy. We do not claim, as some have claimed, that Catholics and other pro-life citizens have an obligation to cast their ballot for him. The premises of the argument against abortion do not by themselves compel such a stance. People who share the view that the abortion license is a profound injustice on a massive scale that must be resolutely opposed can reach different conclusions about whether Trump deserves their vote.
If, however, the considerations we have adduced in this essay are sound, they practically preclude a vote for Biden. If one acknowledges the gravity, scale, and scope of the injustice of abortion, and of a legal regime that denies to an entire class of human beings the most basic of human rights, thus exposing them to lethal violence, then it is hard to imagine what proportionate reasons there could be for joining one’s will to the desire of a supporter of it for great political power.
— Mr. Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review. Mr. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and the director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.