Thursday, September 24, 2009

Linking Anti-Abortion Activism to Homophobia: Right-Wing Catholics Undermine Pro-Life Cause

In my posting two days ago about Archbishop Raymond Burke’s recent remarks in D.C., in which he repeatedly linked same-sex marriage and abortion as the premier evils that faithful Catholics must combat at this point in history, I said that I’d follow up with more discussion of the abortion issue. I also noted that I’d do so with reference to Michael Sean Winters’s recent discussion at America of the connections between the abortion issue and health care reform.

Winters frames his reflection on abortion and health care as a response to Burke’s recent statement to FOX news that the Baucus bill provides a “mandate” for abortion, and is thus unacceptable to Catholics. Burke also states that the bill “provides for the provision of abortion.”

Winters tries to make sense of both contentions, noting as he does so that both are unclear. His response to the “mandate” claim is far more charitable than mine. I would say simply that it’s an outright lie, and I think anyone concerned about truth in this discussion needs to note that from the outset. There is no “mandate” for abortion anywhere in the Baucus bill, and even to struggle to engage the semantics of this politically motivated lie is to give Burke’s claim a legitimacy it simply does not deserve.

As for the claim that the Baucus bill “provides for the provision of abortion,” Winters notes that the only sense in which that claim might be considered anywhere near truth is that the bill does not outlaw abortion—as it cannot, since Roe v. Wade remains law. The Hyde amendment does not permit federal funds to be used to pay for an abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is at stake. There is no suggestion in the Baucus bill that it would revoke the provisions of the Hyde amendment.

What remains to be determined is whether a public option, if this reaches the table, would provide for abortions with federal funds. Winters argues that the Hyde amendment ought to be extended to a public option. I seriously doubt that any public option that might reach a vote is going to include provisions for direct payments for abortion with federal funds.

As Winters notes, the only other possibility that appears to be now on the table, vis-à-vis the question of abortion, is that abortion would be subsidized indirectly through tax credits if a public option prevails. The Baucus bill envisages the government providing tax credits to those who would then choose to purchase policy riders that might include the option of abortion. As Winters notes, the moral distinction on which this option relies is the direct-indirect distinction: it would subsidize abortion only indirectly if at all. It would not use taxpayer moneys to fund abortions in any direct way.

And as Winters also notes, there is significant evidence suggesting that many women who choose to have abortions do so because of economic pressures that would be diminished considerably by the provision of universal health care. “Health care reform is pro-life per se,” Winters’s observes, because it helps prevent the economic quandaries in which many women find themselves when they cannot afford adequate health coverage for their themselves and families, and are pregnant.

Winters’s distinctions are good and necessary ones. They’re fine ones. But here’s what I would like to say in response—and my response also addresses the thread of comments following Winters’s posting.

These distinctions—in fact, the entire discussion—leaves me cold. Increasingly, when I listen to my centrist Catholic brothers and sisters engage Catholics of the right, including Archbishop Burke, on these issues, I feel as if I am listening in on a conversation taking place on another planet. This is not a planet on which I live. It is not a planet whose rules make sense to me.

I do care about abortion. I think that in an ideal world, no one would be forced to have to deal with excruciating decisions about whether or not to end a pregnancy. I also think that in the real world in which most of us live, that decision unfortunately confronts many people. And I doubt seriously that dictating to those people what they must do in the situation confronting them—or dictating to society at large—is going to provoke the kind of moral awareness that people need in order to make momentous moral decisions like whether or not to have an abortion.

If our goal is to provoke people to see that abortion is not a value-free practice, but one with profound ethical implications, then we have failed lamentably and we continue to fail lamentably to convince many people to recognize those ethical considerations. The approach we have taken, we Catholics (and our right-leaning evangelical brothers and sisters), is entirely counterproductive. Rather than convince people that values are at stake in the question of abortion, we are causing them simply to shrug their shoulders and walk away from the discussion (which is not a discussion at all, and that's a huge part of the problem).

Something is totally awry in the way many Catholics have chosen to approach the issue of abortion in the public square. Something is awry if our goal is to convince others to examine the life issues that we believe are inherent in this discussion. Something is wrong with our approach to this issue at the most fundamental level possible, when our first and foremost reaction is to suppress discussion, coerce and command, and threaten anyone who disagrees with us.

It strikes me that there are some serious unacknowledged problems, some stumbling blocks, to the sane discussion of abortion, which impede that discussion from its very outset, causing it to be a mostly ineffective and intramural Catholic (and right-wing evangelical) discussion/non-discussion that has no ability to reach most sane people in our society. Not where they live and move and have their being. I’m surprised, frankly, that my centrist brothers and sisters don’t appear to see those stumbling blocks, and that they continue discussing these issues with their brothers and sisters on the right (though, strangely enough, not with their brothers and sisters on the left), as if the discussion is a good-faith discussion in which those on the right seriously want to parse difficult issues and arrive at common ground.

I’ve talked previously about some of these stumbling blocks. We cannot discuss abortion sanely as my Catholic brothers and sisters of the right insist we must discuss it if we're going to discuss it at all, when we exclude from the conversation questions about the varied, far from uniform witness of our tradition about abortion, which contains more moral options than the single option the right now provides us with. We cannot have sane discussions of abortion when we simply dictate from the outset that life begins at conception and that this question will be off the table, or we’ll take our marbles and boycott the discussion. We cannot discuss abortion sanely when we take that approach, because our own tradition is not uniform about a human life starting at conception, and because some of our leading classical theologians, including Aquinas, held otherwise.

The teaching that a human being is fully present at the moment of conception is a very recent teaching. We may try to establish it by fiat if we wish, but we will be largely unsuccessful when we seek to do so, because thinking people will think about these issues, and will want to discuss them, before they make up their minds about them. Our non-negotiable, rule-by-fiat, no-discussion approach has the opposite effect than the one we claim we want, when we say that our goal is to convince people to take abortion and the moral implications of abortion seriously.

We also cannot discuss abortion sanely with anyone outside our little club if we fail to look at the political connections between the anti-abortion movement and the anti-feminist movement. It is undeniable that opposition to abortion has arisen within Christian churches in direct proportion to the emergence of women to full personhood on the stage of global human history. Resistance to abortion is, in many quarters, resistance to women’s full personhood and to the rights of women. And we undermine our efforts to convince people of the seriousness of abortion as a moral issue when we do not admit this, and when we do not eradicate misogyny altogether from our moral arguments against abortion.

And finally, it is also undeniable that a significant proportion of those who now argue that abortion is one of the premier evils of our time—including Archbishop Burke—have chosen to link the anti-abortion movement to homophobia, to resistance to gay rights, to movements to crush and dehumanize gay people. If for no other reason, as a gay person who also happens to be Christian, I cannot listen to Archbishop Burke’s arguments about how I should take abortion seriously as a moral issue, when he links that argument to arguments that deny my full humanity and combat my human rights.

If the Catholic church hopes to convince society at large that abortion is something to take seriously on moral grounds, it needs to rethink its current political choice to link resistance to abortion to homophobic causes. That linkage is unwise. It is dangerous for religious groups that hope to make a compelling case in the public square that abortion is a serious moral issue.

It is unwise and dangerous because an increasing number of people in the developed world do not buy into homophobia. They do not do so precisely because of their respect for human rights—because of their respect for the same human rights that, in the mind of the Catholic church, form the basis for opposition to abortion. Human beings have a right to life, the Catholic church wants to teach us.

But human beings who happen to be born gay also have rights, and those rights include the right to live with decency, not to be attacked, lied about, shunned and shamed. To the extent that the Catholic church participates in such actions—and it does; it is going out of its way to do so in Maine and many other places in the U.S. today—it totally undermines its credibility as a moral teacher regarding abortion and other life issues.

Let me put the point even more bluntly. Archbishop Burke has become a political operative, a shameless political pawn, for a group of right-wing Americans who have no intent at all of respecting gay human beings. The archbishop’s analysis of the twin evils of abortion and same-sex marriage is political, first and foremost. His opposition to health care reform is primarily political. As with other Republicans, he wants at all costs to turn back health care reform, even if doing so means that poor women will continue to have no health care coverage and will be faced with difficult decisions about whether to continue a pregnancy.

When the Archbishop Burkes of the world talk about abortion, I do not intend to listen. I cannot do so. I cannot do so because who they are and what they have chosen to embody militates against the message they claim that they want to impart to me.

And I remain astonished that so many of my Catholic brothers of the center seem not to see what is really at stake in these discussions, that they seem willing to live with the gross homophobia as part of the price one must pay for opposing abortion, that they appear untroubled by the appalling misuse of money by Catholic officials to mount nasty attacks on gay human beings. The appalling misuse of money to attack gay people by the same Catholic officials who have misused funds again and again to cover up clerical sexual abuse of minors, silence victims, and to mount lawsuits against those calling for justice.

When the walls are imploding under the weight of such massive corruption, how can we continue talking about moral issues as if we're in a well-constructed and stable house?

The graphic shows results of an August 2008 Pew survey.