The abortion debate has become a quagmire in which both political parties have latched onto it as a wedge issue to trap the votes of either women or evangelical Christians. Both presidential candidates have ambiguously moderate positions on the issue. Obama says that he believes in the sanctity of life, but has gotten a lot of mileage out of stirring up fear about the more radical pro-life position of Paul Ryan. Romney was pro-choice when he needed to be in Massachusetts and had a change of heart during the Republican primaries after which he backpedaled to the middle this past week. In the midst of a situation in which perpetuating the quagmire is in the best interests of both political parties, it’s time for the pro-life movement to abandon its partisan approach to this issue. This is where Sister Simone Campbell emerges as a hero in this struggle. She is ardently committed to defending the lives of unborn children; she is also committed to the lives of children after they are born. She has been campaigning on a nationwide nun bus tour about poverty, and she was a keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention. If I were a strategist within the pro-life movement, then I would want to find as many Sister Simones as I possibly could to represent my cause because the only way that anything will ever change regarding abortion in this country is if a critical mass of Democrats come to see it as a justice issue for unborn children instead of an individual rights issue.
I became pro-life when I was a high school teacher after learning that a girl in my class got pregnant and had two abortions in one year. I don’t think that should be allowed to happen. It goes against the “Do no harm” ethic in the Hippocratic oath of medicine. I’m not an absolutist. I don’t view legislative prohibition as the only relevant solution. I don’t demonize pro-choice people. I also recognize that as a man, it’s easy for me to talk about something that my body will never go through, so I must do so with humility. But I reject the individual rights paradigm from which reproductive “rights” are derived, because the same individualism which says, “It’s my body and I can do what I want with it” causes others to say, “It’s my money and I can do what I want with it.” I believe that every conceived human being is an icon of the living God whose life has infinite sacred worth. Furthermore, as icons of God, our bodies do not belong to ourselves; they are temples where God is to be glorified (1 Corinthians 6:19). I’m not saying that you can’t be a Christian without sharing my view; I’m just explaining where I come from.
Having said all this, it offends me incredibly when people who have no interest in the lives of poor children after they leave the womb try to use this issue as a partisan vote-trap. That’s why Sister Simone’s witness is such a blessing to me. She refutes the argument that being against abortion is mostly about being against feminism (which it is for the Todd Akins of the world). To someone like Sister Simone, if abortion is murder, then cutting health care for poor kids in order to pay for a tax cut is genocide (and no, health care for poor kids does not “create dependency”). Not only is Sister Simone consistently pro-life, but she has patiently built rapport with people who disagree with her on this issue by working side by side with them in advocacy over issues that they can agree on. This is the tactic that all pro-life activists would engage in if they were serious about ending abortion: patiently building the trust and rapport with their ideological adversaries to make their case instead of trying to bludgeon and demonize their way to victory.
There will be no end to the quagmire as long as the abortion battle is about getting 51% of the people in the country to vote for one party instead of the other. A continuation of the strong-arm political tactics of the culture wars will only continue to accelerate the plummet in Christianity’s “market share” of the population, so whatever political “gains” are made today will be wiped out in the backlash two decades from now. Furthermore, six years in which Republicans controlled every branch of government did not produce any substantive change in legislation on abortion, which makes me wonder if Republican leaders really want to resolve an issue whose endless perpetuation has been the lynchpin of all their electoral victories.
If Cardinal Timothy Dolan got on the bus with Sister Simone and actually stood up publicly for the position on poverty that the US Council of Bishops has been quietly mumbling, it would change the political calculus for both Democrats and Republicans by smashing the artificial wall between caring about kids before they’re born and caring about kids after they’re born. Just imagine if an evangelical juggernaut like Rick Warren got onto Sister Simone’s bus. That would be a complete game-changer. If people of faith in our society could come together and declare war on individualism itself, then we would have the basis for a powerful movement to create a safe and loving society where kids could thrive both before and after they’re born. Cain was wrong; we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We are collectively responsible for each others’ well-being, not only our core nuclear families that are contained inside the white picket fences of suburbia, but even more so the families and estranged individuals in our society who have no white picket fences to protect them. The details of how to accomplish this can be debated, but it’s time to close the curtains on the age of selfish individualism and enter into the era of the kingdom of mercy and justice that God never stops making new.