Sunday, August 31, 2008

John F. Kavanaugh SJ's Letter to Obama

Absolutely Hating Abortion

Harry Blackmun, the man who ruined this nation's political system

Yes, he did. He instigated legislation from the bench. Unfortunately, in the recent wake of the civil rights struggle at the time, this is what the Supremes thought they had the right and the duty to do. In this case, they over-reached. He may have destroyed any chance this country may ever have of coming to a consensus on the issue that has disfigured the two great political parties.

I hate abortion with ever fiber of my being, not only for what it is, but for how it has mutilated and polluted politics in America for the last generation. Rather than taking the matter off the table, the Supremes merely turned it into a war. Sure, we'd have had legislative wars anyway, but now every presidential contest is primarily about Supreme Court nominations, which has been marring the whole judical selection process ever since.

I want a re-alignment! The current one is entirely unnatural. There has been progress this time around in the DNC Platform, but not enough. With the Catholic vote still hanging out there as the crucial swing vote as it has in years past, and with the nature of the selection of the vice-presidential candidates we've just seen, it looks to me like the issue will return to the fore as we head into the last 60 days. With Joe Biden out there, we're likely to see these stupid "wafer wars" all over again.

The economic stakes are too high to keep messing around with this issue. In the period of time that has since passed in exact parallel with Roe v. Wade, the Republican Party, with plenty of help from similarly lobby-owned Democrats, has entirely sold out and gutted this country. I don't know if we can literally withstand another four years of their economic philosophy and the diminished stature and influence of the United States in the world. That's why I don't want to see the Democrats blow another election by bowing and scraping to their secular left wing.

I get the back-alley problem. I do. I understand it. I realize that there always have been, and always will be desperate women who will seek out abortions whether they are legal or not. I can see this.

I also realize that the duty of the Christian is not to conquer, but to convince. Overturning Roe v Wade would only return the matter to the states, creating a confusing and chaotic hodge-podge quilt of competing laws. In the long run, however, if we don't tackle this issue as a people, we will never come to a consensus on it as a people.

Absolutists on my side would label me a heretic for even entertaining the notion of voting for a Democrat. I say let's avoid the idolatry inherent in anointing the vote to that extent. I also say that the strategy of the last 35 years has failed. I sincerely believe at this point that we would be better served in striving to change people's hearts and minds about abortion rather than concentrating so heavily on changing laws. There's no point in changing laws if hearts aren't changed first. If we can't stop all abortions, can we at least work with people of good will on the other side to prevent some, or to work on the issues which make some women feel compelled to have abortions in the first place? Should we work harder on convincing our adversaries that we care just as much about babies after they are born as before they are born, and that we consistently value human rights and human dignity in every other context?

As for the absolutists on the other side... The Democratic Party needs to free itself from the grip of the NARAL, Emily's List, and Planned Parenthood zealots kneeling on what they proudly call their Bill Clinton presidential kneepads, worshipping in front of their coat-hangar cross on the Altar of Abortion on Demand Without Apology. If they don't, in a country which is currently undergoing an evangelical awakening, the Democrats will continue to lose, and lose, and lose...

Fr. John F. Kavanuagh SJ recently wrote an open letter in America magazine called Dear Senator Obama. A lot of Catholics who normally find themselves with the GOP on account of their prolife views are supporting Obama this time around, including myself. A lot of scholars and professors at Catholic institutions have gone out on a limb for him. They sense something about Obama's unitive and conciliatory approach that is appealing and hopeful. While expressing and upholding prochoice views, Obama at least indicates that he understands the feelings and beliefs of people on the other side. Still, there are concerns. We are not going to give up our "love affair with the fetus" any sooner than prochoice women are going to give up the right to choose. What then? It's not just conservative Evangelicals and Catholics who share these concerns, but also progressive Protestants, like Jim Wallis at Sojourners. I think it's worth reproducing Kavanaugh's letter in full.

I am writing this open letter to you, Senator, on the outside chance that one of your National Catholic Advisory Council members might read America and pass it on to you.

You have an abortion problem, especially with pro-life Catholics who would like to vote for you—something to keep in mind when you ponder the fact that there has been up to a 15 percent rise in Catholics voting Republican in the past two elections.

Catholic voters do not think monolithically. That should come as no surprise to you, since you have many Senate colleagues with a Catholic background who have supported every bill insuring a “woman’s right to choose.” But if you are interested in the respectful hearing of opposing positions, as you often note, it will be valuable for you to have serious conversations with groups like
Democrats for Life of America and Feminists for Life.

There are some Catholics who will vote for you, hoping that your programs may do more for the unborn than rhetoric or a promise by Supreme Court nominees who would just return the decision to the states. They will vote for you, not because of your position on abortion, but despite it, realizing that your approach to wars of choice, capital punishment, hunger, homelessness, health care and refugees might better serve the lives of “the least” of our brothers and sisters.

There are some Catholics who will vote for you because your liberal agenda appeals to them and they refuse to vote for any Republican. There are other Catholics who will never vote for you—a few because of the abortion issue alone, but many more because they are irreversibly Republican and distrust all Democratic policies. As one prominent pro-life Republican put it, he would have voted “holding his nose” for the pro-choice Rudolph W. Giuliani because of Giuliani’s other Republican positions.

There is a third group who are truly undecided or are tending away from you because they think you not only defend partial-birth abortion but also are against lifesaving therapy for newborns surviving an abortion attempt. You are going to be hit with ads about your vote in the Illinois State Legislature against the Induced Infant Liability Act.

I know you have tried to explain this in your Relevant magazine interview, but you seemed evasive. Can you just simply affirm your conviction that any newborn, even after an abortion attempt, should be given effective life-sustaining treatment? Perhaps your seeming ambivalence is related to your position on late-term abortions and partial-birth abortions. Second- and third-trimester abortions comprise a small percentage of all abortions, but they are horrific. Anybody who thinks not, does not think. But even your gentle qualification of the mental health exception was met with a storm of protest from the National Abortion Rights Action League,
and you seemed to wilt.

I know you do not want to criminalize abortion, that you think it is a profound moral issue and that you think a father’s responsibility continues after conception, as you said on Father’s Day this year. I know also that you think our young ones should be taught more about the seriousness and sacredness of sexuality. But more is required if you are to reach the group of Catholics (and other Christians) I have been talking about. Here are three suggestions:

1. Support the Rev. Jim Wallis’s “abortion-reduction agenda,” with its economic support for pregnant women and greater access to adoption as part of the Democratic platform.

2. If you are interested in diversity and mutual respect, give a place at the Democratic convention for Democrats for Life to show you are unafraid of difference and debate.

3. Engage the arguments and evidence offered in opposition to second- and third-trimester abortions. You may find that the position of most American men and women is quite different from Naral’s. The earlier stages of embryonic and fetal development are more contested. But even your Republican opponent supports embryonic stem cell research. Ask him, and all the Catholics who will vote for him, how this fits into their professed commitments.

Perhaps you owe some courageous people like Douglas Kmiec a bit of reciprocation. Kmiec, a pro-life Catholic law professor who served in the Reagan and Bush administrations, announced his support of you because of your approach to war, poverty and immigration. Because of this stand, he has been denied Communion at least once. Are you willing to risk excommunication from the church of Naral for a principled position on abortion?

Maybe they will call you that terrible name “flip-flopper.” But remember this: anyone who refuses to change a judgment in the face of irrefutable data is either a fool or a toady. And you, clearly, are neither. As I see you move more and more to the middle in matters of the economy and the war in Afghanistan, I wait. Will you move a bit to the middle on this matter of abortion?

A vociferous cadre in the Democratic Party has for too long wielded a dogmatic veto over any discussion of limiting abortions. With your commitment to reasoned, evidence-based and respectful discourse, are you able to challenge your party to welcome pro-life Catholics into its supposed big tent?


Don said...

Thanks for a thoughtful piece of writing and for highlighting Fr. Cavanaugh's piece in it. The abortion issue is a lightning rod, but one that the GOP if it had a mind to could have put to rest long ago. However, I believe they don't want to solve it anymore than they want to come to any meaningful consensus with gays, lesbians and the American flag controversy which they stir up every time there is an election. These are convenient issues devised to divide the electorate so that the voters don't focus on real issues of real import. For example what about a culture that respects all life from conception to natural death and includes a discussion of war and capital punishment. What about a discussion of social justice issues that effect working parents in all parts of our nation. A right to health insurance ought to be guaranteed in the constitution and it also has to do with the culture of life.

Pro-choice does not mean pro-abortion anymore than support for the second amendment means that a person support gun violence. It is the trivialization of these issues that we ought to avoid and we ought demand that the media stop "sound biting" every issue. The fourth estate has become part of the problem rather than a part of the solution. Peace.

Jeff said...

Hi Don,

Thanks for posting. It's really nice to see you back here with a post again.

Great points that you made, and I agree that the GOP has used fear and resentment over the years to frighten or energize certain segments of the electorate, when their real agenda has been to push something else altogether. It's made it easier for me to support Obama this time around. I'm sicka and tired of playing that old game.

crystal said...

Hi Jeff,

I've been thinking about this issue a lot too. I do think that late term abortions are bad and that babies born alive should be saved.

But if this is really what you think of people who want a choice ...

The Democratic Party needs to free itself from the grip of the NARAL, Emily's List, and Planned Parenthood zealots kneeling on what they proudly call their Bill Clinton presidential kneepads, worshipping in front of their coat-hangar cross on the Altar of Abortion on Demand Without Apology

.... then it's probably going to be a cold day in hell before there is a meeting of the minds or hearts. That's not what those people are like, most of them, any more than the average pro-lifer is a person who murders doctors or bombs clinics.

A big help, I think, would be an embrace of sex education and contraception. People won't want abortions if they don't get pregnant. To have no other plan to reduce abortions than promoting abstinance and adoption after the fact is to care more about being right than about preventing abortions, I think.

Maybe there will never be a meeting of the minds, anyway, because one side sees abortion as the killing of babies, while the other side sees it as a woman having control of her own body and terminating the beginnings of what is not yet a person. How can there be agreement about what to do when there is no agreement about what abortion is?

Brother Charles said...

Thanks for the posting the letter, Jeff, as I probably would have missed it in print...and your own reflection speaks to me too.

Jeff said...


Almost all of my friends here who've been posting the last couple of years have been prochoice. I think it's obvious that I don't feel that way about all prochoice people.

OK, my remarks were provocative too. It was a bitter and angry choice of words. Unwise. I thought I'd made it clear that I was speaking of absolutists. I shouldn't blog when I'm angry.

All I can say in my own defense is that I didn't come up with the terms "presidential kneepads" and "abortion on demand without apology". Abortion-rights zealots came up with those terms themselves.

And I'm sorry, but there are abortion rights zealots, ranging from those who actually cry alarm when they see abortion statistics going down, to those who abuse anti-racketeering statutes to limit other people's rights to free speech and assembly.

I agree in large part with what you say about what is needed to find some kind of middle ground, or if that's not possible, at least a peacable consensus. As Mike McG has pointed out here several times, those who've tried have often gotten drowned out by those who are committed to the extremes on either side.

Brother Charles, thanks.

Garpu said...

I think if we could get both sides of the debate to sit down and talk to each other, they'd find some commonalities. For instance, I think both sides would agree that there needs to be better options for women in crisis. (Or they should, if the pro-lifers are really pro-life.) I think both would argue that there needs to be better healthcare options and adoption reforms. But I think so long as pro-choice people are labeled as "pro-death" or "pro-abortion" or pro-lifers are labeled as "anti-choice", there won't be any discussion. The discussion will need to have compromises: the fringe pro-lifers need to realize that not everyone wants to be a parent (their crusade against birth control), and the fringe pro-choicers need to realize that choosing not to abort is a valid choice.

Until both sides are willing to examine their biases and quit demonizing the other side, I don't see any resolution in sight.

Jeff said...

Thanks Jen. Check out this thread on dotCommonweal - Steinfels interviews Kmiec

Garpu said...

Can't disagree with the guy...Thanks for the link!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting Kavanaugh's letter. I was thinking about reading his book (Who Counts as Persons?)but
the thinking in this piece is so naive and sort of "hydroponic" that
I am happy you spared me the wasted time.

Violet said...


Violet said...


Sam said...

I'm the vice president of the St. Joseph School. If you remember,our 8th graders wrote to you before about "Slandering the President". I'm writing to you again to tell you about what's happening to our school.Our lovely school St.Joseph is merging with St.James. That was ok at first but our preist Fr.Walter just delivered a letter to us saying that we will have a new principal. Our principal, Sr.Deborah, and Sr.Alice will have to leave the school. They have served in St.Joseph school for so many years. According to the original letter they didn't have to leave. Every student in St.Joseph is upset about that. Now many of the teachers who didn't have to leave are resigning because Sr.Deborah and Sr.Alice are leaving. All my fellow students and myself are hoping that you would support us. Our address is new york , NY 10002, 1 Monroe street