Life matters. From conception to natural death, it matters. This is a principle Catholics must carry with them into the voting booth.
But it is not a simple binary equation. It is not an either/or proposition. In the end, determining which candidate better serves the interests of life is a prudential judgment. A simple promise to overturn Roe v. Wade does not automatically make one the pro-life candidate.
In my estimation, Barack Obama is the more seriously pro-life candidate in this year's presidential contest. Voters should not forget his early connections to the Catholic Church. He attended St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School in Jakarta for three years. His mother, Ann Dunham, assisted Fr. A.M. Kaderman, S.J., in managing an English-language training school during this time. When Barack Obama worked as a community organizer in the middle 1980s, he did so out of the rectory of Holy Rosary Catholic Church on the South Side of Chicago, where he helped to coordinate the efforts of eight Catholic parishes and numerous other religious organizations to improve the lives of unemployed steel workers and others whom the financialized economy was leaving in the dust. He still considers the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago an inspiration. (On this background, see the wonderful new book by the Catholic legal scholars Douglas Kmiec and Ed Gaffney, and the Harvard Medical School Professor of Pediatrics, Dr. Patrick Whelan, "America Undecided: Catholic, Independent, and Social Justice Perspectives on Election 2012.")
Kmiec, Gaffney and Whelan stress that there is no more powerful abortifacient in this country than poverty. It may be difficult for the comfortable, upper-middle class conservative Catholics who support Mitt Romney for "pro-life" reasons to associate with this reality. But imagine for a moment a young woman, 18 or 20, 25 or even 30 years old. She comes from a broken, impoverished family and has little real economic future. She's gone through a bad relationship or two, and faces a soul-crushing existence being nickel-and-dimed through a series of dead-end jobs in America's service economy. She is poor, desperate, alone and maybe even threatened by her boyfriend. The jobs are so haphazard, the poverty so shattering, that family formation is impossible. A powerful description of the plight of women who lead these lives of invisible suffering can be found in Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickel-and-Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America" (2001). Conditions have only grown more acute in the decade since Ehrenreich wrote her book.
In fear, in humiliation, in aching isolation, she seeks an abortion. This bleak portrait depicts the tragic dimensions of the abortion crisis in America. It is a crisis born not of the selfish pursuit of the glittering baubles of American materialism, but of the panic-stricken sense of having nowhere to turn. And it is fed at the top by politicians who prize Randian individualism and the unfettered quest for riches above every human value.
The Netherlands and Germany have abortion rates less than one-third of the United States. Why? Because those nations address the cause of abortion at its root -- poverty. They provide pre-natal and post-natal care, and a social system that genuinely assists the new mother who chooses life.
President Obama's Affordable Care Act represents a small, measured step in the direction of maternal assistance for women in crisis. It does not go nearly far enough, in my judgment, but in our present political environment it is probably the best that can be achieved. It is grounded on the basic premise of Catholic social thought, reiterated time and again by the popes, from Leo XIII to Benedict XVI, that health care is a fundamental right. It is the indispensable starting point of a seamless ethic of life.
The Affordable Care Act legislatively recognizes this fundamental moral right. Among its provisions, the ACA creates a Pregnancy Assistance Fund. Specifically on the issue of crisis pregnancy, this fund assists in several ways. It can cover the salary of counselors who point young women in the direction of social services. It supports parenting classes and aids with day-care costs at colleges and universities. It teaches and supports and, in sum, helps equip panicked, pregnant young women to become responsible, future-directed young mothers.
The Affordable Care Act helps save unborn lives in other ways as well. It increases tax credits for adoptions, making this loving alternative more affordable and more readily available. It recognizes that Medicaid currently pays for one-third of all live births in America and promises to maintain adequate funding for this vital service. Abortion is a serious wrong, but it is better, as the proverbial saying goes, to light a candle than to curse the darkness.
And what do the Republicans, that ostensible pro-life party, offer in return? They deny that health care is a basic right, describing it instead as a matter of "personal responsibility," thereby repudiating a foundational principle of Catholic social thought. They promise the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including presumably the Pregnancy Assistance Fund and the adoption credits. They solemnly pledge to slash budgetary allocations to Medicaid, thus fueling the ever-deepening desperation of the pregnant poor. And in life's final years, the Republicans will voucherize Medicare, putting at risk the health and well-being of millions of senior citizens.
Well, one might retort, perhaps the Republicans will at last reverse Roe v. Wade. The reversal of Roe v. Wade has been a part of every Republican platform since 1980. Hasn't happened yet. Catholics who cling to this thin reed should prepare for disappointment. The Supreme Court will perpetually be one vote short of reversal.
A recent poll shows that Catholics prefer candidates who give attention to the poor than abortion (see Chicago Tribune, "Catholics Want More Focus on Poverty Than Abortion, Survey Finds," October 24, 2012). In reality, it is not one or the other. Fight poverty, and you fight abortion. So, I am voting for life -- Obama-Biden 2012.