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Half Measures in a Crazy World

By Peter Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jan 10, 2005

Now that abortion has become a norm in the United States (and in many other areas of the world), Catholics have been faced with new challenges. Perhaps the most confusing of these challenges is how to regard legislation that is not aimed at abolishing abortion altogether but rather at limiting it in some respect. Can there be such a thing as half-measures in overcoming abortion? Abortion is evil, plain and simple—so don’t we have to be completely absolute in how we legislate change?

The answer to this question is a resounding “No”. Both morally and strategically, we don’t have to demand all or nothing. In fact, in many occasions the only way that we are going to make any progress at all is to take a “something or nothing” approach.

When the encyclical Evangelium Vitae was released in 1995, Pope John Paul II made it clear that we can pursue legislation advocating lesser progress where it is not possible to achieve the highest good (section 73). For example, we can easily advocate change in abortion policy through the promotion of a ban on partial-birth abortion. In no way is this tactic an admission that abortion is moral in some cases, or that the fetus is human at this moment and not at others.

A less clear, but still valid example is to advocate legislation that restricts the provision of a certain class of “health services”, including abortion and contraception, to minors without parental consent. The bill might not refer to these services by name, nor might it ban abortion outright, but it is still worth our consideration and effort.

Although it might gall us to skirt around these crucial issues by using round-about tactics, we are certainly not changing our ultimate goal of eradicating the practice of abortion throughout the world. We are simply doing what we can in a hostile environment.

Many pro-lifers fail to understand this moral logic, and although most Catholics don’t read most encyclicals, we need to be serious about reading those which address the concerns we have trouble with. Rest assured that Evangelium Vitae is written in very accessible language. In it the Pope clearly expresses the Church’s teaching on several critical life issues.

No Catholic who has read the document would be at a loss to answer Senator Kerry’s assertions regarding conscience and abortion during the recent presidential election. Kerry often referred to the primacy of conscience established by Vatican II. In Evangelium Vitae the Pope clearly states, including quotes from the documents of Vatican II, what the Catholic legislator’s stance must be regarding abortion.

Now that we’ve taken a look at the moral aspect of this issue, let’s examine half-measures from a tactical perspective. But this time, let’s approach another issue: “gay marriage”. For example, though being allowed to apply the terminology of “marriage” to gay unions is a stated goal for the liberal lobby, I assert that it would not bother the majority of the gay rights lobby if identical rights were given to gay couples under the heading of civil unions or simply under cohabitation laws—at least for right now.

The liberal lobby knows that “moderate conservatives” (including many Catholics) will be happy to win one war, the war over the term “marriage”, while civil unions slip in the side door. Once civil unions have become the status quo, having the title of “marriage” applied to them is a battle that is already three-quarters won. At that point, what we’d be talking about is essentially only a difference in terminology.

This is a winning strategy. However, it’s been one that some Catholics have been hesitant to use in pursuit of better public policy—whether on misinformed moral grounds (see prior arguments) or out of fear of misrepresenting their opinions.

More and more, Catholic legislators are starting to effect small progress at the local level by slipping things in; by working with state, county, and municipal government to establish norms that are more life-friendly. The recognition is dawning that even changes that can be made on a small scale are worth making, should be made, and can be made without compromising our Catholic identity. Each small change towards a greater moral truth adds another building block on which the logic of that greater truth may be revealed.

This is why partial birth abortion has been a hot button topic under the past several presidential terms. Pro-lifers rightly view this as the most obvious method of limiting the number of abortions performed in the United States. But even many Catholic pro-lifers that I’ve discussed the matter with fail to see why the liberals are so concerned about it. To such pro-lifers it is a simple issue, “Why can’t liberals see that this is no more than infanticide?”

The question should be, “Why do liberals who know that it is really infanticide not support the ban?” The answer is because liberals know, deep down, that the ban on partial birth abortion is more than just the abolition of a small portion of the abortions performed. They know that the ban is the logical building block towards the abolition of all abortion. They recognize that the same tactics that they’ve used against us are the ones that we are now trying to use against them.

The point is, let’s not be afraid to press our advantages where they can be found! The Pope has said that it is permissible for us to take half-measures as long as our “absolute personal opposition to procured abortion [is] well known.” Approaching the tenth anniversary of Evangelium Vitae, it is time that its message sank in, and that all Catholics help where they can in small ways to promote a culture of life.

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