Abortion isn't the only issue: the argument for moral equivalence

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 13, 2012

In an America magazine commentary—with the curious title, “Don’t Vote for the ‘Better Catholic’”—Father James Martin, SJ, comments on the Biden-Ryan debate. His argument is a familiar one: that abortion is not the only moral issue for Catholic voters. But he makes the argument in a way that exposes its weakness.

Let me quote the key paragraph in full. This is, again, a reaction to the vice-presidential debate:

Their commentary last night (and beforehand) also points out that no one party fully embraces the entirety of Catholic teaching. And for those of you who would say that abortion is the only “intrinsic evil” that is at issue in this campaign, I would point you to Blessed John Paul II’s great encyclical Veritatis Splendor, in which he speaks of a great many intrinsic evils, many of them often overlooked today, including “whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit.”

Perfectly true. Subhuman living conditions, slavery, prostitution, etc. are intrinsically evil. If you find a politician who openly advocates subhuman living conditions, who calls for arbitrary imprisonments, who attends fundraisers for the human-trafficking industry, who endorses government subsidies for prostitution, who demands legal protection for slavery, you cannot in good conscience vote for him. That would be as bad as voting for a politician who supports legal, government-funded abortion.

So there’s a valid argument for moral equivalence. The politicians who favor unrestricted abortion are no worse than the politicians who favor slavery and human trafficking. Except in this one respect: the latter don’t pose much of a threat to contemporary America, because they don’t exist.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: mdepietro - Oct. 18, 2012 11:22 AM ET USA

    Excellent point Mr. Lawler. I would only add that it would be refreshing if those who throw the unborn under the bus in order to support liberal democrats, actually looked at the results of the liberal economic and social programs that "help the poor". I see very little evidence that the Catholic left does this. There is all kinds of evidence that many of these programs are either ineffective or harmful. Does the social just crowd ever address this argument?

  • Posted by: richardols3892 - Oct. 17, 2012 1:29 PM ET USA

    I disagree with Bishop McElroy's saying that abortion is the first among many issues for Catholics. It appears to be the ONLY issue for Catholics; not the economy, not jobs, not poverty, not the prospect of being dragged into another Middle East War. Our faith has, I'm afraid, become, in the United States anyway, a one-note Johnny, that single note being abortion. If anyone doubts that, let them ask any cleric what issues might be as important to the Church.

  • Posted by: Jim.K - Oct. 17, 2012 12:43 AM ET USA

    Does anyone still read America magazine? They have been printing trash like this for at least fifty years! When will it stop Oh Lord?

  • Posted by: sparch - Oct. 15, 2012 2:14 PM ET USA

    It is not just using the litmus test of abortion as a political sign post. It is an indication of general moral degredation and an inability to see that life must be the priority of any government. It is not a one issue approach it is an indication of character.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Oct. 15, 2012 10:43 AM ET USA

    EXCELLENT rebuttal, Phil. This one should be passed along.

  • Posted by: spledant7672 - Oct. 14, 2012 9:00 PM ET USA

    It's clear that Fr. Martin is just bending over backwards to make it OK to vote Democrat.

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Oct. 14, 2012 3:22 PM ET USA

    Good one. I wish I had seen it yesterday before I got dragooned into going to a meeting with Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy at my parish, on telling Catholics to vote their consciences. Abortion, for him, is the first issue among many. Underline among many.

  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Oct. 14, 2012 1:26 PM ET USA

    Agreed! The general societal view of Life & personhood is well skewed. Fr. Spitzer does an execllent job defining the problem & offering a solution in, "Ten Moral Principles". However, problems cited by JPII do pose a real & significant threat to our society! All result from degredation of personhood & life within our culture. Support must go to the candidate with the best chance for freedom, recognition of a person, and our right to life. That chance is clearly better with one of the two.

  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Oct. 13, 2012 8:24 PM ET USA

    Well put. I think this point needs to be hammered home repeatedly until people like Fr. Martin get it. Unfortunately, the logic of the argument is not easily reducible to a sound bite, so a lot of people may never get it.