The abortion debate weakens an already strained American democracy


The leak of the Supreme Court’s draft opinion on abortion boils the political pot, but to what end? Whatever the outcome, American democracy is unlikely to benefit.

I write about this issue with some unease because it is deeply personal. I also recognize that I will never feel the need to make the decisions that women face.

I had to oversee family planning programs as head of the US Agency for International Development, programs that empowered women to decide when they wanted to have a baby. I remember having argued that one of the benefits of making modern contraception and other family planning techniques available was to reduce unwanted pregnancies and therefore to limit abortions.

Unfortunately, we could not offer the full range of reproductive services available to women in wealthy countries, in part because of a very restrictive legal interpretation of the Helms Amendment that prevented even agency officers from counseling victims of rape.

It was also uncomfortable to see President Joe Biden attacked by choice advocates because he sometimes avoids using the word “abortion.” As a practicing Catholic, the President’s defense of a woman’s right to choose is an even more powerful endorsement of our society’s commitment to liberal democracy, individual rights and the rule of law. In this, whether or not he uses the word, he may be the most effective advocate available to the pro-choice cause.

Despite his religious beliefs, Biden understands the unique American experience of creating a secular society that both protects an individual’s right to their own moral code and separates government and religion for the purpose of protect both religious and non-believers. By promoting a woman’s right to choose within the context of American pluralism, the president captures the essence of the American idea. It effectively refutes the narrowness and exclusivity of Judge Samuel Alito’s draft opinion. For that, he is to be commended.

In a courageous and thoughtful speech at Notre Dame University in 1984, titled “Religious Belief and Public Morality: A Catholic Governor’s Perspective,” the late Governor of New York, Mario Cuomo, explained how the irreconcilable ostensibly is reconciled in American politics and law. .

“The Catholic who holds office in a pluralistic democracy,” he said, “who is elected to serve Jews, Muslims, Atheists and Protestants, as well as Catholics — bears a special responsibility. It undertakes to help create conditions in which everyone can live with maximum dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where all who choose may hold beliefs different from those specifically Catholic.

Even Pope Francis has warned US bishops to mind their pastoral duties and stay out of politics. Good advice! Some bishops have threatened to deny communion to pro-choice political leaders. In 1984, Cuomo seemed to rebuke these church leaders when he said, “Certainly, although everyone talks about a wall of separation between church and state, I’ve seen religious leaders climb this wall with all the dexterity of Olympic athletes.”

Catholic doctrine on abortion will not change. A fetus, even in its infancy, is considered alive even if it is not viable outside the womb. The judges who shaped Roe v. Wade based their decision on “viability” and used the best science available at the time. This is a constitutional interpretation, not a theological one. Yet Roe is accepted as the law of the land, even by a majority of Catholics who can continue to practice a more restrictive moral code if they wish. Few people are comfortable with the effort to politicize such a personal issue, but that hasn’t deterred politicians.

In the 50 years since the Roe decision, reproductive services have become more widely available, even to the poor. Women can access counseling and other services from organizations such as Planned Parenthood. Contraceptives are more universally available and unwanted pregnancies and abortions have declined over the past decades. Yet those who want to stop abortions also want to reduce the availability of these services. This will mainly impact the poor and the result will be increasingly safe abortions.

The debate will continue and nothing polarizes as much as a question of morality. Other democracies have somehow managed to avoid issues of personal privilege that only aggravate tensions among the population. Unfortunately, our politicians tend to arm them to divide and conquer. They do a disservice to the health of our democracy.

Hopefully, Supreme Court justices will come to recognize that their role is not political; it is to preserve pluralism and, in this case, a precedent that has proven viable. The leaked opinion that would eliminate Roe v. Wade does the exact opposite.

J. Brian Atwood is a Visiting Scholar at the Watson Institute at Brown University. He served as USAID administrator in the Clinton administration.


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