My comments in the online version of America Magazine on the role of conscience in voting:
Politics, like life, contains shades of gray. In a free society, rhetoric and proofare more important than authority, which actually makes natural law arguments morerelevant - provided that these arguments are really based on inquiry rather than anyauthoritative interpretation. Once authority and infallibility are invoked, the appeal to natural law has lost its meaning (the appeal is then to authority which may or maynot exist, depending on whether the authority of Peter was linked to the location ofthe Church or its association with the seat of the Roman Empire). The Church needs to look beyond its theologians and its clergy when delving intopolitical questions, especially when such questions also touch on human biology.
The question of voting in the area of abortion is instructive. There are nuances which the USCCB does not appreciate, which is obvious from some of the statements of Bishops Lori and Rigali. Most importantly, there is a difference between advocating abortion and permitting. Politics is not about just what is in one's heart but thepositions one advocates.
Advocating abortion is against Canon Law, however I know of no Catholic politician, or any politician at all, who actively champions abortion aspositive alternative to welfare - although the Republicans come close by supportinglifetime limits on the payment of Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF).
In the public sphere, permitting abortion is really opposing measures that would restrictabortion in a manner that would not be good for the public interest. For the present moment, even opposing such measures is not a cause for concern -BECAUSE THE PRO-LIFE SIDE IS NOT OFFERING ANY MEASURES TO OPPOSE! If anything, it is intrinicly evil to ask Catholic politicians and voters to abstain from Communion for opposing a legislative program that does not exist or that includes deliberate omissions.
Frankly, it is cheap and sleazy to announce ones support for the rights of the unborn without stating how one would enforce such rights. The closest we get is an appeal for the appointment of Supreme Court Justices who might overturn Roe in order for the matter to be decided by the states. This is a deal with the devil, as doing so would also gut the authority of federal courts, and the federalgovernment generally, to overturn the will of state legislative majorities when they violate the equal protection and due process rights of their citizens. These cases range from the rights of criminals to the rights of racial and sexual minorities. The Archdiocese of Washington was a pioneer in its support for civil rights, cosponsoringthe original March on Washington in 1963. Overturning Roe in the way the pro-life movement specifies would overturn much of the work on civil rights as well. One need only spend some time in the rural south (or a Florida voting booth) to know that theseprotections are still necessary and indeed in much need of more aggressive enforcement.
Sometimes the Church takes positions that are just plain wrong in order to be consistent with prior teaching - even when the policy advocated turns the original tradition on its ear. The Church originally took a position against sterilization and mandatory birth control in opposition to Eugenics programs aimed at racial minoritiesand the mentally disabled. It stood up for the rights of the retarded to autonomy overtheir own bodies. To extend this tradition to then deny the reproductive freedom of Catholic married couples in using birth control is to prevert the intent of the original policy. Opposing the termination of a viable pregnancy is one thing - as it affirms the view that the soul is immortal rather than developmental, and an integrated part of the organism from the beginning. Defining the beginning is another matter. (Iwill only mention in passing that the Church's assertions that sex without thepossibility of conception is somehow sinful is an insult to those of us who are pastour procreative years and should be repudiated). There have been advances in ourunderstanding of biology since the discovery that conception happens when the sperm meets the egg. Embryologists will point to Gastrulation as a more important event. What is Gastrulation, you may ask? Here is what the experts say about it:
"Gastrulation and the formation of the three germinal layers is the beginning of the subdivision of the mass of embryonic cells produced by cleavage. The cells then begin to change and diversify under the direction of the genes. The genes brought in by the sperm exert control for the first time; during cleavage all processes seem to be under control of the maternal genes. In all cases of hybridization, in which indivduals from different species produce offspring, the influence of the sperm is first apparent at gastrulation; paternal characteristics may appear at this stage; or the embryo may stop developing and die if the paternal genes are incompatible with the egg (as is the case in hybridization between species distantly related)." (Encyclopedia Britannica,Macropedia, Growth and Development, Vol 20, page 394, col. 2, paragraph 1.)
Let me underline a few points. If a blastocyst can grow as a hybrid, it cannot have a soul - either as a hybrid or a non-hybrid (there is no reason to believe that there isany difference between the two at that stage). Secondly, I did not exist until my father's genes were as important as my mother's. Clearly, I was not me until after gastrulation. Finally, if you had cut me in half as a blastocyst (and it could havehappened - a twin might have been absorbed) then I could have been two people. At that stage, you could have harvested some or all of my stem cells and implanted them in a different blasocyst and I would have been one of those results. Half the stem cells could have been taken out for study and I would have still developed normally after gastrulation. Before gastrulation, a blastocyst is not an organism precisely becauseit is not organized. Clearly there is no soul present to guide development at this stage. If ensoulment means anything, it cannot have occurred until Gastrulation - and if it means anything it must be present after Gastrulation. If any point is the "magic moment" it must be that one.
Does this necessarily mean that the criminalization of abortion is essential policy? It depends on how it is criminalized. Clearly, third trimester babies merit official recognition from the federal legislature, which is sovereign (the state legislatures are not sovereign in this matter). As viability is rolled back, the possibilies for protection can be extended, although in law protection to before the beating of the fetal heart would violate the symetry between the beginning of life and its legal end, when the heart ceases to function. It is also a legitimate exercise of legislative prudence to judge how best to protect human life and a legitimate act of prudence to judge which party would ultimately do the better job in doing so. The history of the prohibition of alcohol and the current tragedy of the war on drug users shows that suchlaws are not the be all and end all of public policy. I see no reason why prohibitions on abortion would be more successful. That is my call as a voter, not the Church's. My professional opinion as both a politician and an expert in taxing and spending is that the best way to protect life is to extend tax breaks to families and education to the young who find themselves in a family way (with full scholarships and stipends toboth parents and the provision of housing and spending money besides - I believe the Catholic Church has a rather substantial educational system - although it needs work inthe votech and aduld education areas).
History has shown that one party is much more likely to take the necessary economic steps to decrease abortion - no matter what theyprofess as to its legality - while the other advocates policies that would lead families toward procuring abortions for wives and daughters. One need only revisit the gospel of the twenty-sixth week of Ordinary time to guess which option our Lord wouldprefer. I will leave it to the reader to guess how I am voting - although I would think it is fairly obvious.