Linkage and the
Logic of the Abortion Debate
Address for Right-to-Life Convention Kansas City, Missouri
Joseph Cardinal Bernardin
June 7, 1984
I first wish to express my appreciation for the opportunity to address this
Convention of the National Right-to-Life Committee. I take the chairmanship of
the NCCB Committee for Pro-Life Activities as a very serious responsibility and
a significant opportunity for service. I am convinced of the total personal
commitment of each of our bishops to the philosophy and program of the pro-life
movement. I am also equally convinced that the heart and soul of the movement is
the personal dedication of all those who are represented at this meeting.
I thought it might be most useful for me to set forth in this address a
general perspective of where we stand in the struggle against abortion, the
struggle to protect the life of the unborn. It is now eleven years since the
Supreme Court decisions which legalized abortion on request; there are lessons
to be learned from this decade. In light of this experience, we can also examine
our present choices and establish our future direction.
I. The Past: Witness for Life
An examination of the past decade generates both sadness and pride.
Sadness—perhaps moral dismay is a better phrase—is a product of evaluating the
abortion policy set in place by the 1973 Supreme Court decisions. Pride is the
justifiable product of evaluating the efforts of thousands of volunteers who are
committed to reversing the present national policy and re-establishing respect
for the right to life as a national policy and practice.
First, the implications of Roe v. Wade bear examination. In order to grasp
the dimensions of the present challenge we face, it is necessary to describe the
depth of the problem created by the 1973 Supreme Court decisions. The decisions
were radical in nature and systemic in their consequences. They were radical
since they overturned in one stroke an existing political and legal structure
which treated any form of abortion as an exception to normal practice The end
product of Roe v. Wade was to establish a political and legal framework with no
restraint on abortion. Many of us sensed then, and all of us can be sure now,
that public opinion was not at all in favor of a policy opening the floodgates
to 1.5 million abortions a year. Some radical decisions are justified morally
and they are necessary politically, but the Court decisions of 1973 were neither
justified, necessary nor acceptable to large segments of the American public.
The Court's decisions were systemic in the sense that they changed not only a
given law, but they established operating presumptions in medical practice,
social service agencies and administrative policy which legitimated and
facilitated access to abortion. The result of the decisions was to change the
structure of this society's approach to abortion. What the decisions did not
change was the substantial, broad-based and solidly grounded view of American
citizens across the land that abortion on request is not a satisfactory way to
address the real problems individuals and families face in this delicate area of
respecting unborn life.
It was this deeply felt personal opposition to abortion which crystallized
the public policy position of the pro-life movement. There has undoubtedly been
a strong Catholic core to this movement, but it has cut across religious and
political lines, as is evidenced by the participants in this convention. It is
this pro-life constituency which is an authentic source of pride for anyone
associated with it. At a time when grass roots coalitions are often talked
about, the pro-life constituency has a claim second to none in demonstrating
local support. At a time when citizen apathy is a serious public problem, the
pro-life movement has mobilized men and women personally, professionally and
politically in opposition to abortion. At a time when the moral dimension of
public policy on a variety of issues is in need of a clear statement, the
pro-life movement has cast the political issue in decisively moral terms.
Finally, the movement has been not only political but pastoral. It has joined
its public advocacy with practical efforts to provide alternatives to abortion.
For all these reasons, I maintain that the witness to life in the past decade
has been a cause for hope and pride. The lessons learned in the decade of the
1970's prepare us to analyze our choices in the 1980's.
II. The Present: Shaping Public Choices for Life
The effect of the pro-life movement has not been limited to its inspirational
quality; there has been a specific political impact. Eleven years after the
Supreme Court decisions, and after a string of other legal actions reaffirming
the Roe v. Wade philosophy, the pro-abortion philosophy has not been accepted by
millions of Americans. In brief, the legal status of abortion still lacks public
legitimacy. The political debate which ensued shows the nation radically divided
on the state of public policy on abortion.
Normally, the force of existing law provides legitimacy for policy. Keeping
the question open for reform and reversal of existing policy is a significant
political victory. It is a tactical success. It should not, however, be mistaken
for total success. Nonetheless, it provides space to move the nation toward a
different future on abortion.
Creating space to change law and policy is a precondition for what must be
accomplished. It is imperative in the 1980's to use the space creatively. In
working to change national policy on abortion, I submit that we must cast our
case in broadly defined terms, in a way which elicits support from others. We
need to shape our position consciously in a way designed to generate interest in
the abortion question from individuals who thus far have not been touched by our
witness or our arguments.
Casting our perspectives broadly does not mean diluting its content. Quite
the opposite. It involves a process of demonstrating how our position on
abortion is deeply rooted in our religious tradition and, at the same time, is
protective of fundamental ideas in our constitutional tradition.
Speaking from my perspective as a Roman Catholic bishop, I wish to affirm
that the basis of our opposition to abortion is established by themes which
should be compelling for the Catholic conscience because they are so centrally
located in Catholic moral and social teaching. The basic moral principle that
the direct killing of the innocent is always wrong is so fundamental in Catholic
theology that the need to defend it in the multiple cases of abortion, warfare,
and care of the handicapped and the terminally ill is self-evident.
This is why one cannot, with consistency, claim to be truly pro-life if one
applies the principle of the sanctity of life to other issues but rejects it in
the case of abortion. By the same token, one cannot, with consistency, claim to
be truly pro-life if one applies the principle to other issues but holds that
the direct killing of innocent non-combatants in warfare is morally justified.
To fail to stand for this principle is to make a fundamental error in Catholic
moral thought. But the moral principle does not stand alone; it is related to
other dimensions of Catholic social teaching.
The opposition to abortion is rooted in the conviction that civil law and
social policy must always be subject to ongoing moral analysis. Simply because a
civil law is in place does not mean that it should be blindly supported. To
encourage reflective, informed assessment of civil law and policy is to keep
alive the capacity for moral criticism in society. In addition, the Catholic
position opposing abortion is rooted in our understanding of the role of the
state in society. The state has positive moral responsibilities; it is not
simply a neutral umpire; neither is its role limited to restraining evil. The
responsibilities of the state include both the protection of innocent life from
attack and enhancement of human life at every stage of its development. The fact
of 1.5 million abortions a year in the United States erodes the moral character
of the state; if the civil law can be neutral when innocent life is under
attack, the implications for law and morality in our society are frightening.
These themes drawn from Catholic theology are not restricted in their
application to the community of faith. These are truths of the moral and
political order which are also fundamental to the Western constitutional
heritage. The opposition to abortion, properly stated, is not a sectarian claim
but a reflective, rational position which any person of good will may be invited
to consider. Examples can be used to illustrate the convergence of our concerns
about abortion with other key social questions in American society.
The appeal to a higher moral law to reform and refashion existing civil law
was the central idea that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. brought to the civil
rights movement of the 1960's. The pro-life movement of the 1980's is based on
the same appeal. Pro-life today should be seen as an extension of the spirit of
the civil rights movement. Similarly, the Baby Doe case has proved to be a
meeting ground of principle and practice between civil rights and pro-life
advocates. The common ground is as yet not sufficiently explored, but there is
significant potential for development in this area.
Civil rights are the domestic application of the broader human rights
tradition. The right to life is a fundamental basis of this tradition. By
standing for the right to life in our society, we stand with all who argue for a
strong national commitment to human rights in our domestic and foreign policy.
A final example of convergence is pertinent to your program today. Father
Bruce Ritter has caught the imagination and interest of broad sectors of
American society with his defense of human dignity in the face of sexual
exploitation. The themes of the pro-life movement, promoting a sacred vision of
sexuality and support for the family, coincide with Father Ritter's courageous
and compassionate witness to life.
III. The Future: A Strategy for Witness to Life
It is precisely because I am convinced that demonstrating the linkage between
abortion and other issues is both morally correct and tactically necessary for
the pro-life position that I have been addressing the theme of a consistent
ethic of life for Church and society. The convergence of themes concerning civil
rights, human rights and family life with the abortion issue is simply an
indication of deeper bonds which exist along the full range of pro-life issues.
The proposals I have made on the linkage of issues are, I submit, a
systematic attempt to state the vision which has always been implicit in a
Catholic conception of "pro-life." A Catholic view of the meaning of prolife
stresses the interdependence of life in a social setting, the way in which each
of us relies upon the premise that others respect my life, and that society
exists to guarantee that respect for each person. The interdependence of human
life points towards the interrelationship of pro-life issues.
This interrelationship can be illustrated in precise, detailed moral
arguments, but that is not my purpose in this address. I would simply appeal to
a principle which I suspect is also an element of your own experience. It is the
need to cultivate within society an attitude of respect for life on a series of
issues, if the actions of individuals or groups are to reflect respect for life
in specific choices. The linkage theme of a consistent ethic of life is designed
to highlight the common interest and reciprocal need which exist among groups
interested in specific issues—peace, abortion, civil rights, justice for the
dispossessed or disabled—each of which depends upon a basic attitude of respect
for life. The linkage theme provides us with an opportunity to win "friends" for
the life issues. Just as we insist on the principle of the right to life, so too
we must recognize the responsibility that our commitment places on us. Building
bridges to people working on specific life issues demands respect and kindness
toward these potential allies. An atmosphere of trust and understanding can do a
great deal to promote the goals of the pro-life movement.
The consistent ethic seeks to build a bridge of common interest and common
insight on a range of social and moral questions. It is designed to highlight
the intrinsic ties which exist between public attitudes and personal actions on
one side, and public policy on the other. Effective defense of life requires a
coordinated approach to attitude, action and policy. The consistent ethic theme
seeks to engage the moral imagination and political insight of diverse groups
and to build a network of mutual concern for defense of life at every stage in
the policies and practices of our society.
The need for such a common approach is dictated by the objective
interrelationship among the life issues. The strength of the Catholic
contribution to such an approach lies in the long and rich tradition of moral
and social analysis which has provided us with both detailed guidance on
individual moral issues and a framework of relating several issues in a coherent
If we pursue a consistent ethic systematically, it will become clear that
abortion is not a "single issue," because it is not even a single kind of issue.
It is an issue about the nature and future of the family, both in its own right
and as a basic unit of society. It is an issue about equality under law for all
human beings. And it is an issue of life or death. For
this reason, developments in all these areas may not always be the direct
responsibility of each person in the right-to-life movement, but they should
always be of intense interest to all. Whatever makes our society more human,
more loving, more respectful of the life and dignity of other, is a contribution
to your struggle; for the more committed society becomes to justice and
compassion, the more incongruous will be its toleration of the killing of the
unborn child. And whatever promotes respect for that child cannot help but
promote respect for all humanity. With that in mind, I urge you to recommit
yourselves with renewed energy to this cause. Where humanity is threatened at
its most defenseless, we have no choice. We must stand up on its behalf.
Teachings of the
Magisterium on Abortion