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Further considerations regarding the abortion bill referendum    

Blase J. Cupich, S.T.D., Bishop of Rapid City, SD

Note: Last month I noted that the fall referendum on HB1215 provides us with the chance to debate what kind of a society we want to have. In the first part I discussed: 1) the role of the Catholic Church in public debate; 2) the role of the government in protecting the rights of all; and finally, 3) how the issue of abortion involves a moral principle that affects all of society, but is not based on just one religion’s dogma. This month I conclude with some reflections on the merits of HB1215 and I also emphasize the need to respectfully listen to others about how best to achieve the goal of protecting innocent human life and the need to look for new opportunities to advance the pro-life cause.

The Merits of HB 1215

There are a number of facts about HB1215 that cannot be ignored. First, the bill was passed after public debate by the duly elected representatives of our state legislature and with an affirmative vote by a majority of legislators in both parties. Then it was signed by the governor. Our elected officials have made a serious attempt to deal with an important moral dilemma facing society: When does human life deserve legal protection from the state? The Catholic Church has a long record of supporting the legitimate exercise of government, encouraging it to use its power to protect the rights of each citizen, particularly the most vulnerable.

Secondly, it is also true that real lives are at stake and that HB1215 includes measures that will protect the unborn. We cannot overlook the fact that 814 children were aborted in our state in 2004 (South Dakota Department of Health report, 2004). While some have criticized HB1215 for not having rape and incest exceptions, it is worth emphasizing that 96 percent of those 814 abortions were performed for reasons unrelated to rape and incest. Finally, the 2005 South Dakota Task Force to Study Abortion provided new information that is worth consideration. Eventually, the courts will need to confront the data, which shows that abortion not only takes the life of a child, but is also devastating for the mother.

Protecting the Unborn

People of good will can honestly disagree about the best way to achieve the goal of protecting human life, including the life of the unborn child. Some argue that bills which are not mature will inevitably be overturned by the courts. These pro-life advocates fear that such setbacks may actually contribute to the perception that what is judged legally acceptable is also morally acceptable. They also note that the goal is to establish measures protecting the lives of children which rest on a firm foundation and hold a reasonable promise of permanence.

While I genuinely trust the good will of those who disagree in good conscience with the approach of HB1215, it is important to emphasize that the obligation to promote serious alternative measures to protect the innocent human life of an unborn child remains. If HB1215 is voted down in the referendum, then some other measure that protects innocent human life will have to be crafted, supported and enacted. It is not unreasonable to insist that this happen with those who disagree with the approach of HB1215.

As I noted last month, we have other laws requiring the government to speak on behalf of and to protect certain groups of people who are voiceless and vulnerable, such as orphans, the mentally challenged, or those who are unable to mount a legal defense on their own behalf. Yet, when it comes to protecting the unborn, the most vulnerable and voiceless among us, there is a gap in this system of protection. Again, as a society, we cannot escape what is essentially a moral dilemma: When does human life deserve legal protection from the state?

Respecting Human Dignity

A change in law or structures is necessary, but not sufficient, if human dignity is to be defended and promoted in our society today. Our fellow citizens need to be convinced in their hearts and minds about the dignity of human life; in all of its stages. We must look for new opportunities to build a culture of life; otherwise, new laws will rest on a weak foundation. Let me cite three important opportunities.

First, our commitment to the dignity of human life and the human person must include support for other measures that will ensure a living wage for workers, adequate health care for families, the education of our youth and an end to the death penalty. When our society promotes education, literacy, employment, etc., the resulting social stability will contribute to a diminishment in the number of abortions.

Second, we need to begin a dialogue with those who are concerned that laws crafted to protect the unborn oftentimes fall more heavily on women and the poor than on the men who father these children or on people of means. Laws protecting the unborn must be accompanied by additional legislation that provides government support for basic subsistence to mothers, as well as appropriate sanctions for irresponsible fathers. Doing this is a matter of justice, but it also advances the pro-life cause among those who have genuine concerns about mothers and the poor. In a word, we need to create the conditions for others to hear us.

Third, we need to call each other to accountability as adults for our personal behavior, which too often today can contribute to a situation which is permissive of abortion and even makes abortion an easy or an entitled option. Individuals must exercise their own personal responsibility with regard to respecting the dignity of human life of each and every person. This is essential to reversing the erosion of the limits of human relationships which have made it acceptable for both men and women to act out sexually without restraint or regard for consequences.


I offer these reflections in this two-part series, but not with the intention of telling anyone how to vote on the HB 1215 referendum. Going into the voting booth in many ways is like going into the confessional. What we need at this time is honest and reasonable debate on the serious issue of promoting justice in our society and a call for personal responsibility.

The church’s contribution, as Pope Benedict XVI said it so well, is “…aimed solely at enlightening consciences, enabling them to act freely and responsibly, according to the true demands of justice, even when this should conflict with situations of power and personal interest.” As believers, we carry on this work, always insisting on and promoting the exercise of charity in the face of disagreement. Charity is essential, lest the political debate and activity surrounding this important issue damage the social solidarity that is required for both the common good and the communion of the church.

I genuinely hope and pray that people act in good faith and with charity, using the reasoning powers God has given them, so that, as the Holy Father puts it, we can “contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.”


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