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Some considerations regarding the abortion bill referendum      

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

The fact that HB1215 will appear as a referendum on the November ballot provides all citizens in South Dakota the chance to participate in a public debate on what kind of a society we want to have. As Catholics with a long record of standing up for the rights of all, we welcome the opportunity to contribute to that discussion. We also see this moment as a chance to highlight how the denial and erosion of human dignity for anyone not only offends the truth of the human person, but injures the common good and justice itself.

In a two-part series (this month and next) I will address a number of related issues which should be of assistance to Catholics and others as they prepare to vote in November. In this article I will discuss three things: 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, not just one religion’s dogma.

1. The Church’s Role in Public Debate.  As Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized, when churches participate in public debate, their interventions must always be “…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.”

These recent remarks by the pope build on a theme he introduced in his first encyclical, God is Love, in which he commented on the place of Catholic social doctrine in public debate: “It has no intention of giving the church power over the state. Even less is it an attempt to impose on those who do not share the faith ways of thinking and modes of conduct proper to faith. Its aim is simply to help purify reason and to contribute, here and now, to the acknowledgment and attainment of what is just.”

2. The Role of Government.  The Catholic Church’s long-standing position has been that government must always use its power to protect the rights of each citizen, particularly the most vulnerable. Otherwise, the very foundations of a government based on law are undermined.

Laws are in place 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. But when it comes to protecting the unborn, who are the most vulnerable and voiceless, there is a gap in this system of protection.

Society has an interest in protecting unborn life for the common good. The image of the firebreak is helpful in this regard. Once you cross the firebreak, there is no real logical control. If human life can be attacked at its beginnings, then logically, there is nothing to prevent it from being attacked at other stages, especially for a “good reason,” such as severe illness, infirmity, or a chronic disabling condition.

Consequently, for the common good, laws must be enacted which protect the dignity of human life from the moment of conception and also provide appropriate sanctions for their violation. Society cannot escape what is essentially a moral dilemma: When does human life deserve legal protection from the state?

3. Not an Issue of Religious Faith but of Human Dignity.  The issue of abortion is often framed as one of “reproductive rights,” which is a way of distracting from the fact that a child has been conceived whose rights also need to be considered. In reality, this is a human rights issue about protecting human life from conception which is supported by people of all faiths and none. A fundamental moral principle affecting all of society is involved here, not one religion’s dogma.

Additionally, the coming debate on the South Dakota referendum will be immeasurably enriched by a clear and constant recognition that this is not a battle between science and morality or between those who wish to impose their moral views on society and those who do not. Rather, it is essentially a debate about when and how the moral claims of human life should be honored and protected in our society. It is a matter of protecting and promoting the dignity of the human person – in this case, of members of the human family who do not yet have a voice of their own.

Our nation was founded on the principle that all are created equal and “…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” As Pope Benedict XVI recently said, “These principles (of human dignity) are not truths of faith, even though they receive further light and confirmation from faith; they are inscribed in human nature itself, and therefore, they are common to all humanity.”

Consequently, “…the church’s action in promoting them is, therefore, not confessional in character, but is addressed to all people, regardless of any religious affiliation they may have.” (Address to European Popular Party parliamentarians, March 30, 2006). In that spirit, we stand ready to work with all people of good will in building a more humane society - one based on equal rights for all citizens, from the moment of conception until natural death.

Next month I will take up the merits of HB1215, but I will also recognize that there is room for discussion and even disagreement about how best to achieve the goal of protecting innocent human life. Regardless, the discussion must always be conducted with charity.

The gains we make in protecting the unborn can only be sustained when we commit ourselves to the larger agenda of developing a culture of life that respects human dignity in all of its stages. If we fail to do this, the laws we pass will rest on a weak foundation.

In this regard, I will suggest ways to look for new opportunities to advance the pro-life cause among those who may not be actively engaged in protecting the child in the womb, but who are sympathetic to other human rights concerns, as well as the plight of single mothers and the poor. We need to do everything possible to unite, not divide, our society as we take up this important matter.


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