Thursday, November 20, 2008

War Worse than Abortion? [SK]

A few weeks before the elections, a nun at a Catholic high school thanked me for speaking to 400 of her students on the theme, “The Case for Life.” In fact, she couldn’t say enough good things about my talk. “I agree with everything you said. It was exactly what our kids needed to hear."

However, a moment later it was clear we didn’t agree when it came to applying pro-life principles.

“If only our students were pro-life on all issues,” she lamented.

I didn't have to guess what was coming next. I made a quick mental review of the excellent points made by J. Budziszewski in his 2004 Boundless article and prepared to engage her. (Conversation is reconstructed based on memory and I've added additional explanation to a few of my points.)

She continued:

"I am consistently for life, and that’s why I’m voting for Obama.”


“That’s right. Most people focus too much on abortion. I’m pro-life and care about all life. So does Obama.”

“What do you mean people focus too much on abortion?”

“I mean Bush with the war in Iraq has killed so many people there is no way I could vote for him. John McCain will do the same thing. How can any person who cares about life vote for someone who supports war?”

“Are you suggesting the President unjustly killed innocent people? If so, how?”

“Yes I am! Think of all those innocent women and children killed in Iraq—over a million of them since we invaded the place six years ago.”

“Did you say over a million? How did you come up with that number?”

“I heard it someplace. Besides, war is a pro-life issue like abortion and right now it’s even worse than abortion.”

“To be worse than abortion, how bad would an unjust war have to be?”

“It’s all bad. Abortion, war, poverty—I oppose all of it."

“But you said the war in Iraq was worse, so much so that you are willing to overlook Obama’s stated promise to keep abortion legal at all costs.”

“I just know war is worse right now.”

“To be worse than abortion, wouldn’t an unjust war have to kill more innocent people than abortion does each year?”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“For the record, I don’t think you are right about a million deaths in Iraq over the last six years, but suppose it’s true. Do you know how many unborn humans are killed by elective abortion each year?”

“A lot, I know.”

“Try 1.2 million—each year. So even if you are right about a million unjustified killings in Iraq in the last six years, the evil of abortion is measurably worse. Yet if I understand you correctly, you think pro-lifers should support a guy who is going to use the entire resources of the federal government perpetrate an even greater injustice on the unborn. ”

“He won’t do that.”

“But he said the first thing he’d do as president—the very first thing—is sign into law The Freedom of Choice Act, which would sweep away all state and federal laws limiting abortion—including parental consent laws, partial-birth abortion bans, and laws forbidding the use of federal tax dollars for elective abortions. There’s no denying Obama is deeply committed to the legalized killing of unborn human beings. Doesn’t that trouble you?”

“You are being too harsh. Obama personally opposes abortion—I’ve heard him say so myself. He wants to reduce it. But unlike Bush, he’ll actually do something about it by funding social programs that get to the root of why women abort in the first place. He’ll make health care more affordable for poor people. That will help reduce abortion. Everyone knows abortion rates went up under Bush after going down under Clinton.”

“That’s not quite accurate. True, reported abortion rates dropped from 1992 to 2000, but Clinton can’t take credit for that. Truth is, pro-life Republicans dominated state legislatures during these years and they were able to pass modest legislation (like public-funding restrictions and informed-consent laws) that effectively reduced state abortion rates. Clinton had nothing to do with it. As for rates going up under Bush, that’s simply false. They continued to decline. But even so, laws which allow the killing of unborn human beings are unjust even if no one has abortions. Imagine a candidate who said he was personally opposed to rape while he had a 100% voting record in favor of men having a right to assault women. Suppose he told the public the underlying cause of rape is psychological, so instead of making it illegal for men to attack women, the solution was to provide federally funded counseling for men. The public wouldn't buy it, even if he favored social programs to treat the underlying causes of rape.”

“But abortion isn’t the only issue. We shouldn’t be single issue voters.”

“Of course abortion isn’t the only issue—anymore than the treatment of slaves wasn’t the only issue in the 1850’s or the treatment of Jews the only issue in the 1940s. But both were the dominant issues of their day. Thoughtful Christians attribute different importance to different issues, and give greater weight to fundamental moral questions. For example, if a man running for president told us men had a right to beat their wives, most people would see that as reason enough to reject him, despite his foreign policy or economic reforms. The foundational principle of our republic is that all humans are equal in their fundamental dignity. Your candidate for office rejects that principle. What issue could be more important than that?”

“Well, I just can’t support a candidate who’s for war.”

Note: Catholics who say we can set aside the abortion issue as long as a candidate is good on other issues (like the war) do not understand church teaching. I like how Fr. Thomas Williams corrects that faulty thinking in his interview with National Reveiw:

First of all, you can’t simply leave abortion aside. You must compare the evil of abortion with the evil of war.

--There is the question of magnitude. It is not too difficult to compare the millions killed each year through abortion with the thousands killed in Iraq. Though all of these deaths are terrible, the proportion is radically lopsided and far greater weight must be given to the millions.

--There is the question of moral absolutes versus prudential judgment. The deliberate killing of innocent human beings is always gravely evil, and a law permitting it is scandalous and shameful. The decision to wage war is not intrinsically evil the way abortion is, but still must be carefully pondered, and a number of criteria must be taken into account. War must be morally justified. In this process there can be a legitimate diversity of opinions, while no such diversity is possible in the case of absolute moral principles like that prohibiting the slaying of the innocent.

--The decision to wage war in Iraq is now a moot point, since America has already been engaged there for some time. The question now is how much longer to maintain a military presence there, and how best to establish stable Iraqi self-government. This is a question of far less gravity than the question of waging war in the first place, and one which is even harder to evaluate morally. No clear judgment exists that can claim the absolute moral high ground here, and some have gone so far as to say that withdrawal of troops at this time would be immoral. Consequently the candidates’ diversity of judgment on this question matters far less than their positions on abortion.

--In the present election, the candidates stand as polar opposites on the question of abortion. One favors it and has consistently voted to uphold and extend abortion rights. The other opposes it and has consistently voted to restrict and lessen it. I see no way that their present positions regarding continued U.S. involvement in Iraq could possibly outweigh the abortion question from a moral perspective.
Update 12/28--Seems "Tim," member of the 'Christian' band Underoath, has confused himself with exactly the kind of thinking I'm critiquing in this post. He writes:

So many times Christians naturally move toward to the conservative candidate due to pro-life issues with abortion, while they ignore the utter disregard for life already being lived out on earth. Is standing up for unborn children enough to negate the disregard for human life already in motion pertaining to the acts of war and sacrifice?
Tim--As stated above, to be worse than abortion, wouldn’t an unjust war have to kill more innocent people than abortion does each year? Run the numbers, my friend. It's not even close.


  1. Scott, what an outstanding article. Thank you for articulating the obvious and making it simple.

    Question: What have you found to be the primary reason why (seemingly) intelligent, pro-life Christians voted for Obama?

  2. Reepicheep,
    I'm still sorting that question out in my own mind. It's baffling to me the almost non-existent moral reasoning that accompanied some so-called pro-lifers into the voting booth. Gove me a couple of days to consider it more fully.

  3. Scott - I had an almost duplicate discussion with someone who claimed to be pro-life. Same talking points - almost word for word.

    Someone very dear to me articulated a very similar view, but changed her mind once she viewed EWTN and Fr. Pavone, who she deeply respects. She wasn't happy with Bush, and was terribly misinformed about pro-life issues, again using very similar talking points.

    This commonality touches upon what I was stating in your "Friends Like These" post about undiscerning sheep being lead astray by pseudo-pro-life groups and the MSM - that's the only common thread I can see between the nun and those I talked with.

  4. Based on my own experience, one key problem we face is that many Catholics know the church is pro-life, but they can't come anywhere close to articulating the moral logic of the pro-life view. (That's true of many Protestants, by the way.) Gregg Cunningham once said the pro-life movement is great at shouting conclusions, but lousy at establishing facts. That's why I've devoted my life to teaching Catholic and Protestant students to defend the pro-life view in the secular marketplace of ideas.

  5. Hi Scott, could you add a qualifier to your stat that 1.2 million abortions per year is an American figure?

    I know you're discussing American politics with another American in this case, but when talking about and comparing to a globally known event like the Iraq war, and on a world-wide resource (the internet), it'd be good to avoid possible confusion. :)

  6. Scott - Great answer. The whole war comparison is just a distraction by those who don't want to realize the horror of abortion. They often use the death penalty comparison or some other situation where born people are dying.

    Why doesn't anyone ask Obama or any politician why they want abortions to be reduced, but still want to allow them?


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