Compromise on Abortion? Print
By Austin Ruse   
Thursday, 23 July 2009

Only a deliberate suspension of disbelief can lead you to take Barack Obama at his word that he wants to reach common ground on abortion. His history as a doctrinaire abortion advocate and his actions as president belie his words. Sadly, many people who otherwise defend life, including many in Rome, have fallen for this almost blatantly phony rhetoric.

And now comes a prominent pro-lifer saying something quite similar to President Obama. Rocco Buttiglione is perhaps the most famous pro-life Catholic politician in Europe. A member of the Italian parliament, professor, and public intellectual, he famously was rejected as a European Commissioner because he holds standard Catholic beliefs on marriage, family and homosexuality.

In a just released interview with an Italian newspaper, Buttiglione says those who favor abortion rights today “recognize, thanks in part to scientific discoveries about the embryo and DNA, that the fetus is not a lump of blood in the body of a woman; the fetus is a life.” He sees this as an opportunity and he is right.

But he continues that pro-lifers made a mistake in the past by trying to “defend the unborn child against its own mother.” He argues, “God entrusts a child to its mother in such a special way, that to defend a child against the mother is just, but impossible.” The way to reduce abortions, he claims, is to “make the mother more free. The more free she is, the more difficult it will be for her to renounce the child.”

For these reasons, Buttiglione says he will no longer work to make abortion illegal. He will work to reduce the number of abortions. He wants to find common ground with abortion advocates.

There are many problems with Buttiglione’s analysis.

He is wrong that pro-lifers in the past set the child against the mother. That was done by abortion advocates who set up the child as the enemy within. A woman had the right to defend her life and her life-style from this little intruder. Naturally, pro-lifers defended the child. It was a necessity. In recent years, even this has begun to change. Perhaps Buttiglione has not heard the cutting edge woman-centered arguments of Feminists for Life, or post-abortive women who say there are two victims of abortion.

Buttiglione seems to regard advances in scientific knowledge of the unborn child not as a victory to build on but as a chance to compromise. It is precisely scientific and medical facts, however, that have profoundly changed the abortion debate. The first picture of baby on the refrigerator today is one in utero. Doctors routinely operate on unborn children these days, who are recognized to have brain waves and feel pain. A just released study makes the case that unborn children have memories. Now is not the time to compromise, but to press our scientific advantage.

Buttiglione introduced a successful resolution in the Italian parliament calling for a U.N. resolution in favor of stopping forced abortions in places like China. This is a wonderful initiative, and he thinks Obama would certainly support it. But he is in for a rude awakening. When Steve Mosher first went to China and discovered the one-child policy, he turned to his friends on the left, the radical feminists, for help. They showed him the door and have remained unconcerned ever since.

Buttiglione believes that Obama told the pope that he wants to reduce the number of abortions. This is what the pope’s spokesman said Obama said. But this is a common mistake made by people of good will. In point of fact, Obama never says he wants to reduce the number of abortions. His staff even corrects those who make that claim. What he says is he wants to reduce the necessity of abortion. To see what this really means, consider people saying they want to reduce the “necessity of killing Jews.” At least the Clintons said abortion should be rare. A tiny moral judgment still mattered to them. Obama makes no moral judgment that there could be something wrong with abortion. He wants to reduce the “need,” but if the need is 10 million, then so be it.

Perhaps the most challenging part of Buttiglione’s new approach is that in order for women to refuse abortion, they simply have to be freer. I suspect there is much of a philosophical nature packed into this phrase, but it’s a philosophy that is beyond me. Or maybe he simply means that most women choose abortion because husbands, boyfriends, parents, and fear somehow force them.

Indeed, the Alan Guttmacher Institute reports the number one reason women give for needing an abortion is that they had “no choice.” Specifically, women cited lack of familial and financial support to carry the baby to term. We have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with women facing a difficult pregnancy. If this is what Buttiglione means, then he is right, but it does not abrogate our responsibility in justice to bring the unborn child under legal protection.

Buttiglione has attempted to clarify that he remains pro-life and admits it’s unlikely that he will find common cause with Barack Obama, though he hopes the president will at least remain neutral in the Italian initiative at the United Nations. But Buttiglione insists that popular support in Italy precludes progress in making abortion illegal, though all he cites as evidence is a twenty-eight-year-old referendum.

Buttiglione is a very good man who deserves our praise and our support when he is right. But he is wrong on this. He is coming to the United States to meet with pro-lifers and with the White House. Those who meet with him should bring him up to date on where we stand in the abortion debate, and show him that this is no time for compromise, especially with those who have no real interest in it.


Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washinton, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy.

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