Old News on Abortion

If you do not follow abortion politics closely, you probably thought it was news when Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Biden, a Catholic, announced on “Meet the Press” that he believes “as a matter of faith” life begins at conception. An influential newspaper published in midtown Manhattan seems to have thought so, too, because it claimed Biden had “departed Sunday from party doctrine on abortion rights.” Democrats do seem to have a “doctrine” that rules out any recognition of the human status of embryos, or even fetuses, until the mothers carrying them announce their desire to give birth. At that point, embryos and fetuses turn magically into human persons. Yes, I know it’s difficult to understand the primitive beliefs and creeds that still animate certain modern enclaves, but these are fellow citizens and voters, and they have a right to express their views.

Yet Senator Biden only gave the appearance of breaking with party doctrine. He claims the Church champions the unborn on faith, not fact. Scientific evidence indisputably shows the emergence of a new, living entity possessing a unique human DNA at the very moment of conception. Someone should hand a modern embryology text to Biden, who said on “Meet the Press”:

It’s a personal and private issue. For me, as a Roman Catholic, I’m prepared to accept the teachings of my church. But let me tell you. There are an awful lot of people of great confessional faiths–Protestants, Jews, Muslims and others–who have a different view. . . .I’m prepared as a matter of faith to accept that life begins at the moment of conception. But that is my judgment. For me to impose that judgment on everyone else who is equally and maybe even more devout than I am seems to me is inappropriate in a pluralistic society. And I know you get the push back, ‘Well, what about fascism?’ Everybody, you know, you going to say fascism’s all right? Fascism isn’t a matter of faith. No decent religious person thinks fascism is a good idea.

Hmmm, abortion and fascism . . . interesting but maybe another day.

More pertinent for the moment: no decent person thinks life begins at conception (whatever the cause of that belief), and then worries more about pluralism than about protecting life; no decent person holds such a belief and fails to assert it forcefully, frequently, even annoyingly if necessary; no decent person, in short, really believes it and fails to act. Biden seems to want us to believe that protecting the unborn is the equivalent of imposing on all citizens our belief in the Trinity or Real Presence. Even his running mate has publicly conceded that abortion is a moral, not a “personal and private” theological question.

Tom Brokaw, who hosts “Meet the Press” since Tim Russert’s death, put a clear question to Biden: “But if you, you believe that life begins at conception, and you’ve also voted for abortion rights….” He got this in reply:

No, what I voted against curtailing the right, criminalizing abortion. I voted against telling everyone else in the country that they have to accept my religiously based view that it’s a moment of conception. There is a debate in our church, as Cardinal Egan would acknowledge, that’s existed. Back in “Summa Theologia,” [sic] when Thomas Aquinas wrote “Summa Theologia,” he said there was no–it didn’t occur until quickening, forty days after conception. How am I going out and tell you, if you or anyone else that you must insist upon my view that is based on a matter of faith? And that’s the reason I haven’t. But then again, I also don’t support a lot of other things. I don’t support public, public funding. I don’t, because that flips the burden. That’s then telling me I have to accept a different view. This is a matter between a person’s God, however they believe in God, their doctor and themselves in what is always a–and what we’re going to be spending our time doing is making sure that we reduce considerably the amount of abortions that take place by providing the care, the assistance and the encouragement for people to be able to carry to term and to raise their children.

This is from the official transcript. The fact that it reads like the dream language in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake suggests that Biden fears looking at any of this too clearly.

Something is clearly afoot. A few weeks ago Nancy Pelosi cited Augustine in support of legal abortion. Now Biden invokes Aquinas and falsely claims Cardinal Egan would agree with him – on some point or other.

I have lived in Washington for many years, but do not know politicians who read the great Catholic A’s (the late Henry Hyde was an exception). Most politicians, Democrat and Republican, like to stay away from such questions. Someone, I fear in a clerical collar, has been feeding the Democrats this material, which naturally comes out garbled when run through the minds and mouths of career politicians. The same happened four years ago when John Kerry started to make embarrassing references to “the Vatican Two.”

This Sunday’s episode seems to have been a political calculation. Senator Biden wanted to say publicly “life begins at conception” for the sake of the Catholic vote, and still to defend abortion doctrine for the rest of his party. It’s the old “personally opposed” argument, dressed up for slightly sharper scrutiny and more loquacious in muddying the waters. But it’s just as incoherent – and deadly – as it ever was.


Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.