Incrementalism and Abortion

For the better part of two generations, the pro-life movement in the United States was galvanized by a shared commitment to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Thanks to the Dobbs decision of 2022, Roe is now gone, and abortion policy in the United States has been returned to the democratic process.

If Dobbs represented a generational legal victory for the pro-life movement, the ensuing two years have also revealed some of the massive political and cultural obstacles facing the pro-life cause. Just a few months after Dobbs, a pro-life amendment to the state constitution was defeated in Kansas setting off a string of similar defeats on various amendments and ballot measures in California, Michigan, Vermont, Ohio, Kentucky, and Montana.

A predictable loss in, say, California is one thing. A string of losses in heavily Republican states is something else entirely. Not surprisingly, these trends have made many politicians skittish. If principled commitment to defending life (or at least to overturning Roe) was once seen as a winning position for many Republicans, some of those same politicians (including, it seems, Donald Trump who has said he would not sign a federal abortion ban if elected) have more recently discerned that restricting abortion through the democratic process is something of a political liability.

How all of this will play out in the months between now and November’s election remains to be seen. At least three more states have abortion-related initiatives on the ballot for November. For now the pro-life cause seems to be on its political heels. What seems clear is that, to recover its footing in the post-Dobbs environment, the pro-life movement has its work cut out for it.

Catholics, of course, have a great deal to contribute to that work. One issue of particular importance will be inevitable (and inevitably messy) questions about how to balance an unequivocal commitment to the defense of every innocent human life – to which there can be no exceptions in principle – with the practical need to work through a democratic process in which the enactment of such total legal protections might be impossible, at least for the foreseeable future.

In his 1993 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II was unambiguous: to posit a supposed “right to abortion” as an expression of human freedom is to negate human freedom itself.

To claim the right to abortion, infanticide and euthanasia, and to recognize that right in law, means to attribute to human freedom a perverse and evil significance: that of an absolute power over others and against others. This is the death of true freedom: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” (John 8:34)

For years, this declaration was sufficient to demonstrate the illegitimacy of Catholic support for a “right” to abortion as imagined by Roe and its defenders. (Obviously, it didn’t convince all Catholics, and many simply rejected the Church’s defense of life in principle, but that is a different matter.)

Allegory of Prudence by Titian, c. 1570 [National Gallery, London]. A barely visible inscription reads: EX PRAETERITO/PRAESENS PRUDENTER AGIT/NE FUTURA ACTIONẼ DETURPET (“From the experience of the past, the present acts prudently, lest it spoil future actions”).

Insofar as Roe short-circuited the democratic process – moving responsibility for abortion law from elected legislatures to judicial fiat – efforts to contain the abortion license legislatively, at the state or federal level, were severely curtailed under Roe.

Principled opposition to the fiction of abortion as a right remains the only option for Catholics, but the work of writing and passing actual abortion legislation admits of no such easy clarity. And so in the complicated and shifting post-Roe era in which we find ourselves, it is worth remembering that in the same encyclical in which Pope John Paul II categorically rejected support for “a right to abortion” he also endorsed the prudence of a kind of incrementalist approach to protecting life through the (always imperfect) political process.

It’s worth quoting him at length.

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favoring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations – particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation – there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.

Total protection of the unborn in law ought to remain our goal. A fundamental principle – the dignity of every human life – demands no less. But our duty as citizens is to work for the best practicable protections we can for the vulnerable. This will almost certainly mean supporting politicians who are imperfect, making allies of those with whom we disagree on certain things, even supporting laws, which fail to protect all those who, in justice, our laws ought to protect. There will be disagreement about which compromises are most prudent, about which trade-offs are worth it and which are not.

But it’s worth being reminded now that principles and prudence are not opposed to one another, and the most prudent way to put principles into practice is by not making the perfect the enemy of the good. The Church, in her wisdom, affirms this. Given all of the challenges facing the pro-life cause in this current political environment, it’s worth remembering this wisdom; it will serve us well in the months and years ahead.


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Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.