Some of these voters simply don't know (yet!) where the candidates stand. But some do know and plan to vote for pro-choice candidates anyway. Public examples include evangelical figures like Jim Wallis and David Gushee and Catholics like Doug Kmiec, Charles Reid and Stephen Schneck. Does this make sense? Here are a number of (often-overlapping) explanations, some of which I have heard from ordinary pro-lifers and some of which are offered by academics and commentators. I respond to each. I also respond to pro-lifers who plan to either sit out the election or vote for third-party candidates.
(1) Abortion isn't the only issue. There are many important issues, and I'm not a single-issue voter.
As Scott Klusendorf notes, abortion isn't the only issue today any more than slavery was the only issue in 1860. But if the pro-life position on the ethics of abortion is true—as those I am addressing here believe—then abortion is a uniquely important issue, as slavery was a uniquely important issue in 1860. First, abortion is a question of basic justice unlike any other issue or concern in American society today. In no other area is a class of innocent human beings placed outside the protection of the law and allowed to be killed for any or no reason. At stake is the principle of the equal fundamental dignity and right to life of every member of the human family, irrespective not only of race, gender, religion and social status, but also of age, size, ability, stage of development and condition of dependency. Human equality is on the ballot. Second, abortion is the leading cause of human death (at 1.2 million unborn children killed annually in the United States), and the candidates we elect will affect our laws and policies in ways that will influence the incidence of abortion. Lives really are on the line. Even if a pro-life voter agrees completely with a pro-choice candidate on every other issue, it is difficult (if not impossible) to see how voting for that candidate can be reasonable given the moral gravity and scale of what is at stake regarding abortion.
None of this is to deny that there are many important political issues. It is just to say that some issues are more important, and more foundational, than others.
(2) Politicians don't really affect abortion. It's been almost 40 years since Roe v. Wade, during which we have elected three pro-life presidents, and nothing has changed.
It is simply not true that nothing has changed. The problem, of course, is that in Roe v. Wade the U.S. Supreme Court hijacked the issue of abortion (without any constitutional warrant), striking down democratically-decided state abortion laws and imposing a nationwide policy of abortion on demand whether the people like it or not. The Court's abortion jurisprudence has improved slightly since then due entirely to Court nominations by pro-life presidents (and despite setbacks due to Court nominations by pro-choice presidents). As a result, more (admittedly very modest) pro-life laws are now permitted, such as informed consent requirements and bans on partial-birth abortion. Studies indicate that pro-life legislation has helped reduce the incidence of abortion, which dropped about 25 percent from 1990 to 2005. Many, many lives have been saved from abortion as a result of political and legislative action in the decades following Roe. And every life matters.
Only by electing pro-life candidates to the state Legislature can we enact more pro-life legislation of the sort that has helped lead to a 21 percent decline in Minnesota abortions over the last five years—and the lowest abortion total in our state since 1975. Only by electing pro-life candidates to Congress can we pass federal pro-life bills, such as bans on federal funding of abortion and sex-selection abortion; the Hyde Amendment alone is often estimated to have prevented well over a million abortions. Only by electing pro-life candidates can we stop abortion-expanding legislation from becoming law.
The Supreme Court, by most counts, is currently weighted 5-4 in favor of upholding Roe but also 5-4 in favor of allowing partial-birth abortion bans and other modest pro-life laws. (The four justices opposed to Roe were all appointed by pro-life presidents, as were all five justices who support allowing pro-life legislation; the four justices opposed to such legislation were all appointed by pro-choice presidents.) More Court nominations by Barack Obama would likely turn the Court against even those modest laws that the Court has upheld in past decisions like Planned Parenthood v. Casey and Gonzales v. Carhart. Just one Court appointment by Mitt Romney, on the other hand, could tip the Court 5-4 against Roe and lead to the reversal of that decision and the return of abortion policy to the people, resulting in significantly greater protections for unborn children. The last four years presented two opportunities to tilt the Court against Roe, but they were both squandered because Obama had been elected in 2008.
Charles Reid, a Catholic Obama supporter who teaches at the University of St. Thomas, dismisses concern for the Court because a reversal of Roe "hasn't happened yet. Catholics who cling to this thin reed should prepare for disappointment. The Supreme Court will perpetually be one vote short of reversal." It hasn't happened yet only because we have elected the very candidates Reid supports. And we will remain short of a reversal only if we continue to elect staunch advocates of Court-mandated abortion on demand like Obama.
Much more than the Supreme Court depends on the outcome of the presidential race. Obama has issued executive orders and signed legislation that expand and subsidize the taking of unborn human life, and he has rejected all limits on abortion. Romney would do the opposite. Obama, I must further mention, is without any doubt the most pro-abortion president in American history; never has a president, or even a major-party presidential candidate, demonstrated such total disregard for young human beings or such unyielding commitment to protecting the barbarism of abortion, including partial-birth abortion, sex-selection abortion, taxpayer-funded abortion and live-birth abortion.
Many pro-lifers don't know all of the ways in which abortion can be influenced by our public officials. That must change in order for us to cast informed votes.
(3) The economic, poverty-reduction, sex education and/or contraception-funding policies of pro-choice candidates would reduce abortions, while the policies of pro-life candidates would increase them.
Those who hold liberal or progressive positions on these issues tend to assume that this claim is true. But there is little if any actual evidence that the liberal policies in question, including policies on sex education and contraception promotion, are effective in reducing the incidence of abortion. (Whether liberal or conservative policies are in fact best for society is a different question that is not at issue here. MCCL deals exclusively with right-to-life issues and takes no position on economic or other social policies, though we do support programs to help pregnant women; we are non-partisan, supporting both pro-life Democrats and pro-life Republicans, whether liberal or conservative.)
Catholic University of America professor Stephen Schneck, an ostensibly pro-life Obama supporter, argued in September that Mitt Romney's Medicaid plan would cause abortion rates to "skyrocket." But Schneck's argument has come under devastating criticism for its wrong assumptions, faulty reasoning and lack of any support, any whatsoever, in scholarly research. Likewise, a new study concerning long-acting birth control has been publicized in the media as suggesting that mandates in the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) will reduce abortions. But the study has very serious limitations and proves no such thing.
By contrast, a significant body of peer-reviewed academic research does show that pro-life laws, such as informed consent and parental involvement requirements and limits on public funding of abortion, help to reduce abortion rates. Barack Obama opposes, vigorously, all such policies and supports, vigorously, precisely those policies—especially taxpayer funding of abortions both here and abroad—that the research overwhelmingly tells us work to increase the incidence of abortion. Schneck and his allies don't have a leg to stand on. Supporting pro-life candidates and opposing pro-choice candidates, whatever their views on other issues, is the surest way to reduce abortions.
Even if the policies of a pro-choice candidate did have the effect of reducing the number of abortions, they would do so while leaving intact a profoundly unjust legal regime in which it is permissible to kill innocent members of the human family—in which some human beings are denied their status as bearers of dignity and rights and instead treated as mere property whose very existence depends on the wants of others. Any approach that seeks to preserve or expand such a regime is morally unacceptable. "The problem of abortion is not just a problem of consequences (abortions) but of justice," Michael Fragoso writes. "To focus on reducing the abortion rate ignores the basic question of justice that abortion presents to the heart of our constitutional order."
Imagine a politician who says he wants to address the "underlying causes" of sexual assault, but refuses to support laws against it. We would recognize that he doesn't really understand the wrong of rape and its implications for public policy. And we would immediately reject such a candidate as unfit for public office. Imagine further that the candidate's proposals to address "underlying causes" don't work, and that the candidate not only wants to keep rape legal but also wants to use the law to actively encourage more rape. This is analogous to how most pro-choice candidates treat the wrong of abortion.
(4) Pro-life candidates are right about abortion, but they are wrong about war, helping people after they are born, aiding people in developing nations, protecting the environment, or other matters.
With respect to most issues, opposing candidates share the same goals and principles, such as growing the economy, reducing poverty, promoting peace around the world and protecting our national security. They disagree only about the best means of achieving those ends. They disagree on matters of prudence. But with respect to abortion and other right-to-life issues (e.g., euthanasia, embryo-destructive biomedical research), candidates disagree about a matter of fundamental moral principle. Pro-choice candidates seek to exclude an entire class of vulnerable human beings from the moral respect and legal protection that are owed to every member of the human family. Pro-choice candidates deny the very right to life that is the basis for all other rights.
Many self-identified Catholic voters support pro-choice candidates. But abortion, the Catholic Church observes, is an intrinsic evil, while war is a contingent one. Foreign, economic and social-welfare policies are largely questions of prudential judgment upon which reasonable people may disagree within the bounds of Catholic social teaching. Not so with abortion, which is the deliberate and unjustified killing of the innocent on an industrial scale. "I do not see how a Catholic could, in conscience, vote for an individual expressing him or herself as favoring abortion," said the late John Cardinal O'Connor.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Barack Obama holds better views on various non-abortion issues than Mitt Romney. And leave aside the fact that abortion occupies an altogether different moral category than those other issues. Let's just compare the numbers and weigh the consequences. About 1.2 million human beings are killed in the United States each year by abortion. Tens of millions are estimated to die from abortion globally (deaths that are financially supported by the U.S. government under the executive order of Obama, by the way, which Romney has pledged to reverse on his first day in office). The scale of abortion clearly dwarfs other American and global problems, including war and AIDS, as gravely important as those issues are. Now consider how Obama and Romney, if elected, are likely to affect the practice of abortion—relative to each other—and how they are likely to impact various other issues. (Refer back to my response to the second objection.) Then compare the moral difference between the effects of the candidates' respective policies regarding abortion with the moral difference between the effects of their policies regarding other issues. It seems to me that support for the pro-choice candidate is difficult to rationally defend on any level.
(5) The "pro-life" candidates aren't entirely pro-life either.
Some of them might not be, but that doesn't mean there isn't a huge difference—a difference we simply may not ignore. In the presidential race, for example, Barack Obama sees unfettered abortion as a good to be preserved and promoted, while Mitt Romney sees it as a problem to be limited, and unborn children as persons to be (almost always) protected. Obama's policies increase the evil of abortion, while Romney's would lessen it and move us closer to what justice and equality require. As Greg Koukl has noted, "It's better to have a second-class fireman than a first-class arsonist."
(6) The pro-choice candidate is unacceptable because of his support for abortion, but the pro-life candidate is unacceptable for other reasons, or because he is insufficiently pro-life. I cannot vote for either.
Sitting out the election, as a few pro-lifers might be inclined to do, is not a responsible decision considering the stakes as I have explained them above (not to mention the right, privilege and duty of participating in our democratic process). Nor is it prudent to vote for a third-party candidate who has no chance of winning. We should instead vote for the best of the two major-party contenders. To vote for the best viable candidate is not to vote for "the lesser of two evils" but to vote for less evil (and more good), as Randy Alcorn puts it. It is a positive choice, given the options available, to advance justice and the common good to the greatest degree possible. We should use our vote wisely to make a difference, not just a statement.
Pope Benedict (then-Cardinal Ratzinger) has explained:
According to the principles of Catholic morality, an action can be considered licit whose object and proximate effect consist in limiting an evil insofar as is possible. Thus, when one intervenes in a situation judged evil in order to correct it for the better, and when the action is not evil in itself, such an action should be considered not as a voluntary acceptance of the lesser evil but rather as the effective improvement of the existing situation, even though one remains aware that not all evil present is able to eliminated for the moment.The same position is widely held in protestant Christian thought. Choosing not to vote for Mitt Romney because he is insufficiently anti-abortion would be as misguided as choosing not to vote for Abraham Lincoln because he was insufficiently anti-slavery.
(7) Laws can't stop abortion. We should focus on changing people's hearts—this issue cannot be solved by politics.
We should, of course, work to change hearts and minds—as well as to help pregnant women in need and offer positive alternatives to abortion—and the pro-life movement spends most of its time doing precisely that. But this is no excuse to abandon our political responsibilities. Justice requires that the law protect the fundamental rights of every member of the human family; it cannot justly permit lethal violence against innocent persons. Thank God abolitionists like William Wilberforce and civil-rights crusaders like Martin Luther King Jr. did not content themselves with trying to "change hearts" but instead successfully sought to change the law to right tremendous wrongs.
Laws cannot stop all abortions, just as they cannot stop all cases of child abuse; but they clearly do influence the incidence of abortion. The number of abortions in the United States shot upward following nationwide legalization in 1973, and legal limits, as I note above, have helped reduce the total in the years since. Laws shape behavior. If we care about saving lives, then we must care about our laws. And we must, in turn, care about what kind of public officials we elect to determine those laws.
Politics is not the be-all and end-all. Certainly not. But it is necessary, if not sufficient.
One might respond to all of this by denying that unborn human beings merit the same kind of moral regard and legal protection as human beings at later developmental stages. But that is to deny the pro-life position. It is to deny the principle of human equality. It is to deny the truth that all human beings matter simply because they are human, and that is enough. Of course, people are free to reject the pro-life view, but those are not the voters I have intended to address here.
I have written primarily to pro-life evangelicals and Catholics. Although the pro-life position is the conclusion of science and reason and is held by people of many religious faiths or no faith at all (MCCL is a non-sectarian organization), I think that Christians, in particular, have little excuse for not caring about justice for the weakest and most vulnerable who have no voice or vote. Because God cares. The Bible says so and the Church teaches it.
We should think carefully about how to vote. We should learn the facts about the candidates and the stakes. We should recognize that abortion is the greatest injustice in American society today and that human lives are on the line. And then we should make our choices accordingly on Nov. 6.