This is a debate that has come up before, and it raises some interesting issues. Let's take Kmiec, who has sometimes described himself as a conservative, at his word when he claims to be against abortion himself. What, then, does it mean to say that he thinks that Obama is nevertheless "the second-best answer in 2008"? The answer, it turns out, is rather incredible. In spite of his views about abortion, which Kmiec himself does a very good job of showing to be both facile and banal, Obama nevertheless seems to Kmiec to offer a greater opportunity for limiting abortion than does the Republican party, which makes opposition to abortion a part of its official platform. Thus, as usual, an allegedly pro-life argument is made for abandoning pro-life legislation in favor of a different sort of "pro-life" legislation:
Commit us toward a course of environmental stewardship that will not be dependent upon fossil fuelThese things, you see, are more consistent with that whole "seamless garment" thing that faithful Catholics are supposed to care about. In short, the sophistry tells us, as long we the overall good of pro-lifeyness is moved forward, then it's OK to fall down on one or two of the more finial pro-life positions. Basically it's just an old-fashioned liberal excuse for not caring as much about abortion as about the other favorite issues of the left.
•Focus tax and health policy reform in favor of the average working family and the poor
•Reaffirm an American foreign policy respectful of international standard
•And end an unjust, preemptive war – another obvious life issue -- that deprives families of some of our most self-sacrificing yet often least advantaged young men and women and drains our economy in a 3 trillion dollar fashion, crippling our practical ability to be the force for human good that Americans want their country to be
Typically, arguments like this also tend to paint a picture of more serious opponents of abortion as "single issue" voters, who unreasonably make abortion a kind of on-off switch with regard to the acceptability of a given political candidate. Kmiec doesn't go quite this far, though he cannot resist saying that an Obama candidacy will
•Transcend the politics of division – so well illustrated on any given day by the unfortunately base tactics of the Clinton or McCain campaigns (see the recent GOP ad in North Carolina once again dredging up Reverend Wright)It's hard to imagine saying this with a straight face about a man who says, almost every time he speaks, that a McCain presidency will really just be a third term George Bush presidency, but perhaps Kmiec has never heard of guilt by association.
Well, until now, anyway. He knows about it now because his association with Obama has cost him his chance to receive Holy Communion, at least on one occasion. The canon lawyers interviewed by NPR stressed the formal elements of the process whereby excommunication is made a matter of public knowledge, ad did Mahoney, and nobody addressed the question of the latae sententiae nature of certain kinds of excommunication (of course). Mahoney, to his credit, did not complain (that I heard, anyway), when Kmiec arrogated to himself the task of deciding whether or not he was still in Communion with the Church and criticized the priest who refused him Communion in very inappropriate terms. Whether or not the priest acted in accordance with canon law (or even common decency), it is clear that the question of whether or not a particular person has excommunicated himself by his own actions is something for the local ordinary to decide, not the person in question.
In situations such as this I always find myself wondering, What are the limits of this person's commitments? Imagine, for example, a slightly different candidate than Obama. Make this candidate identical to Obama in every respect, political and otherwise, except three. First, let this other candidate by fully opposed to abortion in just the same way that Kmiec is (or claims to be). Second, let this other candidate be white rather than black. Third, let this other candidate be a vicious racist. What would the Kmiecs of the world make of such a candidate? I suspect that nobody of Kmiec's ilk would stomach such a candidate, no matter what this Other Candidate's views happened to be about global warming, health care for the poor, or the war in Iraq. Now, it has often been alleged--and I think that it's true--that no president is going to have anything like a significant impact on abortion policy in this country. Even the Supreme Court seems to have very little, if any, impact on said policy (indeed, in the few instances in which one might have thought that a more conservative court would have been an advantage in this area, the impact of the Supreme Court has been, if anything, negative). The same, of course, is true with regard to public policy regarding race relations. So a racist president, though a disgusting spectacle, would not bring about anything like the virtual apartheid from which we escaped in the 1960s. Those days are, in a word, gone. (Now, those of you who happen to find unrealistic thought experiments rather distasteful--and I'm with you on that, as long as it's somebody else's thought experiment we're talking about--substitute for "vicious racist" something like "benign but vocal racist", or whatever it takes to help you imagine such a person actually getting elected these days). In spite of the fact that such a person could have no meaningful impact on racial legislation, nobody like Kmiec would ever vote for him. Nor would I, or, indeed, any sane person.
What's the difference between espousing racist views, and espousing views like Obama's regarding abortion? There are two ways to conceive of the difference. One is a nominal difference, the other a real difference. According to the nominalist, abortion is called wrong because some people think of it as the killing of a human being. Others may not think of it in those terms and, according to the nominalist, such people do not call abortion the killing of a human being. For them, indeed, it is not the killing of a human being or, if it is, it is not a significant killing of a human being. For the nominalist, then, the "wrongness" of abortion, such as it is, amounts to nothing more than a conventionalist judgment about the acceptability of a certain practice to a certain group. There is no compelling need to consider such judgments other than to acknowledge that they exist and to "respect" them, as legitimate, if wrong-headed, views. According to most of these very same people, however, the judgment that one race is superior to another is not such a judgment because it is not only wrong-headed, it is also unreasonable, it is not a legitimate judgment at all and must not be tolerated. (There are some nominalists who think the same about the judgment that abortion is the unjustifiable killing of a human being, but I will pass over such persons in silence, as they appear to be confined to Canada for the nonce.)
The realist view says that abortion takes the life of a human being, and that any taking of the life of a human being has to be justified in some way. Usually we think of such justifications as involving things like self-defense, or defense of the common good, or some other situation in which there is a grave threat that must be answered with deadly force. It is difficult to imagine what sort of grave threat a fetus could present along these lines, though one does sometimes hear of those who think that abortion may be justified to save the life of the mother, but for the most part those who defend abortion rights don't really understand the need for justification in these terms. According to the defender of abortion rights, the only justification that's needed is to point out that the fetus is in the body of another person, and that other person, that is, the mother of the fetus, has absolute autonomy over her own body, even to the extent of taking the life of the fetus, just so long as said fetus is an invader in her body. For the realist, however, the need to justify the taking of a human life goes beyond arguments grounded in personal autonomy, since we would not ordinarily excuse the killing of, say, a three year old child on the grounds that having to care for it was an infringement on the autonomy of its parents. It is rather curious, when you come to think of it, that some of the people who favor abortion rights also oppose capital punishment, and in some such cases the reason for opposing capital punishment is expressed as a rejection of the idea that the taking of human life can be justified. For such people, I imagine, the real obstacle to understanding the realist view of abortion is quite simply the fact that they just don't believe that the fetus is anything important. It is not autonomous itself, and autonomy seems to be the main thing. It does not look like a human being, indeed, when it is a mere conceptum consisting of a single cell it seems almost absurd to say that it is a human being. Perhaps it is human in some adjectival sense, as, say, the hairs on my head are "human" hairs, but who on earth would say that it is a human in a noun kind of way, as in "human being"? It is, of course, far easier to support abortion rights if you just do not think that fetuses are anything like human "beings", if you think that they are not "persons" and, hence, don't actually have any rights or duties.
Herein, I think, lies the difference between the Kmiecs of the world, and those Catholics for whom life issues are more coherently understood. If there was a man running for president who knew full well that there were whole populations of "real people" being intentionally killed--let's say, for example, that there is some backwards county in northwestern Idaho where they are rounding up blacks and shooting them--if there were such a man running for president who said that he thought such activities ought to have the support of the law, then I imagine that even Doug Kmiec would say that he couldn't find it in his heart to vote for him. And yet that is exactly what Barack Obama, and others who support abortion rights, do say, though they do not say it knowingly. Of course Barack Obama does not believe that abortion is the moral equivalent of racial genocide, because of course he would fully oppose it if he did view it that way. So Barack Obama at least has the excuse of ignorance; what is Doug Kmiec's excuse, if he really believes what he says he believes about abortion? Can it be any more obvious that he does not believe what he says he believes about abortion? He does not think what the Catholic Church thinks, at any rate, that is, he does not think that human lives equal in value to his own are being intentionally taken every day, or he would be far more outraged than he is at the moral sloppiness of the Barack Obamas of the world who fail to understand what it is they are defending, just as any rational person would be outraged at a racist who defended himself by saying that he just doesn't think other races are equal to his own. I'm sure that Barack Obama is a nice man who is very sincere and who really wants to do good things, but even if I found his other ideas politically acceptable, I could no more vote for a person who favors abortion rights than I could vote for a person who is openly and viciously racist. Such a person is morally crippled and does not have a healthy understanding of the foundations of morality. Such a person, no matter how "nice" they may appear, no matter how well intentioned, cannot be trusted to make sound policy decisions.
If I were a priest, I would not withhold Holy Communion from anyone unless my Bishop instructed me to, but in the case of someone like Kmiec I might be tempted to do it, just because of the guy's hubris in thinking himself fit to make moral pronouncements about issues he clearly doesn't fully understand. Unlike Obama, who is rather famously not Catholic, Kmiec pretends to be not only Catholic but pro-life. And he's not a complete idiot: he's a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University and at Catholic University of America. His argument, which is nothing more than "choose the least of the evils", is bogus. In his radio interview today he averred as to how "not voting" for one of the candidates on offer is actually a greater sin than voting for a pro-abortion candidate, but what a crock of shit that is--it amazes me that an educated person would even think once, let alone twice, about taking a statement like that seriously, let alone actually endorsing it as one's own, considered view. Since when is refusing to vote for candidates whose views are repugnant the moral equivalent of refusing to take part in a democratic process? If I go into a voting booth and write in "Mickey Mouse" because my other choices are complete losers, am I sinning by "not voting"? If I register as a Democrat so that I can vote in the primaries for the candidate I think most likely to lose the general election, am I somehow subverting democracy and "not voting" in an honest way? Or what ought I to do when it's not just a matter of picking some jerk to be the dog catcher, but picking a monster to be president? Well, gee, all of the candidates on the ballot this year just happen to be members of the Nazi Party, but I have to vote for one of them, it would be a sin not to vote for any of them, so I guess I'll just pick the least objectionable Nazi in the bunch. Please. No wonder people complain about CUA; I don't know what the story is at Pepperdine, but this is the sort or thing that gives professional ethics a bad name, at least among reasonable people. I don't know about Doug Kmiec, but I would not vote for a Nazi even if all of the slots on the ballot were filled with Nazis. I would sooner go into the voting booth and write in "Doug Kmiec" than vote for a Nazi. I suspect Doug Kmiec would too, but after today it's difficult to tell for sure.