Why Radical Pro-Lifers Are Wasting Their Time

Most American Catholics support abortion rights

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Now that voters in Mississippi have rejected the so-called personhood agenda — the radical anti-abortion effort to make the moment of conception the legal beginning of human life — the movement says it plans to take its referendum to a number of other states in 2012, including mine, Florida. But as a Roman Catholic, part of a church whose hierarchy insists its members are anti-abortion rights by default, what I’d really like to know is why the Colorado-based Personhood USA isn’t going to Rhode Island. Small though it may be, Rhode Island’s population is 63% Catholic, the highest share of any state. A pro-life plebiscite victory there should be a slam dunk, right?

Wrong. A 2005 poll showed that Rhode Island is also, coincidentally, 63% pro-choice — a near impossibility if its Catholic residents are as doctrinally opposed to abortion rights as the bishops assure us every Catholic must be. And lest you dismiss Rhode Island Catholics as a liberal fringe, a Pew Research Center survey this year found that a majority of all U.S. Catholics, 52%, think abortion should be kept legal. That just about squares with the general U.S. population, 54% of whom support abortion rights, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll over the summer.

(MORE: The ‘Personhood’ Fight Is Not Going Away)

So if groups like Personhood USA can’t even count on Catholic USA, aren’t they just wasting our time as well as their own? Shouldn’t our national abortion conversation stop obsessing on the pro-life/pro-choice extremes and focus on the reasonable, conscience-driven approach that cohorts like Catholics are in fact taking? Isn’t it time we stopped thinking of Catholics as a gauge of abortion opposition and instead as a barometer of how Americans think abortion rights should be kept humanely legal and humanely limited? The bishops this week recast their condemnation of abortion rights in terms of “religious liberty.” But when only 3% of U.S. Catholics have even read the bishops’ guide for voting in elections, according to Fordham University, I think we can say that Catholics are indeed practicing religious liberty — just not the kind the bishops want us to.

The bishops themselves are partly to blame for this: their crusade to demonize abortion rights and any politician who defends them has backfired, because it has forced Catholics to engage the matter all the more deeply. And most Catholics do so not via hierarchical regimentation but via human reason, as our faith tells us to. Because Catholicism richly contemplates Jesus’ human as well as divine nature, it emphasizes our God-given reason as the door to faith. We embrace our church’s protection-of-human-life impulse; but I think most Catholics have rationally concluded that no matter how we feel about abortion personally or spiritually, we cannot in good conscience call abortion in the early stage of pregnancy — when more than 90% of all abortions occur in the U.S. — murder in a legal sense.

That’s hardly a new Catholic concept. As far back as the Middle Ages, the sainted theologian Thomas Aquinas recognized that a first-trimester fetus wasn’t yet a sentient human being but rather a potential human being — a vegetative organism lacking “ensoulment.” It wasn’t until the Popes felt their power threatened by the Enlightenment that they started to assert a blanket ban on abortion, co-opting new scientific instruments like the microscope to claim even the youngest fetus as a “homunculus,” or miniature human being.

But while the Catholic bishops have to toe the Vatican line, the Catholic laity doesn’t. Most of us have long since discarded Rome’s primitive homunculus model in favor of more modern and reliable science demonstrating that until a fetus develops a central nervous system and cerebral cortex – after the first trimester – it cannot be regarded as a sentient being let alone a human being. To many of us, the moral and legal “threshold” should be “sentiency,” or the ability to feel pain, as philosophers Daniel Dombrowski and Robert Deltete wrote in their 2000 book A Brief, Liberal Catholic Defense of Abortion.

There is social as well as scientific awareness involved, says Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics For Choice in Washington, D.C. “Catholics tend to side with the underdog, the oppressed,” O’Brien argues, “and many of us feel that even if we wouldn’t make that decision [abortion] for ourselves, we don’t want to see a woman who does feel she has to make it victimized by not having legal access to it.” He also notes that ever since Rome’s senseless refusal in 1968 to condone birth control, most Catholics have resolved to “make our own decisions about the pelvic zone.”

In fairness, it should be noted that U.S. Catholic bishops haven’t gotten behind Personhood USA. That’s largely because the two groups’ legal strategies for dismantling Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion, don’t dovetail. (And not even the Catholic hierarchy can definitively agree on when human ensoulment occurs: In its 1974 “Declaration on Procured Abortion from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” the Vatican simply said it was best not to “take the risk of killing a human person.”)

Still, the bishops share many of Personhood’s stances, such as a ban on abortion even in cases of rape, incest or to protect a mother’s life. That’s the sort of benighted mindset that led Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted last year to excommunicate Sister Margaret McBride, a nun and local Catholic hospital administrator, for approving a procedure that aborted a first-trimester fetus to save the pregnant mother’s life. If the world needed any reason to conclude that the bishops don’t speak for most Catholics on abortion — especially after those prelates forfeited so much of their moral authority during the sexual abuse crisis — Sister McBride’s case should have been it.

(MORE: Accountability Comes to Catholic Church Dignitaries)

Meanwhile, here in Florida, Personhood USA has so far collected less than 3% of the signatures it needs to get on the state’s 2012 ballot. But if the group goes to Catholic masses hoping to fill up petitions, it’s most likely wasting its time. And ours.