by Gail Quinn
August 12, 2005
Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York, now practices corporate law. He also delves into punditry on TV and in op-eds. Lately he's been sharing his opinions on Catholic Church teachings, the mindset of Catholic laity, and the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade abortion decision. One might expect him, as a lawyer, to be well informed on abortion law. One would be wrong.
Recently on Meet the Press, Mr. Cuomo declared: "once it's [the unborn child] viable, then you can only have an abortion to save the life of the mother." Huh? According to Roe and subsequent cases, abortion must be available to women even late in pregnancy if it is necessary to preserve their health. The Court defined health in Doe v. Bolton as including "all factors – physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age – relevant to the well-being of the patient" [the mother]. Roe and Doe, said the Court, must be read together, which is how the U.S. Supreme Court in Stenberg v. Carhart could refuse to allow a ban on partial-birth abortions, even post-viability.
Mario's musings on Church teaching and the mindset of the laity are no better. On Meet the Press he said: "My Church teaches that life begins at conception. ... That is not a scientific conclusion. That's a religious conclusion." And in an article in Commonweal magazine a few months ago, he described the mindset of Catholics regarding the proposition that life begins at conception: "it is considered at best an article of faith accepted by only some of the faithful."
In fact, the Church does not define human life as beginning at conception. It accepts the irrefutable scientific fact that it does. It teaches that where innocent human life exists one may not deliberately destroy it. And the Church calls on all to protect, nourish and sustain human life. For verification of the science, I recommend not the Catechism but highly regarded textbooks on embryology. Among the giants are Moore & Persaud, "The Developing Human" (1998), and Marjorie England's "A Life Before Birth" (1996).
Mr. Cuomo suggests convening a task force to answer the "scientific" question of when human life begins, which he poses this way: "What does human life mean?" Now that strikes me as a philosophical question, not a scientific one, but then what do I know? Without waiting for the task force's response, Mario answers his own question: "It means consciousness," he says, and it occurs at viability. Does he mean human life begins at viability, or that it's only worth protecting after viability? U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor herself recognized the arbitrariness of pretending life was somehow different before and after viability: "The choice of viability as the point at which the state interest in potential life becomes compelling is no less arbitrary than choosing any point before viability or any point afterward."
Given Mr. Cuomo's track record as a pundit, it's good he has corporate law to fall back on.
Gail Quinn is executive director of the USCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, Washington, D.C.