by Gail Quinn
August 30, 2002
We are embroiled in a three-decade-long debate about the value of human beings who are not yet born. The issue is abortion. It is a political issue, a social issue, a cultural issue. But more than anything else, it is a moral issue of great consequence. Only once before has our nation been faced with such a momentous moral issue.
Over two hundred ago, when the United States was "conceived in liberty," the African slave was property. South of the Potomac River and in several northern states, slavery was deeply embedded into the fabric of society. Although the U.S. Constitution was "conspicuously silent on slavery", says Joseph Ellis in his book, Founding Brothers, "the subject itself haunted the closed-door debates." The framers managed to negotiate a limit to the slave trade and find a "compromise" on counting slaves for census purposes, without once using the "forbidden word." Slavery was the elephant in the living room.
In the midst of this debate arose what Ellis calls "the Virginia straddle." Virginians, epitomized by James Madison, found pro-slavery arguments "shamefully indecent." He wanted the slave trade to cease, and found "the high moral ground of his northern friends" a more comfortable place. But. Despite agreeing with the moral argument against slavery, Madison and others couldn't bring themselves to do anything about it. Their reasons varied. Southern states were dependent on slave labor. Constituents would not support an anti-slavery position. Or while slavery was morally repugnant, "it was improper, at this time, to introduce it [legislation to ban it] in Congress."
Today the issue is different, but the debate sounds all too familiar. In 1992 our Supreme Court voted to maintain the status quo regarding legal abortion. The Justices said that even if the Court had been wrong in legalizing abortion in 1973, it is too late now to change it because people "have ordered their thinking and living" based on its availability.
At United Nations conferences documents are drafted, by deft use of language, to include things the drafters cannot state clearly without incurring strong opposition. Abortion, for example, intentionally is included in seemingly benign phrases such as "reproductive health service" or "health services for women and girls." Those who support abortion say that of course abortion is included; those who don't favor abortion but want to support the document say "but the word 'abortion' is not even mentioned, so, of course, it's not included." But it is included. And the elephant smiles.
Congress will soon be back in session. Efforts will continue to curtail, restrict and regulate abortion until it can be completely banned in law. That day will surely come, and the moral argument will hold sway. In the meantime, we should pray for those who pay lip-service to respect for human life while doing all they can to appease the abortion lobby. Sadly, the "Virginia straddle" is alive and well.
Gail Quinn is Executive Director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C.