For many conservatives I know, and many Catholics in particular, abortion is a “litmus test” political issue. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the commitment to vote only for pro-life candidates tortured scores of my family members and friends. Many of them were appalled by Donald Trump’s oft-demonstrated arrogance, ignorance, and insensitivity. Some openly doubted his mental fitness for the job. But when forced to choose between the stomach-turning Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton — who in addition to the bearing the pockmarks of a myriad of political scandals, is a prominent supporter of Planned Parenthood — many simply could not bring themselves to overlook Clinton’s pro-choice position on abortion.
The result of the commitment to vote only for pro-life candidates is mind-boggling; I wake up every morning and hear Bob Oakes stoically describe President Donald Trump’s latest faux pas (or worse). But the stance itself — that the commitment to voting for pro-life candidates follows directly from the wrongness of abortion — seems perfectly coherent.
What’s more, assuming that Trump actually keeps his promise to nominate only pro-life Supreme Court justices, there is exceptionally good reason to think that his election will pay off from the point of view of the pro-life agenda. Trump has already appointed Gorsuch, and based on the age of present justices, he may well make three more appointments. Based on the court’s current composition, that would mean seven conservative and two liberal justices. If what you want is to overturn Roe vs. Wade, nominating a 45th POTUS committed to appointing conservative Supreme Court justices was probably the best shot you’ll ever have.
What I want to convince the reader of is this: the conviction that abortion is morally wrong does not always commit you to voting for pro-life candidates. There are two sets of reasons: one principled and one practical.
First, as a liberal democracy founded on liberty of conscience, the United States is committed to neither promoting nor hindering any particular religious cause. This commitment restricts the kinds of reasons that we can offer when proposing a piece of legislation that requires another citizen to behave in a certain way, or prevents her from behaving as she chooses. We are committed to offering the kind of justification that she is in a position to accept – that is, one that does not presuppose (or suppress) any particular set of religious convictions.
For example, imagine that a particular faction has the power and the will to democratically pass a law outlawing travel on their day of religious observation. Such a law would be illegitimate because its rationale employs a religious premise, and we cannot expect everyone to accept such an argument — even if actual objectors comprise a small minority of the population.
The reason that it’s illegitimate to restrict a woman’s freedom to terminate a pregnancy is the same. The rationale for doing so presupposes a substantive, religiously-motivated premise: that there is such a thing as a soul, created by God, and that it joins with human genetic material at the moment of conception.
But wait, doesn’t legally sanctioned abortion presuppose the truth of a particular set of moral/religious beliefs, one that can be broadly characterized as secular and liberal? I don’t think so. The most basic version of the pro-choice position relies only on factual claims about what we actually know about human biology and the consequences of outlawing abortion. It doesn’t appeal to a mystery of life or involve any kind of leap of faith.
Which brings me to the second set of reasons that even a person who is believes that abortion is morally wrong should, in some cases, consider voting for pro-choice candidates. Outlawing abortion only perpetuates misery and suffering. Abortion bans do not actually decrease the number of abortions that take place. They do, however, increase rates of maternal mortality and the likelihood that women will be impoverished. The legalization of abortion has been linked to increased educational attainment, higher wages, and more consistent labor market participation for women. All of these factors spell independence and equality for women, and decrease the chances that a woman will need an abortion in the future.
The American system of governance is not might-makes-right. We are, or should be, committed to developing a system of government that functions according to principles that are fair to everyone. Religious conservatives are in a position to accept laws premised on the clear and present suffering of women. Those who have not taken the leap of faith necessary to subscribe to the existence of a divinely created soul are not in a position to accept a curtailment of their liberty that is premised on a fundamentally faith-based premise.
I am not suggesting that those who think abortion is wrong should never vote for a pro-life candidate. In the real world, all viable political candidates are mish-mash of positions, some philosophically and morally defensible and some not. Trade-offs will have to be made. What I want to show is that — in a case like the 2016 election, where the election of the only viable pro-life candidate will likely spell disaster — there are compelling reasons to turn your attention to other crucially important issues.