Catholic Citizen

faith informs life

No to Abortion:Posture, Not Policy

If the church’s policy is simply “repeal of Roe,” it is a vacuous policy, since it does not address the legal effect of repeal. In Roe the Supreme Court in 1973 declared a constitutionally protected right of “privacy” in regard to abortion. If Roe is reversed, the legal situation would revert to the individual states, which would be free to legislate in the field of abortion. One could expect a wide range of state laws, from prohibitive to permissive. In short, repeal of Roe would not by any reasonable stretch of the imagination abolish abortion within the United States. Abortion would be like divorce in the old days, when one had to go to Reno for a quick and easy divorce. Oregon could become the abortion and euthanasia capital of the United States.

In seeking repeal of Roe, some may fancy an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would have the same broad-scale effect as Roe but in the opposite direction: a ruling that would constitutionally ban abortion as a violation of a protected right of the fetus. Given the sharp divisions in the American populace over the legitimacy of abortion, the chances that any such amendment could muster the broad approval necessary for constitutional change are remote to the vanishing point.

Repeal of Roe would, therefore, result in the recriminalization of abortion either nationally-constitutionally (unlikely) or in certain states (very likely). As long as one is simply morally opposed to abortion, the scope of the legal restrictions and the problem of levels of criminality and punishment need not be raised, but they cannot be avoided if abortion is recriminalized. Will the church advocate a ban on all abortions? What will the church say about abortions for pregnancy after rape or incest? (There is significant popular support for this as a legitimate sanction for abortion, so allowance for that exception would no doubt be written into the legislation of at least some states.) What will church authorities consider proper criminal penalties for abortion? On whom will they fall? The abortion provider? The woman? The newly elected senator from Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, M.D., has from time to time advocated the death penalty for abortionists. Now that would be a public policy! Would the church support this?

Thinking the matter through to the issue of criminality and its penalties should affect how one regards the moral gravity of abortion per se and the circumstances surrounding any particular abortion decision. If the harshest language of anti-abortion advocates were to be accepted, drastic penalties would seem to be appropriate. If abortion is a form of genocide, would not armed resistance to abortionists be legitimate? If abortion is simply murder of innocent life, as our parish priest affirmed one recent Sunday, there would seem to be no difference between abortion and infanticide. Would anyone having an illegal abortion be subject, therefore, to an extended prison term or even execution in states where that is the practice? If these drastic penalties seem misplaced, one can certainly continue to regard abortion as a moral fault (I do) but one of lesser gravity than genocide or infanticide. Lessening the gravity also would imply that there could be extenuating circumstances that could lessen the fault, if not wholly remove it.

A Posture, Not a Policy

I do not pretend that there are easy answers to any of these questions; but unless they are addressed, church opposition to abortion remains a posture but not a policy. Catholic bishops who threaten to excommunicate Catholic politicians who support Roe should be obliged to think through the issue of public policy, because public policy is the issue for politicians. In turn, the proper reply of Catholic politicians who support Roe should not be a statement of personal moral opposition to abortion. That is as much an avoidance of the policy issue as is the bishops’ moral posturing. The right reply from a politician is to insist on the policy question. They should ask the bishop: do you favor recriminalization of abortion? If so, who is to be penalized; what penalties are appropriate; are there extenuating circumstances?

There are further questions: Would the abortion issue be better treated in a patchwork of state laws—the most obvious outcome of repealing Roe? I do not believe there is an obvious answer to that question. While I believe that issues like abortion, gay marriage and the like are much better dealt with in the back and forth of the legislative process than by broad judicial decree, there is a significant price to pay for too great a discrepancy among multiple and varying state laws. Certainly the patchwork solution will not prohibit abortions; it will simply make them more inconvenient and expensive. Abortion will be readily available to those who can afford to travel; it may be de facto denied to the poor. Denial of access to abortion legally or financially in this or that jurisdiction will, one can be certain, cause the re-emergence of “back-alley” abortions. The trauma and danger of back-alley procedures will, of course, be confined to the poor.

I have suggested that the church’s policy position on abortion goes no further than “repeal of Roe.” That generalization is to a certain extent incorrect. If one were to derive a policy from the actual work of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the policy would be more like “setting conditions on abortion.” Sometimes these efforts have been directed at the conditions of the pregnancy, as in the ban on “partial birth” abortion. Others have been directed at how the woman should be required to proceed in order to obtain an abortion: establishing a waiting period or requiring parental consent for minors. I am strongly in favor of these efforts, but there is significant lack of connection between these prudent efforts and the rhetoric about abortion most often heard from official church sources. As suggested above, if abortion is rightly characterized as “genocide” or “murder,” efforts to “set conditions” would be deeply wrong. One would not advocate a waiting period and parental consent for a young woman contemplating infanticide. As Aristotle pointed out long ago, there are some actions that cannot be performed better or worse. No doubt it is “better” on the whole that an execution be as painless as possible, but execution may not be the sort of thing one should do painlessly or painfully. Painless infanticide is no better for being painless.

The question of how to go about setting conditions on abortion poses a significant dilemma for the church. Either the official “murder” rhetoric is too drastic, or the ongoing attempt to limit abortions is too compromising. My view is that the rhetoric is at fault. Almost all decisions to abort are morally flawed. Some are deeply immoral and inexcusable—for example, the decision to abort because the fetus is the wrong sex. But if almost all decisions to abort are morally problematic, not all situations are equally immoral and deserving of condemnation as murder plain and simple.

Moving away from “murder” as a description inevitably leads into extremely complex moral assessments. Unwillingness to deal with complexity makes simplistic rhetoric a temptation. Assessing individual abortion situations on some scale of moral faults would include consideration of the highly varied circumstances of the woman. Why the pregnancy? Was it due to rape? What is her current economic, domestic or mental condition? Was she coerced by parents or by her sexual partner to abort? And so on.

The Moral Claim of the Fetus

Ultimately one cannot, I fear, avoid assessing the moral claim of the fetus at different stages in its development. This is certainly a “slippery slope,” but failure to recognize different moral positions for varying stages of life—for example, equating abortion and infanticide—avoids reality. Parents may grieve for a miscarriage, but not as they would over a crib death. The fetus has a strong presumptive claim to live to term, but unlike the claim on life of the newborn, the fetus’s claim may be overridden under certain serious conditions—for instance, indirect abortions, as in the case of an ectopic pregnancy or the removal of a womb with a cancerous tumor. That statement is at the heart of the conflict over the moral legitimacy of abortion. One may, of course, deny that the fetus’s claim is any different from that of the newborn, but if so the whole array of assumptions and sanctions about murder must apply. Calling abortion murder may look good on a protest sign, but it is highly problematic as a criminal statute.

It would be helpful if there were some clear criteria for determining the exact claim of the fetus at various stages and how that claim would intersect with the woman’s situation. I doubt that any such a decision table could be devised, but that does not mean that one must retreat to overly simple, black and white criteria as a substitute—for example, the assertion that the fetus has from the moment of conception full personal rights similar to those of the newborn. The extraordinary complexity of the woman’s circumstances and the status of the fetus may be one minor argument for not trying to formulate elaborate legal structures around abortion and leaving it to her choice. Choice should, however, be placed within the complex moral framework that the highly particular situations of the woman may demand. There should be a waiting period, consultation and realistic support and adoption procedures to support carrying the fetus to term.

I would be less concerned with leaving the issue with “choice,” if it were not for the emptiness and amorality of the pro-choice rhetoric. I have accused church officials of posturing, but posturing is not confined to the opponents of abortion. It is equally the fault line in the “pro-choice” camp, but as the inverse of the “pro-life” advocates. If Catholics pronounce on morality to the neglect of policy, pro-choice advocates fix on policy to the exclusion of serious moral discourse. Concentrating on the public policy of choice ignores the question whether all choices are morally worthy. I certainly hope that pro-choice advocates would agree with me that abortion for sex determination is an immoral and inexcusable choice. Perhaps if the pro-choice advocates would stop posturing on “choice” and the bishops on “morality,” it would be possible to devise a public conversation as well as flexible public policies that would make abortion in the United States “safe, legal and rare.”

I noted at the beginning of this essay that moral positions do not automatically create public policy. I suggested that United States public policy on drugs was ineffective, counterproductive and immoral. One could make the same arguments about a simplistic attachment to the repeal of Roe. Certainly repeal would be ineffective in prohibiting legalized abortion within the United States. Concentrating on the impossible goal of prohibiting abortion is counter-productive insofar as it bars discussion with those, even in the pro-choice camp, who would support measures that thicken the moral context within which abortion decisions would be undertaken and agitate to ameliorate economic and social policies along with cultural expectations that force young women to seek an abortion. Finally, prohibition of abortion will lead to the immoral consequences attendant on “back-alley” procedures. These consequences are real. Abortion may be so heinous that the consequences must be tolerated, but they cannot be ignored.


October 17, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Voter-Fraud Fraud

The idea that Democrats try to win elections by arranging for hordes of nonexistent people with improbable names to vote for them has long been a favorite theme of Rove-era Republicans. Now it’s become a desperate obsession.

Consider today’s fund-raising e-mail from Robert M. (Mike) Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee. Some snippets:

Every election, it’s the same old song and dance from the Democrats and their liberal allies when it comes to donor and vote fraud.They will soon be trying to pad their totals at ballot boxes across the country with votes from voters that do not exist. From Ohio and Florida to Wisconsin and Nevada, there are reports of fraudulent voter registration forms being submitted by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a liberal group that is dedicating its resources to electing the Obama-Biden Democrats.

The e-mail climaxes with this pledge, which one hopes is delivered with a Sarah Palin wink: “We will not stand for the stealing of the election—the tainting of our democracy—by those who wish to subvert the rule of law.”

ACORN has become the 24/7 story on Fox News, too, on account of reports that it has submitted several thousand phony registration forms to local boards of elections. These reports appear to be true. Nevertheless, the “scandal,” as Fox calls it, is itself on its face as phony as Mickey Mouse’s social security number.

During this election cycle, the Times reported today, ACORN has deployed thirteen thousand mostly paid workers, who have registered 1.3 million new voters. One or two per cent of these workers turned in sheaves of forms that they filled out themselves with fake names and bogus addresses, and, even though at least a hundred of these workers have already been fired, the forged forms have been submitted to election boards.

Sounds suspicious—unless you know that groups like ACORN are required by law to submit them, even if they’re obvious fakes. This is to prevent funny business, such as trashing forms that look like they might be Republican (or Democratic, as the case may be).

Sounds suspicious—unless you know that ACORN normally sorts through forms, flags those that look fishy, and submits the fishy ones in a separate pile for the convenience of election officials.

Sounds suspicious—until you reflect that the motivation of the misbehaving registration workers is almost always to look like they’ve been doing more work than they really have, and that the victim of the “fraud” is actually the organization they’re working for.

Sounds suspicious—unless you know that even if one of these fake forms results in a nonexistent person actually being registered, now under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, “any voter who has not previously voted in a federal election” must provide identification in order to actually cast a ballot. This will make it tough for Mickey Mouse, even if registered, to vote, no matter how big, round, or black his ears. Likewise, members of the Duck family (Donald, Daisy, Huey, Dewey, and Louie) who turn up at the polling place will have a hard time getting into the voting booth. (Uncle Scrooge might be able to bribe his way in, but he’s voting Republican anyway.)

Sounds suspicious—unless you know that despite all the hysteria, from 2002 to 2005, only twenty people in the entire United States of America were found guilty of voting while ineligible and only five of voting more than once. By contrast, consider the lede on this story, published a week ago today:

Tens of thousands of eligible voters in at least six swing states have been removed from the rolls or have been blocked from registering in ways that appear to violate federal law, according to a review of state records and Social Security data by The New York Times.

And take it from Sarah Palin: the Times is “hardly ever wrong.”

from the New Yorker October 15, 2008

October 17, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Joe the Plumber

Welcome to your 15 minutes of fame.  It’s not everyone who gets his name mentioned 286 times in a presidential debate.  If you haven’t already, you simply must change your business’s name to Joe the Plumber.  That’s just good marketing.  Oh, and don’t forget to add the tag line, “As seen on TV!”

OK, Joe, so you had a conversation with Barack Obama and, while media reports are very sketchy about exactly what your circumstances are (not surprising), it appears you want to buy a business that “brings in” more than $250,000.  I have yet to find out if “brings in” means $250,000 in revenue or profit (a very important distinction, Joe), but let’s assume for a moment that it’s profit we’re talking about.  Under Barack Obama’s plan (as sketchy as it is on his website), a good guess would be that you would go into a higher tax bracket, paying about 3.6% more in taxes on every dollar you earn over $250,000, for a total marginal tax rate of 39.6% — exactly the same as it was in the 1990s.


It turns out that Joe is not a good businessman for a simple reason:  He doesn’t own a business, appears to have no immediate prospects to do so, has no plumber’s license, works for a small firm doing residential work (which means his employer is unlikely to be clearing $250k per year), and has occasionally talked to the owner about buying the business — someday.

Poor Joe.  He’s about to get ripped to shreds by the media, and he seems like a pretty decent guy.  I feel for him.

On the other hand, Joe is a great example of those who are so terrified that they’ll get rich some day and owe an extra 3.5 cents on every dollar over $250,000 that they spend a lot of time worrying about it.  Joe doesn’t know that he is unlikely ever to make that kind of money.


It just gets better and better.  Bloomberg is reporting that Joe owes around $1200 in back taxes, and there is an Ohio lien filed against him.

But let’s take a closer look at your situation, shall we Joe?

You say you’re planning to buy this business, and it must be a very large small business, indeed, if it covers salaries, expenses, trucks, inventory and the like and still yields a $250,000 + profit.  I’m going to guess that you don’t have the cash to buy this business outright, Joe, and if you do, I think you’re holding back on us.  I think you’ve inherited some money.  But let’s assume that you’re borrowing a fair amount of money to buy the business, using its book value (what the business is worth if you sold all the assets and paid off all your debts) as security and using the revenue stream to pay off the loan.  Let’s also assume a business this size is incorporated.

Here’s what you do, Joe.  First off, you have your corporation pay you a salary of, say, $249,000 per year.  Now you’re not in the higher marginal tax bracket, right?  Payments on the loan you took out to buy the business are fully tax deductible, so profits will be reduced by that amount.  If you still have more than $250,000 in profit, we’re talking about a rather large business here, and probably a very large down payment (which suggests that you can manipulate your down payment to reduce your taxes, doesn’t it?)

But here’s the thing, Joe.  When you own a business, you can do all kinds of things to reduce taxable income (profit).  For instance, you can buy more equipment, which can then be depreciated over the years, providing a tax deduction and increasing the company’s book value and, thus, your wealth.  Even fully depreciated equipment can generally be sold, in the future, for something.  You can spend more money on advertising and hire on a new plumber or two.  The advertising costs and the employment costs are generally fully tax deductible.  Well, let me take that back.  If you provide your employees with health insurance, your costs for health insurance won’t be tax deductible under John McCain’s plan, but who’s counting, right?

By advertising and hiring on, you can drastically increase your revenues (the amount of money coming in) while keeping profits below the $250,000 mark.  The increased revenues will make the resale value of your business much higher than it already is, increasing your wealth without getting taxed on that increase.  If you want to take more wealth out right now without paying taxes, there is a cornucopia of tax-free or tax-deferred retirement options, benefits, and the like that can move money right around the IRS’s outstretched palm.

Eventually, Joe, your company will be so large, and you will be so wealthy, than an extra 3.5 pennies in tax on each dollar on income you earn over $250,000 will be chickenfeed to you (if it isn’t already).  But, hey, it’s up to you.  Increase the underlying wealth in your company without paying taxes, or take cash now and pay a few additional taxes on it.

But, please, don’t complain to me about paying more taxes.  All it says to me is that you’re not smart enough to run your business’s financial side.

October 17, 2008 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment