Personally Opposed, But…Some Important Distinctions

Recent decades are rife with “opposed, but…” statements from Catholic politicians who maintain that they do not wish to “force” their own personal opposition to abortion on their constituencies.  Must they then stand aside, with their hands folded, while pro-abortion politicians grant a “license to kill” to pregnant mothers and medical practitioners?

It is high time to reconsider: how far does the obligation of a politician to further his moral commitments extend?  It is generally recognized in democratic countries now that strictly private immorality is out of the boundaries of public control.  Former laws in various states of the U.S. prohibiting contraceptive use and sodomy have fallen by the wayside.  Some less private matters are also considered immune to legislation: no one is claiming that if a Mormon or Muslim, with strong views about abstinence from alcohol, were elected to public office, he or she would need to pursue ways of outlawing alcohol.  We learned that lesson from the 1920s experiment with Prohibition.  And if the mayor of one of the counties in Nevada permitting prostitution had strong moral objections against prostitution, would he be obligated to work to change the laws permitting prostitution?

On the other hand, moral positions are incorporated in some of our most important laws – laws against murder, theft, defamation of character, perjury, parental negligence, and – in the armed services and a few states – laws against adultery.  Aside from non-legislation regarding adultery, it seems that last seven of the Ten Commandments were a major inspiration for our criminal code.

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Confusion results, however, in areas where there is an intertwining of morality, legality, politics, and/or religion – for example, with regard to abortion, gay marriage and assisted suicide.  The question of whether a politician of a certain religious persuasion needs to take a strong and public position regarding legislation, or the enforcement of legislation in such areas, requires some distinctions.  Separate consideration of the distinct spheres can help to clarify the responsibilities.

The Legal Sphere

Many things are desirable for an orderly and productive social atmosphere, but laws are made only when they are required, in order to assure public order and safety.  Criminal laws are concerned with the avoidance of harm – physical harm, harm to reputation, even mental and psychological harm (for example, when parents or guardians block children’s education or normal social interaction, or provide prison-like environments).  The laws can tolerate prima facie immorality in some cases.  If there is such a thing as purely private immorality, this would have to do with actions for which obvious, publicly observable repercussions are lacking.  An example would be suicide, which is widely condemned from both a moral and a religious standpoint, but is a paradigmatic case impervious to legal prohibition because it is so private.  Contraception and sodomy are now generally considered private, although they may have hidden social ramifications – for example, the use of contraception or sterilization in contradiction to a spousal agreement regarding openness to offspring, or gay liaisons involving infidelity to one’s heterosexual marriage partner.

But politicians may also tolerate more public types of immorality that they consider to be socially harmful, out of consideration of enforceability-criteria. Imaginable scenarios include a Seventh Day Adventist, staunchly pacifist, being elected to the presidency; or a Muslim, devoutly committed to sharia regulations regarding women; or a fundamentalist Mormon, convinced that the restoration of polygamy and patriarchy is necessary for the final emergence of the celestial kingdom in America.  In a relatively homogeneous social framework, any of these presidents would be able to work for implementation of their vision, with some possibility of success.  But in a de facto pluralistic society, under constitutional democratic structures, and without broad consensus, there would be not the slightest possibility of achievement of such goals.  The acceptance of the office of the presidency, by the Adventist, or the Muslim, or the Mormon, would implicitly, if not explicitly, imply a willingness to forfeit any efforts to implement their particular religiously-inspired visions.

Thus as a general principle, it would be meaningless to try to enact legislation that would be clearly unenforceable because of lack of public support.  And with regard to practices which are widely considered socially harmful as well as immoral – for example, prostitution or the production of pornography – laws may compromise, establishing rules and procedures for regulating the practices and minimizing perceived harm, but also refraining from outright prohibition.


Politics has been defined as the “science/art of the possible.”  We don’t expect politicians to be able to transform societies overnight; and a democratic politician, keeping an eye and an ear focused on public opinion, must in a very real sense follow the public as well as lead them.  As regards legislation, political astuteness implies a talent for being able to distinguish clearly unenforceable areas from “gray areas.”  But leadership is not demonstrated just by following the opinion polls.  A strong leader will often be able to take steps to change things in the “gray areas.”  For example, under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln, Congress in 1862 was able by legislation to reverse the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, which had legalized slavery.  More recent examples might include the legislative initiative taken by the Clinton administration to implement welfare reform, at a time when there was barely enough sentiment supporting the changes; or the cautious regulation by the Bush administration of stem cell research and “partial birth” abortion, bringing about as much change as was possible, although changes falling short of the goals of outlawing abortion and the destruction of human embryos.


Morality has to do with right and wrong – determinations that cannot, and should not, be made by popular consensus.  Slavery was approved by popular consensus in America a few centuries ago, but is now subject to universal moral disapproval. Considerable consensus exists in various cultures now for practices we consider immoral – the stoning of adulteresses in Iran and northern Nigeria, slavery and “ethnic cleansing” in Sudan, female circumcision in Egypt and various segments of Africa, mandatory abortion in China, ongoing discrimination against the “untouchables” in India.  But we should not conclude that the present state of morality globally is dismal.  Moral ideals, in spite of setbacks, have a way of progressing and finally achieving consensus.  For example, significant changes have taken place since the 70s, when Roe v. Wade met with widespread approval.  In the 2011 Gallup poll 61% of Americans maintain either that abortion should be illegal, or illegal with certain exceptions.  Cases of rape, incest, and threats to the life of the mother are frequently cited exceptions.

Religious Factors

If a religion is not merely a moral system, it will be distinguished by ideals and rulings that go beyond morality.  In Christianity, the most outstanding example of this is the Gospel injunction to “love your enemies,” which transcends principles even remotely contemplated by any moral theory.  Other examples of specifically religious ideals include admonitions such as “sell all you have and give it to the poor,” “make yourselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God,” “forgive those who have offended you seven times seventy times.”  In Buddhism, the ideal of universal compassion, and in Hinduism the Yogic ideal of voluntary poverty, likewise illustrate a characteristic transcending of morality out of religious motivations.

A Christian mother may very likely go beyond what morality usually requires, in cases of rape, incest, or a threat to her life from a pregnancy.  The recent canonization of Blessed Gianna Molia, who sacrificed her life to give birth to her child, is merely one of the more public examples, since many Christians have made such choices.  But the situation of a girl or a woman who does not make this choice under such stressful circumstances should certainly not be put into the same category as the common case of a woman who has an abortion of convenience.  In other words, it is important to make the obvious distinction between religiously inspired heroic virtue, and what is morally required in response to forced or life-threatening pregnancies.

The Abortion Issue

President Obama does not agree with the majority who either oppose abortion, or would restrict abortion to the three chief exceptions.  Aside from the idea of inflicting suffering and death on a human being in the earliest stages, the principle of reproductive responsibility – that is, the sense of responsibility to your own offspring – leads any reflective person to see the wrongness of abortion as an alternative form of “contraception.”  The advances of ultrasound and other medical technologies have further increased our factual awareness of what regrettable things take place in an actual abortion.

The exceptions that people make in polls regarding rape, incest, and threats to the mother’s life, also have some intuitive credibility.  For if “reproductive rights” (in the literal sense, not as a euphemism for abortion) has any meaning, it implies that a woman has a natural right, a human right, to bear offspring voluntarily.  In cases of rape and parent-child incest, voluntariness is infamously absent, and cannot be presupposed.  In cases where the life of the mother is seriously and certainly at stake, the time-honored “principle of double effect,” may allow actions to be taken which indirectly terminate a pregnancy. Unlike elective abortion, these cases do not amount to abortion purely as a means of contraception, in the aftermath of a voluntary choice of sexual intercourse.

Political Consequences

Politicians such as Ted Kennedy, Geraldine Ferraro, Mario Cuomo, Rudy Giuliani, John Kerry, and Joe Biden have stated that they are “personally opposed” to abortion, but do not wish to impose their view on others.  Ron Paul is personally opposed to same-sex marriage, but would not interfere with states legalizing it. Rick Santorum is personally opposed to contraception, but would not impose prohibitions.

The phrase, “personally opposed,” is fraught with ambiguity and moral slackness.  It seems to say, and mean, “what is wrong for me may not be wrong for others.”  This is of course complete relativism in morals.  If a person has any moral principles, the principles apply in general, not just for him or her, but for all; if there are extenuating circumstances or exceptions, these would also apply in general.  With regard to a case like abortion, a politician would be quasi-schizophrenic, and forfeit credibility, if he were actually and literally to condone “for others” what he himself considers immoral.

If a politician has moral objections to something, his obligations can best be put in the negative: he must refrain from condoning or encouraging it.  For example, if a congressman is able to vote yes or no on a law promoting the type of immorality he is opposed to, he must in conscience vote against it.

But activism to positively change laws, in consistency with one’s beliefs, without inaugurating a police state, requires discretion.  Because judicial decisions, such as Roe v. Wade have been functioning as a virtual “law of the land,” and the chances of a Constitutional amendment still seem dim, legislative initiatives on the state level seem to bode the best degree of success. A politician with foresight could capitalize on the current changes in opinion, and show leadership in moving away from elective abortion.  It should also be kept in mind that legislative changes can have a gradual effect on public perceptions of morality.  Isn’t this what happened with regard to slavery after Dred Scott?

At the very least, politicians should stop using phrases like “I’m personally opposed, but….” as an excuse for support of elective abortion.  In Gospel terminology, this is being “neither hot nor cold, but lukewarm.”  It connotes unprincipled “waffling,” lack of conviction, and unseemly fear of peer-disapproval (especially among political liberals, for whom a pro-life position, because of some bizarre rationale, mounts to betrayal of liberal principles).  A firm and consistent pro-life or pro-abortion position would be more credible and respectable.


  • Howard Kainz

    Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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