WASHINGTON — The 2012 presidential election was supposed to be about the economy.
But the selection of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a committed Catholic, as the GOP vice-presidential candidate has transformed the campaign season into a real-time seminar on catechetics.
Last week, reporters and pundits examined whether Ryan properly applied Catholic social doctrine to his controversial budget proposal that cuts spending on entitlements.
Now, this week, the public is being treated to an analysis of Catholic opposition to abortion in cases of rape, a teaching that has long drawn criticism from feminists.
The latest case study in Catholic ethics surfaced Aug. 19, after Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., who is contesting the Senate seat now filled by Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, remarked during a television interview that if a “legitimate rape” occurs, “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”
Akin added, “The punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.” Subsequently, he expressed compassion for victims of rape and said that pregnancy could result in cases of sexual assault.
A furor ensued on Internet news sites, giving the Obama campaign an opening to hammer home its message that Republicans were engaging in a “war on women.” But the latest election-year dustup also provides a chance for the Church to explain why it opposes abortion in cases of rape, what medical treatment in such cases is ethically acceptable, and the U.S. bishops’ reasons for supporting legislation that bars federal funding of abortion but exempts victims of rape.
In the short term, the headlines created a problem for Mitt Romney’s campaign, which quickly issued a statement distancing the GOP ticket from Akin’s remarks.
“Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan disagree with Mr. Akin’s statement, and a Romney-Ryan administration would not oppose abortion in instances of rape,” the campaign said in a statement released by Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul.
The Obama campaign challenged the attempt to disavow Akin’s remarks, noting that Ryan had long been on the record opposing legal abortion in every case except to save the life of the mother. A spokesman for the GOP ticket insisted, however, that Romney would not seek to bar abortion in cases of rape.
Romney Aug. 20 made another effort to tamp down the controversy during an interview with National Review. “Congressman’s Akin comments on rape are insulting, inexcusable and, frankly, wrong,” Romney stated. “Like millions of other Americans, we found them to be offensive.”
But Lis Smith, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, asserted that the GOP candidates were “contradicting their own records.” Smith noted that Ryan had co-sponsored a bill introduced last year by Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., that sought to limit exemptions to the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funding of abortion.
Initially, Smith’s Human Life Amendment, which failed to pass in the Senate, limited federal subsidies for abortion to cases in which the mother’s life was at risk, incest involving minors and “forcible rape.”
Feminist activists and other supporters of abortion rights had argued that the term “forcible rape” was unclear and that its adoption in the bill might bar access to most rape victims. The term was dropped in the final version of the bill, but the Obama campaign and its allies have continued to argue the bill revealed the GOP’s intent to sharply restrict and ultimately overturn legal abortion in the nation.
The Republican leadership has called on Akin to step down. In the meantime, the headlines have provided an unsought opportunity for the Church to outline its position in more detail. Ryan’s voting record matches the U.S. bishops’ lobby efforts on legislation that drastically limits access abortion but that reluctantly allows it in certain circumstances.
The Catechism teaches, “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person — among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life (2270).
“Since the first century, the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law (2271).”
Registered nurse Marie Hilliard, the director of bioethics and public policy at the National Catholic Bioethics Center and a canon lawyer, echoed this point: “No matter how violently that life came into being, the second victim of the rape is the human being that, through an abortion, would be treated as a perpetrator.”
Hilliard added that while “statistics concerning the frequency of rape victims becoming pregnant from the assault are less than precise (1%-5%), the right of the victim to utilize every means to defend herself against the fertilization of her ovum (conception) is supported by Catholic health care.”
Referencing “The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Facilities” issued by the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, Hilliard noted that “medications that have the potential to stop ovulation, such as Plan B, should be provided if medical assessment of the victim indicates that ovulation can be interrupted. However, drugs, devices and procedures administered at a time when they will have an abortifacient effect violate human life and dignity” and thus cannot be used.
But what happens when pregnancy can not be prevented, and a victim of sexual assault faces the choice of whether to carry her assailant’s child or have an abortion? Pro-life conferences have featured stirring testimonials from women and children about the fateful decision to carry a pregnancy to term in such cases, but their stories rarely surface in the media or even Sunday homilies.
Janet Smith, a professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit and a popular author and speaker, has long sought to challenge the received wisdom on abortion in cases of rape during presentations at conferences and in classrooms with young people, including seminarians.
“Compassionate young people who are understandably horrified by the act of rape are very confused about the Church’s teaching on this,” agreed Smith, and “partisans also use this confusion to keep abortion legal.”
However, Smith asks her audience to step back and consider what is being asked of a woman who is pregnant as a result of rape.
“Rape is a horrible thing, and no one wants to minimize the consequences for the victim. It would be a huge sacrifice to carry this life to term — and today we just don’t think that people should be asked to make great sacrifices,” Smith suggested.
Such comments may seem shocking, even uncaring, but Smith says her arguments have shaken the complacency of audiences that haven’t been asked to embrace a call to great self-sacrifice.
“When I started to do sidewalk counseling, I spoke with a girl who was pregnant because of rape. She told me she didn’t want an abortion — ‘But everyone says I would be stupid to carry a baby that I got because of a rape.’”
Smith doesn’t think an act of great generosity is “stupid.”
“The simple point is that an unborn child’s right to life isn’t dependent on the goodness or badness of its father. The child becomes the second victim of the rape, paying for the sins of its father if it’s life is taken away.”
Richard Doerflinger, the chief lobbyist on life issues for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, confirmed that the conference had been fielding calls about the Church’s stance on a vexed issue that has left many people in the pews confused.
“Because this question is getting raised in the news in connection with the electoral campaign, I would much prefer to send you background information,” he told the Register. “As you know, the bishops’ conference tries not to comment on candidates and their positions as such.”
With that caveat, Doerflinger provided some context for the moral debate within the Church and the pro-life movement regarding efforts to bar legal abortion in cases of rape.
He noted that in “federal policy this subject has been debated chiefly in the context of the Hyde Amendment, a rider to the annual Labor [Department]/HHS appropriations bill that prevents federal funding of abortion. For many years, that amendment did not allow funding for abortions in cases of rape.”
In 1993, however, “the House of Representatives prepared to approve an appropriations bill that dropped all restrictions on abortion funding. After concluding that his only opportunity to restore the Hyde Amendment would be defeated unless it included a rape/incest exception, Congressman Henry Hyde reluctantly allowed that exception to be added. Hyde and parallel provisions in many other federal laws have included such an exception since then.”
Doerflinger noted that even with the exemption for incest and rape, “the Hyde Amendment has prevented federal funding of well over 99% of the abortions that would otherwise receive federal support. Without the amendment, the government had funded about 300,000 abortions a year in Medicaid; that number was cut down to a few hundred each year.”
Pope John Paul II, in his groundbreaking 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), stated that legislative compromise was morally acceptable in certain situations.
“[W]hen it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but, rather, a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects” (73).
Doerflinger echoed this point in his comments for the Register.
“The Church opposes all direct abortion and federal funding for all such abortion. But without supporting the exceptions, the bishops’ conference has supported the restrictions placed on abortion funding by the Hyde Amendment and similar laws for the sake of the good they do and the many lives they save.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.