LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. — As Americans consider how to vote in this fall's elections, a recently publicized decision by Georgia Right to Life not to endorse candidates whose opposition to abortion allows for exceptions in cases of rape or incest has rekindled a long-standing debate in pro-life circles.

Catholics especially have struggled with this issue because Church teaching considers all abortions intrinsically evil. But some have interpreted a section of the 1995 papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae, which deals with so-called imperfect abortion legislation, as allowing for exceptions by political candidates as well.

“When it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law,” the encyclical states, “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.”

Although the encyclical refers to legislation and not the positions of candidates, Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it seems obvious that if legislators are being told they can vote that way the same standard would apply to candidates.

Georgia Right to Life, an affiliate of the National Right to Life Committee, voted unanimously two years ago to bring its candidate-endorsement practices into line with its bylaws effective after the election of 2000. The recent Aug. 20 primary was the first major election cycle the change affected.

“Our bylaws say we protect all human life from conception to natural death,” said Nancy Stith, executive director of the group. “To endorse candidates that don't hold to that belief, we felt like we were not raising the standard.”

Although some candidates have disagreed publicly with the group's stance, Stith said Georgia Right to Life also heard from many who applauded the decision. “We had an amazing number of candidates who have either been there and said, ‘Yes, we're with you,’ or were given our material to read and said afterward, ‘Yes, we're with you on the issue.’”

The best affirmation came with the election results. Stith said 77% of the candidates endorsed by Georgia Right to Life were winners in the Aug. 20 primary.

Stith said the group took its lead from Michigan Right to Life, which has always declined to endorse candidates who allow exceptions for rape and incest and seems to be making more gains legislatively.

“We have seen very little success in Georgia legislation,” she said. “We don't even have a women's-right-to-know bill and we feel that's the minimum. What's been going on for the last 15 years hasn't worked.”

Michigan, by contrast, has passed an informed-consent law for women and a parental-consent law for minors in addition to abolishing state funding for welfare abortions. Since 1987, the abortion rate in Michigan has been reduced by 45.4% while Georgia's has not decreased.

The National Right to Life Committee, which supports national candidates who allow for abortion exceptions for rape or incest, declined to comment on the Georgia decision except to say that the action had not affected the state group's standing as an affiliate of the national body.

American Life League, which does not support candidates who allow for such exceptions, hailed Georgia Right to Life's move as a good decision that will promote a 100% pro-life position.

“We feel that allowing for exceptions in the political arena continually hurts our position overall because really what we're trying to do is defend the dignity of the person,” said Mo Woltering, director of public policy for American Life League. “Even persons conceived in rape and incest have equal dignity.”

Woltering said allowing for abortion exceptions in legislation has not helped the pro-life movement. “We really have not rolled back abortion laws adopting this approach. I think Georgia Right to Life is taking a look at the situation and saying to themselves, ‘We need to stand on principle, not pragmatism.’”

It is important, he added, to evaluate so-called imperfect legislation in light of Catholic tradition about the purpose of law. This views the law as having a teaching role, not just a restrictive one. “It teaches us what is the thing to do to obtain a good end in the moral life,” he said.

For example, Woltering said, a bill outlawing all third-trimester abortions might be acceptable because even though it does not stop all abortions, it does not provide for abortion anytime or in any case in the third trimester. Thus, such a law would not further the right to an abortion but would restrict what is already allowed.

Conversely, he said, a law that would prohibit all abortions except those in the case of rape or incest would continue to provide the right to an abortion in certain cases.

“We don't want a law that continues to give the right to abortion because that law teaches that even though you're outlawing the majority of abortions you're still giving the right to an abortion,” Woltering said.

However, Doerflinger of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities said he finds that argument unconvincing.

“Whenever you pass an imperfect law, someone might imagine that you're teaching that abortions left untouched are being approved. ... The important thing is that you are reforming the law as well as you can at the present and allowing the opportunity for further improvement later.”

Cardinals' Opinions

Doerflinger said that, besides Evangelium Vitae, statements from the late Cardinal John O'Connor and Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, former president of the Pontifical Council on the Family, have supported voting for abortion laws that allow exceptions.

Cardinal O'Connor's 1990 statement, “Abortion: Questions and Answers,” said in cases where perfect legislation is clearly impossible, it would be morally acceptable to support a pro-life bill containing exceptions if the following conditions were present: There is no other feasible bill restricting abortion laws to a greater degree, the proposed bill is more restrictive than existing law and the proposed bill does not rule out the possibility of future, more restrictive laws.

Cardinal Gagnon made similar arguments in a 1987 correspondence with activist Paul Weyrich, saying Catholics may push for imperfect legislation as long as they make it clear that they remain opposed to all abortions.

Doerflinger said a law that banned all abortions except those to save the life of the mother and in cases of rape or incest would cover about 98% of all abortions. “That would be an enormous change for better in the law. ... The question is what direction are we moving in — greater protection for life or against greater protection?”

Tony Lauinger of Oklahomans for Life said although his group does not officially favor rape or incest as abortion exceptions, he would prefer a candidate who supported those exceptions be elected rather than someone who favored abortion on demand.

“It's a question of whether a person wants to make a statement or make a difference. If being 100% pure in our position makes us feel better, but candidates who are 98% pro-life are defeated by candidates who are 100% pro-abortion as a consequence, I think we've failed to do what we ought to be doing.”

Judy Roberts writes from Millbury, Ohio.