During the Vice Presidential debate, Joe Biden and Paul Ryan—both Roman Catholics—were asked about their respective views on abortion.
Biden’s answer is one that we have come to expect from Catholic Democrats. Personally, he said, he shares his Church’s perennial position against abortion. However, this is a belief that he refuses to “impose” upon others. Thus, Biden remains, along with the Democratic Party of which he has been a life-long member, rigorously “pro-choice.”
This point of view is as intellectually as it is morally bankrupt.
The Roman Catholic Church opposes abortion for the same reason that it opposes murder: abortion, like murder, inescapably entails the destruction of an innocent human being. If Biden subscribes to Catholic teaching on this score, then this is what he believes. What this means is that he has no basis, neither within his faith tradition nor without, upon which to justify his refusal to do what he can to prevent people from pursuing abortion.
Yet for as indefensible as Biden’s position is, Paul Ryan’s was confused as well.
Ryan unabashedly identified himself as “pro-life.” He rejects abortion, he said, because of “reason” and “science,” yes, but, ultimately, because of his faith. However, Ryan immediately insisted that he and Mitt Romney are willing to allow for abortion under some circumstances. Abortion, he explained, is morally permissible if a woman conceives as a result of incest, say, or rape. If a woman’s life is endangered by her pregnancy, an abortion is a morally acceptable course of action for her to pursue under this condition as well.
The problem for Ryan is that his Church agrees with none of this. For that matter, neither will his invocation of reason and science save him here.
Recall, for the Church, abortion is an evil because it consists in the destruction of an innocent human life. Now, regardless of how or why this life came into being, it is still innocent of any wrongdoing. That being so, if it is immoral to deliberately kill an innocent human being some of the time, then it is immoral to do so all of the time. After all, it is the innocence of the human being, and most definitely not the circumstances of that being’s conception, that is morally relevant.
So, Ryan’s Catholic faith simply will not supply him with a justification for these exceptions that he appears willing to make for abortion.
But “reason” and “science” are equally impotent in this regard. Let’s take the latter first.
When Ryan alluded to science to justify his opposition to abortion, presumably he was trying to make the point that even science confirms that life begins at conception. This is true. Yet, in itself, it is also morally irrelevant, for science is science—not morality. And if science hasn’t the authority to speak to the moral import of abortion or even life itself, then it certainly doesn’t have any authority to speak to the moral import of the circumstances surrounding conception.
Reason, though, unlike science, isn’t silent with respect to the sensibleness (or not) of the concessions that Ryan is willing to make to abortionists. In fact, it actually militates against them.
If, as he says, reason tells Ryan that abortion is impermissible because reason establishes that a human life comes into being at conception, then reason must dictate with just as much force that the circumstances of conception are irrelevant.
But, it may be asked, what about when a woman’s life is endangered by her pregnancy? Is not Ryan correct? Isn’t it morally permissible in such an extraordinary situation to choose an abortion?
According to the Roman Catholic Church, the answer is a resounding “no.”
It is here that the traditional Catholic doctrine of “double effect” comes into play.
According to double effect, even if such-and-such an action has consequences that are undesirable and even otherwise evil, as long as those consequences are unintended and unavoidable, it is permissible to choose the action in order to escape a more evil choice.
For example, suppose a woman is, say, suffering from an ectopic pregnancy. It is permissible, Ryan’s faith teaches, for her doctor to “abort” her unborn child, for unless so, both mother and child will die; this way, in contrast, at least one life—that of the mother—can be spared. In other words, since, according to Catholic morality, it is the intention of an action that makes it what it is, insofar as the doctor’s intention here is to save the mother’s life—not kill her unborn child—the act in question is not truly an abortion at all. No one can be said to have chosen an abortion.
The point, however, in all of this is that Paul Ryan has no basis in his faith to qualify his opposition to abortion in the ways that he has. He may not have strayed as widely from his faith as has his opponent, but it would be dishonest to deny that he has indeed strayed.