Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Religion, Abortion and the Role of Government

Timothy Sherratt


October 19, 2012

By Timothy Sherratt

Looking across the table last week at the two Roman Catholic aspirants for the office of vice-president, moderator Martha Raddatz asked the candidates to explain the religious grounds for their positions on abortion.

Vice President Joe Biden confessed himself bound by the Church’s teaching that life begins at conception. But he was quick to insist that he could not impose this teaching on others of equally sincere moral conviction who reach different conclusions.  

Congressman Paul Ryan acknowledged the Church’s teaching along with the testimony of science and reason as the source of his convictions on the subject. For these reasons, he declared that he opposes abortion, but would provide exceptions for rape, incest and threats to the life of the mother.

Missing from this exchange was any reference to the Church’s teaching on the responsibilities borne by government concerning abortion.

To be sure, Ms. Raddatz asked both candidates to consult their personal religious convictions for the contribution these make to their views on abortion and even pleaded with them to speak “personally.” Both candidates accepted her narrow framing of the question. But the personal nature of the question succeeded in privatizing both abortion and religion itself. Different though Biden’s and Ryan’s answers were, both remained trapped within this artificial constraint. Neither candidate contested the American-as-apple-pie separation of religion from politics that was implicit in the question.

What might these two Catholic candidates have said?

As the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Human Life argues, in accordance with its primary responsibility of promoting public justice, government is obliged to protect life and to protect the family as the primary life-giving unit of society. Government should also provide supportive conditions for the family, acknowledging that the family bears primary responsibility for the nurture of children. Even in unusual or emergency circumstances, where pregnancy is unplanned or out of wedlock, the state’s responsibility lies in that direction, rather than in promoting the availability of abortion on grounds of personal autonomy.

When the Supreme Court legalized abortion, it interposed the right of privacy as government’s chief concern and dismissed government’s responsibility to provide help to the family.  That help can take the form, among other things, of pregnancy counseling, health care for the woman and her child, and adoption services. All of these contribute to a supportive environment in which a woman—be it a scared and isolated teenager or simply a mother who did not expect another pregnancy—considers her options. Because of this important government responsibility, overturning Roe v Wade alone would leave government well short of doing justice to this issue if it failed to provide services such as these.

In the case of rape, a core principle may be distinguished. When a man and a woman have sexual intercourse and the woman conceives a child, the two of them have assumed obligations to the child and to each other. When the conception is the result of rape, the woman has not willingly set aside her own autonomy. In these circumstances, government may consider policy exceptions to the guiding principle of protecting life-generation and the family life that sustains it, and those exceptions might include allowing some abortions.

The point about these arguments is that they are religiously grounded arguments—about the role of government—and they are the kind of arguments that Catholic teaching articulates with abundant clarity.

The United States embraces a very different legal regime from the one outlined above. That regime has turned the core governmental obligation on its head, valuing personal autonomy over the protection of persons. And even though state laws impose a range of restrictions on abortion (and in the case of so-called partial birth abortions outright prohibition), government continues to default on its primary responsibility.

Both candidates’ religious positions on abortion lacked their Church’s complementary religious teaching on the role of government. An opportunity to enrich our national discourse on this most contentious issue was missed.

—Timothy Sherratt is a Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”