David J. O'Brien: Radicals on both sides widen abortion divide


HOLDEN — To Democratic elected officials and the citizens of Massachusetts.

Abortion is back on the political agenda, once again threatening to poison our public life. Its renewal is fueled in part by President Trump's demagogic rhetoric but it is made deadly serious by "pro-life"and "pro-choice" zealots assisted by many politicians who often seem without convictions of their own. Some states, not all Republican red states, are passing laws that in effect ban all abortions, hoping to push the issue to the Supreme Court where

they are confident new appointees will help overthrow Roe v Wade.

That end-of-Roe scenario works equally well for pro-choice activists, most of them Democrats, who are proposing and passing laws to insure "access" to abortion "after Roe." Here is Massachusetts a bill before the legislature, with many sponsors, will remove all obstacles to late-term abortions and effectively eliminate protections for babies capable of life outside the womb.

This debate will surely put yet another nail in the coffin of American public life.

At the so-called "pro-life" end we have an almost complete denial of any public responsibility for the life and dignity of pregnant mothers. At the even more badly named "pro-choice" end we have an all but complete denial of any public responsibility for the life and health of soon-to-be born babies. Extremists shape the debate, they pit mothers and babies against each other, and they count on citizens, including those in public office, to go along in knee-jerk fashion.


As has been true for decades, the extremists play off each other. The anti-abortion zealots love nothing more than challenges from liberal activists who brook no compromise on "the right to choose" even when viable babies are involved. And pro-choice activists never hesitate to portray their opponents as aligned with mindless opponents of birth control who care little about women in desperate situations or for babies after they are born. And too many politicians think that the issue will help mobilize their base.

Now, to make matters worse for Democrats, House Democrats are poised to vote to repeal the Hyde Amendment that prevents use of public funds for abortion — there are already 134 cosigners. That will please Senate Republicans and delight Trump supporters eager to defend Hyde. Repeal of the Hyde Amendment and support for late-term abortion on demand may please some Democrats but it will cost lots of votes from many Catholics, including some strong social justice advocates, as well as evangelicals who might have reservations about President Trump. Make no mistake: whatever one might think of self-appointed leaders of Christian communities, these are conscience issues for many religious Americans..

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Here in Massachusetts, surely it is time for the Democratic Party, holding all but one state-wide elective office and in full control of the legislature, to take the lead in breaking out of this mindless polarization. You who lead the Party can change the debate, first by backing away from the indefensible bills now under consideration in Boston, then by opening up public discussion in your town meetings and if necessary taking on the extremists.

The public at large for 40 years has been both pro-life and pro-choice. Activists at the two extremes work on the almost even split in polling between those who think abortion should be "all or mostly" forbidden or "all or mostly allowed." But if one listens carefully, the "mostlys" on both sides are not that far apart. The vast majority show respect for both baby and mother. Words matter: when one is discussing the pregnancy of a family member or 

friend those are the words we use — baby and mother — and we should use them in considering the public's responsibility as well. The "mostlys" are mostly pro-choice before viability, mostly pro-life, at least in allowing for review, after viability.

And that is where the much-maligned Supreme Court has been, trying hard to provide guidance to the states and to medical professionals dealing with requests for post-viability abortions. After initially allowing "health" to become a door to abortion on demand, the Court led by former Justices Kennedy and O'Connor tried to clarify the conditions that justify late-term abortions. In fact the Court, in its own conflicts and negotiations, has mirrored the complicated pro-life and pro-choice balancing experienced by most people who seriously consider the public as distinct from the personal moral question.


So: you could assist the public debate by indicating that you are pro-life: in sympathy with unborn children, and pro-choice: in sympathy with the autonomy and dignity of mothers. Baby and mother go together and we should do everything we can to avoid putting them in opposition to one another. So you respect Roe, you respect the Court and are confident the justices will do their best to find the right balance between the community's unequivocal 

commitment to the dignity and freedom of pregnant women and the community's responsibility to protect human life. All human life.

If the Supreme Court avoids extreme resolution, so should we all. There is nothing to celebrate in abortion, any abortion, and nothing to regret in trusting women, their families, and their caregivers, who should make the decision, alone, in almost but not all cases. And the rest of us, who value mothers and babies, should do what we can to make sure that mothers have all that they need to choose wisely and well, and that babies, all of them, are welcomed, before, during and after birth.

A summer resident of Richmond, David J. O'Brien is professor emeritus of history and Catholic studies, College of the Holy Cross


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