Friday, June 7, 2019

Thoughts on Gradualism, Defeatism, and Overcoming Intrinsic Evil

■ noun a policy or theory of gradual rather than sudden change.


I’ve encountered some pro-lifers who are objecting to the recent laws strictly restricting abortion. From my reading, they seem to make two arguments.
  1. That many opponents of abortion are not willing to go so far as to give up exceptions for incest, rape, and “life of the mother.” If we alienate them, the fear is they will go to the pro-abortion camp.
  2. That laws that strict are more likely to be ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, thus locking in abortion as a right.
Therefore, they argue, we should start with a lower goal and work our way up. These people seem sincere about being pro-life but, in all honesty, I think they’re wrong in their reasoning that leads to their conclusion. St. John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (#73), wrote about politicians trying to limit the effects of abortion laws:

In a case like the one just mentioned, when 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.

Note, this is not about reducing the effectiveness of a law to improve popularity among people. This is about “half a loaf is better than none” in cases where a pro-abortion law is inevitable. In such a case, putting whatever restrictions one can achieve into such a law is better than no restrictions at all. But that isn’t the case here. Here, we have legislators who believe we have the possibility of overturning Roe v. Wade and other unjust abortion rulings.

Case #1: Alienating Supporters

With this in mind, how does the first argument fit in with Catholic teaching? Badly—it’s practically an inversion of Church teaching. In this case, it’s not about “limiting the harm done by such a law” because the law is passed and signed already. It’s about “limiting the law in the name of public opinion” by keeping people who have an imperfect understanding of the defense of life from jumping ship by creating exceptions. 

As I see it, if these people object to not allowing exceptions now, why should they accept eliminating these exceptions later? I think it’s more likely that when we move to eliminate those exceptions later, these people will think we’re guilty of “bait and switch” and resist our actions anyway. The difference is they’ll also think we’re liars.

One person who used the “alienating supporters” argument suggested to me that after doing the more limited law, we can work on education. To which I say we should have already been doing that and we should still do it for those who are sincerely pro-life but misled regardless of the status of laws.

Such people of misdirected good will need to understand that:
  • “One may never do evil so that good may result from it.” (CCC #1789)
  • Abortion—which is deliberate termination of pregnancy by killing the unborn child (Catechism, Glossary)—is an evil act 
  • Therefore, one may never commit abortion so good may come of it.
This is not intended to be a logical form. Rather I’m showing that two of principles that one must hold to be pro-life lead to the third principle. This third principle excludes exceptions for rape, incest, and “life of the mother.” Rejecting these principles means one is mistaken about what being pro-life means.

Let’s apply the principle of St. John Paul to this: we can say that while abortion laws that only allow it for rape, incest, and life of the mother are less evil than laws allowing unrestricted abortion and can be tolerated if those are the only two options. But if the option exists to ban all abortion in a state legitimately exists, we cannot choose the exceptions option instead.

Think of it this way. Imagine a person who opposes slavery or segregation in most cases, but wants exceptions in case they need it. Such a person would not be pro-freedom, no matter how sincere they were about opposing 99% of the cases of slavery [#]. We would not include that 1% exception in our attempts to abolish slavery if the option to abolish it entirely existed. Abortion is the same case: something that is always evil and the exceptions are still evil acts.

Case #2: The “unconstitutional” fear

This leads us to the second objection: that a total abortion ban might get thrown out, enshrining abortion forever, while a law with some exceptions might be upheld. My response to that is: the Supreme Court judge who would vote to rule a total ban unconstitutional, would also rule the abortion ban with exceptions of rape, incest, and the life of the mother to be unconstitutional. As long as we have any Supreme Court judges who think abortion is a human right, instead of a human rights violation, there is a danger that any restrictions at all will be thrown out.

I find that there is a defeatist attitude about passing laws restricting abortion. I’ve seen some go as far as to say Roe v. Wade will never be overturned, so we should spend our time instead making abortion less “necessary” instead of opposing it. Some have also said that people will just seek illegal abortions, so even if we do overturn it, we’ll never end it [%]. That attitude betrays a false understanding of Christian obligation. St. John Paul II, in Evangelium Vitae #73, also reminds us:

Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection.

Capitulation that accepts abortion as inevitable is incompatible with our call to change injustice. We cannot put our faith in a corner. We have obligations here. As the Vatican II document, Apostolicam actuositatem (#5), puts it:

Christ’s redemptive work, while essentially concerned with the salvation of men, includes also the renewal of the whole temporal order. Hence the mission of the Church is not only to bring the message and grace of Christ to men but also to penetrate and perfect the temporal order with the spirit of the Gospel. In fulfilling this mission of the Church, the Christian laity exercise their apostolate both in the Church and in the world, in both the spiritual and the temporal orders.

Refusing to fight injustice is to fail in our obligation. Moreover, it is ironic that people who take this defeatist attitude don’t take it with other injustices. They’re quick to invoke the Seamless Garment on other issues. But they forget another teaching of St. John Paul II in Christifideles Laici, #38:

“Above all, the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended with maximum determination.”

Remember, Gaudium et Spes #51 [§] equated abortion with murder, genocide, torture and other evils these people normally oppose. If we think that a person is wrong to oppose subhuman living conditions while saying we’ll never get rid of genocide, we should think the person who opposes subhuman living conditions while saying we’ll never get rid of abortion is equally wrong [~].

Since we recognize these other things are evil, we must treat abortion with the same gravity.


An intrinsic evil is something which is always wrong by nature and can never be turned into a good act by circumstances or intention. Saying we should create unnecessary exceptions to banning the evil, or refusing to fight it are incompatible with our Catholic calling. Abortion is one of these intrinsic evils, and the proposed “necessary” exceptions and “focusing on other areas” is therefore also incompatible with our Catholic calling. We need to be on our guard not to allow these attitudes to enter our thinking. Otherwise, regardless of our intentions, we are not really pro-life.

True, there are different ideas on how best to fight the evil of abortion. But not fighting it is not an option.


[#] Remember, the three exceptions demanded for abortion are less than 1% of all abortions.

[%] This is the “argument from consequences” fallacy, trying to argue that banning abortion is wrong because of negative consequences. But replace “abortion” with “murder” or “rape.” Is the argument reasonable? No, and using it for abortion is equally unsound.

[§] The relevant text of Gaudium et Spes #51 is:

Furthermore, whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where men are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others of their like are infamies indeed. They poison human society, but they do more harm to those who practice them than those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are supreme dishonor to the Creator.

[~] While I support the Seamless Garment as properly understood, the problem I have with the late Cardinal Bernadin’s speech on the seamless garment is it can be misunderstood as saying X+Y+Z > abortion. I don’t believe the Cardinal meant that, but people have twisted it to argue exactly that.

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