John Kerry made a familiar statement about abortion last week. Bill Clinton said it before him. Many Democrats who wish to remain in the good graces as well as the political clutches of the abortion-rights lobby say it. Kerry said he wants to keep abortion "safe, legal and rare."
I understand "safe" (though it's never safe for the baby and often not the woman). I understand "legal" (though contemporary jurisprudence is shifting sand). I don't understand "rare." Unless the preborn child is human and worthy of the law's protection, why care if abortion is rare or common? Is Kerry attempting to satisfy the tug of conscience deep within this professed Roman Catholic that the teachings of his church are true and that he needs a kind of moral cover -- genuflecting in the direction of truth but making no effort to slow or stop abortions should he gain the power to do so?
The Vatican said last week that priests must deny communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. The Kerry campaign would not respond directly, but a spokesman, appropriately named David Wade (remember Roe vs. Wade?), reiterated Kerry's position on church-state separation that, he said "had helped make religious affiliation a nonissue in American politics."
Is the state the issue, or the church? If a Catholic politician, or one of any other faith, sees an injustice and acquires the power to right it, should he then be excused for behaving like Judas and selling his soul for political coinage? Doesn't such a "faith" lead one to conclude that person might be agnostic, and religion, for him, is merely a tool for hoodwinking the unsophisticated?
Put it another way: Suppose a hospital board decides the hospital should perform abortions. The anti-abortion administrator and several nurses protest to no avail. Doesn't their belief in the sanctity of life take precedence over their jobs? Would not God, or conscience, require them to resign instead of denying God or conscience and participating in an act they regard as immoral for the sake of a paycheck?
When Kerry and other Catholic politicians say they accept church teaching but selectively deny it when it comes to abortion, they place the state above the church and man above God. They mortgage their consciences to convenience and principle to pragmatism. Should such a person lead this nation?
In his memoir, "Inside: A Public and Private Life," Joseph A. Califano Jr. -- a Catholic Democrat who worked in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations -- expounds on his struggle with the abortion issue. After being nominated as Johnson's secretary of health, education and welfare, Califano, who opposed federal funding for abortion unless the woman's life was jeopardized, consulted his pastor, a Jesuit priest named James English. Califano writes, "I first confronted the tension between my religious beliefs and public policy on the searing issue of whether Medicaid should fund abortions." He says his priest told him while most of our laws are founded on moral values, "my obligation to my personal conscience was satisfied if I expressed those views forcefully. If another view prevailed, however, I was free, indeed obliged, to enforce the law. 'In a democratic society, you are free to struggle to change the law even as you enforce the one on the books,' he said." (Califano was interviewed on my TV show, where he talked about this and other issues.)
The problem for Kerry is that he won't even go that far. He supports abortion rights, for any reason and at any time. He has not said how he would work to make abortion "rare," except that like others who hold this position he would probably advocate more birth control, which would also place him in opposition to the teachings of his church.
Like the anti-abortion hospital administrator and nurses, Kerry has a choice: either "resign" as a Catholic, or withdraw from the presidential race. To be president and not even attempt to make abortion "rare" by changing the law that has permitted so many, even for convenience, ignores the power of the presidency and trivializes his faith. In the one case, it leaves an individual open to a charge of hypocrisy. In the other, it puts him in jeopardy of being labeled a heretic.
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.