Former President George W. Bush receives a pro-life award this weekend from Legatus, an organization of Catholic business professionals. The group cites his administration's opposition to embryonic stem-cell research, an executive order barring federal funds from international family planning groups that offer abortions, and the appointment of "pro-life" Supreme Court justices. The honor raises an essential question that should challenge both political parties and underscores the limits of labels: What does it mean to be pro-life?
For some, that question is answered simply by evoking opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. This landmark ruling has defined a generation of political polarization and fueled bitter culture wars that reward the shrillest voices. A singular focus on abortion as the only pro-life issue has also severely narrowed our national discourse about moral values in the public square.
While the former president spoke eloquently about the sacred dignity of life, as governor of Texas his state led the nation in executions. His presidency is remembered for a legacy that often undermined lofty rhetorical appeals to human dignity. Preemptive war, torture, a reckless disregard for the environment, and economic policies that left the poor farther behind even as the wealthy grew more prosperous is not a proud record in defense of life. It also fails to honor the broad spectrum of Catholic social teaching, which stresses a consistent ethic of life often referred to as a "seamless garment," because one life issue can't be easily separated from another. Catholic teaching has a rich and expansive vision that recognizes seeking peace and caring for the poor, the unborn, the immigrant, and our environment -- "promoting the common good in all its forms" in the words of Pope Benedict XVI; are all integral. Catholicism is not a single-issue faith, and no political party has a monopoly on moral values.
When considering efforts to reduce abortions, pro-life and pro-choice labels often obscure more than enlighten. Americans want bipartisan efforts to help end the abortion stalemate. A 2008 poll from Public Religion Research found that 81 percent of Catholics and 83 percent of all voters want elected officials to back policies that help reduce abortions by working together to prevent unintended pregnancies, expand adoption opportunities, and increase social supports for vulnerable women. In Congress, this holistic agenda is reflected in the Pregnant Women Support Act, sponsored by Sen. Robert Casey Jr., as well as the Preventing Unintended Pregnancies, Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, a bill co-sponsored by pro-life Rep. Tim Ryan and pro-choice Rep. Rosa DeLauro.
Neither political party can truly claim the "pro-life" mantle. In general, Democrats perform better when it comes to anti-poverty initiatives and protecting vital social safety nets, but often don't grapple seriously enough with the reality of over one million abortions performed a year. Many Republicans trumpet their pro-life bona fides, yet fail to back up their rhetoric by fighting for robust social policies that help pregnant women and vulnerable families. Despite intense lobbying from the Catholic Health Association and other faith-based organizations, Bush twice vetoed legislative efforts to reauthorize the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which helps states provide health insurance to children from low-income and working families. Sr. Carol Keehan, CEO of the Catholic Health Association and a respected lobbyist on Capitol Hill, recently described SCHIP as "clearly a pro-life program." President Obama reauthorized the program last year, and it's now on track to provide more than 14 million children with quality health care.
The current debate over health-care reform demonstrates the false choice between "pro-life" or "social justice" advocacy. Ensuring that women and families have access to quality health care can help make abortions less likely and save thousands of lives. The Senate health-care bill, for example, includes significant supports for pregnant women endorsed by pro-life and pro-choice lawmakers. The abortion rate for women living in poverty is more than four times higher than for those earning 300 percent above the poverty line. At a time of economic crisis, any serious effort to prevent abortions must find comprehensive solutions to broader socioeconomic challenges.
A new generation must decide. We can stay mired in stale battles of the past and cling to easy labels or chart a course that honors human life at every stage. I would be the first to applaud an award given to anyone who helps us achieve that elusive victory.
John Gehring is Director of Communications for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.