The modern political characterization of Joe Biden is one of a bumbling gaffe machine, but he recently gave an interview with America magazine on the papal visit that displayed depth and nuance beyond what you may expect from the current vice president.
One of the more interesting moments came when Biden began discussing his Catholic faith and his political position on abortion. I would encourage you to read the entire discussion to see his exact wording and better grasp the context of it all.
The vice president explained how he was personally pro-life and accepted Catholic teaching on human life beginning at conception, “but what I’m not prepared to do is to impose … a precise view that is born out of my faith, on other people who are equally God-fearing, equally as committed to life, equally as committed to the sanctity of life. I’m prepared to accept that at the moment of conception there’s human life and being, but I’m not prepared to say that to other God-fearing, non-God-fearing people that have a different view.”
Previously, this was a popular framing of the abortion debate. The goal was to keep abortion “safe, legal and rare” to quote Bill Clinton’s famed triangulation of the issue in the 1990s.
Many recent treatments of the debate have tended to view only pro-life individuals as extreme or out of touch with most Americans on the abortion issue. But, despite many in the media’s lack of significant coverage and frequently misleading coverage of the Planned Parenthood videos, that footage already has altered and will continue to alter the national conversation.
It is not a coincidence that this interview is the first we’ve heard Biden speak about his personal pro-life convictions. He even went so far as to say pro-life politicians are (and should be) welcome in the Democratic party, which, coincidentally, has a platform plank advocating for unrestricted abortion. All this from a man who is reportedly considering running for president.
Yes, we will see things like #ShoutYourAbortion, but moving forward the position of many will sound more similar to that of the vice president. They recognize a sense of queasiness with abortion personally. They would never have one, but they don’t feel right telling someone else they can’t.
As the atrocities revealed in the Planned Parenthood videos continue to take root in people’s minds, we will see more distance themselves from abortion personally, but fail to do so societally.
Most don’t realize this is already the case for many. While the two poles of the abortion debate each capture somewhere between a third and a fifth of the population at any given time, most Americans live somewhere in the middle.
According to the most recent Gallup poll, 49% want some restrictions on abortion without making it completely illegal (or legal). It’s this half of the country that will determine the future of the abortion debate.
Those of us who are pro-life need to be prepared to respond to individuals like the vice president who oppose abortion personally, but want to see it remain legal as a means of birth control. (Just to be clear, this is not a discussion about the rare cases when doctors are medically forced to choose between saving the life of the mother or the child.)
So how do we help the Joe Bidens of the world understand why their personal avoidance of abortion should become a political opposition to it? I think we remind them of two things—their response to other issues and our shared history of oppression.
Remind them of other issues.
Earlier in the interview, Biden spoke passionately about climate change and Pope Francis’ challenge to address that issue. Later, the vice president shared how his political perspective is informed by his faith. He says what drives him politically is a desire to correct abuses of power and that comes from his understanding of the Catholic faith.
Yet, only a few questions later, Biden says he does not want to force his understanding of faith on anyone else through enacting a policy on abortion. He fails to see the contradiction between his faith informing his desire to act on climate change and his faith informing what should be his desire to act on abortion.
Pro-life individuals have to gently show those who are similar to the vice president they already allow their belief system (whatever it may be) to influence and guide their political decisions. It is no less acceptable for that to happen on issues like civil rights or tax policy or war than it is for it to happen on abortion.
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of how his Christian faith motivated him in the quest for equality and civil rights. Virtually every politician, no matter the party, share how they are influenced by their belief system. President Barack Obama has frequently, so has former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But suddenly, when it comes to abortion, many want to separate their personal opinions from their political actions. Not only is that not necessary, it is not tenable. If your belief system means anything at all, it will spill over into your actions, including how you vote on issues like abortion.
Remind them of our history.
The flippant position many abortion advocates take is one of “If you don’t like abortions, don’t have one.” Most of the individuals in the middle would not express their opinion that way, but it amounts to something similar. They don’t like abortions, so they don’t have them, but they don’t want to impose that on anyone else. Just to be blunt: how did that work for slavery?
No, I do not think abortion and slavery are exactly the same, but there are parallels when it comes to how people have defended each of them and how others refused to become involved despite their personal beliefs on the topic.
Could those who were opposed to slavery simply sit back, not own slaves themselves, and assume that everything was morally acceptable because they didn’t want to force their beliefs about the humanity of the slaves on anyone else? Of course not, it’s absurd to think that. If slaves were humans (and they were), the way they were treated was a black mark on the heart of our nation.
If the unborn are humans (and Biden says he believes they are and I agree), the way our country treats them is a matter of shame and we are morally blameworthy for allowing it to continue. We cannot simply call them humans, but say we can’t be bothered to do anything about it.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” MLK wrote to white clergy who ostensibly agreed with his position on civil rights, but felt he was acting too hasty and irresponsibly. It is astonishing how much of that letter can be applied to our current discussion on abortion. He famously wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
If someone personally recognizes that abortion ends a human life, they should recognize that our casual mistreatment of that life undermines the value of all lives and it further hides the truth that all life is created in the image of God. Vice President Biden affirmed this belief, but failed to recognize how it practically applies to the most vulnerable among us.
To paraphrase Dr. King: Any injustice in the womb is a threat to all justice outside of it. If those who recognize abortion for what it is—the ending of a human life—refuse to oppose it, who will?
Personally pro-life, but politically pro-choice is trying to be pro-choice without the guilt and pro-life without courage. Those of us who are consistently pro-life must help individuals like the vice president recognize the reason for the guilt and find the need for the courage.