Fetal Positions

On abortion, Kerry and Bush disagree with themselves as well as each other


The latest word from the Vatican is that John Kerry's still a Catholic. The rumors of his automatic excommunication for supporting abortion rights appear to have been slightly exaggerated. "You can incur excommunication" automatically "only if you procure or perform an abortion," a Vatican official told the Catholic News Service.

I guess that settles it—for those of us whose main concern was Kerry's religious affiliation. But for those of us who are trying to understand his views on abortion, a few questions remain.

"I oppose abortion, personally," Kerry told the Dubuque, Iowa, Telegraph Herald in July. "I believe life does begin at conception."

Yet the senator supports not only unfettered access to abortion but taxpayer-funded subsidies for women who cannot afford the procedure. "I can't take my Catholic belief, my article of faith, and legislate it on a Protestant or a Jew or an atheist," he explained. "We have separation of church and state in the United States of America."

That position would make perfect sense if Kerry were talking about attending Mass or abstaining from meat on Fridays. But abortion is different, isn't it? If "life does begin at conception," abortion is the deliberate taking of a human life, which is the sort of thing that even a completely secular government usually tries to prevent.

The fact that banning abortion is compatible with Catholic doctrine should not in itself prevent the government from acting in this area if there's an independent, nonreligious reason for intervening. Preventing murder seems like a pretty good one. I assume Kerry would not suggest that laws against theft and perjury violate the separation of church and state simply because both of those prohibitions appear in the Ten Commandments.

If you don't buy the separation-of-church-and-state argument, Kerry has a backup. "You can take that position and not be pro-abortion," he said in his second debate with President Bush, "but you have to afford people their constitutional rights."

How does Kerry know that women have a constitutional right to abortion? Because the Supreme Court said so. Never mind that the Constitution says nothing about abortion, or that what it says about privacy cannot reasonably be interpreted as dictating which state restrictions on the practice are permissible.

You'd think that someone who believes "life does begin at conception" would be a little more curious about whether the Supreme Court might have made a mistake when it overrode the decisions of state legislatures regarding abortion. Instead Kerry promises that "I will not allow somebody to come in and change Roe v. Wade."

In Kerry's view, the Constitution requires the government not only to allow abortion but to pay for it. "Afford[ing] people their constitutional rights," he said in the second presidential debate, means "making certain that you don't deny a poor person the right to be able to have whatever the Constitution affords them if they can't afford it otherwise."

This is a startling doctrine, quite apart from its implications for abortion policy. It suggests that my right to free speech requires the government to buy me a printing press—or, at least, a computer with Internet access (and here I was charging my employer for that). And I guess my right to the free exercise of religion requires the government to pay my synagogue dues.

On the face of it, Bush takes a more intellectually honest approach to abortion. "I stand for the appointment of federal judges who know the difference between personal opinion and the strict interpretation of the law," he said in an October 16 radio address.

As supporters of abortion rights know, that's code for judges who recognize that Roe v. Wade is based on a highly imaginative reading of the Constitution. But despite his belief in "the strict interpretation of the law," Bush has repeatedly criticized Kerry for voting against the federal ban on "partial birth" abortion, which rests on equally shaky constitutional ground.

I'm not suggesting Kerry opposed the law because it exceeds Congress' authority to regulate interstate commerce. In fact, he says he would have supported it if it had included an exception for abortions deemed necessary to protect "the health of the mother"—a change that would not have brought the law within the powers the Constitution grants the federal government.

Still, it would be nice if one of the candidates took a position on abortion that was consistent with his professed beliefs.