Imperfect Legislation and Real Victories

There has been a great deal of furor over the Stupak Amendment, which excluded funding for elective abortion from the House health care bill that was passed last week. Most of the ruckus has come from the pro-abortion side.

But some of the criticism has come from pro-lifers, who are upset that the Amendment would still permit federal funding for some abortions — when they are performed in the cases of rape, incest, and to save the life of the mother. Some of these critics have gone so far as to criticize the Bishops for supporting the Amendment, alleging that they have strayed from the position of holding all human lives sacred.

I respect the opinions of these critics. I share their goal of the complete protection of all human life from the moment of conception. I wish it were possible to enact such laws today. But in my opinion it is not possible, and I strongly disagree with the idea that supporting the Stupak Amendment is a sell-out of pro-life values.

There is no doubt that there are many flaws that remain in the House bill, which need to be addressed before Catholics can support it in good conscience. There is also no doubt that the Stupak Amendment falls short of the kind of complete defense of human life that we desire to be enshrined in our law. If it were a stand-alone piece of legislation, we would certainly oppose it. But it was not. It was an effort to mitigate the horrible damage that would have been done by the House health care bill to human life and to our society.

Without the Amendment, every single abortion in the United States — over one million of them — would have been subsidized or paid for in full by federal money. The bill would have enshrined elective abortion as a basic component of health care in the United States. The Stupak Amendment lessens that danger. It doesn’t eliminate it, but it limits it.

To me, any setback to evil, however small it may seem, is a victory. And I’m not alone in this view. One way to tell that the Stupak Amendment is a major step forward for pro-life is to listen to the wailing and gnashing of teeth by the pro-abortion forces, who recognize this as a major defeat for their cause.

The question of whether to support imperfect legislation is is an old argument, and not just in our cause. Back in the days of the abolition movement, William Lloyd Garrison was a tireless advocate for complete and immediate emancipation of all slaves, and he was bitterly critical of those who favored incremental steps towards that goal. During the civil rights struggle, there were many who were denounced as sell-outs or as “Uncle Toms” for their support of limited legislative solutions. These kinds of arguments may make their proponents feel better about themselves, but they distract the movement from the shared goals, damage personal relations, and being discord into what should be God’s good work.

What I particularly find sad is the intemperate tone of some of the attacks on the good faith of the Bishops and others who worked for the passage of the Stupak Amendment. Even in our public advocacy, we have to act as Christians, and treat both our allies and our adversaries accordingly. The angry, nasty tone of talk radio and internet comboxes has no place in discussions among Christians, even those who disagree strongly about means or ends.

This is a time for unity and realism. We must recognize that some kind of heath care reform bill will be passed by both the House and the Senate, and signed into law by the President. We must act together to ensure that whatever bill emerges from the process respects human life to the maximum extent possible under the circumstances. And we have to keep working, for as long as it takes, to transform the hearts and minds of our nation, so that all human life is eventually protected under our law, and abortion becomes inconceivable.

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