John McCain is sitting pretty right now. While the Hillary and Barack slug it out, McCain can begin to frame the November election and to position himself as the candidate best able to attract crucial swing voters. And no voters have more swing in them than ethnic Catholics, concentrated as they are in such critical states as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Missouri. It is a mistake to think that all Catholics are driven by the abortion issue. In fact, it is one of the dirty secrets of American political life that while the most intellectually consistent positions on abortion are found among those with the most extreme pro-life and pro-abortion views, most Americans are deeply ambivalent about the issue. This ambivalence showed itself in various state referenda before Roe v. Wade removed the issue from the legislative process but it remains an uncomfortable fact for both political parties. The Democrats are largely beholden to pro-abortion groups. The GOP is largely beholden to pro-life groups. To the extent that these groups are organized, vocal and can deliver votes, especially during the primary season, they have dominated the debate. John McCain’s position on abortion is about as centrist as a Republican candidate can get. He supports the overturning of Roe and has promised to appoint judges who will not legislate from the bench. He does not endorse a constitutional amendment banning abortion, but instead supports throwing the issue back to the states. Elections are binary choices, so most people who are motivated primarily by a pro-life concern will find his position more congenial than that of either Democratic candidate. I know of no empirical polling data on this specific issue, but my hunch is that those voters who admit to ambivalence about abortion are the same voters who became known as "Reagan Democrats" in the 1980s. They see an unwanted pregnancy first and foremost as a tragedy. They support legal abortion in the case of rape or incest, and also in situations where fetal abnormality promises nothing but hardship for both child and parent. They do not support America’s current "abortion-on-demand" legal regime. I cannot agree with the logic – the Catholic faith sees no reason to punish the child for any of the sins attendant upon its conception, still less because the child is handicapped. But, the animating idea of such ambivalence is not unsound: Parents should deal with the consequences of their own decisions, but in cases where the parent has no moral responsibility for the unwanted pregnancy, these same voters want abortion to be an available, legal, safe option. McCain’s statements on the abortion issue are ideally suited to appeal to those who have not resolved its complexities within their own minds. He vows to appoint judges who will overturn Roe. But he goes beyond that. As his campaign Web site states: "The pro-life movement has done tremendous work in building and reinforcing the infrastructure of civil society by strengthening faith-based, community, and neighborhood organizations that provide critical services to pregnant mothers in need. This work must continue and government must find new ways to empower and strengthen these armies of compassion. These important groups can help build the consensus necessary to end abortion at the state level. As John McCain has publicly noted, ’At its core, abortion is a human tragedy. To effect meaningful change, we must engage the debate at a human level.’" It is difficult to see how anyone except the most ardent pro-abortion forces could quibble with such a claim. But, the two Democratic nominees are loath to offend the pro-abortion constituency. Therein lay McCain’s opportunity. He should be carefully choosing locations to address the issue – speeches at Catholic colleges in the next few weeks are advised – and try to make the Democrats defend the abortion-on-demand system we currently have. I am a lifelong Democrat. But the more I think about the number of abortions we tolerate in this country, the more I have to hold my nose when voting for a pro-abortion candidate. John McCain needs to persuade enough Catholic Democrats to stop holding their nose. Michael Sean Winters

Comments

Anonymous | 4/15/2008 - 2:31pm
Dear Michael: I hope you got my other email about Mr. Weigel's comments about your posting on the Holy Father's visit to the US. As I said, how Weigel can continue to support a war that is reapidly destroying the Christian communities of the Middel East, communities that are the oldest Christian communities in the world, is beyond me. Good, balanced discussion of the abortion issue and the two main parties. In 2004 I could not vote for Kerry given his position on abortion and his support of the Iraq War--so I voted for Walt Brown of the Socialist Party--Walt is pro-life, pro-universal health care and anti-Iraq War--a wonderful combination of views. In 2006 here in Kansas I wrote in the name of a pro-life Democrat in the governor's race to protest Gov. Sebelius's opposition to a ban on late-term abortions. I think, as regards the pro-life issues, broadly defined, that Catholics cannot have any enthusiasm for either party--so all of us will have to hold our noses or protest vote. Keep well. Sincerely, Respectfully and In Christ, Ernest Evans (AKA Your old CUA Professor!!)
Anonymous | 3/31/2008 - 3:38pm
Michael Sean Winters, after you get down holding your nose, you should wipe the blood off your hands. Abortion is murder sir, and to vote for a pro-abortion candidate is to assent to this murder. McCain I have read is in favor of embryonic stem cell research, and this means no thoughtful Catholic has a choice right now. We abort over 1.8 million children in this country every year, and with the earth trembling under a darkening sky, we need to stop this sin--the worst one we commit.
Anonymous | 3/31/2008 - 12:18pm
While John McCain has a position on abortion that is much more "Catholic" than the position of either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama on abortion, all three have positions (and, by extension, our next president will also have a position) contrary to Catholic teaching on embryonic stem cell research. There seems no moral difference to me if an embryo/fetus is aborted or if an embryo is destroyed in a lab so that its stem cells can be harvested for potential medical use. All three candidates justify embryonic stem cell research as scientific advancement, and, in the process, ignore the human personhood of the destroyed embryo. In some ways, McCain's anti-abortion/pro-ESC research positions are much more logically inconsistent than the pro-abortion/pro-ESC research positions taken by Clinton and Obama.
Anonymous | 3/31/2008 - 7:43pm
Michael: Good post. I would also say that BHO (because let's face it, he's the nominee) needs to persuade enough Catholic Democrats to stop holding their nose. Can he do it? I definitely held my nose and voted for John Kerry in 2004. This year, I'm deeply inhaling while volunteering for Obama. So, apparantly, is Andrew Bacevich (endorsing him, that is; I still think he's holding his nose). If Prof. Bacevich is a bellweather for the Catholic vote, it's a good sign for BHO. Ross Douthat has a good post on "pro-lifers and 08" over at the Atlantic.