The National Catholic Review

'Better to lose with Bush than win with McCain?' "I’m pro-life." Simple as that. At least according to presidential candidate George Bush. But this simple sentence has become as empty as its opposite formulations, "I’m pro-choice," or "I’m for a woman’s right to choose."

The contents of these slogan sentences are empty because they lack the qualifications that could make any sense of them.

What does pro-life mean? Are you against taking the lives of roaches and rats, trees and tulips, chimps and collies? Oh, "human" life, you say. Then does that include people in Iraq and Belgrade, criminals on death row, muggers in the mean streets? For George W. Bush, he apparently means only "innocent human lives," especially if they are unborn.

He should just say it. "I’m pro-innocent human life." Then we will not be confused if this "pro-life" governor has taken responsibility for executing criminals. Bush, after all, as the governor of Texas since 1994, has had personal involvement in the premeditated, intentional killing of 120 human beings. They werehe says he is absolutely sure of the fact"guilty." (One may accept this distinction and even his awesome metaphysical certitude about others’ guilt, though it might be difficult to square with a politician who enlists Christ as his primary political inspiration.)

The "pro-choice" mantra is equally empty. This has to be the most vacuous phrase ever uttered, for no one is ever simply pro-choiceespecially if your "choice" is to take away my choice; even more so, if your "choice" is to take away my property or my life. No sane person is "pro-choice" without qualification.

Many people who mouth "pro-choice" code words are quite willing to restrict choices in certain areas of life, from securing seat belts to skinning seals. And does a "woman’s right to choose" include the choice to kill a spouse, a disagreeable teenager or a colic-driven, screaming baby?

Bradley and Gore spent their campaigns falling all over each other trying to be the most "pro-choice" candidate. What they meant is that they were unconditional advocates of any woman’s right to choose to have any abortion.

Why don’t they just say it? Is it because the realities are often too repulsive? Or is it the fact that they don’t want to confront any case that might embarrass their rigid absolutism? Even if you pray before the ideological icon of "reproductive freedom," there must be some uneasiness in such blind faith.

Does a woman’s right to choose abortion apply under every circumstance and for any reason? Are Gore and Bradley for the right to abort a female fetus simply because a boy is preferred? Do they support the right to choose only genetically heterosexual babies? Do they think any third-trimester, unborn human can be terminated for any reason? To sell its body parts? To use it for science? To go on a suddenly available vacation or please a domineering male who doesn’t want another kid in the house? None of these questions are ever raised, since no one wants to discuss realities. They want to spiel sound bites.

The use of empty sloganeering is most recently seen in the "compassionate conservative" motif. Anything one wants to do can be magically dressed as "compassionate," if wishing makes it so. On this account, capital punishment is compassionate, but allowing abortion to a desperate and confused woman is not. Encouraging someone to pick himself up by his own bootstraps is compassionate, while providing him the means for doing so is not.

This postmodern construction of compassion is tellingly seen in Governor Bush’s notion that "giving back taxes" to "the people who paid them" is more compassionate than sharing the bounty of the last decade with people who are most needy. "The rich pay most of the taxes. It’s their money. It should go back to them." Compassion like this freezes the heart as fast as it fills pockets.

It was McCain’s opposition to such compassion that infuriated many Republicans. McCain charged that 60 percent of the benefits from Bush’s tax cuts would go to the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. For Rush Limbaugh types this was tantamount to a Democratic-style "class warfare." The radio bands hummed with appropriate ditto-head outrage.

For McCain, compassion might be given those who have profited least from the economic boom of the last 10 years, even though they have worked hard to make our country a sound, serviceable and secure one. This was behind McCain’s rhetoric of "generosity" and "service to a cause greater than one’s self- interest." Many Republicans, it seems, would have none of this. No matter how well documented McCain’s commitment to the unborn, no matter how resolute he has been on other conservative causes, his talk of money, whether in campaign finance reform or in using the budget surplus for debt reduction, Social Security and Medicare steamed them. To top things off, his modest tax relief for the middle class blew their gaskets. Even though he proved that he could draw Democrats to the pro-life side in the general election, it was muttered, "better to lose with Bush than to win with McCain."

Do Republicans have more compassion for upper-income brackets than for the unborn? Would they really rather have Al Gore than a McCain who calls for economic fairness as well as the right to life?

Just curious. For it is a curious compassion indeed, from a curious man named George in a curious political party. John F. Kavanaugh, S.J.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.