The National Catholic Review
John F. Kavanaugh

When thinking of moral courage in the context of political life, I have at times imagined a bold politician refusing to support unjust laws. I could see someone who, like Eliot Richardson in those Watergate days, would step down from high office rather than execute the will of a superior who was demanding profound moral compromise. A magistrate would refuse to render judgment based on the racist Nuremberg laws. A police officer would refuse to arrest Rosa Parks. A pilot would refuse to drop napalm on civilians.

Perhaps it is all unrealistic. I felt as much especially while watching Senator John Ashcroft defend his worthiness for the post of attorney general of the United States before the Senate Judiciary Committee. The moralistic puffery of Senator Edward M. Kennedy, his scripted eruptions of outrage, his rising anger at the obsequious nominee, did not bother me much. Nor did the smarmy Republican pronouncements masquerading as questions. What did the trick was Ashcroft himself.

Let me get this straight:

a) Senator Ashcroft believes that abortion, surely after the second trimester, is the brutal killing of a defenseless human being. Even setting aside cases of rape or clear endangerment to the mother (which Ashcroft would not set aside), the justice issue, the sheer violation of human dignity, we may assume, reaches the dimensions of slavery, the Holocaust and the killing of the innocent.

b) This massive violation of human rights, like others that have happened in the past, is now enshrined as the law of the nation.

c) John Ashcroft, a man of supposed impeccable integrity and high principle, is willing to enforce such law.

It is not troubling to think that as attorney general he would relentlessly pursue the bombers of abortion clinics or those lonely snipers who still haunt the hills of desperados. These, after all, are people who have intended to kill or have actually killed other human beings.

But it is troubling to imagine that Attorney General Ashcroft would provide governmental protection and escort for patients and doctors intent on terminating the lives of second- and third-trimester unborn humans who are condemned to death for no other reason than another human’s choice.

If this is not material cooperation, I don’t know what is.

We’re not talking about drinking, smoking or dancing here. We are not concerned with some tenet of a religious faith that would be unfairly imposed in a pluralistic society. Nor is the issue one of “personal preference” or “personal interest,” as Ashcroft pitifully put it, in full capitulation to the pro-choice ideology. What we are dealing with is the intentional killing of human beings.

This truth is repressed in our society. “Choice” ads are regularly aired in gauzy heartfelt celebrations of life. They don’t even mention the object, the thing chosen. It is a non-entity. The law looms, like an impenetrable wall, over the question. In the name of right order and business as usual, it is best not to mention the bloodletting. We must harden our resolve and our blind conviction that we are on the right course. We must not look at the destruction. We must not hear the cries. Is this the kind of rationalized indifference the poor of the world face? Did the Jews of Berlin in 1940 or African Americans in 1840 face such a wall of legalized injustice?

Even to bring this up offends the sensibilities of some. Why harp on this issue? Why not treat other topics? Why be fixated on abortion? Isn’t this a Catholic obsession?

I think not. It can easily be shown that a human fetus at 20 weeks is more like a newborn human in its activities than a newborn is like a teenager. There are a number of very prominent philosophers, all of them “pro-choice,” who admit as much and who likewise apply the “choice-option” to the termination of life outside the womb.

We are involved, then, in an issue that touches us at the deepest roots of our humanity. (I have made clear, at other times, that there can be honest disagreement over the human status of newly conceived or first-trimester humans. Since my own arguments defending conception as the beginning of a human being are both philosophically technical and scientifically challengeable and may in some ways be influenced by my religious commitments, an honest case can be made that such views ought not be imposed in a pluralistic society. It is intellectually dishonest, however, to deny that a 20-week fetus is a little human being.) We are in a society that has made it legally appropriate that we kill such a human being for any reason.

So what would I have imagined John Ashcroft, if he really believes what he says he believes, to utter in the presence of that pontifically senatorial commission weighing his worthiness to enforce such laws? Something like this:

“I have decided that the ethical price of being attorney general, which you seek to exact from me, is too high. I cannot in conscience enforce laws that violate the most defenseless and voiceless of our kind. I would rather spend the next four years inviting others to change such unjust laws, at least in some minimal way, than to affirm their legitimacy.”

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