A moral issue of supreme relevance

Published 7:20 pm Thursday, May 21, 2009

All the most interesting issues are moral in character, having to do with how we behave and why. The most interesting story of the past week — with due respect to Nancy Pelosi and other outliers — had to do with abortion, a moral issue of very supreme relevance, no matter of the depth or nature of one’s views on the matter. There was first of all a Gallup Poll. Then there was a presidential visit to Notre Dame University.

Polls never prove anything. At best, they point, but that’s something. The Gallup Poll I have in mind pointed to a growing unease about abortion — a sense of wait-a-second-here-what-are-we-doing?

The poll said, for the first time since 1995, when Gallup began asking the question, a majority of Americans — 51 percent — identify themselves as pro-life. Last year it was 44 percent. Moreover, “about as many Americans now say [abortion] should be illegal all circumstances (23 percent) as say it should be legal under any circumstance (22 percent).”

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Leave it there for the moment. What of Notre Dame and its invitation to President Obama, the country’s most visible backer of abortion rights, to deliver the commencement address? What, specifically, of the strenuous and very public objections that many Roman Catholic leaders, including bishops, raised to the idea of a Catholic university’s offering an abortion backer honors and access? Not such decisive objections that the president stayed away, because he did come and speak. Not such objections as made him rethink his position, because he didn’t. Objections, nonetheless, that help define and clarify our main modern moral debate.

Clarify it how? In terms of what’s to be said for the pro-abortion position. Answer: nothing new and not much. The President’s speech in general wasn’t a bad one. It had good applause lines about living “as one human family” with “fair-minded words” for each other while engaging “hearts and minds.”

For the turmoil over what is owed unborn human life on — a moral perplexity for which the federal government, via Roe v. Wade, bears major responsibility — the President offered no solution, no cure. He acknowledged that “at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable.” He prescribed, among other things, the prevention of unintended pregnancies, more adoption, “care and support” for women, and “respect for the equality of women.” Quality boilerplate, all of it, for cover exit cover as the speaker moved past things he preferred not talking about.

Two points here: 1) The President attempted no moral pushback against the moral arguments of the other side; but, then, 2) no one else attempts it anymore. No one, that is, outside the fever swamps inhabited by the likes of NARAL Pro-Choice America, where the mere questioning of a woman’s right to abort is tantamount to confession of moral insensitivity, if not primitive chauvinism.

Politics, that strange pursuit in which the issue of abortion should never have been immersed to begin with, provides no solutions here. From the political standpoint, there’s really nothing to be said, other than what the President said. What has to be said, and is said at more normal levels of life, is that we’ve got a big problem here, irreconcilable by the norms of public engagement.

That leaves morality — the view of life through lenses other than those provided by people who make their livings on the public payroll. The Gallup Poll is evidence of something that may be going on, morally speaking: shifts in conviction, in outlook, in belief. What kinds of shifts? The kind that could turn the nation back once more to the broad conviction it shared prior to the 1960s? The conviction that human life — for that’s what it is — deserves at least as deep concern as free-range chicken and migrating salmon receive in an age of extraordinary anxieties?

We’ll see. Meanwhile, let’s not underestimate the kind of moral reasoning the President ducked at Notre Dame. It’s deep; it’s old. And it’s been known to have amazing effects.