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Roman Catholic doctrine and abortion

Vice-President Biden is a Roman Catholic. In the recent debate with Paul Ryan he was asked his view of abortion and he said

I accept my church’s position on abortion…. Life begins at conception. That’s the church’s judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews…I just refuse to impose that on others.

So he’s saying that abortion is murder and while he’s certainly not going to be murdering any babies that he’s carrying he’s cool with you murdering yours. Or am I being unfair?


First of all, he only says that life begins at conception. So he is saying that abortion is a deliberate killing. Of course, not just any deliberate killing is a murder. For the catholic church, however, what is significant about human conception is not simply that life begins but that the life of a being in the image of God begins and the taking of such a life is forbidden by the sixth commandment. So if he accepts his church’s position as he says he does then he is saying that abortion is murder.

What is it that he is refusing to impose, what would it be to impose and who is he refusing to impose on? Taking the last first, it sounds like he means everyone— including other Roman Catholics, who presumably count as among the Christians equally devout to him. That makes it sound like purely a matter of taste. I like to make coffee by putting the grounds in the cup and adding boiling water but whilst I recommend it and have persuaded some to try it, I refuse to impose it on anyone. If he does not mean that it’s a matter of taste then he must mean that accepting the church’s doctrine on abortion (that it is murder) is at our liberty and that is the reason he refuses to impose it on anyone. That would confine the question of abortion to a question of the freedom of religious belief but surely the question of abortion is also about what people are free to do. And that takes us back to the first two questions.

 In saying he refuses to impose Biden may mean that abortion shouldn’t be against the law. That may be the political question but to focus on it blurs the deep incoherence of what he is saying. You may wonder why we should bother with unpicking such a thing in a politician: my only answer is that I have a perhaps vain hope that exposing the nonsense of politicians is some constraint on nonsense and on politicians. Moreover, the position he is articulating here is not his alone but is declared by significant numbers of left-wing Roman Catholics.

The ‘it’ in ‘I refuse to impose it….’ could refer to any or all of the church’s position on abortion, its doctrine about life or its judgement of someone who aborts. Imposition might be any or all of classifying abortion as murder, morally condemning aborters as murderers and outlawing abortion.  This means that there are three fairly wacky relativisms buried in his refusal to impose.

Refusing to classify other people’s abortion as murder is either a meaningless declaration of refusing to say out loud that they are murderers or saying that although in his case abortion would be murder in their case it would not be murder. In case you think that this sounds just too ridiculous to be discussed, consider that this kind of possibility seems to be the actual position of the law at the moment, as is evidenced by this case. If the mother had aborted the child by use of the drug in question she would not have been charged with murder but the father is being charged with murder because the father is claimed to have aborted the child by giving the mother the drug. Yes, this is an example of the law systematically discriminating against men in a most extraordinary way, but that is not the issue here.

So here, VP Biden’s position is whether a specific act of abortion is murder depends on whether the mother affirms the church’s position on abortion. If this holds for abortion why shouldn’t it hold for other killings? Sure, if you affirm the church’s position that deliberate killing is murder then your killing of me would be murder, but if deny it then my killing of you wouldn’t be. 

The second relativism is that, whilst all abortion is murder, whether you are morally condemnable for such a murder depends on whether you affirm the church’s judgement: VP Biden does so he is condemnable but all those other people who deny it are not. Once again, it is hard to see why, if this holds for abortion, it shouldn’t hold for other  killings.

There is a potentially misleading complication because of the gap between the wrongness of the act and the moral responsibility of the actor. Full moral condemnation of a wrong act requires full moral responsibility for the act. So what about the case in which a mother has a blamelessly mistaken belief (perhaps she was badly brought up) about whether abortion is murder? A genuine excuse for a wrong act requires that we ease off on the condemnation. When stated baldly, however, I think it is clear that this is not what a refusal to impose the church’s judgement amounts to. For one may impose the church’s judgement in general whilst weakening or withholding the condemnation of someone who is blamelessly morally ignorant.  

With the last point in mind I think it is clear that this second relativism entails the first relativism since it is difficult to see how it would be coherent to hold that any abortion is a murder, that murder is morally wrong and yet that whether an aborter is  morally condemnable as a murderer depends on whether they accept the church’s judgement. For the entailment to fail would require a case in which whilst abortion is murder and murder is wrong, the aborter is not morally condemnable for the murder just because and only because (to exclude the cases of blameless moral ignorance) she does not accept the church’s judgement of her act.

The third relativism is that whilst abortion should be against the law for you if you affirm the church’s position it shouldn’t be against the law for you if you deny it. Once again, this relativism may entail the first two, and even if it doesn’t it doesn’t make much sense without the first two. The ground for abortion being against the law is that it is murder and murder is a wrong so severe that moral condemnation cannot stop at censure but must extend to repression. So if abortion shouldn’t be against the law for you, you cannot be condemnable as a murderer for it and therefore (by the earlier point) it can’t be murder for you, all of this being just because and only because you don’t affirm the church’s position.

This relativism amounts to a claim for privilege, that is to say, for different laws applying to persons of different social status for no other reason than that difference in social status: the lord may kill the serf but the serf may not kill the lord; the denier may kill the baby but the affirmer may not. Such privilege is one of formal defects of law that the creators of English liberty set aside as improper law. A further and obvious defect is that, once again, it is hard is to see why this relativism should be confined to abortion rather than extended to all killings.

So, let us return to the question of whether I am fair to characterise VP Biden as saying that abortion is murder and while he’s certainly not going to be murdering any babies that he’s carrying he’s cool with you murdering yours.

For a start, he might not be saying that he is cool with you murdering your babies but rather, whilst he condemns you as a murderer, abortion is a moral wrong that the law should tolerate. Such a position would do him no credit: laws which permit murder are defective at their core. But consider what he went on to say:

I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women, they can’t control their body. It’s a decision between them and their doctor, in my view. And the Supreme Court — I’m not going to interfere with that.

Philosophers have a delicate word, ‘tension’, for cases in which one thing, whilst not inconsistent with another, is in some strong sense incompatible with it. This statement is in tension with condemning women who have abortions as murderers. Yes, he need not utter his moral condemnation out loud, but was that his point? So I don’t think this can be his position.

I could be being unfair if he was in fact affirming some combination of the three relativisms. For then, whilst abortion is murder if he does it, it is not if a denier does it so he’s cool with deniers having abortions because it isn’t a murder (just because and only because they are deniers). I haven’t analysed the relativisms in detail but I think it is obviously no credit to anyone to be affirming them.

  I don’t really know how else you could say I was being unfair. And to turn the screw a bit tighter, if you are a  Roman Catholic who says similar kind of things, I hope you are now clear that the choices are starker than you want them to be: you either reject your church’s teaching on abortion or you condemn abortion as murder and demand it be outlawed. There is no middle ground; pretending there is is intellectually dishonest; your epistemic duty is to go one way or the other.


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2 Comment on this post

  1. I am what Anna Quindlen, Bill Keller call a “cultural Catholic” and I find this post long, convoluted and redundant. I accept abortion until there are signs of a neural system sufficient to receive the Acquisition of Immaterial Individuality, or Personhood or if you like Ensoulment. Acceptance of abortion in “cases of incest or rape” reflect cultural values, however acceptibng in the case of imminent danger for the mothers’ health has a different logic a bit like the dilemma of the person deciding of pushing a person under a trolley to save a bunch of passengers.

  2. Biden may recognise that his position on the moral status of an embryo derives from his acceptance of church authority and that the issue is sufficiently ambiguous to permit those who do not accept this authority to be equally justified in reaching the opposite conclusion. In this case it would be wrong to legislate to impose this religiously-derived view on the whole population.
    It does not seem reasonable to choose an ethical stance just because it is the party line, as the first Biden quote suggests he is doing, but at least he then remembers to treat this position as part of the rules of his club and not a universal truth.
    It might be more consistent if politicians followed through in absolute terms on what their churches say about judge of their eternal fate, but that way lies theocracy. Convincing people not to expect the law to enforce their religious rules on the sabbath, divorce, etc, has been a significant, if incomplete, achievement. Abortion puts the greatest strain on this principle since, as you point out, it asks some to accept that the state permits what they view to be murder in the absence of a sufficiently strong secular reason to ban it.
    Rather than expecting the elimination of inconsistency, it would seem more productive to encourage the religious politicians who recognise the importance of a secular approach to legislating.

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