This isn’t just an anti-abortion spiel, in which the author makes the debatable determination that fetuses are babies and therefore abortion is murder. Biden is the one saying fetuses are people–and he’s been saying it for years.
He said it in the 2012 vice presidential debate, when he declared he believed Catholic teaching that human life begins at the moment of conception. He said it again in September in an interview with the Jesuit-run America Media.
“I’m prepared to accept that the moment of conception is human life in being,” Biden said, “but I’m not prepared to say that to other God-fearing, non-God-fearing people that have a different view.”
The priest interviewing him hadn’t even asked him why he supported legal abortions. The priest just asked if it was hard for him to be publicly at odds with church teaching.
“I don’t want to start a theological discussion. I’ll get in trouble, that’s above my pay grade,” Biden joked, before stating that, “Abortion is always wrong.”
Earlier in the interview he said, “My faith is so consistent with my public policy.”
From climate change to income redistribution, much of Biden’s politicking seems to line up with church teaching on good stewardship of the earth and social justice. But his record on abortion is mixed. Over several decades in the U.S. Senate, Biden cast a few pro-life votes–notably against partial birth abortion–but largely defended abortion access.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is unequivocal on the issue. Under the heading of the fifth commandment (sixth commandment for non-Catholics), “You shall not kill,” the Catechism states:
The Catechism goes on to call for civil laws protecting the “right to life” of the unborn.
In essence, the Catholic Church teaches that fetuses are people and says the law should protect those people from being killed.
Biden says he agrees that fetuses are people, but he won’t use the law to stop abortions.
How is this not murder?
Pro-choice and Catholic
In grappling with this moral conundrum, I spoke with a number of self-identified pro-choice Catholics. (All of them said that I could use their names, but out of respect for the sensitivity of the topic, I decided to keep them anonymous here.)
“I struggle a great deal with some Church teachings, but I always taken that to be a good thing—one should struggle and wrestle with their faith,” one told me. “It strengthens it.”
Several said they personally believe Church teaching, meaning they wouldn’t pursue an abortion if they or a loved one became pregnant, but that they couldn’t impose that belief on others through legal restrictions.
Another appealed to the centuries-old debate about ensoulment–that is, when does a fetus get an immortal soul? It’s a question that has vexed Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and Biden alluded to it in his America Media interview (though he didn’t say what he thought of it).
But again, the church's teaching on abortion is clear. Why do some Catholics oppose legal restrictions?
“[C]ultural influence is the only way to approach abortion,” said one. “Women lack access to medical care, prenatal care, child care services, child medical services, social services and job protection. They lack information about their own sexual agency and health. Adoption and foster care is incredibly difficult in the US, and the system is overwhelmed. I truly feel if the Church threw its whole weight behind providing housing, education, and services to women and children not as many women would need abortions.”
“I think we as Catholics can prevail by encouraging others to adopt our morals, not by attempting to force them to do so,” another told me.
They echo the words of the late, longtime Democratic governor of New York, Mario Cuomo.
In a 1984 address at Notre Dame, Cuomo argued that Catholics should shift the abortion debate by “[p]ersuading not coercing” and “[l]eading people to truth by love.” He said:
Some see this as moral, political realism. Others see it as nothing but a convenient, bloody dodge.
Biden’s fuzzy ethics
Theological discussions are above my pay grade too, Joe.
But I feel pretty confident in saying the optics here are brutally disturbing. Biden says he believes fetuses are human beings, but he won’t defend their right to life. If I were Biden, and I deeply, truly believed that both a) fetuses are people and that b) abortion access is a right that should be protected with state force, I think I’d tread much more cautiously, if I ever spoke about it at all. I certainly wouldn’t use it as a campaign issue, thumping my opponents for waging a “war on women.”
Perhaps Biden’s position is just that: not moral, merely politically convenient. Only God knows his heart.
Most of the pro-choice Catholics with whom I spoke said Biden’s views lined up pretty well with theirs, while admitting qualms and quibbles with both Biden and the Catholic Church. The difference, of course, is that Biden is in a position to effect real legal changes – it’s not just a theoretical question for him.
Is he ethically consistent, saying abortion is wrong but abortion access should be protected?
One of the pro-choice Catholics said no.
“I'm conflicted on Joe Biden,” the pro-choice Catholic who raised the ensoulment question said over Facebook chat. “Because I *don't* believe that ‘true’ human life begins at conception (i.e. with a soul), it is easier for me to explain why I am pro-[choice] and Catholic.”
I wholeheartedly agree with the other pro-choice Catholics that Christians can and should do more to promote a genuinely life-affirming culture, to help cut out the perceived social need for abortion.
But if a fetus is a human life? Murder is murder. I don't think Biden's breezy ethics do the moral question justice.
Zach Noble is a journalist who has covered everything from the OPM hack to a rescue dog's retirement party. He's been wrestling to reconcile his bleeding heart Catholicism with his pragmatic libertarianism since that freshman year love affair with Ayn Rand. He tweets erratically as @thezachnoble.