Home Opinion Newspaper has fallen on the wrong side of abortion dispute

Newspaper has fallen on the wrong side of abortion dispute

Richard Doerflinger
Richard Doerflinger, who worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, writes the "A More Human Society" column for Catholic News Service. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)


The Senate debate over a new U.S. Supreme Court nomination has revived an older debate: whether that court should overrule its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision declaring a “right” to abortion. A publication called the National Catholic Reporter has entered that debate, on the wrong side.

NCR has criticized church teaching on sex and procreation for many years. But its July 27 editorial against protection for unborn children breaks new ground in dismissing Catholic social teaching and some basic facts.

To begin with the teaching: The church holds that government must respect the innate dignity and rights of everyone. The first and most basic right, the condition for all others, is the right to life. If that right is not inherent in each member of the human family, it is not a basic right but a privilege, which government can grant to some but not others based on what it favors at a given time.

And as many abortion advocates now admit, the child in the womb is a living human being. (Even the Supreme Court has spoken of respect for the “life” of the unborn in recent years, abandoning the incoherent term “potential life” used in Roe.)

So Roe v. Wade is an unjust law. It has no moral authority and should be reversed, like past laws discriminating against black Americans, people with mental disabilities, members of minority religions and Americans of Japanese descent.

NCR ignores this human rights teaching, relying instead on practical arguments borrowed from Planned Parenthood’s former research affiliate, the Guttmacher Institute. Let me comment on three of these.

Claim No. 1: “Criminalizing abortion is not the answer.”

NCR even cites an uninformed (and quickly retracted) comment by then-presidential candidate Donald Trump to suggest that pro-life laws could impose criminal penalties on women as well as abortionists, though the pro-life movement rejects this idea. In any case, pro-life laws — not only criminal laws but even modest regulations on issues like informed consent and parental involvement — reduce abortions. And Roe poses a threat even to such laws.

In 2016, the Supreme Court knocked down a Texas law requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges at a local hospital so they can address complications, and to obey safety standards that govern other outpatient surgical clinics. Why? Because the court saw the law as intended to reduce ready access to abortion.

Claim No. 2: The way to reduce abortion is more contraception.

NCR even claims that a decline in abortion rates after 2011 was due to the contraceptive mandate in the Obama health care plan. Yet studies have shown no decline in abortions from contraceptive programs or contraceptive coverage mandates.

The abortion rate has declined steadily since 1981, regardless of different administrations’ birth control policies. The most recent decline seems largely due to a dramatic decline in teen sexual activity and an increase in the proportion of pregnant women who let their babies live.

Claim No. 3: Laws against abortion only lead to dangerous “back-alley” abortions.

This claim was made against bans on public funding of abortion in the 1970s, and was disproved. Even Guttmacher has admitted that such bans reduce abortions among the women affected.

NCR also ignores the hundreds of women dying from legal abortions since Roe was issued. Slate magazine is among those documenting this tragedy in its 2011 series “The Back Alley: How the Politics of Abortion Protects Bad Clinics.”

NCR’s editors do endorse material assistance for pregnant women’s needs, and that is welcome. What they ignore is the question: Why should government bother with real assistance, as long as it elevates to a constitutional right the solution that is quick, simple, bad for women and unjust?

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Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.