I was a student at Notre Dame in 1984 when then governor of New York Mario Cuomo came to campus and gave a much heralded/much reviled speech that attempted to reconcile his pro-abortion policies with his Catholicism. His "personally opposed but cannot impose my beliefs on others" argument has since become the mantra for over a generation of pro-abortion Catholic politicians. Recently in my junior morality class, we had occasion to re-visit his speech. Here's my brief response to Cuomo's argument, some 25 years later:
Cuomo treats a civil right, the right to live, as if it were a matter of personal taste. All laws, especially those which protect the most vulnerable of parties, are founded not on preference or private sentiment, but upon a fundamental belief about the natural rights of man, rights that precede civil society and those which governments must protect to remain legitimate.
The Catholic Church does not believe abortion is wrong because it says so. Nor is the argument against abortion one from Scripture. The Church opposes abortion because it destroys our most basic right – the right to life –the foundation for all other rights. The Church does not “create” right and wrong; rather, it derives right and wrong from the natural order of things. Cuomo’s argument that “because I am Catholic, I am opposed to abortion, but as governor I cannot impose my religious views on my constituents” assumes the Church is making a sectarian religious argument that only applies to Catholics (a belief about the Eucharist or Mary, for example). But a natural rights argument is not a sectarian one. The same sentiment that inspires us to protect the rights of the criminally accused, that cares for the poor or that protects ethnic minorities--constituencies but for our nobler instincts could easily be taken advantage of – animates our laws. Those instincts are not “Catholic” ones, but human.
The flaw in Cuomo’s logic can be most easily shown by substituting other crimes into the formula: “I am personally opposed to rape, but I cannot impose my views on my constituents.” “I am personally opposed to murder, to slavery, to robbery... but I can't impose my views.” Because these crimes trample upon the civil liberties of others, their prohibition is rightly enshrined in law and punishable by imprisonment.
Governments exist to protect and extend what our founders called “certain unalienable rights” and that “among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Indeed, the very justification of our Declaration of Independence from England was that “whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter (or to abolish) it.”
The right to life is the most basic of all civil liberties. Our leaders have a duty to alter laws that don’t protect it adequately, independent of their religious convictions, pro or con.
Abortion is not a “religious” issue.