Can we ever get beyond the banality of abortion politics?

Peace & Justice

How disturbing it is to strain to hear the videoed conversation: Between sips of wine and tinkling salad forks, the discussion focuses on how best to crush human fetuses and how best to evacuate them from the womb to maximize trade-in for tiny lungs, hearts, livers, and brains. 

Utterly chilling. How is any human being capable of speaking so blithely about such horror? Do slaughterhouse workers ever speak so nonchalantly about dismembering calves and lambs? No humanity. Is there not even any concern for the mother, the woman whose health is put at risk to more valuably harvest the choice human parts?

Still confused about what Pope Francis means when he repeats over and over, “This economy kills?” Really? If we’re at all human, pity, anger, unbearable sadness, and disgust roil inside us.

And yet, how banal has been the political reaction. Within minutes after the release of the video, Twitter hashtags, cable news programming, and online media quickly devolved into a tired pattern. Pro-life versus pro-choice, progressives versus conservatives, Democrats versus Republicans, posturing everywhere. The frozen geometry of America’s abortion politics relegates even this shocking exposé to business as usual.  Following the familiar script, next we can expect pro-life and pro-choice groups to use the incident for fundraising. Susan B. Anthony List will use the video to turn out voters against Democrats in purple states. Emily’s List will spin the production of the video into the “war against women” conspiracy meme that always works so well against Republicans. Where’s our humanity?


Our humanity disappears in the invisible hands of an economy where there is a market for the human pieces of our unborn. Humanity disappears in the posturing of politics as usual that grinds even this horrific video into grist for fundraising and electioneering. Is there no way to break free from these dehumanizing logics and at least achieve some progress against abortion?

Fetal Pain Bill

Regarding such progress, do you know about the Fetal Pain Bill currently in Congress? It’s a bill that would ban abortion five and half months after conception, when many agree that the fetus feels pain. Thanks to advances in neonatal care, that’s also when babies are now sometimes viable outside the womb. Noting these medical advances, most European countries no longer allow abortions after three or four months. So, five and half month legislation sounds like a no-brainer, right? Not for America’s abortion politics.

When introduced in the House by GOP tactician Trent Franks (R-AZ), it was drafted with demeaning reporting requirements for victims of incest and rape that strategists knew would make it hard for Democrats to support. In the ensuing uproar, even many GOP Congresswomen rejected it over that language, not to mention Democrats. In May, with only minor changes, the bill was finally forced through the House. Its prospects in the Senate, though, look dismal. Again, a few Republican women (like Senators Murkowski and Collins) may not support it because of the demeaning reporting requirements. In the Senate, bills need 60 votes to pass filibuster and there are 54 GOP senators; do the math. If the bill is missing two or three GOP votes, then it would need eight or nine Democrat votes. No GOP outreach to the Democrats is evident. Might we wonder then, was the bill ever intended for passage or always just for partisan gamesmanship? The rumor in Washington is that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the bill’s principal sponsor Senator Lindsey Graham plan to bring the bill up for vote in conjunction with the visit of Pope Francis to Washington. Just coincidence, right?

Kristen Day and Charles Camosy

But wait. What if we could turn the table on abortion politics as usual? What if we could short-circuit the gamesmanship and actually pass the Fetal Pain bill? Instead of Planned Parenthood’s harvesting of organs, this could mean thousands of welcomed new lives. Enter Professor Charles Camosy, a theologian at Fordham, and Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America (DFLA). (Disclosure: I’m on the DFLA board.)


Camosy reasoned that in order to pass the bill, the deal needs to be sweetened for pro-life Democrats and women legislators of both parties. If anyone is serious about passage, he noted, then fuse the bill with policies that would benefit at risk mothers—policies that would appeal broadly to Democrats and to many women’s interests. He proposed linking the bill with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-NY) legislation for paid maternity leave and similar benefits for all working families—something, by the way, that every other nation on the planet provides. DFLA’s Kristen Day, seizing on Camosy’s idea, proposed additional linkages, this time to Senator Robert Casey’s (D-PA) expansion of the Pregnancy Assistance Fund. This proposal supports women unable to meet the costs of pregnancy and maternity and introduces new legislation for perinatal hospices that care for mother or child when either face severe health risks.  

Catholics should notice something else here. By connecting the Fetal Pain Bill with perinatal help for crisis pregnancies, with support for women otherwise unable to afford their pregnancy, or with a nationwide policy for paid maternity leave, Day  and Camosy’s proposal weaves together the strands of what the church calls “the consistent ethic of life” in ways that make it easier for America to choose life.

Day and Camosy went to Capitol Hill, knocking on the doors of senators in hopes of saving the Fetal Pain bill with these linkages. Still very much a long-shot, their effort is beginning to find some success. A few of the needed Democrats are onboard. The obstacles remaining, though, are tough ones. Some GOP senators may not vote for the Fetal Pain bill if maternity leave and a program to assist pregnant women are attached. Many Democrats oppose any government regulation of what they view as a matter between a patient and doctor. And the demeaning reporting requirements remain an issue, especially among women legislators.


Still, something new is in play. Want to help turn the table on the business of abortion politics as usual?  Want to help try to really pass the Fetal Pain bill instead of relegating it to more partisan grandstanding? Here’s what you can do. Contact these Senate offices and press for their support in linking the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (S. 1553) with Senator Casey’s Pregnancy Assistance Fund Expansion (S. 221), with support for perinatal hospices, and with Senator Gillibrand’s Family Act (S. 786). Your email definitely gets counted. Think about what’s at stake and give a few minutes to the struggle to advance the cause.


If you’re Republican-leaning, here’s whom to contact, especially if you’re from the Senator’s state. Click on their name to get to their contact information.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC)

Senator Mitch McConnell  (R-KY)

Senator Susan Collins (R-ME)


Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL)

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK)


If you’re Democratic-leaning, here’s whom to contact, especially if you’re from the Senator’s state. Click on their name to get to their contact information.

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA)


Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND)

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL)

Senator Robert Casey (D-PA)

Senator Joe Donnelly (D-IN)


Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV)

Stephen Schneck’s blog, Church and state, will update every Monday. Follow him on Twitter @StephenSchneck.

Image: Flickr cc via Wally Gobetz.

About the author

Stephen Schneck

Stephen Schneck is a Catholic advocate for social justice and former professor at The Catholic University of America. He currently serves on the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.