July 25, 2017 (Priests for Life) — There is a tremendous amount of momentum and new resolve in the pro-life movement, building on the 2016 election victories and the continued victories in the special elections held in recent months.
But in some pro-life circles, a certain political cynicism raises its ugly head, and it is dangerous to our mission. When things don’t happen quickly enough, our pro-life congressmen and senators are accused of being cowardly, traitorous or lazy politicians. We often say, in regard to passing pro-life legislation, that we need to put pressure on those we elected and “hold their feet to the fire.” While it is true that our legislators are accountable to us, the people they represent, we need to avoid an attitude of distrust, doubt, and expectant failure. We are the ones who put these people in office, and before we talk about their feet, we should talk about their arms. As Aaron and Hur held up Moses’ arms during a battle in which the Israelites were engaged, so must we “hold up the arms” of our elected lawmakers. As long as Aaron and Hur continued to support Moses, the Israelites were winning. But as soon as they dropped their support, they started losing. The victory was dependent on their active support. And support is not passive or automatic.
We, too, need to support our elected officials. When we elect them, we willingly share in the burden of their responsibility. We do not vote them in and then take a back seat and watch what they can do for us. Our government is by the people and for the people. That means we need to be directly involved and be ready to stand with them actively in any pro-life battle rather than take a judgmental attitude toward them. We affirm pro-life members of Congress by actively backing them up. This is not a dynamic of “them” against “us.” We are in this together. When they succeed, we succeed. In engaging a positive spirit to affirm them, we affirm ourselves, and the fact that our votes make a difference. And they do.
But you wouldn’t know it by the comments that some pro-life activists voice.
Part of the criticism comes from a lack of understanding. Creating or changing legislation does not happen overnight. Some believe that after we vote people in, we should expect immediate change. But the legislative process simply doesn't work that way. It took a decade for the ban on partial birth abortion to be passed, signed into law, and ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court. This seems like a long time, and it is in regard to the urgent battle to save human life, but the lawmaking process is long and tedious. We need to understand the landscape; after all, we are part of it.
Now I am not saying we shouldn't aim high and work fast. Quite the contrary. Nor am I commenting here on the complex dynamics involved in the current effort to repeal and replace Obamacare. I applaud the President and Senate and House leaders who are working to get this done as quickly and thoroughly as possible. My point here, instead, is to push back on the cynicism that too quickly cries “betrayal” in pro-life ranks and that often fails to appreciate the complexities of the lawmaking process.
Currently, and with very narrow exceptions, to get pro-life legislation passed, Republicans need a 60-vote “supermajority” in the US Senate. (One of those exceptions, we should note, is the process being used right now for the health care bill.) But regarding other pro-life legislation, the “supermajority” just does not exist right now. With next year's midterm elections, our goal must be to reach that supermajority. In the meantime, strong pro-life measures like the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act face that steep Senate hurdle because pro-abortion Democrats will filibuster pro-life legislation. That is where the 60 vote majority is needed, to break the filibuster and bring the legislation to a vote. One would think that a simple majority — 51 — is enough to do what has to be done. But it's not. These are Senate rules, and recognizing their constraints is not the same as a lack of courage or a betrayal on the part of pro-life officials we elected.
Some are frustrated and think Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell should change the Senate rule to allow a simple majority. (This is what some Democrats said they should do if Hillary had been elected.) But the counter-argument on both sides is that if the majority party is again in the minority some day, they would need that filibuster to prevent harmful legislation. There are no easy answers. The lack of the 60 votes is what is holding almost everything back.
But before we criticize Sen. McConnell, let’s not forget his steadfastness in refusing to hold hearings in the Senate when Obama tried to appoint a new justice for the Supreme Court during an election year. And let's not forget that he did have the Senate change the 60-vote rule for the confirmation of Supreme Court justices, which is why we now have Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Ultimately, the best resolution to this problem is the 2018 midterms, which we need to be working on right now, and which can result in a 60+ pro-life majority in the Senate. Then we can get pro-life legislation to our pro-life President's desk.
In the meantime, the best thing we can do is continue to work the political system in an informed and diligent way, and support those we elected. Pessimism and cynicism, with the disunity and confusion they create, should have no place in our efforts. We are the People of Life; Christ has won the victory, and hope will not disappoint.
Priests for Life is the world's largest Catholic organization focused exclusively on ending abortion.