The Lesser of Two Evils?

Recently Democrats in Pennsylvania in a primary election overwhelmingly nominated anti-choice Bob Casey as their candidate to unseat anti-choice Republican Senator Rick Santorum. Many pro-choice Pennsylvanians called Casey “the lesser of two evils”. On the same week, the Vatican invoked the “lesser of two evils” justification to explain its investigation into the permissibility of using condoms to halt the transmission of HIV.

While the use of the principle of ‘the lesser of two evils’ is the appropriate approach for the Vatican, I wonder if it is for the Democratic Party. In Catholic theology, the principle of the lesser evil is justifiable when there is no other way to prevent the greater evil. In party politics, it seems as though the ends are being asked to justify the means.

Bob Casey is a self-described ‘pro-life Democrat,’ who thinks Roe v. Wade should be overturned. He allows that the Constitution does protect personal privacy in some situations, including the use of contraception. His candidacy for the Senate is based on his name recognition, his service as Pennsylvania State Treasurer, and his presumed electability. Senator Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pushed hard to clear the path for Casey, over the objection of many pro-choice groups and politicians. Casey’s opponent, the incumbent Senator Santorum, is, like Casey, opposed to abortion, but also opposes birth control and stem cell research, just to name a few issues of concern to women’s rights advocates. When other issues are taken into account (both support the Iraq war and both oppose restrictions on guns), Bob Casey is only slightly to the left of Senator Santorum, and way to the right of the Democratic Party mainstream.

Meanwhile at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI announced that various councils, theologians and scientists were studying the advisability of permitting condom use as a means of HIV prevention. The Roman Catholic Church has been on record of opposing any means of ‘artificial contraception’ since Pope Pius XI’s Encyclical, Casti Cannubii, in 1930, which was reaffirmed over strenuous opposition within the Church by Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, in 1968. The prohibition on birth control for pregnancy prevention has included, to date, the prohibition of condoms for disease prevention. The Vatican in the face of the HIV epidemic has been adamant, up until now, that only permissible ways to prevent HIV transmission are chastity and fidelity. Now, the Church is investigating, among other cases, whether condom use by a married couple where one is HIV positive is licit as the “lesser of two evils”. Cardinal Carol Maria Martini, retired Archbishop of Milan, recently gave an interview to L’espresso where he stated that “certainly the use of condoms can constitute in certain situations a lesser evil.”

Short of enlisting Cardinal Martini run against Senator Santorum for the Pennsylvania Senate seat, what should Pennsylvania Democrats have done? 85% of them voted for Bob Casey in the Democratic primary, probably a good half of them against their pro-choice inclinations. Former NARAL President Kate Michelman reluctantly declined to run in the Democratic primary, partly because of the personal toll the race would take, but mainly because she thought that the best chance of defeating anti-choice Senator Santorum was with slightly-less-anti-choice Bob Casey. Pennsylvania Democrats obviously agreed. A few organizations stood up for principle. NOW and the Feminist Majority endorsed one of Casey’s pro-choice opponents, saying that it was important to oust Santorum, “but we must not do so by trading away our rights.” In contrast, NARAL Pro-Choice New York this week endorsed Hillary Clinton for reelection to the Senate, the same Hillary Clinton who called abortion “a sad, even tragic choice.” NARAL’s press release mentioned the word ‘abortion’ just once, in the context of seeking to reduce its number. While there are merits to broadening the issue beyond abortion to include all the reproductive issues that women face, this cannot be done in a way that avoids or obfuscates the core issue of abortion—or in a way that causes the organization to lose its soul.

If some pro-choice groups and voters are running away from the issue in a desperate effort to attract ‘moderates,’ how can the pro-choice movement expect politicians to stand with us?

While the Catholic Church will wrestle with whether, based on the principle of the lesser evil, there are any circumstances in which contraception can now be licit, so too the Democratic Party should reexamine the circumstances under which it will nominate so-called Pro-Life Lite candidates. By continuing on this path, they will continue to confuse the public about what it stands for and drive people to stay home or vote ‘none of the above.’ Similarly, pro-choice groups, intent on playing politics, and pro-choice voters eager for change, must examine their consciences. The slippery slope has taken them to a place I don’t recognize as being pro-choice.

Eugene Debs famously said, “I’d rather vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don’t want, and get it.”

The lesser of two evils may in some cases be progress but it does not equal the good.

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