When you have a certain reputation for being, let’s just say, unambiguously pro-life, people who don’t share your beliefs will be, let’s just say, wary about talking to you. And if, in addition to that, you write a regular column about being pro-life, or you host a radio show where you’re not shy about your views, or you appear regularly on television and they stick you in the “anti-abortion” chair in the studio, it’s no surprise that people who think abortion is a legitimate choice and are running for public office will give you a wide berth.
And yet, unless we engage with those who have a world view diametrically opposed to our own, we will never fully understand how the other side lives, thinks or otherwise functions in a world where there are no longer any absolutes.
So that is what I decided to do. “Catholic Girl,” as I am known to many readers (it’s one of the nicer labels) was aware that Katie McGinty, Pat Toomey’s challenger for one of Pennsylvania’sU.S. Senate seats, is pro-choice. A simple look at her endorsements, including Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List, leaves no doubt that the candidate is a strong supporter of abortion rights. She will likely get the endorsement of more groups as the race continues, since the Pennsylvania contest is one of the key battles in the struggle for control of the Senate this year. She is on record for opposing Pennsylvania’s proposed ban on a certain form of late-term abortion, and celebrated the Supreme Court’s overturning of a Texas law regulating abortion clinics, saying that “I applaud the justices for respecting (a woman’s right to choose), and for seeing through the deceptive tactics used to try and undermine it.” As McGinty said those words, I was writing a column attacking those same justices for “choosing” abortion. In fact, for a brief time, this case was the reason I was going to vote for Donald Trump — out of anger for that blighted Supreme Court. “Was” is the operative word.
Despite this philosophical San Andreas Fault between us, McGinty and I have a lot in common. She’s a year younger than I am. She wore a Catholic school uniform in the 1970s, and so did I. She attended a Catholic university, and so did I. She had multiple brothers and sisters, and so did I, although only half the size of her tribe. She’s lost loved ones to cancer, so have I. She’s lost siblings prematurely, so have I. She’s Irish, so am I (much to the dismay of my Italian relatives who just pretend that I Americanized my last name and that the freckles are age spots).
And so, I wanted to figure out how we could have turned out so different, when it came to the single most important life issue to me: abortion. The irony is that I agree with McGinty on the sanctity of life outside the womb. I admire her position on gun control, which puts me well to the left of other conservatives. I know she’s adopted foreign-born children, and, as an immigration lawyer, I admire that, too. But this abortion thing is bigger than anything for me. As an educated and engaged Catholic female voter, I wanted to know how she developed her views on the issue, and at what point in our shared path she turned left and I kept going straight ahead.
I reached out to her campaign, and, to be fair to them, it was shortly before my deadline, so I didn’t get a chance to interview her or even get a long written response to my questions. But the point that mattered to me, the one that connects the candidate and this writer by a common thread is our Catholicity. On that, I wanted an answer. Here is the question that I posed to McGinty’s press secretary, with whom I had a feisty, but ultimately respectful conversation earlier this week:
“How did you, Secretary McGinty, form your views on abortion rights? You are of the same generation as I am, and we had essentially the same type of Catholic school formation in the 1970s. What influences convinced you that women should have the right to seek an abortion? Do you seen any inconsistency with your religion, and, if so, how do you reconcile those differences?”
It’s a hard question to answer in a few sentences, and I’m thinking that an hourlong discussion still wouldn’t be enough to do justice to the nuance in that modern-day trip on the road to Damascus that many people have taken in their spiritual life. Because, make no mistake about it, for someone steeped in Catholic principles and taught from an early age the verse from Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” support or opposition for abortion rights is different. It’s not just a simple political position. It’s a game changer, since abortion is the line in the sand for many Catholic faithful.
This is the answer her press secretary sent me:
“Faith has always been an extremely important part of Katie’s life, and that has not changed. Her position on choice issues is rooted in the fact that these decisions are extremely difficult, and that women should be able to make these decisions privately, consulting with their doctors and their families.”
It’s a fair answer, but far from one that explains how a Catholic school girl who grew up in the same type of home that I did, and had the same experiences that I did, could end up with such a different view of life. That’s because, while faith is a personal thing, it is also a thing of consistency. As Cardinal Joseph Bernardin noted, we Catholics are called to respect the seamless garment of life, and that means from the moment that life exists (and, as a scientist, McGinty should understand at least at some level that the fetus is a form of human life) to the moment of death. I could be attacked for my support of the death penalty on the same basis, but I’m not running for public office.
McGinty’s answer to my question talks about privacy. But, to me, we Catholics are part of a village, to use a term from another woman running for office this year, and the decision to end a life is not something that should be moved into a quiet corner, where only the mother gets to make the choice.
I respect Katie McGinty for her dedication to other principles that are important to Catholics: a clean and safe environment, protection against gun violence, compassion for immigrants and those on the margins. But this blind spot to the tiniest among us, the ones without voices, makes me marvel at how two travelers on the same road end up on the farthest ends of the River Jordan.
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Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.