Nielsen: Preserving secularism

Diana Nielsen

This weekend President Obama presented the commencement address at Notre Dame, following weeks of press folly and student protests surrounding the Catholic institution’s decision to invite the president, whose position on abortion diverges strongly from that established by the Vatican.

I agree that Notre Dame could have picked a less controversial speaker, or one who’s ideals match up more clearly with the student population there. And the increased frustration – on moral grounds – by Notre Dame students after Obama lifted a ban on giving federal funds to international organizations that either provide abortions or information about them, is somewhat understandable. Nonetheless, I am still confounded by this nagging trend – namely the erosion of secularism in America.

For weeks, students have protested both the choice of Obama as a commencement speaker and the decision by the school’s administration to give him an honorary degree. While watching the news this week, I was appalled by the words coming out of the mouths of some interviewed Notre Dame students. Since when did assertions complaining, “He’s the worst baby killer in the country” and “He denies my Catholic identity” become coherent arguments against the attendance of any commencement speaker, let alone the president?

As a matter of full disclosure: I object to the use of abortion except for in cases involving rape, maternal health or severe health problems on moral grounds. That being said, I believe equally, if not more strongly, that both the legality of abortion should never be made on the basis of anyone’s personal moral standards, and that every woman should have the right to obtain an abortion as long as that right is defended by legal precedence.

That being said, the backlash of Notre Dame students is an example of a broader pattern of what I see as the inappropriate conflation of the moral and the political. You need look no farther than the debate over gay marriage to see this phenomenon in action. In that case, religious conservatives routinely argue that same-sex marriage soils the institution of marriage that should be reserved for a man and a woman. This institution they are talking about is a religious rite, not a political institution.

One can find a plethora of condemnations of abortion throughout more than two centuries of Catholic writings. Most of these arguments equate abortion with murder. In a 2006 speech, Pope Benedict went so far as to call abortion “perhaps the greatest injustice of today.” Looking at these texts from a moral philosophical perspective, many of these arguments are logically consistent and supportable. However, they are based on the presupposition that the life of a fetus is of equal worth to that of its mother. It is here that Catholic doctrine differs from legal arguments. None of these theologically rooted arguments are valid in the legal debate over abortion.

In 2003, the Supreme Court issued a ruling banning partial-birth abortion. This ruling was based on the argument that abortions performed after the point of viability – that is the point in development after which a fetus could survive outside the womb – was considered immoral. For the Catholic church, this “point of viability” begins at conception.

These differing points after which fetuses are considered to possess human dignity may seem like arbitrary distinctions. However, the legal definition of viability was reached through the deliberation of the Supreme Court combined with the consideration of legal precedence – a hallmark of the American common law tradition – which should be preserved as distinct from religious institutions.

Weinberg junior Diana Nielsen can be reached at [email protected]