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Scott P. Richert

Election 2008: Joe Biden and Abortion

By August 25, 2008

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It's official: Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has announced that his choice for vice president is a Catholic, Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden.

On the April 29, 2007, episode of NBC's Meet the Press, Senator Biden described himself as a "practicing Catholic" who is "prepared to accept my church's view" that life begins at conception. (Fr. John Zuhlsdorf has the relevant portion of the transcript in a post on his indispensable blog, "What Does the Prayer Really Say?".)

Unfortunately for Catholics considering voting for the Democratic ticket, Senator Biden believes that his "political responsibility" outweighs his "religious and cultural views."

It wasn't always so. In November 1972, when he was elected to the U.S. Senate, Biden, like most Catholic Democrats at the time, was opposed to abortion. After U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Roe v. Wade (January 22, 1973), Biden stated that the case "was not correctly decided" and that "the right of abortion was not secured by the Constitution" (according to Meet the Press).

By the time of his first run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, Senator Biden had become a staunch supporter of abortion rights. Asked by Meet the Press host Tim Russert (himself a Catholic) why he had changed his position, Biden offered a rather unsatisfying answer:

"Well, I was 29 years old when I came to the US Senate, and I have learned a lot."
It's hard to imagine what he could mean by that, especially since he says that he still believes that life begins at conception. During Biden's entire career in the Senate, the Catholic Church has consistently taught (in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church) that "Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception" (para. 2270; emphasis mine) and that "The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation" (para. 2273; emphasis in original).

That is why the Church teaches that a Catholic politician cannot vote for legislation that enables abortion, yet Senator Biden, in "learn[ing] a lot," has done just that.

If Barack Obama hoped to attract the Catholic vote by choosing Joe Biden, he might have done better to pick Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA), a true pro-life Catholic. Casey's father, a former governor of Pennsylvania, was denied the chance to speak at the 1992 Democratic National Convention because of his pro-life views.

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August 25, 2008 at 2:01 pm
(1) Barbara O'Brien says:

Bob Casey wasn’t denied the speaking slot because of his views on abortion. He was denied the spot because he refused to endorse Bill Clinton, and in fact tried to prevent Clinton from being nominated. The same convention featured speeches by at least eight people who shared Casey’s anti-choice views, including Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley Jr., Sens. John Breaux and Howell Heflin, and five governors.

The falsehood about Casey being refused a speaking slot because of his views on abortion keeps getting repeated because few bother to check the facts. But essentially it’s just propaganda.

August 25, 2008 at 2:14 pm
(2) Scott P. Richert says:

Indeed, the facts are important, Barbara. None of the pro-life speakers at the 1992 Democratic Convention mentioned the life issue; Casey had informed the Clinton camp that he would. He was under consideration until then. If the problem was the fact that he hadn’t endorsed Clinton (he did not refuse to endorse him, as he proved after the convention, when he did endorse the Democratic ticket), then why would he even have been considered?

August 26, 2008 at 2:04 pm
(3) Donna says:

No one can ask Tim Russert about the interview with Senator Biden. In case you missed it, Tim died this year of a heart attack.

August 26, 2008 at 2:32 pm
(4) Barbara T says:

Bob Casey himself has said that the reason he was not invited to speak at the 1992 convention was due to his pro-life views.

August 26, 2008 at 3:47 pm
(5) Scott P. Richert says:

Donna, I’m not sure what you’re saying. I wrote: “Asked by . . . Tim Russert,” not “Ask Tim Russert.” Joe Biden was interviewed by Tim Russert on Meet the Press on April 29, 2007. That was when he was “Asked by . . . Tim Russert . . . why he had changed his position.”

August 26, 2008 at 4:10 pm
(6) karin says:

how can a “practicing Catholic” support abortion “rights”? why hasnt he been excommunicated?

August 26, 2008 at 7:09 pm
(7) Barbara says:

Its a shame that the fact remains, to speak your views against abortion and be afraid of now being popular, how sad…

August 27, 2008 at 10:29 am
(8) Patty Cake says:


August 27, 2008 at 10:33 am
(9) CUP CAKE says:

PRO CHOICE is VERY EXCELLENT CAUSE we should all be able too Choose,Pro Choice is only
Free Choice,Pro Life Means agianst ABORTION.WE

August 28, 2008 at 2:05 pm
(10) Marie Hodul says:

If being Pro-Life makes you a good Catholic, why does the Church
allow Catholics to kill innocent people in wartime
All Catholics should be conscientious objectors if they really believed that all lives are important

September 12, 2008 at 4:05 pm
(11) Victoria says:

I don’t get it. I have met MANY Catholics that are pro-choice and my priest is not denying them communion. The Catholic church can be very hypocritical and this is just one of those problems when they are hypocritical. I guess I am pro-choice, I must stop taking communion though I do have my own opinions and do not just tall in line with everyone else.

September 17, 2008 at 3:00 am
(12) Beth W. says:

I just came upon this article and read the comments. I agree with Patty Cake, CUP CAKE and Victoria. I, too am a Pro-Choice supporter of the Catholic faith. I was raised in a Catholic home and my parents always believed in the right for a woman to make their own choice. I practice my faith; but look on government as a “separation of Church and State” as it should be. If you are looking at all of the candidates (4), they all believe and practicing their faith. That should be enough.

October 8, 2008 at 3:22 pm
(13) Sulli says:

If you believe that abortion is an act that one should be allowed to commit AND you say you are Catholic, then you are a complete Hypocrite! I will be praying for you…

October 9, 2008 at 12:47 am
(14) Madeleine says:

For all the people who say that they are pro-life, but respect a woman’s right to choose: here’s a little something for you.

Murder is a choice. I can choose to murder you, or I can choose not to murder you. In the same way you can choose to kill an unborn child, or to let it live.

If you admit that life begins at conception then you are admitting that these two choices are one and the same, because both are the decision to end the life of a human being.

Just because you have a choice doesn’t mean that any way you choose will be correct. In this case, there is one right way, and one wrong way: there is no middle ground – either you are killing a human being, or you are not. By saying that life begins at conception you say that it is a human being from before you even know that you are pregnant, and therefore you would be killing a human being.

And when a choice takes the life of a human being being, it is the responsibility of the government to prevent that choice. That is why murder is a capital crime. And that is also why abortion should be a crime punishable by law.

October 23, 2008 at 2:08 pm
(15) Bill says:

I am pro-life too. I’m not Catholic (if that matters). What is very disappointing to me is that many of the same people who are pro-life do not oppose capital punishment. You cannot separate the 2 issues. The question is: does any human being have the right to choose to end the life of another human being? The answer is NO. Only God makes that decision. God creates life, and only He must be allowed to take it away. Anyone who claims to have authority to take another human life is pretending to be God.

October 26, 2008 at 5:40 pm
(16) Jide says:

“That is why the Church teaches that a Catholic politician cannot vote for legislation that enables abortion, yet Senator Biden, in “learn[ing] a lot,” has done just that.”

Ever heard of SEPARATION of Church and State?

October 26, 2008 at 5:54 pm
(17) Scott P. Richert says:

Ever heard of SEPARATION of Church and State?

Of course. Yet the concept as you seem to understand it is found nowhere in the Constitution. The First Amendment protection of freedom of religion prevents the federal establishment of a particular (in the context of the time) Christian denomination as a national church.

It does not, contrary to what you may believe, prevent legislators from voting on the basis of their religious beliefs. And for Catholics who are voting on legislation regarding abortion, that means taking into account the Church’s teaching that abortion is always intrinsically evil.

October 28, 2008 at 4:31 am
(18) Anthony says:

I don’t understand why you beat around the bush.
Why don’t you just come right out and tell people that if they want to remain “practicing Catholics” they must vote Republican (in this particular election)! Your logic leaves no room for voting any other

October 28, 2008 at 7:20 am
(19) Scott P. Richert says:

Why donít you just come right out and tell people that if they want to remain ďpracticing CatholicsĒ they must vote Republican (in this particular election)!

Because it’s not true.

Your logic leaves no room for voting any other way.

It’s not my logic; it’s my summary of what the Church teaches. But if you think that it somehow means, “You must vote Republican,” then you’re missing the logic.

Church teaching–in the Catechism, encyclicals, papal speeches, documents released by the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, pastoral letters released by numerous U.S. bishops over the past month–is clear: A Catholic cannot vote for a politician who supports an “intrinsic evil” without a “proportionate reason.” Since there is no current political issue that is proportionate to the destruction of 1.3 million unborn humans every year, Catholics cannot vote for a pro-abortion candidate, when that candidate is running for an office (such as President) where he can affect policy on abortion. (If the candidate is running for dogcatcher and would have no power over abortion, other issues over which he does have control could be proportionate.)

But to say that you cannot vote for a particular candidate is not to say that you must vote for one of his opponents, much less a particular one of his opponents.

To illustrate the point concretely, John McCain has consistently supported embryonic stem-cell research in his votes in the Senate. In the third presidential debate, he reiterated his support for ESCR, which the Church declares is an intrinsic evil like abortion. Add to that his record of statements (especially in 1999-2000) that he does not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned and his support for “exceptions” to his pro-life stand. Then add on top of that his strong support for a war that two consecutive popes have condemned, and I have decided that I cannot vote for John McCain, either.

That’s my personal decision. It may be possible, within the bounds of Catholic teaching, to justify voting for McCain as the lesser of two evils without assenting to his (less complete) errors on abortion and ESCR. But it’s important to note that Catholics in the United States are not obliged to vote for one of the two major party candidates. They can refrain in a particular race or vote for a third-party candidate.

October 29, 2008 at 3:22 pm
(20) Chris says:

We call ourselves the catholic church (i.e. the universal church) and yet have the audacity to deny others the grace of the Eucharist which comes from GOD alone. Shame on the ministers of this church for annointing themselves the sole authority on deciding God’s message. There was a time when I was proud to be a part of this church, but I can no longer say that now. The bishops have forgotten that the church is not an institution but the people themselves. By denying someone the eucharist, they have marginalized another, denied the church they serve, and have lost the ability to distinguish God from pope and themselves. The modern day saying of “what would Jesus do” is useful here. For one thing, it wouldnt be what these bishops have been doing.

October 29, 2008 at 4:46 pm
(21) Scott P. Richert says:

Chris, you misunderstand the point of denying Communion to a Catholic politician who supports an intrinsic evil. Supporting an intrinsic evil such as abortion is a grave sin, which means that the person in question is not properly disposed to receive Communion. If he does receive anyway, then, as St. Paul said, he eats and drinks Christ to his own damnation.

The Church has always regarded denial of Communion, therefore, to be as much about protecting and instructing the person being denied as about protecting the Sacrament itself.

November 3, 2008 at 3:51 pm
(22) Chris says:

Mr. Richert Ė Thanks for clarifying that point as I never heard the argument verbalized in that manner. However, Iím afraid that even that explanation does not hold up.

As I have commented in another discussion, Pro-choice is not to be confused with pro-abortion. No one is set on waging a campaign to kill life whether born or not. Rather, pro-choice supporters find value in the protection of an individualís right to choose. For this camp, the abortion debate is a civil-rights issue that needs to be fought in as much as it is seen to be a moral imperative for members of your own camp. So, is it fair judgment to withhold communion from someone whose intent is purely to protect what some may argue to be an unalienable right? It does not seem that the Church is considering the broader picture.

Further, it is obvious that withholding the Eucharist is an act that reprimands an action inconsistent with traditional doctrine in a very definitive and public manner. This does not sound like the protectionist mechanism that youíve argued. Iím afraid that in doing so, the Church consequently frames itself as an intolerant institution as opposed to a universally open one.

Finally, if the protectionist argument is to stand as a universal philosophy, then all church-going Catholics on the pro-choice side ought not to receive Communion. Yet, the Church makes no real stride to find out what Bob sitting in the third pew seems to think before giving him communion. Instead, the Church opts for a donít ask, donít tell policy when it comes to losing the big numbers. Can these inconsistencies be ignored?…

November 3, 2008 at 4:22 pm
(23) Scott P. Richert says:

So, is it fair judgment to withhold communion from someone whose intent is purely to protect what some may argue to be an unalienable right?

If, as the Church teaches, abortion is murder, then of course it is, and for the very reasons I discussed above. The supporter of “choice”–the “choice” to murder one’s child in the womb–is supporting the “choice” of an intrinsically evil act. To support such a “choice” is to engage in mortal sin, and to partake of Communion in a state of mortal sin is, as St. Paul declares, to eat and drink Christ to your own damnation.

November 13, 2008 at 5:27 pm
(24) Adam says:

On the issue of Catholic respect for human life – some of you have been arguing that because of the church’s Just War doctrine, a doctrine that allows nations to take arms against other nations or groups which are attacking innocents, the Catholic church is hypocritically upholding life in one arena and despising it in another.

Wrong, and a simple thought-experiment will prove it so. Imagine that you are standing on the side of a boat at sea with another person, enjoying the spectacle of a feeding frenzy of sharks below. Without warning, the person next to you leaps into the water. Are you morally obligated to pursue him in the hope of effecting a rescue? No, because you would be putting your own life in undue risk. It was his unfortunate decision to commit suicide, but to leap in after him and so seal your own fate as well would only compound that sin.

Make it more interesting: As he jumps, he grabs your arm and tries to take you with him. If he weighs less than you, you might think about hoisting him back on deck, but if he weighs more, you are going to have to shake free of his grasp and allow him to die in order to save yourself.

As it is with this man, so it is with the country that attacks innocents. The belligerent nation has put itself in a position where it may so happen that the only way to protect innocent life is to destroy that life which threatens it. You should try any number of persuasions to convince them not to, but when they make the jump – when they actively try to kill innocents – they have put themselves in harm’s way and no one can be responsible for their deaths but themselves.

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