This past March 25, 2018 marked the 23rd anniversary of Evangelium Vitae. Certainly one of its most significant contributions to the pro-life movement was the clear approval of the incremental method of defeating the Culture of Death.
For years prior, there were opponents of incrementalism stating gradual legislation was a form of “formal cooperation” with evil. In essence, these people argued that by limiting various aspects of abortion through legislation incrementalism was still approving of abortion in other circumstances. However, St. John Paull II’s encyclical clearly stated that incrementalism was on solid moral ground by pursuing a gradual solution to the problem of Roe v. Wade.
Unfortunately, even Evangelium Vitae did not stop the argument, but it would seem that those who push for the complete abolition of abortion have a simple misunderstanding of the document itself and what the principle of incrementalism entails. It is important to understand what the principle states:
A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. It is a fact that while in some parts of the world there continue to be campaigns to introduce laws favoring abortion, often supported by powerful international organizations, in other nations-particularly those which have already experienced the bitter fruits of such permissive legislation-there are growing signs of a rethinking in this matter. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.[i]
There are essentially three elements to the principle: 1) An evil law must exist, 2) the legislative bill must limit the harm of the existing evil law, and 3) The proposal if enacted, must help shift public opinion away from the acceptance of the evil law. All pro-life activists within the United States would certainly agree that both Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton are the foundational US Supreme Court decisions that allowed the legality of abortion on demand.
But the second element ought to be closely studied. Some may argue the harm created by the aforementioned cases is the unjust legalization of abortion, and the unjust destruction of unborn human life is what St. John Paul II is referring to. They are not completely wrong, but this is a very narrow view of the harm created by abortion. Furthermore, it is an incorrect interpretation of Evangelium Vitae (no. 73) as well. St. John Paul II is very clear in his last words of the section, that the proposal is a “legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects [emphasis mine].” [ii]
So, there are multiple evil aspects that must be considered with respect to abortion on demand. This can clearly be seen in the reality that after the aforementioned decisions came out parents did not have the right to even be informed of their minor daughter’s decision to have an abortion, women did not have the right to be informed of the risks to abortion or receive information on fetal development, legalized coercion of women could take place, abortion clinics did not have to be regulated, and unborn children with disabilities could be aborted. This, of course, is a short list of the many evil aspects that abortion on demand has created. And each of these wrongs needs to be corrected, even if it means it can only be done gradually. The idea that only the injustice committed against the unborn should be of concern ignores the other very grave evils that are happening because of abortion.
The third element is very important as well. It is well argued that the incremental methodology “chips away” at the Roe doctrine. This is very succinct in its truth. To better understand this element one must better understand the very philosophy of law that St. John Paul II is following. For he is not speaking in a vacuum, but rather following a strong Thomistic tradition. In the encyclical, St. John Paul II echoes the Thomistic and Church tradition of the relationship between the civil law and the Natural Law when he states, “Consequently, there is a need to recover the basic elements of a vision of the relationship between civil law and moral law…”[iii] Here John Paul II not only states that civilization needs to recover the relationship between civil and moral law, but is recognizing that this relationship is a reality; that law is truly “an ordinance of reason for the common good, made by him who has care of the community, and promulgated.”[iv]
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Law, according to this tradition, is a great teacher that helps to direct virtuous behavior. With each law that limits each evil aspect, the great teacher teaches that abortion is contrary to the moral good. So, for example, when legislation is passed prohibiting the intentional abortion of a disabled unborn child, the law not only teaches that the disabled unborn child has worth, but that abortion in this context is wrong. When added, with, say, another pro-life law, that allows parents the veto power over their minor daughter’s ability to get an abortion, then one can see that the law is even going further. Not only is it wrong to abort a disabled unborn child, but it is wrong to for an abortionist to act contrary to a parent’s wishes. When added up, one can reasonably see how the law has the ability to change public opinion on the matter and “chip away” at the doctrine of Roe.
It is in this context that one can see the genius of St. John Paul II. Not only is this not formal cooperation, because the intention is to limit some evil aspect of the Roe/Doe doctrine with the ultimate goal to dismantle it, but it is also a way to show the pro-life movement that it can gain ground and save lives by changing the law in a methodical and hopeful way. Evils are corrected, lives are saved, and the public gets to see this in action. Incrementalism is not some misguided adventure, but rather a cogent and coherent way to fight the Culture of Death. An all or nothing approach tends to ignore the evil aspects that have come into existence because of the evil law. St. John Paul II understood this and also understood the very real political reality that an all or nothing approach may not work in certain circumstances. As a result, he teaches another moral alternative as an approach to the Culture of Life. Like Aquinas, St. John Paul II also realized that law can gradually bring one to virtue[v], but he even understands that in today’s society law can be used to gradually bring about the Culture of Life as well.
LifeNews Note: Joe Kral, M.A., is the President of the Society of St. Sebastian and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Bioethics in Law & Culture Quarterly.
[i] Evangelium Vitae, No. 73.
[iii] Evangelium Vitae, no. 71.
[iv] Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 90, A. 4
[v] Summa Theologica, I-II, Q. 96, A. 2