In a sense it's not surprising that a renewed debate about abortion would begin in New York State, which passed a law last week – since imitated, to more controversy, by Virginia Democrats – ratifying the right to kill human beings in utero in the third trimester.
Almost 50 years ago, in 1970, New York passed the nation's most liberal abortion law, a template for the Roe v Wade decision two years later. And the state has a justifiable reputation as "the abortion capital of America" – with a strong pro-choice consensus and high abortion rates.
But there is a forgotten chapter to this story. In 1972, New York's Assembly and Senate both voted narrowly to repeal the two-year-old abortion law. The only thing preventing repeal was the veto of the Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller – and, of course, the intervention of the Supreme Court the following January.
This almost-successful repeal was not an isolated case. As Russell Hittinger pointed out in a 2010 essay for First Things, prior to Roe v Wade the anti-abortion side was regularly winning political victories in places we think of as liberal bastions today. The division on abortion that runs between red and blue states today ran through both political parties and every US state two generations ago – the "abortion capital" very much included.
This changed because of polarisation and political tribalism, because currents in elite opinion reshaped liberal politics and backlash reshaped the GOP. But if you delve into the New York Times's coverage of those long-gone abortion debates, you'll be reminded that it also changed because the Catholic Church – in New York, especially – used to be an effective pro-life political force straddling partisan divides, instead of an institution devastated by attrition, internal division and the sex-abuse disaster.
That declining influence is neatly distilled in the story of Mario and Andrew Cuomo. The father felt constrained by his Catholicism to at least agonise publicly over abortion, to insist that he could be pro-choice and "personally opposed". His son, a Catholic politician with a "First Girlfriend" who lit the Freedom Tower pink to celebrate late-term abortion, plainly fears neither God nor Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
In the case of Dolan, Cuomo's right to be blasé. New York State still has millions of baptised Catholics, but the faithful are divided and adrift and accustomed to tuning out messages from their bishops that don't fit their partisan preconceptions. (This goes for messages that criticise Donald Trump as well.) Dolan has tried to answer secularisation with gregarious good cheer, but a bingo-hall winsomeness would be no match for cold indifference even without the church's scandals.
And yet it remains the case that deep inside the ransacked, decaying basilica that is American Catholicism, you can find the only vision that might transform the abortion debate, so that we don’t end up with a permanent red/blue divide, in which the Supreme Court allows conservative states to pass restrictions but liberal states are radicalised toward eugenics and infanticide.
That vision isn’t the “seamless garment of life” beloved of certain liberal Catholics, which effectively makes every issue a “life” issue, downgrading abortion to salve uneasy consciences. Rather, it’s a more tailored seamless garment, one that would put the goal of outlawing abortion at the centre of a web of pro-family policies – adoption support, child allowances, wage subsidies for breadwinners. The goal would be to make the end of abortion seem less utopian by making the burdens of motherhood less daunting, and to link the pro-life cause to a larger revolt against sterility.
Maybe someday this vision will be embraced by one of our political parties – after the GOP nominates Tucker Carlson for president in 2024, perhaps. But for the time being, the leaders of the Catholic Church should act as though this vision, their vision, is more than a wouldn’t-it-be-nice synthesis in bureaucratic documents, a generic humanitarianism that informs the smorgasbord of charitable programmes mentioned in annual appeals.
Suppose that tomorrow Cardinal Dolan made two conjoined announcements. First, that Andrew Cuomo is excommunicated. Second, that a specific collection would henceforth be taken up at every Catholic Mass, every day, all year, to fund an annual family allowance administered by the Sisters of Life, available to any parent in the state who asked the church for help bearing and raising their child.
I have no idea how much money this would raise, no confidence in how effective it would be. But the church needs leaders who act as though they have confidence, not only in the church’s teachings, but in its capacity to vindicate those teachings on its own, rather than through supplication to indifferent or hostile politicians.
Confidence alone cannot arrest decline. But it is a precondition for rebirth. And the church’s vision will not matter in American politics until Catholicism becomes a power unto itself again – one that does not need the favour of an Andrew Cuomo to promote the common good.