Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

The Pauline Principle and Stupak's Consistency: Critiquing Matt Yglesias

January 8th, 2010 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

First, read the NY Times piece on Bart Stupak if you don't know already who he is and why he's (currently) famous.

The article highlights two sides of his resistance to the current health care bill: his Catholic faith and the "long, slow burn" of being marginalized by his party.

In response to the piece, Matt Yglesias (someone who I always enjoy reading, even when I disagree) writes:

The expansion of health insurance contained in this bill will save lives. But unless it also includes some restrictions on the ability of insurance plans to cover abortions, Bart Stupak will kill it. And that’s the pro-life position! Perhaps most absurdly of all, my understanding is that this really is the official Catholic Church position on issues of life and death. Taking political action to save the lives of children and adults is morally praiseworthy, but the obligation to take political action aimed at securing legal restrictions on abortions is paramount and actually overrides obligations to aid the poor and the sick.

Yglesias' response strikes me as a bit unfair.

For one, Stupak's language doesn't simply create 'some restrictions' on the ability of insurance plans to fund abortions.  Instead, Stupak's amendment restricts federal subsidies for insurances that cover abortion.  The vagueness of  'some' allows Yglesias to avoid what's really at stake in Stupak's resistance.

But surely on that point the pro-life community is acting reasonably.  There is a qualitative moral difference between a state that allows individuals to pursue abortion on their own and a state that taxes others and then redistributes that money in the form of subsidies for the sake of abortion.

What's more, Yglesias mock-horror (really is!) on the position of the Catholic church also depends upon this unfair characterization.

Yglesias puts the objection this way:  "the obligation to take political action aimed at securing legal restrictions on abortions is paramount and actually overrides obligations to aid the poor and the sick."  But that misses the fundamental issue at stake:  this legistlation subsidizes abortion while bringing about good, and as such violates the Pauline Principle--do no harm, even for the sake of the good.

In addition, Yglesias is wrong to frame the obligations of pro-life legislation and health care as competing.

What is stake is not pro-life legislation per se, but rather ensuring that this bill does no harm in pursuing the end of health care reform.  Yglesias' framing of the issue suggests that pro-lifers have used this bill to extend pro-life legislation, but that is simply not the case.  The Stupak amendment isprotective, and in that sense, negative.  It should not be viewed as intentionally furthering the pro-life cause, but rather as ensuring that the means the government employs in the pursuit of the good of health care are not themselves destructive.

One final point:  contra Yglesias, Stupak's reasoning on this bill is hardly 'idiosyncratic.'  It has a long lineage, and a significant f0llowing.  Whether that following is significant enough, or will be listened to, remains to be seen.

(HT for the Stupak link to Justin Taylor)

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.