Recently, the Texas House of Representatives witnessed an extraordinary event that boggled the minds of many pro-life observers nationwide. On the night of May 11, 2017, twelve pro-life Texas state representatives decided to use specific House rules that killed roughly one hundred twenty bills, four of which were pro-life bills because they believed the leadership of the House was delaying their legislative agenda. The action created a flurry of commentary and essentially raised the question if it is morally permissible for a legislator to commit such an action that would destroy pro-life legislation in such a way.
Firstly, it is important to note that each moral act consists of the 1) object, 2) intention and 3) circumstances. All of these elements are to be ordered toward the good; if any of these elements are disordered then the moral act becomes immoral. An example of how a legislator, who votes for pro-life legislation, illuminates just how the moral act works. Typically the object that the pro-life legislator seeks is the Culture of Life. This is a good since the attainment of such a culture recognizes the dignity of all human life. Secondly, the intent of the act of voting for pro-life legislation is to limit the harm of the existing evil of abortion. Again, this is a good since it is a restoration of a justice that had been lost. Finally, the circumstances surrounding the act; as it stands abortion on demand is the law of the land and it is possible to incrementally pass legislation to lessen its negative effects and legislators have a duty to pass such legislation.
But to better understand what this duty entails one must understand what exactly the duty of the legislator is. St. Thomas Aquinas gives an exceptional explanation of what those duties are in his work, On Kingship:
Therefore, since the beatitude of heaven is the end of that virtuous life which we live at present, it pertains to the king’s office to promote the good life of the multitude in such a way as to make it suitable for the attainment of heavenly happiness, that is to say, he should command those things which lead to the happiness of Heaven and, as far as possible [emphasis mine], forbid the contrary” (On Kingship, Book 1, Chapter 4, 115).
However, Aquinas does not stop here, he goes on to state, ““Finally, for the proper direction of the multitude there remains a third duty of the kingly office, namely, that he be solicitous for its improvement. He performs this duty when, in each of the things we have mentioned, he corrects what is out of order and supplies what is lacking, and if any of them can be done [emphasis mine] better he tries to do so” (On Kingship, Book 1, Chapter 4, 121). What Aquinas is trying to state is that the legislator has a moral duty to help pass legislation that will better society.
When it comes to pro-life legislation this duty is all the more relevant and necessary. St. John Paul II builds upon the importance of this when he stated, “This task is the particular responsibility of civil leaders. Called to serve the people and the common good, they have a duty to make courageous choices in support of life, especially through legislative measures” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 90). He reemphasizes the point when he further explains, “At the same time, certain moral truth cannot fail to make its presence deeply felt in every conscience, the Church encourages political leaders, starting with those who are Christians, not to give in, but to make choices which, taking into account what is realistically attainable, will lead to the re-establishment of a just order in the defense and promotion of the value of life” (Ibid). The civil authority has a very clear duty especially when it comes to the pro-life issue; it is the preeminent issue within the legislature since, as the US Bishops say “Abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human life and dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental good and the condition for all others” (Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, no. 64).
It is at this point the question becomes did these 12 Texas legislators perform according to their moral duties? First, the circumstances should be addressed. There were several pro-life House bills that were on the Calendar for that day (HB 200—Ban on partial birth abortion and the sale of fetal body parts, HB 434—Ban on wrongful birth suits, HB 1936—Prohibition on state and local governments from entering into contracts with abortion providers or affiliates, and HB 2063—Ban on secret Do-Not-Resuscitate orders). What made this day so important was that these bills had to pass before midnight otherwise they would not meet the deadline to pass out House bills by a certain time limit according to House rules. Some pro-life legislators were frustrated since they believed that their agenda was being stonewalled by the leadership in the Texas House. As a result these individuals decided to use the rules in such a way that caused major delay and eventually led to the death of these bills.
Naturally, this raises the question if this is a morally licit thing for a pro-life legislator to do? But, furthermore, what happens when the elements of the moral act are applied to the situation? If one were to look at the object of the act then the aforementioned hyperlinked article calls it an act of retribution. One member of the Texas Freedom Caucus, in the same article, even went as far to say, “What we’re doing is exactly what they did to our bills.” The intention is quite clear the Texas Freedom Caucus members intended to kill the entirety of the bills that were scheduled to be debated that day which included 4 pro-life bills. Both the object and the intention are disordered in this circumstance. First vengeance (or retribution) is not a properly ordered object to seek since it is contrary to the virtue of justice. Furthermore, to intend to delay a Calendar that contains pro-life legislative measures is not properly ordered either since the legislators have the preeminent moral duty to support life through legislative means. It is clear that these legislators failed in acting appropriately.
The argument of justification that the Texas Freedom Caucus has offered is that the Texas House leadership has stalled their legislation and this has warranted their political action within the House. But again, this is a poor argument since, even if they are correct in assessing that the leadership has stalled their bills, it still does not justify their action since as the saying goes, “two wrongs do not make a right”. In fact, the action that was committed may be properly categorized as formal cooperation with evil. Formal cooperation is when two or more persons willingly engage in an evil act. These legislators intended to kill all the bills on the Calendar that included pro-life bills by delaying tactics. To knowingly and willingly commit an action that will directly result in the legislative death of pro-life bills is a serious moral disorder. And here 12 legislators who publicly profess to be pro-life willingly worked together to use in the rules in such a way that it knowingly killed these pro-life bills.
Jesus once said, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (New American Bible, Matthew 25:40). This is a telling statement from Christ himself. It implies that a person’s actions affect not only others but Christ himself. While to some, these legislators may have only killed potential laws, the truth is that these legislative initiatives would have helped restore a Culture of Life if they were given their due within the Texas House. These bills would have helped save lives and now not only have they committed a great injustice to these least brothers, they have also acted unjustly toward Christ.
- Pontius Pilate, Regnative Fortitude, and the Culture of Life
- The Texas Mother’s Day Massacre: Ethical Questions in Pro-Life Politics
- Embryo Jewelry, Vanity, and the Culture of Death
- Battling a Brave New World: Regnative Prudence and Pro-Life Legislation Part 3
- Regnative Prudence and Pro-Life Legislation Part 2: The Dismemberment Abortion Ban