The XX Factor

Mario Cuomo Made the Case for Catholics to Be Pro-Choice

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Liberal lion and former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo died Thursday. With a storied career like his, there are a lot of highlights to remember, but one of major importance to women was Cuomo’s role in the abortion debate in the nascent years of the religious right’s power in the early 1980s.

The New York Times obituary briefly mentions an important speech Cuomo gave on the issue:

He was similarly resolute when he defied his church in 1984 by flying to the University of Notre Dame to proclaim that Roman Catholic politicians who personally opposed abortion, as he did, could appropriately support the right of a woman to have an abortion.

It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t always a given that politicians would be dogged by conservatives demanding that they apply their religious beliefs to public policy. On the contrary, the concerns raised about John Kennedy during his 1960 political run were the opposite, with opponents worrying out loud that Kennedy would be too busy answering to Rome to do his duties as the president of a secular nation. (They needn’t have worried.) The anti-abortion movement was essential in flipping that script, and it’s been the longest, most powerful, and most consistent movement trying to inject what is fundamentally religious dogma about abortion into public policy. 

Cuomo was not cowed, and in his 1984 speech articulated why it was so important to keep abortion legal, not just as a matter of women’s rights but also to preserve the religious freedom that the Constitution is supposed to protect. The full text of the speech is available from the Notre Dame archives. In it, Cuomo acknowledges that he and his wife personally opposed abortion and says that religious people are within their rights to argue that their “religious belief would serve well as an article of our universal public morality.” However, he asks, “When should I argue to make my religious value your morality?” He then lays out the case for why it’s wrong for Catholics and other religious anti-choicers to impose their dogma on others through law.

Cuomo argued that banning abortion is “not a plausible possibility and even if it could be obtained, it wouldn’t work.” Instead, he said that the way to end abortion is to address what he believes to be the root causes of it. “We should provide funds and opportunity for young women to bring their child to term, knowing both of them will be taken care of if that is necessary; we should teach our young men better than we do now their responsibilities in creating and caring for human life.” Then as now, as Cuomo no doubt understood, the very same forces that oppose legal abortion tend, mostly, to also oppose the expansive social safety net that he envisioned. 

In many ways, I disagree with Cuomo’s classic 1984 speech. I don’t think abortion is a tragedy or a sin, but just a good solution to the unfortunate problem of being pregnant when you don’t want to be. I think it’s a sexist fantasy to believe that all women would want to carry all pregnancies to term if only the fathers would marry them and/or they had enough food stamps to pull it off. People want sex more than they want babies, a fact that means that abortion will always be necessary and that the only way to seriously reduce abortion rates is more and better contraception. 

However, Cuomo’s speech is a classic for a reason. For people who legitimately believe that abortion is a sin, he laid out a clear-cut case for why they should be pro-choice anyway, because the government’s job is not to impose religion on the non-believers but “to help create conditions under which all can live with a maximum of dignity and with a reasonable degree of freedom; where everyone who chooses may hold beliefs different from specifically Catholic ones—sometimes contradictory to them; where the laws protect people’s right to divorce, to use birth control and even to choose abortion.”

“This ‘Christian nation’ argument should concern—even frighten—two groups: non-Christians and thinking Christians,” he warned. Cuomo correctly saw that the anti-abortion movement was not just about abortion, but the opening battle in a long-term assault by Christian conservatives on secular democracy. The years that have passed since his speech have shown his fears to be warranted, as religious conservatives have pushed their agenda onto the rest of us through schools, statehouses, regulatory agencies like the FDA, and even the courts, most recently in the Hobby Lobby v. Burwell decision—all the while continuing to chip away at abortion rights, as well. It’s easy to see why nonbelievers should be angry about this, but Cuomo laid out why Christians should oppose it, as well.