1It is always difficult to address questions surrounding abortion and to engage both thought and debate on such a divisive issue, without moving beyond the polarized rhetoric of concerned advocacy groups. Discussions of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are not new. Though most of people have more complex concerns on the issue, such polarization has reduced the debate into a yes or no stance, claiming political or moral allegiance to one side or to the other.
2The conspicuous problems that could emerge from such a binary and polarizing debate would be that, instead of engaging reflection on how to find fertile ground to constructively address the real questions surrounding the abortion issue, we often blindly follow the standard rhetoric of who is “for” or “against”, “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”, or shy away from such discussions, assuming that they would inevitably lead to dead-end disagreements and result in antipathy and even resentment among individuals and peer groups.
3It is equally challenging to tackle an issue of which one is the subject, not the object. There is a prevailing inclination–probably common to all cultures– to disregard men’s involvement in pregnancy, and to consider abortion as a purely women problem. For, pointing the finger solely to women amounts to dismissing men’s responsibilities as equal partners in sexuality and parenting.
4Abortion should not only be perceived as a matter of individual choices which could be understood within the restricted framework of reproductive rights, it also should not be approached in exclusively moral and ethical terms. In other words, the debate over such a volatile theme should shift the analysis away from the morality of religious arguments and may stop addressing questions related to the viability of the foetus or the beginning of life.
5Although it raises the Catholic Church’s views regarding the beginning of human life - signalled by the presence of a human soul - and the status of the fetus in general, the present study does not aim to deal with the religious or theological aspect of abortion. Nor is it intended to fully assess the moral and ideological debate between pro-life and pro-choice advocates. One of the primary concerns of this examination, however, is to focus on the special status of abortion as a social and public policy issue which, to certain extents, has blurred the line between religion and politics.
- 1 “The Battle over Abortion,” Time, April 6, 1981, p.20.
6Abortion does not only epitomize deeply-held ideas, but has also emerged, especially after it was legalized in 1973, as a strikingly contentious subject. In this respect, Dr. Everett Koop, Surgeon General of the first Reagan administration asserted: “Nothing like it has separated (the American) society since the days of slavery.”1
7This study proceeds as follows: it provides first a brief history of the emergence and evolution of the Right-to-Life movement in the United States. It stresses the key role played by the American Catholic Church in such a movement, especially its involvement in the decision-making process, and concludes by demonstrating how the largest denomination in the United States came out in the on-going debate over the health care reform, both as a major political actor, and a key player with the potential to inject its views and teachings in whatever piece of legislation.
- 2 George Plagenz, “Abortion Is Becoming 1976 Election Issue,” Cleveland Press, August 2, 1975.
8The American Catholic Church has always been a deciding force in articulating opposition to abortion in the United States. It gave the right-to-life movement more than institutional support. It offered people, money, and brought focus and intensity of commitment against abortion. According to Roy White, once director of the National Right-to-Life Committee, “The only reason we have a pro-life movement in this country is because of the Catholic people and the Catholic Church.”2
9However, contrary to the role they used to play in defending their immigrant communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholic bishops seem today resolved not to stop at the moral or religious discourse. Given the new cleavages, particularly the rise of religion as a crucial tool in political mobilization, it has become clear for them that banning access to abortion would automatically result in a full involvement into the decision-making process.
- 3 The First Amendment clearly states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of reli (...)
10Withal, Catholicism has become so undoubtedly “American” in the minds of everybody that Catholic prelates could engage in organized political activity without raising old suspicions accusing them of deliberately breaching the wall of separation between Church and State, as asserted by the First Amendment to the Constitution.3
- 4 Patrick O’Boyle, Archbishop of Washington D.C. Cited in B. Harris and H. Rodman, The Abortion Contr (...)
- 5 Ibid. John Krol, Archbishop of Philadelphia and President of the United States Catholic Conference.
- 6 Statement of the Committee for Pro-Life Affairs, National Conference of Catholic Bishops (January 2 (...)
- 7 The ultimate goal of the right-to-life movement, a Human Life Amendment is the only tool in the han (...)
11The American Catholic Church’s reaction to the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade (410 US 113), was immediate and condemnatory. It called the ruling a “catastrophe for America”4 and a “monstrous injustice.”5 In a statement released on January 24, 1973, the Committee for Pro-Life Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops advised Americans “not to follow its reasoning or conclusions,” and recommended that “(E)very legal possibility must be explored to challenge the opinion of the United States Supreme Court decision that withdraws all legal safeguards for the right to life of the unborn children.”6 Then, to press for the passage of a Human Life Amendment (HLA)7 and, at the same time, preserve its tax exempt status (legally preventing religious institutions from engaging in political activity), the Church established a lobby group: the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment (NCHLA).
12In addition to proposing Human Life Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the NCHLA has on many occasions challenged Roe v. Wade in court, especially the use of public funds to pay for abortion on demand. It has equally backed the appointment of pro-life judges both at the state and federal levels. On top of that, the organization offers programs to inform and educate citizens about abortion and other related issues such as euthanasia or assisted suicide, embryo or fetal research, stem cell research, health care reform, etc. Working closely with the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the committee provides logistic assistance to dioceses, state Catholic conferences, and Catholic lay groups.
- 8 Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, November 20, 1975.
13Notwithstanding, amending the Constitution for the purpose of preserving prenatal life requires more than religious or moral “rhetoric”. In addition to the intricate procedures set up by the Founding Fathers to discourage any initiative in that sense, winning public support for such a move urged a focused and coordinated political action. To reach this target and press for the passage of a Human Life Amendment, the Catholic Church has no alternative but to turn to local and grassroots mobilization. In anticipation of the 1976 election and to make of abortion a decisive electoral issue, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (the most important American Catholic Organization) released an unprecedented document: the “Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities.”8
- 9 Laurence H. Tribe, Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes, New York: W.W. Norton, 1990, p.147.
14The first of its kind and, in the terms of an observer, “a blueprint for the type of nationwide organization that even the most sophisticated presidential campaign could only dream about,”9 the plan sought to stimulate the pastoral resources of the Church in three main efforts:
an education/public information effort to apprise, elucidate and deepen understanding of the basic issues;
a pastoral effort addressed to the specific needs of women with problems related to pregnancy and to those who have had or have taken part in an abortion;
- 10 Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, op. cit.
a public policy effort directed toward the legislative, judicial and administrative areas so as to insure effective legal protection for the right to life.10
- 11 Paul J. Weber, “Bishops in Politics: The Big Plunge”, America, March 20, 1976, p. 220.
15According to Paul Weber, researcher at Marquette Catholic University, “Never before in the 200 years of American independence have the bishops provided such concerted, nationwide, overt political leadership. Their pastoral plan may well signal a major shift in Episcopal political efforts.”11
- 12 Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, op. cit.
16In the same vein, to deflect charges that abortion was a mere “catholic-issue,” and to broaden the base of support for their program, the prelates appealed to “all their fellow-citizens.”12 For their plan was supposed to articulate equally the concerns of non-Catholic Americans. They realized, moreover, that to effectively fight the legalization of abortion, they would have to reach out beyond their Church and cooperate with other segments of society, both religious and secular.
17The 1976 elections became a case in point and yielded the first serious test to their strategy. Concomitantly, as bishops were focusing on grassroots’ mobilization to press for the passage of a HLA, the major political parties were turning to new issues, tactics and voting coalitions in view of asserting pre-eminence over the American electoral politics. If Democratic leaders, traditionally supported by a majority of Catholic voters, chose to address socio-economic predicaments, namely poverty, unemployment, and racial discrimination, their Republican counterparts, especially right-wing conservatives, decided to shift the axis of political debate toward greater emphasis on moral and religious matters. To win Catholics to their side, they stressed specific subjects such as federal help to parochial institutions, Bible reading at public schools, and most importantly, they adopted a pro-life banner.
- 13 L. H. Tribe, Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes, p.150.
18Interestingly, despite expected victory of the Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter, who received fifty-four percent of the Catholic vote13, and the emergence of abortion as a less significant electoral issue (political analysts have found abortion to be a weaker voting predictor which affected only marginally the choice of the majority of voters), the right-to-life movement did not lose steam. By the late 1970s, it even gained a significant ally: the New Right.
19The upsurge of conservatism, evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism prompted a new era in the history of anti-abortion activism. In line with conservative Catholics and Orthodox Jews, the New Religious Right perceived abortion as a moral sin and especially an assault on the traditional nuclear family alongside other “social threats” such as sex education, teenage autonomy, and reproductive freedom of women. Additionally, because it allowed access to Democratic conservatives –among them Catholics– abortion became a central facet of the New Right’s political agenda.
- 14 First passed in 1976, the Hyde Amendment prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funds to pay for abo (...)
- 15 Time, July 9, 1979, p. 19.
- 16 Ibid.
20The first tangible victory resulting from the alliance between pro-life and pro-family forces was the passage, in 1977, of the Hyde Amendment. This decision which cut off federal funding of non-therapeutic abortions, made it difficult for Medicaid-eligible women to put an end to an unwanted pregnancy.14 According to Catholic Representative Henry J. Hyde (R. Illinois), the initiator of the project, this would give poor women a “license” for illicit sex. Besides, government should not use public money to finance what he called “the genocide of defenceless human beings.”15 He declared: “Taking human life with taxpayers’ money is abhorrent and I intend to use the political process to stop it.”16
- 17 Actually, the radical anti-abortion movement emerged in the 1980s, but its violence peaked in the e (...)
21The second consequence of the New Right’s involvement in the anti-abortion campaign was the “radicalization” of the right-to-life movement. As a result, despite their illegal and anonymous character, many local and extremist groups began to form in different parts of the United States. Advocating a new strategy which stressed direct action tactics, they started to preach civil disobedience and even violence against abortion clinics.17
- 18 Thirty-four states require some type of parental involvement for a minor to obtain an abortion.
- 19 Most states, today, require that abortion providers give women additional information about the pro (...)
- 20 Generally 24 hours between when patients receive the information and when the procedure is performe (...)
22The election, finally, of Ronald Reagan in 1980, though extremely symbolic for the supporters of the unborn rights, was not a watershed in the right-to-life history and evolution. Not only access to abortion remained free and legal during his two administrations, but right-to-life activists had to wait till 1989 to see the constitutionality of abortion seriously shaken. The landmark Supreme Court decision in “Webster v. Reproductive Health Services” (492 US 490) – in addition to undermining the right to abortion – ushered in a whole new process of an increase in state regulations. In rendering its ruling in the aforementioned case and, shortly after, in another, “Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey” [505 US 833 (1992)], the Court upheld requirements for parental involvement18, mandated information19, a waiting period20, and data reporting as constitutional.
- 21 Between 1995 and 2000, more than half of the states in the US passed laws banning “partial-birth ab (...)
23“Webster” and “Casey” decisions recognized that the right to abortion was not absolute, and that states could severely restrict access to abortion. The last Supreme Court decision in “Gonzales v. Carhart” [550 US 124 (2007)] which upheld the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003” is another case in point. The Court simply found that the state could prohibit the use of certain techniques without an exception for the health of the pregnant women.21
24The abortion issue, virtually latent during the previous presidential campaigns, was reignited after the 2008 elections, with the debate over health care reform, a top priority on Obama’s domestic agenda. Despite a tough period marked by sex abuse scandals and a deep Catholic credibility crisis, the American Catholic Church emerged as a key actor on the political scene, with a firm determination to participate actively in public forums and legislative discussions.
25The glow of rediscovered political clout has come about as a result of the Church’s lobbying successes in the critical health care debate. For decades, the Roman Catholic bishops have pressed for major reform of the nation’s health care system, but many now worry that this might compromise existing restrictions on federal funding of abortions, leaving them entangled into a wrenching moral dilemma. How could they support a bill that extends healthcare to the poor with a myriad of uncertainties about the use of public money to finance access to abortion? In a statement it released on December 7, 2009, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops made it clear:
- 22 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Health Care Letter to the Senate, December 7, 2009.
“The Catholic bishops have long supported adequate and affordable health care for all. As pastors and teachers, we believe genuine health care reform must protect human life and dignity, not threaten them, especially for the most voiceless and vulnerable. We believe health care legislation must respect the consciences of providers, taxpayers, and others, not violate them. We believe universal coverage should be truly universal, not deny health care to those in need because of their condition, age, where they come from or when they arrive here. Providing affordable and accessible health care that clearly reflects these fundamental principles is a public good, moral imperative and urgent national priority.”22
- 23 USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, August 11, 2009.
26To the prelates, in sum, there are moral constraints they cannot transgress. But the question to be raised at this stage is not whether taxpayer dollars ought to directly fund abortion (most congressmen and even President Obama agree they should not), rather, it is how to limit public money for insurers who cover abortions. In a letter he sent to Congress, on August 11, 2009, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Archbishop of Philadelphia and Chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, reiterated the Church’s stance. He clearly stated that: “The bishop’s conference views health care as a basic right belonging to all human beings. We therefore have long supported health care reform that respects human life and dignity from conception to natural death... In this sense we urge you to make this legislation ‘abortion neutral,’ by preserving longstanding federal policies that prevent government promotion of abortion and respect conscience rights.”23
- 24 Peter Wallsten, “Catholic Church Emerges as Key Player in Legislative Battle,” The Wall Street Jour (...)
27Undoubtedly, the Catholic Church has a history of intense political activism, but rarely has the country’s largest religious denomination entered the fray with such decisive force. Its strategic positioning on the health care, especially its lobbying successes in Congress, stunned experts in the field, and even abortion-rights advocacy groups that had worked hard to elect Barack Obama and expand Democratic congressional majorities. “The Catholic bishops came in at the last minute and drew a line in the sand,” declared Laurie Rubiner, vice president for public policy at the pro-abortion Planned Parenthood of America. “It’s very hard to compete with that.”24
28Victory in the House of Representatives came after the USCCB, the main lobbying arm of the Catholic Church, put full weight, in 2009, behind an amendment to the health care bill, jointly introduced by Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat from Michigan, and Joe Pitts, a Republican from Pennsylvania. The amendment that would prohibit the use of federal subsidies to pay for insurance that covers abortion (except in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is threatened), eventually passed (with 176 GOP votes and 64 Democratic “yes” votes) after heavy lobbying by the Catholic Church.
29The prelates’ success in inserting restrictive abortion language into the House health care bill was in fact the result of a full-fledged lobbying campaign launched by the Church and meant to target officials both at the federal and state levels. In addition to pressing influential bishops to make private appeals to key influential congressional leaders, the Church’s strategic decision to deploy paid staff to Capitol Hill was more than pivotal. The Church was given a seat at the negotiating table, through lobbyists working closely with the USCCB; and it has been able to influence the final draft of the Stupak provision.
30The Church’s upsurge as a lobbying force, capable of shaping public policy, is partly due to the support it enjoys among Catholics in both Houses, representing –with thirty percent– the largest single religious group among members of Congress. Additionally, defending a wide range of issues makes it easier for the Church to overcome the long-held partisan divides and gain access across party lines. For instance, in the case of health care reform, its conservative standpoint on life matters (on top of them abortion) and liberal position on a number of social questions, especially the right of undocumented immigrants to buy private health insurance, renders cooperation possible with both Republicans and Democrats.
31Besides behind-the-scenes lobbying, grassroots mobilization across its 19,000 parishes has been a key factor behind the Catholic Church’s success in the House of Representatives. Before the vote on the Stupak amendment, the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the USCCB distributed talking points to priests throughout the country and gave fliers to churches featuring the headline, “Health Care Reform Is about Saving Lives, Not Destroying Them.” Alongside the bulletin inserts with easy instructions to urge parishioners to contact their representatives and ask them to support amendments blocking federally-backed abortion coverage, a prayer circulated to churches included the phrase: “We will raise our voices to protect the unborn.”25
- 26 The Providence Journal, November 20, 2009.
32Negative lobbying with the intent to unseat abortion-rights advocates has also been an outstanding feature of the Church’s campaign against access to the procedure. Probably the most contentious dispute was the one with Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D. Rhode Island), nephew of the nation’s only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, and a vocal supporter of abortion rights. In an interview with The Providence Journal, Kennedy declared that Providence Bishop, Thomas J. Tobin, had forbidden him from receiving Communion because of his advocacy of abortion rights.26
33Concerns over the Church’s “aggressive” lobbying for the Stupak amendment were not only raised by pro-abortion advocacy groups such as the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL Pro-Choice America), the National Organization for Women, or Planned Parenthood of America, they also came from outspoken members of the House like Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D. Calif.) who even called for an Internal Revenue Service investigation of the Church’s tax status.27
- 28 On immigration, the Catholic Church is more aligned with Democrats in seeking more equitable treatm (...)
34Altogether, despite the bishops’ determination to put their full weight behind any piece of legislation that is likely to restrict access to abortion, the Catholic Church needs first to bridge the gap between its moral imperatives and its pragmatic concerns. It is perhaps worthwhile to pause and pose the following questions: How could it reconcile its stance on life issues (abortion, stem cells research, euthanasia, etc.) with its position on social problems (health care and immigration reform28, poverty, etc.)? How could it be supportive of a legislation which is expected to bring relief to some 32 million Americans, and oppose any health care decision that does not ban abortion coverage for women depending on federal subsidies? More importantly, how could it be in tune with the Catholic members who, by no means, are ready to sacrifice a long-sought demand: health care reform? Moreover, Catholics are a constituency that has always backed the reform, and to alienate them on abortion could be alienating them on the health care reform.
- 29 “BBC – Religions – Abortion.” (Retrieved 2012-01-05).
- 30 Barbara Karkabi, “Abortion not a Main Issue for Catholics: Survey Results Contradict Bishops’ Stanc (...)
- 31 Frank Newport, “Catholics Similar to Mainstream on Abortion, Stem Cells,” Gallup, March 30, 2009.
- 32 Mary T. Hanna, Catholics and American Politics. Harvard University Press, 1979, p.154.
35What’s more, most of the polls converge to demonstrate that a majority of U.S. Catholics hold views that differ from the official teachings of the Church on abortion. Sixty-four percent among them say they disapprove of the statement that “abortion is morally wrong,”29 and between sixteen and twenty percent agree with the Church’s stance that abortion should be illegal in all cases.30 When asked the question of whether abortion was acceptable or unacceptable, forty percent of American Catholics said it was acceptable, approximately the same percentage as non-Catholics.31 While Latino Catholics in the U.S. are more likely to oppose abortion, some reasons for dissenting from the Church’s position include: “I am personally opposed to abortion, but I think the Church is concentrating its energies too much on abortion rather than on social action.”32
- 33 B. Karkabi, Houston Chronicle, op cit.
- 34 David D. Kirkpatrick, “Health Care Debate Revives Abortion,” The New York Times, November 24, 2009.
36Polls also reveal that abortion ranks low among other electoral issues and is by no means decisive in the Catholic vote. According to a survey conducted by Zogby International in 2008, only twenty-nine percent of Catholic voters choose their candidate based solely on his position on abortion.33 In another poll carried out by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in 2009, only three percent of respondents who opposed the health care reform cited abortion as their reason, and when offered a list of alternatives, just eight percent chose abortion as a top concern. Forty-six percent agreed with abortion adversaries that coverage of the procedure should not be included in government benefit, and thirty-six percent thought the plan should cover abortion.34
37On the whole, while the debate over abortion will continue to spark ardent arguments on both sides of the spectrum as consensus on such a polarizing issue is hard to attain, the American Catholic Church should show significant flexibility and adjustment with changing times. Hanging in the balance are millions of underprivileged Americans waiting for subsidized health cover. During the past decades, U.S. Catholics have overwhelmingly supported a government guarantee of health care access to all citizens, and if the bishops remain firmly entrenched in their positions with their line in the sand on abortion, the entire program might one day sink. If the Catholic prelates wish to continue as crucial players in the decision-making process and to have a louder voice in future policy debates, they need to comply with the rules of the game and admit that any political system involves some degree of give and take.