A Pro-Life Strategy of Persuasion

The United States bishops in their 1999 statement, Faithful Citizenship, called on Catholics and all citizens to stay involved in public life...and participate in the debates and choices... and for voters to examine the position of candidates on a full range of issues....

Central to the bishops’ concern is respect for life, especially where it is most threatenedin the unborn. They also called for a new kind of politics. Commenting on the statement, Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the bishops’ conference, pointed to the need to do more than issue a statement and the need to develop a strategy that would reach far more people than in the past. Earlier, in 1998, the bishops’ document Living the Gospel of Life had dealt specifically with the effort to persuade voters and Catholic public officials to be faithful to church teaching on the sanctity of human life. At that time, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore said the document was intended to promote a theology of persuasion. The question, therefore, is how to develop Bishop Fiorenza’s strategy and Cardinal Keeler’s theology of persuasion?


Prior to last November’s elections, bishops throughout the country took up the theme of Faithful Citizenship in pastoral letters, urging their people to vote their conscience while keeping prominently in mind the abortion issue. Archbishop Edward M. Egan of New York wrote, All of us will have an opportunity to choose leaders who share our commitment to fundamental rights for the unborn, those advanced in age, the sick and the needy. Bishop William F. Murphy, vicar general of Boston, pointedly commented, I fail to understand how any Catholic can support a candidate who is outspokenly and unambiguously pro choice....’ Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, probably the most direct of the bishops, charged Vice President Al Gore with being a captive of Catholics for a Free Choice and other groups which are intolerant of the teaching of the Catholic Church and with deception about his position, using words which mask what he holds.

How persuasive has been this strategyforceful presentation of the dignity of human life by authoritative church figures? Perhaps the recent elections may provide some clues. How did Catholics respond? The Democratic candidate, Al Gore, appeared unequivocally pro-choice; the Republican candidate, George W. Bush, was pro-life. Anecdotal evidence suggesting that Catholics remained independent-minded in considering the many issues involved in the election seems to be confirmed by a survey by the Voters News Service that estimated that 47 percent of Catholic voters voted for Bush and 49 percent for Goreabout even.

Assessing the impact of statements by church authorities and of the abortion issue on Catholic voters becomes more problematical in many local elections, in which, as in major cities and coastal states, most, if not all, candidates are pro-choice. In New York State, for instance, in the Senate contest between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Rick Lazio, both candidates described themselves as pro-choice. But the differences were significant.

Lazio supported a ban on partial-birth abortion and voted for such a ban in Congress. Clinton opposed such a ban. She also opposed notification of parents of minors seeking abortions. Lazio supported such notification. Lazio consistently voted in Congress against federal funding of Medicaid abortions. Clinton supported such federal funding. Lazio, despite his claim to be pro-choice, was strongly attacked for being basically pro-life by Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List and other pro-choice organizations that supported Clinton.

On the other hand, instead of supporting Lazio, the Right-to-Life Party entered John O. Adefope as a candidate. Many conscientious Catholics and many pro-life advocates, with conscience in mind and impressed by the right-to-life label, undoubtedly threw away their votes as a pro-life gesture in a politically self-destructive way that has become too familiar. The strongly pro-life Michael Long and his Conservative Party, more politically astute than the Right-to-Life Party, gave their endorsement to Lazio.

In the end Clinton received 55 percent of the vote, Lazio 43 percent. The Voters News Service estimated that 52 percent of Catholics voted for Clinton, 46 percent for Lazio. Although in this Senate election third-party candidates made no difference, many elections are uncomfortably close. A more effective strategy might have counseled the Right-to-Life Party to endorse Lazio and not run a candidate who could not win and would only draw votes away from Lazio. The challenge for church leaders would have been to help Catholics understand the differences between Lazio and Clinton so that they could vote in a politically realistic way and secure some incremental pro-life progress.

How are voters to discern among differences of this sort? Candidates’ forums are widely used by groups such as labor unions, chambers of commerce and religious organizations to provide candidates with a chance to address voters’ interests. Such forums are impartial, but the sponsor selects the chairperson or panel that guides the discussion and places in the audience people primed to ask pointed questions. Such forums have been effectively used by Catholic parishes to sound out candidates on both community and Catholic concerns. Questioners can inquire, What are you going to do to make Catholics want to vote for you? They can also seek a candidate’s commitment to insuring that parochial school children get the school nurses, textbooks and street crossing guards to which they are legally entitled. Even pro-choice candidates, as in the Lazio-Clinton contest, can be questioned about subsidiary issues, such as parental notification for minors, informed consent and partial-birth abortion. The use of these forums should not be left to Planned Parenthood, to gay and lesbian activists and to other groups with agendas usually hostile to Catholic concerns.

Unfortunately, some Catholic authorities, apparently reluctant to trust the intelligence and faith of parishioners, prohibit candidates holding pro-abortion positions from appearing under Catholic auspices. Catholic Charities of Rockville Centre, N.Y., had arranged 19 such candidates’ forums at which Clinton and Lazio or their representatives were scheduled to appear. But the diocesan bishop, James T. McHugh (who died on Dec. 10), banned such pro-abortion candidates from Catholic premises. All the forums were canceled. This removed parishioners, as an interest group, from the political process and from understanding and publicizing the differences between the candidates. A pro-life strategy must, however, involve grass-roots discourse and interchange if the arguments of pro-choice advocates are to be persuasively rebutted. Authoritative statements from on high, important as they are, are simply not enough.

How are the pro-life strategies to be made more persuasive? Hillary Clinton had surprisingly strong support among women (60 percent of the vote) and among Catholics (52 percent). While exit polls were not conducted with nuns, conversations with members of several religious communities have shown strong support for Clinton. Lazio’s aggressive approach to Clinton in their first debate was seen by many as undesirable male behavior. Disenchantment among many sisters and their organizations with what they perceive as disenfranchisement of women in their church and the recent headline-making intrusion of the Vatican into the ministries of nuns have inclined many sisters to pro-feminism candidates. The patriarchal characteristics of the church, evidenced by denial of women’s ordination down to the recently reaffirmed prohibition on the formal installation of women as lectors, have also disposed many laywomen, especially those who are younger and better educated, to see the anti-choice position as the voice of a church perceived as unsympathetic, if not hostile, to the empowerment of women. Many are alienated not only from the pro-life movement but also from the church itself.

What, then, might be a persuasive strategy for this women’s issue? Pro-life efforts rely heavily on authoritative statements like those made by bishops prior to the recent elections and those made on other occasions by the pope. The 1998 statement of the U.S. bishops, Living the Gospel of Life, begins with a quotation from Pope John Paul II and contains 17 additional quotations from him. But after Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, and the sometimes controversial statements from the present Vatican, it is fair to question whether papal authority will today constitute, even for many Catholics, the theology of persuasion sought by the bishops. For non-Catholics, it could well be a turn-off.

In addition to heavy reliance on external authority, the U.S. bishops present persuasive internal reasons for respecting the dignity of life and opposing the unjust violence of abortion. But any debate must involve both positive arguments for one’s own position and also a rebuttal of opposing arguments. Popes, bishops and pro-life advocates rest content, however, with presenting only one side of the debatethe case for the inviolability of human life. The argument made in support of legal abortionthe argument for the unrestricted liberty of women and for their empowerment, the argument that is the very engine that drives pro-choice acceptance politically and in public opinionis simply ignored. It is neither rebutted nor qualified. A new strategy must include a strong and legitimate feminism. It cannot allow the feminist concerns to be monopolized by the pro-choicers.

Regrettably, the feminist position is perceived by many, both pro-choicers and pro-lifers, as necessarily including abortion. But that need not be. Pro-choice feminist Naomi Wolf in her Fire With Fire (1993) describes how in the 1980’s Yale University feminists banned Feminists for Life from the university’s women’s center. Wolf objected to this, affirming that abortion was not an essential in the struggle for women’s equality. She wrote that women talking about the bad aspects of abortiongrief, mourning, depression, the killingshould not be excluded from the ranks of feminists. She reported that when arranging a condom or diaphragm before intercourse, she said to herself: Careful, careful. This is a matter of life and death. There and in other writings, she admits the killing involved, wants to avoid it, but justifies it for what she regards as more compelling reasons.

In its Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court used sanitized language. Last June, however, when in Stenberg v. Carhart the court by a vote of 5 to 4 struck down Nebraska’s ban on partial-birth abortion, the opinion for the majority spoke in unvarnished language of the horrific details of that procedure. But since the abortions already permitted by the court were equally gruesome procedures, the majority concluded that the partial-birth type must also be permitted. The significant point here is that pro-choicers and the court are at last dealing with both sides of the argumentthe freedom of women and the killing element of abortion. Pro-lifers, if they are to have a strategy of persuasion, must similarly address both sides of the debate, advancing solid arguments for the life of the unborn, but affirming the legitimate liberties and equality of women. It is disastrous, intellectually and politically, for pro-life forces to let themselves be perceived as enemies of the new empowerment of women that is widely seen as a defining characteristic of the 20th century.

In Living the Gospel of Life, the bishops make no reference whatever to the legitimate liberty and empowerment of women. Their six uses of the word women refer exclusively to women as victims. They speak of a new pro-life feminism but curiously describe it as counseling women facing unexpected pregnancies, staffing pregnancy-aid centers and influencing elected officials against abortion. A pro-life feminism must involve much more than this if it is to be persuasive. It must be more than a mere strategy; it must be rooted in justice itself for women.

John Paul II in his many documents refers frequently to the dignity and equality of women; but invariably he insists on greater awareness of the original complementarity between men and women, a concept that historically has hardly been compatible with the equality or empowerment of women.

A new strategy of persuasion could appropriately involve authoritative statements of bishops, supplemented by grass-roots involvement of parishioners in the particularities of elections as, for example, by way of candidates’ forums. And, above all, a strategy of persuasion must address both sides of the debatethe inviolability of the life of the unborn and the legitimate empowerment of women.

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