One week after Barack Obama was elected president, the U.S. bishops gathered for their annual fall meeting in Baltimore. In a strongly worded statement, they asserted that “the church is resolute in opposing evil.” Their words were constructed in such fashion to make the fight against abortion the bishops’ top priority. In his presidential address, Cardinal Francis E. George had already raised this urgency, “The common good can never be adequately incarnated in any society when those waiting to be born can be legally killed at choice.” Abortion is perceived as a contemporary Holocaust, denying an entire class of people their essential humanity. To suggest that any other issue is comparable amounts to a type of moral blindness.
At the risk of compromising a “consistent ethic of life,” why do the bishops insist that abortion holds pride of place among every other life issue? The answer lies in their statement approved in executive session on November 12. It names the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision Roe vs. Wade as “bad law” and straightforwardly indicates that “the danger the bishops see at this moment is that a bad court decision will be enshrined in bad legislation that is more radical than the 1973 Supreme Court decision itself.”
The feared legislation is the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) whose passage “would have lethal consequences for prenatal human life.” Situating FOCA is crucial. At a meeting of the Planned Parenthood Fund on July 17, 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama declared twice in response to a question that “the first thing I’d do as president is sign FOCA.” This pledge places Obama and the Catholic Bishops on a possible collision course. First introduced in 1989, the 2007 version of FOCA proposes that “It is the policy of the United States that every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child, to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability, or to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability when necessary to protect the life or health of the woman.”
The intent of FOCA is to establish abortion as a “fundamental right” throughout the nine months of pregnancy by disallowing any state governmental body to deny or interfere with this right or to discriminate against its exercise. Its scope is far-reaching. FOCA would erase informed-consent laws states have enacted and override parental-involvement laws. It would end health and safety regulations on abortion clinics, and would force government programs and facilities that pay for or promote childbirth and other health care to subsidize abortion. FOCA also threatens to end all conscience-protection laws that currently allow Catholic and other pro-life hospitals and health-care workers to opt out of participating in abortions. Laws prohibiting a particular abortion procedure, such as partial-birth abortion, would no longer be in force, and FOCA would strike down laws requiring that abortions be performed only by a licensed physician.
The Politics of FOCA
While recognizing the serious impact of such a law on embryonic and fetal life, FOCA has little chance of becoming law. The provisions of FOCA require legislative action by the Congress. Such a statutory change is unlikely as FOCA would be subject to hearings in both houses of Congress. It would also need approval by the House Judiciary Committee, the full House of Representatives, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate (with a 60 vote margin to overcome a likely filibuster). Finally, varying versions of FOCA would have to be reconciled in a conference committee and then sent back to both chambers of Congress for final passage. It is improbable that FOCA will ever come to the Senate floor for discussion, especially since there is a strong coalition of both Republicans and Democrats who either oppose abortion rights, or do not want to see them expanded.
Much more worrisome than FOCA is the serious and present reality that should create real fear for the bishops and the church in this country. Namely, that many Catholics have yet to accept the church teaching on this subject.
Authoritative statements make it clear that from the moment of conception a human being is present and is to be treated as a person. In his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” John Paul II unambiguously affirmed, “I declare that direct abortion, that is abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder… This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God.” (no. 62) Citing its 1987 document “Gift of Life” (Donum vitae), “Instruction on Certain Bioethical Questions” (Dignitatis personae), released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in December reaffirms: “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.” (no. 4)
This teaching has been consistently held and is irreformable. An obstinate denial of this teaching represents a serious breach between a Catholic and the teaching office of the church.
What the Polls Say
Yet recent polls indicate that many Catholics have not accepted this teaching. For example, the Faith in Public Life organization released on October 8, 2008 “Faith and American Politics,” a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research firm. This poll, the most comprehensive assessment of the faith and political views of young people during the 2008 election cycle, found that 60 percent of younger Catholics (18 to 34) surveyed believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to half of older Catholics.
A survey commissioned by the Knights of Columbus and conducted by Marist College’s Institute for Public Opinion was also released in October. On the subject of abortion, 48 percent of all Catholics surveyed said that they were pro-life, while 47 percent claimed to be pro-choice, with 5 percent being unsure. While differences were noted between “practicing” and “non-practicing” Catholics, a plurality of thirty-five percent said they would allow abortion in cases of rape, incest or to save the mother’s life. The survey found that 26 percent of all Catholics surveyed would permit abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, although 17 percent said abortion should never be permitted, and 11 percent would allow abortion only to save the life of the mother.
These figures reveal that many Catholics do not assent to the church’s doctrinal teaching on abortion, with younger Catholics holding alarming views. Gregory A. Smith, research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, comments that American Catholics do not see the abortion issue the same way the church does. He writes, “One of the things you have to keep in mind about Catholics is that most aren’t opposed to abortion. And of those who are, most don’t see it as a particularly important issue.” Smith references a Pew Forum survey showing that fewer than one in four Catholics oppose abortion and do not see it as a politically important issue. In his presidential address, Cardinal George acknowledges these facts by referring to a “divided world” and “a church that knows dissent from some of her teachings.”
The CDF’s 1974 “Declaration on Procured Abortion” stated that the “question of human life [is] a primordial value which must be protected and promoted.” It states that “everyone understands this, although many look for reasons, even against all evidence, to promote the use of abortion.” (no. 1) Thirty-four years later a growing number of Catholics support abortion and evidence a lack of understanding about the doctrinal nature of the church’s teaching. What has lead to this non-reception?
Richard M. Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, cites a central issue: “Women are influenced by husbands, boyfriends, parents and friends, and by a culture and legal system that tells them the child they carry has no rights and is of no consequence.” Roe vs. Wade teaches that killing an unborn child is acceptable. It established a woman’s “right” to choose. To control her own body outweighs the rights of the unborn child.
The difficulty with this attitude is its failure to see that abortion involves two bodies, the body of the woman and the body of the unborn child. A fetus is not a part of the mother the way a finger is a part of a person. Rather, the fetus is temporarily living within the mother. Harming another’s body is precisely what takes place in abortion. The bishops’ statement is on target, “Abortion is a medical procedure that kills.” If a woman’s right to make free choices about her life comes into conflict with the right to life of the child in her womb, then the right to life should prevail as the more basic and fundamental right.
Moral theologian Bernard Haring defined moral ignorance as the inability of a person to “realize” a moral obligation. Due to one’s personal and psychological experience, coupled with the whole context of one’s life, a person is unable and perhaps unwilling to cope with a certain moral imperative. One’s conscience can by degrees become blinded, creating a situation where a person cannot truly “see” truth. Many Catholics suffer from this type of moral retardation regarding the serious nature of abortion. Pope Benedict XVI has named the problem as “the ‘obscure’ evil of modern Western society.”
Condemnations are not a viable tool in addressing this malaise. The challenge is to win the argument for life on the cultural level. As positively evidenced in the “National Respect Life Program” released in 2008 by the pro-life campaign of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the first aim must be on changing hearts and minds regarding the sanctity of embryonic and fetal life. Three neuralgic points must guide all teaching about abortion: the embryo is a human being; the embryo has personal rights; and a woman’s right to free choice cannot trump the right to life of a human being in the womb.
Bishop Blasé Cupich of Rapid City, South Dakota, states the case well: “We need a prophecy of solidarity with the communities we serve and the nation we live in, which needs healing. We must be, and be seen to be, pastors as well as faithful teachers.” He warns against “a prophecy of denunciation.” This attitude complements well what Benedict XVI said during his April visit to the United States when he called all Catholics “to proclaim the gift of life, to serve life, and to promote a culture of life, the message of hope we are called to proclaim and embody.”