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Robert David SullivanNovember 01, 2022
Phillip Mendoza joined other anti-abortion supporters at the California March for Life rally held at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2022. On Nov. 8, California voters will be asked to add the right to an abortion to the California Constitution. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)Phillip Mendoza joined other anti-abortion supporters at the California March for Life rally held at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2022. On Nov. 8, California voters will be asked to add the right to an abortion to the California Constitution. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

For decades, abortion was regarded by many Catholics as a major political issue in national politics—as the U.S. bishops have put it, it was the “pre-eminent issue.” Now that Roe v. Wade has been been overturned and the issue of abortion sent back to the states, how should Catholic voters respond? One of three all-new episodes of our podcast Voting Catholic looks at abortion and its impact in the 2022 midterm election.

One result of the Dobbs v. Jackson decision has been a new appreciation of just how difficult it is to craft laws protecting the unborn. Jacqui Oesterblad, a recent graduate of Yale Law School, has written for America about the ethical dilemmas of abortion laws that are so restrictive that they may endanger the lives of mothers. (See “We need to talk about ‘life of the mother’ exceptions in abortion law.”) As she explained to Sebastian Gomes, an executive editor at America and host of Voting Catholic, several states had “trigger laws” that went into effect as soon as Roe was overturned, and that did not necessarily take into account some of these ethical dilemmas.

The church teaches that there are two people involved in a pregnancy, said Ms. Oesterblad, “and they both have dignity and a right to life.” If the life of the mother is threatened, the question becomes whether “there is something we can do that is indirect, that doesn’t kill the child on purpose … but is instead treating some condition that the mother has [in a way] that is going to unfortunately end the pregnancy.”

The church teaches that there are two people involved in a pregnancy, “and they both have dignity and a right to life.”

Such an intervention is permissible under the doctrine of double effect, but as Ms. Oesterblad explains, if a law is too vague, doctors may be hesitant to take action because they don’t know exactly what is legally allowed.

For example, ectopic pregnancies “are a very fast moving emergency,” said Ms. Oesterblad. “They’re not always easy to confirm on a scan, and so it can be difficult for a doctor to get the evidence together” that a pregnancy was terminated in the short amount of time before it becomes a “serious medical threat and emergency” endangering the life of the mother. Another example is “incomplete miscarriages, where there is still a detectable fetal heartbeat.” This condition can last for weeks, said Ms. Oesterblad, even though the pregnancy is not viable. “The church’s moral instinct is: You have a baby that is having a painful death and we have to care for it. And a lot of other people’s moral instinct is: This woman needs help right now, and making her wait is cruel.”

But are these infrequent emergencies as important to consider as the hundreds of thousands of abortions performed each year in the United States since the Roe decision?

“I think the kind of crude tallying up of bodies on one side versus the other is exactly the kind of thing that Catholic ethics is supposed to avoid,” said Ms. Oesterblad. “The pro-life Catholic side has said quite eloquently that the goal is not just to reduce the numbers [of abortions], but to actually have a culture of life and an ethic of life and protection of everyone. If you’re gonna say that, you have to apply it to mothers, and you can’t just say that one dead woman is worth a thousand dead fetuses. We have to think about laws in a culture that respects pregnant women and their lives and thinks about how to take care of their health.”

Standing up for the vulnerable

“Where we are coming from is from God’s love for each and every human being without exception,” said Richard Doerflinger, an ethicist who worked for many years on the Pro-Life Activities Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Interviewed on Voting Catholic, he added, “That means you as well as the child you may have in your womb. If you start making exceptions, saying, ‘These are the people that God doesn’t care about,’ that is a very dangerous place to go to.”

An unborn child “is a living member of the human species,” Mr. Doerflinger said. “That has to count for something, in a church that is always saying everyone is equal in dignity, but especially we need to be standing up for the poor and the vulnerable and the voiceless.”

How can Catholics apply that approach to U.S. politics and policy making? “I think what Catholic pro-lifers need to do is to, first of all, is show that we do care about women and women’s lives,” according to Mr. Doerflinger. “There are a lot of positive proposals for helping women not to think that abortion is their only choice when they have an unexpected pregnancy. We need to show that we care about their needs and their interests, and we also need to make proposals to protect the unborn child. … I don’t intend this as a pun, but [we need] to take baby steps toward a legal system that respects the unborn child as well as the child’s mother.”

In other words, an incremental approach can be morally valid. Pointing to the U.S. bishops’ Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, Mr. Doerflinger said, “We want laws that protect the life of the unborn to the maximum degree possible. But both of those words are important, ‘maximum’ and ‘possible.’”

“We want laws that protect the life of the unborn to the maximum degree possible. But both of those words are important, ‘maximum’ and ‘possible.’”

Referring to Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical, “The Gospel of Life,” he explained, “It is perfectly appropriate and valid to pass laws that don’t go all the way toward restoring full protection for life if it makes an improvement and can build toward a society that may accept something more. Otherwise, it’s all or nothing, and that means, in a lot of cases, it’ll be nothing.”

On the other side of the political divide, Mr. Doerflinger pointed to the Women’s Health Protection Act, which is supported by President Biden and Democratic congressional leaders. “It has been the flagship legislation of the major national pro-abortion groups for years now. And it is not ‘codifying Roe.’ Roe v. Wade was a privacy decision. It said, ‘Let’s let the woman alone in making this decision for herself.’” By contrast, “what the Women’s Health Protection Act does is say this is a public entitlement. This is routine essential health care. Anything that may interfere with ready and immediate access to abortion can be nullified by a federal lawsuit or by the attorney general.

“It really does mean abortions right up to the moment of birth, if that’s what a doctor and a woman could agree on. It means knocking down hundreds of very modest state laws that Roe v. Wade has allowed to take effect, like parental rights, like bans on public funding, even safety regulations for women. So I, I think it’s the most sweeping abortion legislation I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been at it for 40 years. It makes Roe v. Wade almost look moderate.”

National legislation supported by Democrats would make abortion “a public entitlement” and “routine essential health care.”

So what is the extremism in the pro-life movement that unsettles so many Catholics in the United States? “Well, one thing that unsettled people, and the bishops did actually respond to it very forcefully, was the idea that you could prosecute the woman who undergoes an abortion. There was a legislator in Louisiana who tried to promote that idea and, and got a very forceful response from 70 leaders of pro-life organizations, including the U.S. bishops’ Pro-Life Committee chair.” Mr. Doerflinger said that the bishops have never supported a law that would allow for the prosecution of women who undergo abortions.

Could there be instances of emergency care where, as Ms. Osterblad suggested, doctors or mothers are unclear about what is legal? “You may need a lot more education of medical people as well as to what they do and what they don’t do,” Mr. Doerflinger admitted. But he said that none of the laws enacted since Dobbs prevent doctors from acting on behalf of the mother in the case of ectopic pregnancies or life-threatening situations, citing a study by the Charlotte Lozier Institute. “They did a review of every one of the laws that have passed so far and said all of them are clear in not going after those things.”

Unfortunately, he said, “I don’t think people are necessarily listening to nuanced and moderating messages in our current political climate. It’s hard to break through the smoke that happens in an election year, where there’s a lot of exaggeration going on.”

Navigating the backlash to Dobbs

“I did my share of protesting in front of Planned Parenthood. I fought to end abortion,” Marcia Lane McGee told host Sebastian Gomes on Voting Catholic. Ms. McGee is an author, a podcaster and vice president of New Wave Feminists, a pro-life feminist organization based in Texas that says on its website “every human being should live a life free from violence, from the womb to the tomb.” Ms McGee had an unplanned pregnancy while in college and placed her child in adoption. She said her thinking at the time was: “We could end abortion, if we had people that were ready to adopt, right?”

Now she concedes that she had a “very privileged adoption story,” maintaining contact with her child and even serving as a confirmation sponsor. Speaking of the birth mom community, she said, “I wasn’t recognizing the trauma of my sisters in this fight, and I was definitely not recognizing my own because I had this idyllic experience.”

Because of this realization, Ms. McGee had a mixed reaction to hearing the news, just after she got off a plane, that the Supreme Court had overturned Roe. “I remember sitting down and I couldn’t move for a long time. And not, because I was like, ‘Oh no, women won’t have access to abortion.’ My thoughts were, ‘Oh no, more women are gonna be coerced into adoption.’ I went into the bathroom of the airport and I just cried.”

Upon hearing that Roe was overturned, “My thoughts were, ‘Oh no, more women are gonna be coerced into adoption.’ I went into the bathroom of the airport and I just cried.”

Ms. McGee said that New Wave Feminists has in the past been able to “engage a lot of pro-choice people who actually did support us in some ways … because we do a lot to support life” rather than simply fight abortion, but that engagement has become more difficult with the backlash to Dobbs that has included protests at churches and crisis pregnancy centers.

Now, she worries, “a lot of people who have been career pro-lifers are going to start strong-arming states” to pass new abortion laws without doing enough to support women affected by the laws—or that they will be too glib about saying to women, “We will adopt your baby.”

Talking about her organization’s role in this year’s elections, she said, “I actually believe that we should stay out of the political part of the pro-life movement. I think it’s been used as a carrot long enough to get you to vote Democrat or Republican or what have you.”

She added, “If we’re actually going to do good as a church coming up on the midterm elections, we should look into those who are making laws or who have voted on laws that support women and their children and their abundant life…. I think that we should take the politics of being pro-life or pro-choice out of it, because I don’t think that we’re going make any major changes in women getting what they need if we vote based on one issue.”

To hear more on how American Catholics view abortion, be sure to listen to Voting Catholic, a podcast by America Media with all-new episodes on inflation, abortion and gun violence in advance of the 2022 midterm election.

Also read other views on abortion and the reversal of Roe v. Wade, as well as news coverage of the topic, here.

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