Message from the President

A Time to Choose

Jon O'Brien, President Catholics for a Free Choice
Jon O’Brien, President, Catholics for Choice.
Photo Credit: Eric Haase.  This picture is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without the express permission of Catholics for Choice.

Much time has been spent this election season trying to read the proverbial tea leaves to parse the nuances of Senator John McCain’s and Senator Barack Obama’s relative positions on abortion and sexual and reproductive rights. Now that the debates are over and we have heard from each of the candidates what they really think about the issues, we all know exactly what is at stake.

It is imperative that the next president address unintended pregnancy and abortion both here in the United States and around the world. Nearly half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned, and of these, approximately 42% end in abortion. Real women—Democratic, Republican and independent, of all faiths and no faith—face these problems in the real world. The issues must be addressed in a way that meets the needs of American women. Catholics, who support sexual and reproductive health and rights are in good company, and in good conscience, in supporting prochoice policies and prochoice policy makers. Church teachings on moral decision-making and abortion are complex and far more nuanced than the monolithic teachings as represented by the bishops. In Catholic theology there is room for the acceptance of policies that favor access to the full range of reproductive health options, including contraception and abortion.

No matter how it appears from the never-ending buzz during this election year, unplanned pregnancy and abortion should not be political issues; nor should they exclusively be the concern of Democrats or Republicans. However, given that unintended pregnancy and abortion are, and will remain, political issues, much more can and should be done to address these issues in a nonpartisan manner. It is time for Americans to make a choice and vote for the candidate whose agenda they think will best address reproductive health and rights and women’s health.

The next president needs to appoint judges to the Supreme Court who will uphold the long-standing precedent of Roe v. Wade and respect the right of women to make their own decisions about abortion. Supreme Court appointments matter; presidential appointments influence the court long after the administration itself. We heard it in the last debate—the candidates are worlds apart when it comes to their take on judicial appointments and their support for Roe v. Wade.

The Republican presidential nominee Senator John McCain said point blank in this week’s debate that he thinks Roe v. Wade was “a bad decision.” When asked whether he would consider appointing a judge to the Supreme Court who “had a history of being for abortion rights,” Sen. McCain said he would not impose a litmus test yet responded, “I would consider anyone in their qualifications. I do not believe that someone who has supported Roe v. Wade that would be part of those qualifications.”

Democratic presidential nominee Senator Barack Obama said he thinks Roe v. Wade was “rightly decided.” Sen. Obama elaborated to say, “I think that abortion is a very difficult issue and it is a moral issue…But what ultimately I believe is that women in consultation with their families, their doctors, their religious advisers, are in the best position to make this decision.”

The next president needs to ensure that abortion remains legal and is truly accessible but also needs to address the issue of unintended pregnancy in America by promoting real prevention efforts that meet women, men and young people where they are. For the first time in fourteen years, the teen pregnancy rate in America increased. The next president should include as a major public health focus initiatives to prevent unintended pregnancy and support women who choose to carry their pregnancies to term. Again, the candidates could unfortunately not be further apart when it comes to focusing on prevention and on reducing the need for abortion.

During Wednesday’s debate, Sen. Obama recognized that while the issue of abortion is a divisive one, and will likely remain that way, “there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, ‘We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby.’”

Sen. McCain was presented with an opportunity to express his ideas for prevention but instead described Sen. Obama as extreme for his support of a health exception for all abortion. Sen. McCain is against birth control coverage by insurance companies, that he supports ineffective abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, and opposes funding for the Title X family planning program. Sen. McCain characterized Sen. Obama’s position: “He’s [for an exception for] health for the mother. You know, that’s been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything. That’s the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, ‘health.’”

I don’t think it is “extreme” in the least to care about women’s health and to support women in decisions they make with their medical professionals and their families. Sen. McCain was clear that he would “do everything we can to improve adoption in this country…But that does not mean that we will cease to protect the rights of the unborn.” Sen. McCain elaborated saying, “it’s vital that we…help these young women who are facing such a difficult decision, with a compassion, that we’ll help them with the adoptive services, with the courage to bring that child into this world and we’ll help take care of it.” Sen. McCain’s commitment to adoption is commendable. However, he did not address prevention and ridiculing the idea that the life of the woman should be of concern in the abortion debate will do nothing to advance the conversation.

It is time we have a president who will end the “abortion wars.” The last eight years have seen abortion politicized as never before. President Bush signed measures that did nothing to reduce the incidence of unintended pregnancy or the need for abortion and instead did everything to ratchet up political disagreement about abortion rights. From the ban on using embryonic stem cells in federally funded research to a regulation that included fetuses in the federal–state children’s health insurance program (low-income pregnant women already receive coverage under Medicaid), the Bush administration has politicized women’s health at every turn. Even potential applicants for the Coalition Provisional Authority charged with rebuilding Iraq were asked about their position on Roe v. Wade. The next president needs to turn away from these politically divisive tactics and enact balanced, bipartisan measures that will reduce unintended pregnancy, increase access to family planning, and respect and support a woman’s right to access a legal abortion in a timely manner.
At the heart of church teachings on moral matters is a deep regard for an individual’s conscience. We need to use our faith to inform our decision-making, and follow Catholic teaching which says that in the end, the final arbiter in a person’s decision is her or his conscience. The majority of Catholics desire to promote family planning, comprehensive age-appropriate sex education and caring adoption programs in order to reduce the need for abortion. This is a sensible approach that Catholics and non-Catholics can and do support. Our next president should do the same.

Read the November 2016 message from Jon O'Brien:
Pope Francis’ Announcement on Abortion Is About Bridging the Deep Chasm Between the Church Hierarchy and the Reality of Everyday Catholics