Message from the President

Much Ado About Nothing

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.

As we approach the 100-day mark of Barack Obama’s presidency, we have seen several positive moves for sexual and reproductive health and rights. Conservatives, including the Catholic hierarchy and its right-wing allies, have been less impressed. They have, among other things, raised concerns about a number of issues, including: a yet-to-be-introduced bill that would help access to abortion; the easing of restrictions on stem-cell research and the advocacy activities of foreign NGOs; the proposed rescission of an unnecessarily restrictive refusal clause; several appointments to the new administration as well as President Obama’s invitation to speak at Notre Dame.

Almost as soon as the crowds dispersed from the inaugural balls on January 20th, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the National Committee for a Human Life Amendment initiated a postcard campaign against the Freedom of Choice Act—a bill that exists, so far, only in their imaginations. The campaign was not designed to be thought-provoking or to inspire dialogue; rather, the rhetoric was meant to stir up fear among churchgoers and foster a call to arms against the new administration.

Later, when President Obama signed an executive order overturning the ban on embryonic stem-cell research, the hierarchy and others expressed outrage, unable and unwilling to see how this scientific research is both ethical and moral. Polls show that Catholics in the United States believe in the merits and potential benefits of this research even if the hierarchy chooses not to understand. Conservative critics were also angry when President Obama overturned the Global Gag Rule, an unacceptable restriction on how foreign NGOs that receive US grants spend their own money.

The church hierarchy has also been vocal in its campaign to preserve a refusal clause regulation imposed in the dying days of the last administration. However, in their messaging, the bishops are suggesting that Catholic healthcare workers would be forced to perform procedures which contradict their conscience, which is clearly untrue. In fact, rescinding the regulation is consistent with Catholic teaching on respecting the individual conscience of both patient and healthcare provider.

Some Catholic bishops have also opposed the nominations of several members of the new administration, most notably that of Governor Kathleen Sebelius to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. In these interventions, ultra-conservative Catholics resorted to petty name-calling, focusing solely on Governor Sebelius’ prochoice position and adding little to the debate.

Finally, the most recent assault from conservative Catholics has been over the invitation to President Obama from the University of Notre Dame Commencement Ceremony. This attack on academic freedom proves that the hierarchy and others are running scared. As Catholics do not support these extremist views, conservatives are now forced to try to shut down debate and silence those with whom they disagree.

The conservatives seem to have forgotten a rallying cry they had used widely during the previous eight years: elections have consequences. In November 2008, fifty-four percent of Catholics voted for Barack Obama. They knew exactly what they were doing. As a majority of Catholics support reproductive rights, Catholics voted knowing that this administration would secure those rights. Polls continuously show that Catholic opinion mirrors that of the wider American public on these issues. Indeed, in some cases Catholics take a more liberal stance than the general population.

A recent poll by the US bishops revealed that nine-in-ten Catholics support keeping abortion legal. On stem-cell research, a Gallup poll reported that sixty-three percent of US Catholics find stem-cell research to be morally acceptable. And while the opposition to President Obama speaking at Notre Dame may be loud and unruly, it is lead by a tiny minority of ultraconservative Catholics who have shown no respect for the office of the president, nor for the ability of students and alumni at Notre Dame to form their own opinions on moral and political matters.

As we can see, conservative commentators like Deal Hudson could not have been farther off track when they asserted that if the Republican Party put its full force behind the issue of abortion, Catholics would flock to the right and create a permanent Republican majority. We should remember that the one area where most people now agree is on reducing the need for abortion. However, Hudson and his ilk are opposed to the most obvious and basic ways of reducing that need: effective and accessible family planning and comprehensive sexuality education. As long as they continue to oppose these common sense methods of reducing the need for abortion, they will continue to live in the political wilderness.

So far, we have been encouraged by the fact that the assault by the church hierarchy and its allies has had little impact on the policy decisions of this administration. This has not always been the case and people around the world—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—have suffered as a result of the political lobby of the bishops that has denied access to key reproductive health services. You can be sure that Catholics for Choice will be there at every turn in the coming months monitoring those who oppose reproductive rights and challenging and exposing their misinformation campaigns. The momentum for change is on our side but to prevail we must all be the change we seek.

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