Letters & Op-Eds 2006

Bridging the Abortion Divide

This past week, 55 Catholic Democrats in Congress issued an unprecedented statement of principles. Never before have they worn their religion so openly on their sleeves. Unlike evangelicals, Catholics have tended to downplay their religious affiliation. Perhaps it’s a function of the memory of the anti-Catholic bias John F. Kennedy faced; perhaps it stems from a desire to keep your head down when disagreeing with the bishops on that litmus test issue, abortion. Whatever it is, these Democrats, led by Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, are silent no more. What brought on this declaration and why is it important?

For starters, a bit of history. The 2004 elections were particularly bruising for pro-choice Catholics. John Kerry was put on “wafer watch,” with the media camping outside whatever church he went to for mass each week, hoping he would be denied communion. Kerry himself handled questions about his pro-choice position as badly as he handled questions about the war in Iraq, much to the disappointment of the many knowledgeable theologians whose good advice was ignored.

While the vast majority of U.S. Catholic bishops spoke out against the conservative minority who called for denying communion to pro-choice Catholic candidates, the dozen or so bishops who said they were ready to deny candidates communion got the press coverage. In fact, no Catholic bishop acted on this threat; Catholic office holders who were in favor of abortion and the other so-called “non-negotiables” (stem cell research, gay marriage, euthanasia and human cloning) were able to receive communion at will. Cooler heads, such as that of Washington, DC Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, prevailed.

The anti-choice lobby’s use of the Catholic bully pulpit is no surprise to most Catholics. The last time the Democrats had the audacity to nominate a Catholic on the presidential ticket (Geraldine Ferraro as VP in 1984) the then-cardinal of New York, John O’Connor, engaged in similar saber-rattling—and that was when most bishops were still understood to be Democrats. By 2004, Pope John Paul II had appointed most of the bishops in the U.S., and there was no doubt that those most fervently in favor of denying communion had cast their lot with the Republican Party.

What was surprising was the reaction of progressive Democratic and Catholic members of Congress, as well as some state office holders. For the first time, Catholics organized themselves as Catholics and, on May 10, 2004, 48 of them signed a public letter to Cardinal McCarrick, who was heading a committee to explore what kind of action the hierarchy should take against politicians who disagree with the church’s position on abortion and other “life” issues.  The letter made clear that Catholic politicians—both pro-life and pro-choice—were not going to take the attack lying down. One of the interesting things about the original letter and this new statement of principles is that both pro-choice and pro-life Democrats have signed them.

The recently released “Statement of Principles” clearly has a political goal. We are about to enter the 2006 electoral season and there is no doubt that Catholic candidates will face attacks from bishops, priests and ultra-conservative lay people. It remains to be seen what the new pope will do. But, by issuing this statement early on, Catholic Democrats have let these folks know that they are prepared to respond substantively to any such attacks. Most importantly, they set out a broad agenda for justice that goes beyond single issue politics of either abortion or gay marriage and makes clear that anyone serious about respecting life must be serious about “helping the poor and disadvantaged, protecting the most vulnerable among us, and ensuring that all Americans of every faith are given meaningful opportunities to share in the blessings of this great country.”

As the Democratic Party eats itself alive trying to figure out how to express its moral values in ways that respond to the president’s moralisms—to have what James Carville, another pro-choice Catholic Democrat, calls a “narrative,” rather than a “litany” of issues, it would do well to look closely at this statement and what led to its adoption. Indeed, as Howard Dean talks about how to reach out to pro-life Democrats without abandoning pro-choice principles, he should examine this document and note the deep respect for their own diversity of views that these Democrats have managed to achieve.

First, process: much credit is due to DeLauro, a spirited Connecticut Democrat with impeccable pro-choice credentials who had much to do with bringing the Democrats together. Over the last two years there have been numerous private, off the record meetings among them and with others—bishops, some advocates, theologians. No grandstanding, no public statements. No pro-choice groups were consulted on the statement; indeed, they were held at bay. This was a serious personal effort to explore their own faith and values and apply them to the political process.

On the issue of abortion, the document is a remarkable statement for both pro-life and pro-choice Democrats. A careful read of the document will give strong advocates on both sides something to complain about—and perhaps something to applaud—in what can be seen as concessions by both sides.

With so much emphasis in pro-choice and Democratic circles on message frames, words have taken on a life of their own. Nuances that mean little to the general public have become more important to those inside the Beltway than the simple expression of broad values—the kind of world we’d like to live in. Political correctness on both sides is a barrier to talking with the vast majority of Americans who are, essentially, pro-lifers for choice.

The 55 Catholic Democrats hit the right note on abortion. Staunch pro-choice Catholics who have never voted for a single measure that would restrict abortion legally such as Rosa DeLauro, Cynthia McKinney and Jim Moran were able to say that they “agree with the church about the undesirability of abortion”; that they are committed to “creating an environment with policies that encourage pregnancies be carried to term.”  These phrases are near heresy in the pro-choice movement. To say that abortion is undesirable is tantamount to saying that abortion is bad (see the Will Saletan/Katha Pollitt debate on Slate) and is seen as stigmatizing women who have abortions. Pro-choicers would agree that public policies should enable women who want to have children to do so with state support and women who want to relinquish children for adoption to do so with minimal pain. However, they view the term “undesirable” as an expression of preference for these options over abortion.

At the same time, staunch conservative Catholic Democrats who have supported many pieces of legislation that limit abortion, especially limits on federal funding for poor women, also went out on a rhetorical limb. They have already been criticized for the mildness of the “undesirability of abortion” statement. “Undesirable?” ultra-conservative Catholics say. “Abortion is not undesirable—it is immoral. It is murder.” I was particularly impressed by pro-life Democrats’ willingness to acknowledge the bedrock Catholic principle of the primacy of conscience—a core tenet of Catholic belief—in the section that immediately follows the discourse on abortion. This is a great deviation from what the bishops tell us, which is that conscience cannot be applied to the abortion decision itself or to determining the legality of abortions.

Perhaps what is most interesting about this statement is the fact that it genuinely reflects the views of those who signed it and that it represents the legislators’ belief that they, not the hierarchy of the church, have a right to speak as Catholics and claim an understanding of what is required of them as Catholics and Americans.
It also marks a remarkable distancing of both pro-life and pro-choice Democrats from the rhetoric and postures of the mainstream of both movements. For too long, legislators have been seen as following the lead of the organizations that are guardians of “choice” and “life.”  These lowercase-c-catholic Democrats are speaking not to that constituency, but to those pro-lifers for choice who constitute the majority of Americans.

It is indeed a rarity for legislators to lead on any issue, but here they have shown wise and generous leadership on a debate that has grown exceeding stale and untenable.

This article originally appeared on TomPaine.com.

Catholics for Choice