In the News 2009
Chicago Sun-Times

Obama Can’t Let Bishops Set U.S. Policy


Barack Obama, the unapologetic pro-choice presidential candidate, needs to find his strong voice again on the issue now that he is president.

And he needs to stand up to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a tax-exempt religious organization, declaring that reproductive rights of women will not be sacrificed in the fight over a universal health-care bill.

Time is running out.

The acrimonious debate that surrounded this legislation on the floor of the House, coupled with shortsighted acceptance of the Stupak-Pitts amendment, set the stage for the further erosion of a woman’s access to abortion for whatever the reason — rape, incest, poverty, illness — even beyond the limits of the current Hyde Amendment.

Catholic bishops have every right to speak their mind and preach the church’s teaching. But they are engaging in outright political lobbying. Helping to write legislation that turns Catholic doctrine into law. Violating the separation of church and state.

When bishops lobby legislators, they should be required to do what all tax-exempt 501(c)3 groups have to do. Create a parallel political organization and pay taxes on the contributions they receive. And fully disclose, like every other lobbying organization — corporate or charitable — what they take in and what they spend to advance positions they advocate.

As a woman and a taxpayer, I rebel against the notion that a group of men more obsessed with our wombs than other significant life-and-death issues — war, poverty, pestilence — are given favored tax treatment in order to reduce a woman’s freedom of choice.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, and Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, argued on the Web site Politico that the bishops “distorted the facts about the health reform proposal by claiming that the proposed system would have used federal dollars to cover abortion care. They’re wrong.”

Wrong because the original bill “included a compromise that required all plans to separate public and private dollars in the new system.”

In other words, women could access the public plan but abortion coverage would come from their private dollars.

Keenan and O’Brien said the bishops, in accepting vast federal funding for Catholic hospitals and charities, “never question their own ability to lawfully manage funds from separate sources to ensure that tax dollars don’t finance religious practices. Yet they reject the idea that others could do the same. This is the very definition of hypocrisy.”

Hypocrisy compounded by what the bishops are doing in Washington, D.C., when it comes to the issue of same-sex marriage, their other primary fixation.

There, the local archdiocese has threatened to shut down its extensive social service programs for the needy if the city goes ahead and legalizes same-sex marriage.

So much for the stated mission of protecting the vulnerable.

Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, defended their actions this week, saying, “Issues that are moral questions before they become political remain moral questions when they become political.”

But Rick Garcia, a lifelong Catholic, gay activist, and policy director at Equality Illinois rightly asks, “What’s next? Do they demand that CVS or Osco’s pharmacies no longer sell birth control?”

Barry Lynn, an ordained minister and executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, like Garcia runs a tax-exempt organization. But when his organization lobbies Congress, it pays taxes and files detailed disclosures.

“Under Obama, isn’t transparency the order of the day?” Lynn asks.

How does he rate Obama right now?

“His rhetoric on the campaign has not yet matched his actions as president,” Lynn replies.

No, it hasn’t. And when it comes to choice, it must.

The article originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Catholics for Choice