Gerald D. Coleman
Barack Obama, FOCA & Catholic attitudes about abortion
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One week after Barack Obama was elected president, the U.S. bishops gathered for their annual fall meeting in Baltimore. In a strongly worded statement, they asserted that “the church is resolute in opposing evil.” Their words were constructed in such fashion to make the fight against abortion the bishops’ top priority. In his presidential address, Cardinal Francis E. George had already raised this urgency, “The common good can never be adequately incarnated in any society when those waiting to be born can be legally killed at choice.” Abortion is perceived as a contemporary Holocaust, denying an entire class of people their essential humanity. To suggest that any other issue is comparable amounts to a type of moral blindness.

At the risk of compromising a “consistent ethic of life,” why do the bishops insist that abortion holds pride of place among every other life issue? The answer lies in their statement approved in executive session on November 12. It names the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision Roe vs. Wade as “bad law” and straightforwardly indicates that “the danger the bishops see at this moment is that a bad court decision will be enshrined in bad legislation that is more radical than the 1973 Supreme Court decision itself.”

The feared legislation is the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) whose passage “would have lethal consequences for prenatal human life.” Situating FOCA is crucial. At a meeting of the Planned Parenthood Fund on July 17, 2007, presidential candidate Barack Obama declared twice in response to a question that “the first thing I’d do as president is sign FOCA.” This pledge places Obama and the Catholic Bishops on a possible collision course. First introduced in 1989, the 2007 version of FOCA proposes that “It is the policy of the United States that every woman has the fundamental right to choose to bear a child, to terminate a pregnancy prior to fetal viability, or to terminate a pregnancy after fetal viability when necessary to protect the life or health of the woman.”

The intent of FOCA is to establish abortion as a “fundamental right” throughout the nine months of pregnancy by disallowing any state governmental body to deny or interfere with this right or to discriminate against its exercise. Its scope is far-reaching. FOCA would erase informed-consent laws states have enacted and override parental-involvement laws. It would end health and safety regulations on abortion clinics, and would force government programs and facilities that pay for or promote childbirth and other health care to subsidize abortion. FOCA also threatens to end all conscience-protection laws that currently allow Catholic and other pro-life hospitals and health-care workers to opt out of participating in abortions. Laws prohibiting a particular abortion procedure, such as partial-birth abortion, would no longer be in force, and FOCA would strike down laws requiring that abortions be performed only by a licensed physician.

The Politics of FOCA

While recognizing the serious impact of such a law on embryonic and fetal life, FOCA has little chance of becoming law. The provisions of FOCA require legislative action by the Congress. Such a statutory change is unlikely as FOCA would be subject to hearings in both houses of Congress. It would also need approval by the House Judiciary Committee, the full House of Representatives, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate (with a 60 vote margin to overcome a likely filibuster). Finally, varying versions of FOCA would have to be reconciled in a conference committee and then sent back to both chambers of Congress for final passage. It is improbable that FOCA will ever come to the Senate floor for discussion, especially since there is a strong coalition of both Republicans and Democrats who either oppose abortion rights, or do not want to see them expanded.

Much more worrisome than FOCA is the serious and present reality that should create real fear for the bishops and the church in this country. Namely, that many Catholics have yet to accept the church teaching on this subject.

Authoritative statements make it clear that from the moment of conception a human being is present and is to be treated as a person. In his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” John Paul II unambiguously affirmed, “I declare that direct abortion, that is abortion willed as an end or as a means, always constitutes a grave moral disorder… This doctrine is based upon the natural law and upon the written word of God.” (no. 62) Citing its 1987 document “Gift of Life” (Donum vitae), “Instruction on Certain Bioethical Questions” (Dignitatis personae), released by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in December reaffirms: “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.” (no. 4)

This teaching has been consistently held and is irreformable. An obstinate denial of this teaching represents a serious breach between a Catholic and the teaching office of the church.

What the Polls Say

Yet recent polls indicate that many Catholics have not accepted this teaching. For example, the Faith in Public Life organization released on October 8, 2008 “Faith and American Politics,” a poll conducted by the Public Religion Research firm. This poll, the most comprehensive assessment of the faith and political views of young people during the 2008 election cycle, found that 60 percent of younger Catholics (18 to 34) surveyed believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, compared to half of older Catholics.

A survey commissioned by the Knights of Columbus and conducted by Marist College’s Institute for Public Opinion was also released in October. On the subject of abortion, 48 percent of all Catholics surveyed said that they were pro-life, while 47 percent claimed to be pro-choice, with 5 percent being unsure. While differences were noted between “practicing” and  “non-practicing” Catholics, a plurality of thirty-five percent said they would allow abortion in cases of rape, incest or to save the mother’s life. The survey found that 26 percent of all Catholics surveyed would permit abortion in the first three months of pregnancy, although 17 percent said abortion should never be permitted, and 11 percent would allow abortion only to save the life of the mother.

These figures reveal that many Catholics do not assent to the church’s doctrinal teaching on abortion, with younger Catholics holding alarming views. Gregory A. Smith, research fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, comments that American Catholics do not see the abortion issue the same way the church does. He writes, “One of the things you have to keep in mind about Catholics is that most aren’t opposed to abortion. And of those who are, most don’t see it as a particularly important issue.” Smith references a Pew Forum survey showing that fewer than one in four Catholics oppose abortion and do not see it as a politically important issue. In his presidential address, Cardinal George acknowledges these facts by referring to a “divided world” and “a church that knows dissent from some of her teachings.”

The CDF’s 1974 “Declaration on Procured Abortion” stated that the “question of human life [is] a primordial value which must be protected and promoted.” It states that “everyone understands this, although many look for reasons, even against all evidence, to promote the use of abortion.” (no. 1) Thirty-four years later a growing number of Catholics support abortion and evidence a lack of understanding about the doctrinal nature of the church’s teaching. What has lead to this non-reception?

Richard M. Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, cites a central issue: “Women are influenced by husbands, boyfriends, parents and friends, and by a culture and legal system that tells them the child they carry has no rights and is of no consequence.” Roe vs. Wade teaches that killing an unborn child is acceptable. It established a woman’s “right” to choose. To control her own body outweighs the rights of the unborn child.

The difficulty with this attitude is its failure to see that abortion involves two bodies, the body of the woman and the body of the unborn child. A fetus is not a part of the mother the way a finger is a part of a person. Rather, the fetus is temporarily living within the mother. Harming another’s body is precisely what takes place in abortion. The bishops’ statement is on target, “Abortion is a medical procedure that kills.” If a woman’s right to make free choices about her life comes into conflict with the right to life of the child in her womb, then the right to life should prevail as the more basic and fundamental right.

Moral Obligations

Moral theologian Bernard Haring defined moral ignorance as the inability of a person to “realize” a moral obligation. Due to one’s personal and psychological experience, coupled with the whole context of one’s life, a person is unable and perhaps unwilling to cope with a certain moral imperative. One’s conscience can by degrees become blinded, creating a situation where a person cannot truly “see” truth. Many Catholics suffer from this type of moral retardation regarding the serious nature of abortion. Pope Benedict XVI has named the problem as “the ‘obscure’ evil of modern Western society.”

Condemnations are not a viable tool in addressing this malaise.  The challenge is to win the argument for life on the cultural level. As positively evidenced in the “National Respect Life Program” released in 2008 by the pro-life campaign of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the first aim must be on changing hearts and minds regarding the sanctity of embryonic and fetal life. Three neuralgic points must guide all teaching about abortion: the embryo is a human being; the embryo has personal rights; and a woman’s right to free choice cannot trump the right to life of a human being in the womb.

Bishop Blasé Cupich of Rapid City, South Dakota, states the case well: “We need a prophecy of solidarity with the communities we serve and the nation we live in, which needs healing. We must be, and be seen to be, pastors as well as faithful teachers.” He warns against “a prophecy of denunciation.” This attitude complements well what Benedict XVI said during his April visit to the United States when he called all Catholics “to proclaim the gift of life, to serve life, and to promote a culture of life, the message of hope we are called to proclaim and embody.”

Gerald D. Coleman, S.S., is vice president for Corporate Ethics for the Daughters of Charity Health System, Province of the West, and a lecturer in moral theology at Santa Clara University.

Comments

J. Stephen Cleghorn | 2/17/2009 - 8:23pm
At its heart, this article concludes, rightly I believe, that "The challenge is to win the argument for life on the cultural level." In my view as an American Catholic, we are far from doing that. Too many Catholics would prefer gaining the "cheap grace" (Dietrich Bonheoffer’s term) of outlawing abortion, despite the fact we live in a pluralistic society in which many other faith traditions do not agree with ours that life begins at conception. That would be an easy way out, a self-congratulatory way at that, as compared to truly representing in our culture what Cardinal Bernardin called a "consistent ethic of life." Do we want to force onto others our religious viewpoint on abortion with the full force of the law, because we consider ourselves the only 'pro-life' people? But what about the “moral blindness” – culturally bestowed – that afflicted many Catholic bishops and their flocks when Pope John Paul II declared America’s war on Iraq as not justified under the church's teaching of "just war" theory? Did we see Catholic soldiers being encouraged by their bishops, pastors and congregations to refuse duty to Iraq? Or what about the hundreds who die on death row, while Catholics fail to mobilize against that? Or what about the calls from many good Catholics and other Christians that the perpetrators of 9-11 should be hunted down and executed? Whatever happened to Jesus’ teaching that we are to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us? We will continue to lose the abortion argument on the cultural level as long as we have such contradictions and seem to focus only on abortion as the single ‘pro-life’ issue. How often do we ask fellow Catholics to consider that the death penalty denies the central truth of the Cross, that Jesus died for all sinners? The death penalty says that Christ’s death was not enough for the saving of others, that in fact we need another death, that we must kill another human being who has acted in a way that threatens our life and security. That is how we save ourselves. We don’t really believe that Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross was for even the vilest sinners among us. So how can we win a pro-life moral argument when we say only that life is sacred at conception but infer by our other actions that life loses its sacredness if we find ourselves in a war or on a death penalty case that demands that we kill another human being? Yes, the so-called FOCA goes too far if it forces Catholic hospitals and doctors to perform abortions, and it seems extreme in other ways as well, but as this essay indicates there is enough opposition out here among Catholics and others to believe our representatives will never allow the extreme positions to become law. So the activism I experience in the back of my church as I am encouraged to sign a petition against FOCA has its merits to the extent that we must resist the violation of our consciences by the state, and petitioning our representatives is the right way to get our message through on this point. Our activism falls short, however, as a full expression of being pro-life if the intent is merely to impose our religious beliefs on others. Yes, persuade them we must try; yes, show them by our love that we are Christians; but impose our beliefs on all others by a law is a cheap way through. If our activism serves principally to reinforce our own sense of righteousness within our circle of fellow Catholics, it is a clanging cymbal, not the love that can transform a culture too much enamored of death.
Michael Bindner | 2/9/2009 - 3:22pm
I just checked Signs of the Times and note with regret that this magazine has also not carried the CNS story noting that Catholic Health Association leaders have stated they have few fears of FOCA.
Jim Lein | 2/9/2009 - 2:02pm
This is a comment on the three "neuralgic points" that must guide teaching on abortion: the embryo is a human being; the embryo has rights; the woman's rights cannot trump the embryo's rights to exist. But, apparently, the embryo's rights can trump the women's right to exist beyond giving birth. If a full term delivery means the death of the mother, she is to be sacrificed. Martrydom ought not be prescribed for others, particularly by those (like men) who will never face a similar situation. And those who capitulate in the face of suffering or torture, and thus escape martrydom, are not necessarily condemned -- according to Shusako Endo in his novel "Silence" about the torture of Catholic missionaries in 16th and 17th century Japan.
CFinNaples | 2/7/2009 - 3:48pm
Support and debunking for some claims above can be found at the following: (1)the Urban Legends website http://www.snopes.com/politics/medical/choice.asp (2) Catholic News Service http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/0900402.htm (3) thomas.gov Library of Congress website H.R.1964 - Latest Major Action: 4/19/2007 Referred to Senate committee. Status: Read twice and referred to the Committee on the Judiciary; S.1173 - Latest Major Action: 5/4/2007 Referred to House subcommittee. Status: Referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. (WHICH IS THE SAME THING THAT HAS HAPPENED ON THIS LEGISLATION--SOP TO THEIR BASE, REALLY--FOR MANY YEARS NOW.) It costs far less to murder the child than to bear the baby... In these days, who has the $2500 up front to give an OB-GYN, much less the many thousands to pay the hospital? Rather than running foolish and silly postcard campaigns against legislation that just ain't gonna happen, Catholics should insist on a REAL Freedom of Choice Act--the second part. Demand is unconditional financial support for women who are pregnant, guaranteeing them PAID leave for 2 weeks, free medical care, etc. Good step to universal health insurance, as maternity costs are half our national expenditures.
Michael Bindner | 2/7/2009 - 12:15am
The problem of the pro-life echo chamber is even worse than is estimated by Brother David. It will be almost impossible for the leadership of the movement to moderate, simply because the membership is so thoroughly radicalized against compromise that it may be impossible. The controversy over FOCA is telling. Last week, the Catholic News Service reported that members of the Catholic Health Association did not believe the FOCA would have an effect upon their rights (perhaps the USCCB General Counsel should have checked with the experts before releasing its analysis). CNS stories are usually carried by my diocesean paper. This one was not. Being misinformed is no sin. Not coming clean when one preaches erroneously, however is another matter. It tends to erode trust. When caught in a lie, the best thing to do is admit it. Some have not. This is not a welcome development.
David Cruz-Uribe | 2/6/2009 - 1:15pm
A very trenchant analysis of the situation. In some ways the pro-life movement has made the problem worse: like any group that holds a marginal opinion (compared to the larger milieu) they have a tendency to only talk to one another, and in the process grow both more radical and distant from others, in the process, alienating even those who want to be their supporters. I consider myself solidly pro-life, but have been denounced for having the temerity to vote for "the most pro-abortion president in history." But, at the same time, it is worth remembering that on other issues the teaching authority of the Church is falling on deaf ears, even when it is not accompanied by condemnations. The Church has made it clear that torture is a grave moral evil, yet a depressingly large number of Catholics tell pollsters that torture is always or sometimes acceptable. Catholic moral teaching can be couched in harsh and condemning language, or it can be phrased in a more open, receptive way. But if there is not a Catholic on the other end who accepts, a priori, that the Church has something to say on moral questions that should cause us to rethink what we do and support, then this moral teaching will be "a sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Michael Bindner | 2/6/2009 - 1:12pm
Regarding Gerald Coleman's A Failure to See, that the fetus has moral rights does not necessarily translate into legal rights. An honest appraisal of Roe v. Wade reveals a few salient facts in this area: Prior to Roe, many populous states had already legalized abortion and the tide was turning that way. Prior to Roe, the fetus was not legally considered a separate human being - at least in fact - as the penalty for abortion was a fine for the provider. While this was effective in preventing doctors from publicly performing abortions, it did not stop them from occurring. Given this lack of legal status, the ruling in Roe that the regulation of abortion violates the privacy rights of the mother is actually justified, though regrettable. Many in the right to life movement are also against the power of the federal government to nullify state laws which trample on the equal protection rights of groups within the states. This power is key to the enforcement of civil rights for gays, racial minorities and Catholics. (Which makes the recent support for Proposition 8 by both Catholics and African Americas both ironic and tragic). The principal of federal supremacy in equal protection is not something to be trifled with. Indeed, it is a cornerstone of freedom and justice in our republic. The federal courts will not overturn it, nor should they - even in the area of abortion. The fact that key strategy of the pro-life movement is this overthrow both marginalizes the cause of life and makes real progress on granting rights to the unborn impossible. The fact that this impossibility might be intentional, forever assuring a willing group of volunteers and funders for both the cause and the Republican Party is unconscionable. Until a more realistic strategy is adopted, most Catholics will not feel bound to support it, nor should they. On embryonic rights, the Church's position is simply not in line with what embryologists teach about the start of life. While they do not talk about ensoulment, it is clear from the medical literature that gastrulation is a much better candidate for the start of life than fertilization. While the author calls the current canonical view "unreformable" the fact is that it is a departure from what was taught in the Church previously (which was that while twinning was possible, ensoulment could not have occurred). A reformed position cannot be seen as unreformable.