By Valerie Schmalz
Many Catholics were discouraged by the November election because President-elect Barack Obama and an apparent majority of the U.S. House and Senate favor unrestricted access to abortion. But Richard Doerflinger, the point man for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on the life issues, says one advantage of his 28 years working on Capitol Hill is a sense of history -- and Catholics need to re-energize for the new era.
President-elect Obama has pledged to sign a Freedom of Choice Act, and had sponsored it when he was in the Senate. Doerflinger calls that legislation "the doomsday device of the pro-abortion movement." If passed, it would overturn virtually all pro-life laws that have been passed since Roe v. Wade, he said.
"We have to be very forceful and very skillful in building opposition to that," Doerflinger said.
Our Sunday Visitor: Many Catholics prayed novenas, fasted and joined Rosary crusades because of their fears of what a President Barack Obama would mean for the few gains of the pro-life movement. What would you say to them?
Richard Doerflinger: I would say the moral truth of the pro-life position is absolutely what it always was, and Catholics should re-energize themselves to spread that witness in this new situation. We have had presidents and Congresses that were against us on the pro-life issues before, and many times we've done better than we expected but only because we picked ourselves up and continued to advocate strongly to our representatives what our position is.
OSV: What would be an example of that?
Doerflinger: We had a similar situation in 1993. Bill Clinton had been elected president; we had a Democratic House and Senate. Our margin of support on pro-life issues was actually lower in the House then than it is now. And that's the last time we confronted the prospect of the Freedom of Choice Act passing Congress and being signed into law. The Catholic Church mobilized. We sent millions of postcards to Congress against the Freedom of Choice Act, and we prevailed. So much opposition was raised to it that it was never brought to the floor, and two years after the election of Bill Clinton, you had the House switch over to Republican control, there were dozens of new pro-life members and the threat was averted. These challenges are not a time to despair. We have succeeded against great odds before.
OSV: Is there anything we know about President-elect Obama's philosophy or proposed policies that is good news from a pro-life perspective?
Doerflinger: President-elect Obama says that he cares about the downtrodden of society and, certainly, that is a central theme of Catholic social teaching. The question is whether we can convince him and members of Congress that the unborn are the most downtrodden members of society and therefore deserve their regard. Many people voted for this candidate thinking that he and his party will do more to reduce abortions through support for pregnant women. We certainly want to encourage that, and we wait to see if that is really going to be a priority of this administration. If you want to reduce abortions, you can't simultaneously promote abortion through new laws. We will have to see how he handles that contradiction as well.
OSV: It seems as though one of the things the Democratic Party has been doing is backing more conservative Democrats in areas that are more conservative so that potentially there are Democrats in Congress who would not vote for a completely pro-abortion agenda. Is that correct?
Doerflinger: That has been happening, and some of the new Democrats coming in now are pro-life Democrats. We will have to see how strongly they take that stand. But the last congressional election also brought in some new pro-life Demo-crats. So, for example, the Republican Party lost about 21 seats in the House in November, but on pro-life votes, we count a loss of 16. So, we are not going the same way as the party. That is very important, to have support on these issues in both parties. In an election year when being Republican seemed to be the ultimate stigma, I'm glad there were pro-life Democrats running. The question is, of course, what kind of pressure they will face from their own party to conform. But we will be meeting with the new pro-life members at every opportunity and encouraging them to be firm and courageous in defending life.
OSV: When it comes to the Senate, what is the situation?
Doerflinger: For reasons that I am sure political scientists can explain, the Senate does appear to be more along party lines. There are only two Democrats in the Senate who tend to vote with us on the abortion issue, Sen. Bob Casey (Pennsylvania) and Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska. But there are three pro-abortion Republicans, Sens. Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania), Susan Collins (Maine) and Olympia Snowe (Maine).
We don't even know who is in the Senate. There are two seats that may not be decided until December (Minnesota and Alaska).
OSV: What would you suggest for people who would like to do something, but cannot devote their whole lives to this?
Doerflinger: There are ways to help on a grassroots level, particularly at the parish level, particularly if the bishops nationally end up doing a campaign through parishes to send the pro-life message to Congress urging Congress to hold onto current pro-life laws. Any Catholic parishioner can assist in that; can offer to be the pro-life coordinator for his or her parish; can offer to collect the petitions; can help to get our educational materials out to their fellow parishioners to inform them more about what's at stake.
Aside from that, just talking about these issues with your neighbors, writing letters to the editor of your local newspaper when editorials and letters are published is helpful, as is writing to your own members of Congress urging them to support pro-life positions. All of these are things we hope every Catholic would do.
OSV: Any other thoughts about the issue of life in the United States?
Doerflinger: Obviously, the moral issue of respect for life goes beyond legislation. We need to be helping to build a culture in which children before and after birth are given respect, in which pregnant women in the community can expect people to gather around in support when she's in need; in which abortion becomes unthinkable even in times when it [will] remain legal for a while to come. In the end we are about changing the law, but we are also about changing hearts and minds.
Based on Richard Doerflinger's analysis of upcoming issues, here are the issues to watch:
SCHIP: Efforts to include abortion and family planning in the health insurance program for uninsured children.
Embryonic stem cell research: Bill to authorize federal funding of research using "leftover" embryos from in-vitro fertilization. An estimated 400,000 embryos are in freezers, and the Senate vote before this election was 63-34 and the bill was only stopped by a veto from President George W. Bush. Expected to take effect. The question is whether funding for human cloning will be added as well.
Hyde Amendment: For 30 years, a rider to the Labor/Health and Human Services appropriation legislation has barred use of federal funds to pay for most abortions. Similar amendments prohibit most abortions in military hospitals, and keeps abortion out of federal employee health programs.
Hyde/Weldon Conscience Protection Amendment: Forbids government discrimination against health care providers that have an objection to abortion.
Freedom of Choice Act: The Freedom of Choice Act would overturn virtually all pro-life laws that have been passed in the 35 years since Roe v. Wade.
Mexico City Policy: Presidential policy against funding organizations that promote abortion as family planning. President-elect Obama is expected to rescind this policy early in his presidency, as did President Bill Clinton during his tenure.
Forced Sterilization and Forced Abortion: The United States currently opposes funding organizations that support or help manage programs using forced abortion or involuntary sterilization. That will be in danger as well.
Foreign Aid: Renewed calls for diverting our foreign assistance program even more into family planning and abortion.
President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief: This is the program that sends aid for prevention and treatment of AIDS to Africa and other needy countries. Population control enthusiasts wanted to put family planning throughout, but were blocked last year. Says Doerflinger: "We warned in some of our alerts last year that a program for preventing the children of Africa from getting AIDS should not become a program for preventing the children of Africa. This may be a renewed fight."
--Valerie Schmalz is an OSV contributing editor.
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