U.S. bishops' pro-life leader Richard Doerflinger retires

With his retirement on April 29, Richard Doerflinger will conclude a 36-year career of promoting respect for human life on behalf of Catholic bishops of the United States. Hired as a legislative assistant by the bishops’ conference’s Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities in 1980, Doerflinger has served that office in various capacities, and as its associate director since 2008. He has testified before congressional committees numerous times and has penned a long list of documents and statements issued by the bishops. Since 2011, he has been a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life.

Before moving into retirement, Doerflinger reflected on his work in an interview with Our Sunday Visitor.

Our Sunday Visitor: First of all, on behalf of all those concerned about respect for human life in the United States, thank you for your service. As you look over more than three and a half decades working for the bishops on the pro-life cause, what are your strongest thoughts or feelings about the work?

Richard Doerflinger: In a small way, I’ve been able to help the Church’s moral teachers express and defend our convictions on the most basic of all human issues: Who counts as a fellow human deserving our protection? Sometimes, I was not sure I was up to the task, but I certainly never had to wonder if the task itself is worthwhile.

OSV: How did you find yourself working in this area for the U.S. bishops?

Doerflinger: My academic background is in philosophy and theology. When I decided to take a year off from doctoral studies and earn a living before working on a dissertation, my adviser said he’d heard of a legislative assistant’s position in the bishops’ pro-life office — and it had been vacant so long that maybe they would hire someone with no legislative experience. I had long studied and appreciated the Church’s teachings on life issues, but everything I know about applying them to public policy I learned on the job. That work seemed so important and exciting that I never really went back to academia.

OSV: If you had to point to one or two moments or achievements that you’re most proud of from your work for the bishops over the years, what would they be?

Doerflinger: I played a role in helping to get some pro-life laws enacted that remain to this day: legislation against funding harmful experiments on human embryos and on children in the womb; the Weldon amendment on conscience rights for pro-life health care providers; the ban on partial-birth abortion. I can tell my grandchildren about those someday.

OSV: Are there any initiatives or projects of those years that you look back on with particular disappointment?

Doerflinger: Our inability to get Congress to ban human cloning or the use of federally controlled drugs for assisted suicide in places like Oregon are examples. The biggest disappointment, of course, is that we still do not have a constitutional amendment or other measure to reverse the Supreme Court’s abortion decisions, though in recent years we’ve seen some painfully slow progress on the court.

OSV: Your work has reached well beyond the abortion issue. Talk a bit about the range of issues you’ve been involved in and why that has been part of your work.

Doerflinger: Maybe because of my undergraduate work in science — I started out as a pre-med student — I’ve been drawn to some more complicated issues that other pro-life groups were not immediately prepared to deal with, like embryonic stem-cell research and cloning. But the attitude that some human lives must be forfeit to serve the desires of other humans who see themselves as more important stretches across the spectrum of life, from conception to the last stage of dying.

OSV: Other than abortion, what is the most critical pro-life issue in the United States today and why?

Doerflinger: Physician-assisted suicide is extremely critical, especially since the passage of a terrible law in California. But the “sleeper” pro-life issue of this century may be scientists’ growing ability to genetically engineer other humans at the embryonic stage. They will try to create what they see as the “perfect” child, and the effort to do so will leave a great many dead children in its wake.

OSV: You’ve been very much involved in advocacy on the legislative level. What would you tell the average Catholic about that sort of work? What works, what doesn’t and why?

Doerflinger: Civility is still important, and is so unusual nowadays it may make you stand out. We have to be especially careful with our facts and our legislative drafting, partly because any mistake will surely be seized upon by our opponents and by those who sympathize with them in the media and the courts. Tragically, lies and ad hominem arguments do sometimes work but must be rejected. And we must understand the difference between compromising on tactics and compromising on moral principle — many arguments arise among pro-life advocates when that is not clear.

OSV: It’s now been more than six years since the Affordable Care Act became law, and it remains a neuralgic point in American politics. What do you wish American Catholics understood better about it, particularly with regard to life issues?

Doerflinger: The ACA is deeply flawed on abortion and on conscience rights. We have to avoid two extremes. We shouldn’t let these flaws taint the laudable drive for universal health care, and we shouldn’t deny or dismiss those flaws so we can join the cheerleading squad for the law as-is. And we should explore how to make a difference even with the current law. For example, the ACA allows states to exclude abortion from health plans on their state exchanges, and 25 states have done so. If your state hasn’t, have you written to your state legislators about that? And we can urge our representatives in Congress to pass the Conscience Protection Act (H.R. 4828), which would solve the most serious conscience problems. There is always more we can do to stand up for life.

OSV: What is the most positive thing happening regarding the abortion issue these days? The most discouraging thing?

Doerflinger: The most positive thing has to be the enthusiastic involvement of so many young people, as we see every January at the March for Life and Vigil Mass for Life. And the annual number of abortions in this country continues to decline, especially among the young. The most discouraging thing is the decline in religious faith overall, as well as the way that, on so many issues, moral reasoning seems to have given way to appeals to emotion and selfishness in our society. St. John Paul II has been proved right: Faith and reason rise or fall together.

OSV: Do you think there will come a day when most abortions are illegal in the United States? Why or why not?

Doerflinger: I have no crystal ball, but I would not bet against it. When Roe v. Wade was issued, The New York Times reported that the Supreme Court had “resolved” the abortion issue, and more than four decades later, it is as unresolved as ever. We have banned one form of late-term abortion nationwide, the states are passing more pro-life legislation than ever, and abortions are declining. Progress is slow, will take many more steps and will require a change not only in law but in culture and in better support for women with unintended pregnancies. But this remains the fundamental civil rights issue of our time, and it is worth our continued devotion.

Barry Hudock writes from Minnesota.