Lose-Lose on Abortion
Obama's threat to Catholic hospitals and their very serious counterthreat.
When I saw the Catholic bishops had declared war on President-elect Obama at their semiannual meeting in Baltimore two weeks ago, my first reaction was pique: Gosh, guys, it isn't even parade day yet, and here you are, all dressed up and ready to rain on it.
Were they in spasm because Obama had won Catholics by nine points? (Nine! A landslide compared with the five by which my co-religionists had favored Bush in '04.) Peeved because even some of the most ardent pro-lifers had broken ranks? (In Colorado, where Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput called Obama "the most committed 'abortion rights' presidential candidate of either major party since the Roe v. Wade abortion decision in 1973,'' it was Catholic voters who turned the state from red to blue.) Obama and Biden won 63-36 in Pennsylvania's heavily Catholic Lackawanna County, home to Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino, who seemed beside himself over the pro-choice position taken by Vice President-elect Joe Biden, a Catholic: "I cannot have the vice president coming to Scranton and saying he learned his values there, when those values are utterly against those of the Catholic Church," Martino said in Baltimore.
In a speech at Catholic University, Cardinal Frank Stafford almost sounded like one of those people who thinks Obama is the Antichrist, referring to the president-elect as "apocalyptic." Stafford told his audience, "For the next few years, Gethsemane will not be marginal," comparing Christ's agony in the garden to the suffering of Catholics under Obama. "On Nov. 4, 2008," he added, "America suffered a cultural earthquake." Oy.
What in the world were these bishops talking about, claiming that religious freedom in America was under attack? Keep up the hysterics, boys, I thought as I scanned the latest story, and this will be birth control all over again: Your lips are moving but no one can hear you. And the most ludicrous line out of them, surely, was about how, under Obama, Catholic hospitals that provide obstetric and gynecological services might soon be forced to perform abortions or close their doors. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Chicago warned of "devastating consequences" to the health care system, insisting Obama could force the closure of all Catholic hospitals in the country. That's a third of all hospitals, providing care in many neighborhoods that are not exactly otherwise overprovided for. It couldn't happen, could it?
You wouldn't think so. Only, I am increasingly convinced that it could. If the Freedom of Choice Act passes Congress, and that's a big if, Obama has promised to sign it the second it hits his desk. (Here he is at a Planned Parenthood Action Fund event in 2007, vowing, "The first thing I'd do as president is, is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That's the first thing I'd do.") Though it's often referred to as a mere codification of Roe, FOCA, as currently drafted, actually goes well beyond that: According to the Senate sponsor of the bill, Barbara Boxer, in a statement on her Web site, FOCA would nullify all existing laws and regulations that limit abortion in any way, up to the time of fetal viability. Laws requiring parental notification and informed consent would be tossed out. While there is strenuous debate among legal experts on the matter, many believe the act would invalidate the freedom-of-conscience laws on the books in 46 states. These are the laws that allow Catholic hospitals and health providers that receive public funds through Medicaid and Medicare to opt out of performing abortions. Without public funds, these health centers couldn't stay open; if forced to do abortions, they would sooner close their doors. Even the prospect of selling the institutions to other providers wouldn't be an option, the bishops have said, because that would constitute "material cooperation with an intrinsic evil."
The bishops are not bluffing when they say they'd turn out the lights rather than comply. Nor is Auxiliary Bishop Robert Hermann of St. Louis exaggerating, I don't think, in vowing that "any one of us would consider it a privilege to die tomorrow—to die tomorrow—to bring about the end of abortion.''
Whatever your view on the legality and morality of abortion, there is another important question to be considered here: Could we even begin to reform our already overburdened health care system without these Catholic institutions? I don't see how.
People on both sides of the abortion argument have told me that despite a clear pro-choice majority in Congress, it's not clear the Democrats have the votes to pass this particular bill. It hasn't been put forward in a serious way—with any real chance of passing—in 15 years, and many members have never cast a vote on it. Some of the newly elected Democrats are pro-life—backed by their party for seats that would otherwise have gone to pro-life Republicans—and others are in the center on the abortion issue, meaning that they favor keeping it legal but with some limits. There are also serious questions about whether FOCA as currently drafted exceeds congressional authority. But when Obama was campaigning on FOCA, he didn't say anything about wanting to change it.
And those who argue that FOCA poses no actual threat to Catholic hospitals are not so laid back when it comes to assessing the threat that conscience laws supposedly pose to clinics. Whenever I see conscience laws written about in—even in print, I have to sigh before saying this—the mainstream media, they are always framed as Italianate laws that would force unsuspecting abortionists to hire kooks who would then crow, "Ha! Gotcha, I'm a pro-lifer, so I'm going for coffee now. See ya on payday.''
Even without the passage of FOCA, conscientious objectors are already feeling pressure to provide services they don't believe in. Sister Carol Keehan, a former hospital administrator who runs the Catholic Health Association, told the Times that "we have seen a variety of efforts to force Catholic and other health care providers to perform or refer for abortions and sterilizations." This is why the Bush administration is trying to rush through a new Health and Human Services regulation that the New York Times said would grant "sweeping new protections'' to health care providers opposed to abortion on moral grounds.
If Bush's HHS does manage to push through the proposed changes before Tom Daschle takes over there, Obama has promised to rescind the new regulation. The president's supporters say it merely implements existing legal protections for conscientious objectors (much like abortion-rights supporters say FOCA only codifies Roe).
So where does all this leave us? On the one hand, I agree with Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., who reminded his brother bishops in Baltimore to "keep in mind a prophecy of denunciation quickly wears thin, and it seems to me what we need is a prophecy of solidarity, with the community we serve and the nation that we live in."
And as I think I have made clear—here, here, here, and here—I have high hopes for President Obama, I was so looking forward to dancing at this party. Yet, although abortion was not a major issue in the race, the pro-life argument that he was the candidate most likely to decrease the need for—and number of—abortions did make it easier for many Catholics to cast their votes for him. I think we should hold him to that commitment now.
At the very moment when Obama and his party have won the trust of so many Catholics who favor at least some limits on abortion, I hope he does not prove them wrong. I hope he does not make a fool out of that nice Doug Kmiec, who led the pro-life charge on his behalf. I hope he does not spit on the rest of us—though I don't take him for the spitting sort—on his way in the door. I hope that his appointment of Ellen Moran, formerly of EMILY's List, as his communications director is followed by the appointment of some equally good Democrats who hold pro-life views. By supporting and signing the current version of FOCA, Obama would reignite the culture war he so deftly sidestepped throughout this campaign. This is a fight he just doesn't need at a moment when there is no shortage of other crises to manage.
Melinda Henneberger is a Slate contributor and the author of If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians To Hear.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Brian Kersey-Pool/Getty Images.