Pro-life, social-justice Catholics gain traction on Hill
WASHINGTON -- Along with Congress’s narrow passage of national health reform in late March came a new level of political influence on Capitol Hill for at least two groups: pro-life Democratic members of Congress, and national Catholic organizations that are both pro-life and active on social justice issues.
“Pro-life Democrats can expect to be taken more seriously in the Democratic Party,” said Jesuit Fr. John Langan, a Christian ethics professor at Georgetown University in Washington.
The party’s majority is decidedly pro-choice and “a lot of them would be happy to silence [the pro-life members] or throw them out,” Langan said, but by their efforts to work with President Obama on the health reform bill they established themselves as an important voice in the party.
National Catholic organizations that are plainly pro-life but broke with the rigid position of the U.S. bishops on their interpretation of the abortion language in the final legislation were credited with providing the leverage some pro-life members of Congress needed to vote in favor of the bill. These included the Catholic Health Association, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, Network (a Catholic social justice lobby), Catholics United, and Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good.
Chief losers, observers said, were Republican members of Congress who marched lockstep in opposition to all health reform, forgoing any opportunity to help shape the legislation in their all-out partisan effort to defeat it at any cost; and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which de facto aligned itself with Republican obstructionism when push came to shove in the final stages of the health care reform debate.
Top officials of the bishops’ conference demanded up until the final vote that members of Congress reject a bill that most commentators and legal analysts found completely abortion-neutral -- because of what bishops’ conference leaders portrayed as unprecedented actual and potential federal funding of abortion in that bill.
In fact, only the bishops’ conference, the National Right to Life Committee and a few other right-to-life organizations, such as the American Life League (which has often criticized the bishops’ conference for softness on abortion), found the final version of the new legislation less abortion-restrictive than the language found in the earlier House version, which the bishops had supported.
Several observers said that what really appears to have started the crucial swing leading several pro-life House members from undecided or negative to a yes vote on the Senate bill was the March 11 statement by Sr. Carol Keehan, president and CEO of the Catholic Health Association.
Keehan, a member of the Daughters of Charity, urged the House to pass the Senate-approved bill with some changes not related to abortion, declaring that despite other weaknesses that still needed fixing, the Senate bill clearly did not introduce or expand federal funding for elective abortion.
“I read Sr. Carol’s statement the morning of March 14 in Los Angeles,” said Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, a longtime legal advocate for the poor and executive director of Network since 2004. She said she told herself that Keehan “couldn’t and shouldn’t stand alone” but needed strong support from other segments of the Catholic community.
Campbell immediately issued a statement on behalf of Network lauding the Catholic Health Association’s stand and expressing Network’s view that the legislation would reduce the number of abortions by providing better access to health care for millions of people.
She also drafted a letter to members of Congress that she distributed to many leaders of women’s religious orders, urging passage of the Senate bill. Many order heads, including the president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, signed on.
The letter said in part, “Despite false claims to the contrary, th