Ethics & Public Policy Center

Pro-life wins and trouble for Catholic Democrats

Published in The Catholic Difference on December 18, 2002


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Media commentary on last month’s elections has generally ignored one important fact: many pro-abortion political action committees saw their candidates get clobbered, while pro-life forces registered significant gains.

NARAL, the leading pro-abortion lobbying group, went down in flames, losing nine of the eleven U.S. Senate races it focused on and batting six for twenty-six in the House of Representatives. Emily’s List, a well-funded PAC that supports pro-abortion women, did even worse: it batted one for ten. On the other side, the National Right to Life Committee saw its candidates win eight of ten targeted congressional races. Abortion was a significant issue in the Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, and New Hampshire Senate races, and pro-life candidates won each contest.

Look for the impact of all this in the federal judiciary. Since the defection of James Jeffords gave the Democrats control of the Senate, the Senate Judiciary Committee has stonewalled or rejected the nominations of judicial nominees who fail to pass muster with NARAL and People for the American Way (PFAW), another lobby with a relentlessly pro-abortion agenda. One notable case of this involved Priscilla Owens, a Texas judge whom President Bush nominated for a seat on the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The American Bar Association (hardly a bastion of conservative jurisprudence) deemed her “highly qualified.” But Democrats on the Judiciary Committee shot down the nomination on the grounds that Judge Owens was an extremist. The evidence? Her support for laws mandating parental notification when minors seek an abortion. With Republicans in control of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the real extremists at NARAL and PFAW have lost their veto.

Given pro-life leaders in the White House, the Senate, and the House, progress on some long-stalled issues is possible this coming year. The partial-birth abortion ban will almost certainly pass. A ban on all forms of human cloning should have a better chance in the new Congress. Legislation protecting pro-life hospitals from a federal mandate to allow abortions in their facilities should also be possible – which would be a significant reversal for pro-abortion forces determined to bring Catholic health care to heel, or to destroy it.

But what does the future hold for Catholic pro-lifers trying to maintain a foothold in the Democratic Party? The Democratic leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi of California, describes herself as a “conservative Catholic.” One wonders exactly how that self-description squares with Mrs. Pelosi’s votes against the partial-birth abortion ban and her rejection of parental consent legislation (not to mention her opposition to school vouchers and faith-based social service initiatives). In 1995, Mrs. Pelosi criticized the U.S. bishops for their opposition to the bogus group, Catholics for a Free Choice, whose members were shown leaving her office after a lobbying session on a recent PBS program.

Then there is Jennifer Granholm, newly-elected governor of Michigan, who says that she accepts the Church’s moral teaching on abortion while declaring herself a “100-percent pro-choice Catholic.” Ms. Granholm seems to buy the spurious claim, first given prominence by Mario Cuomo, that to enact laws protective of unborn human beings means “imposing” Catholic morals on a pluralistic society.

The pro-life cause is the great civil rights cause of our time – a cause that should commend itself to Democrats That two Catholic women who will be among the Democratic Party’s most prominent public personalities refuse to acknowledge this is a very sorry business. A “pro-choice Catholic” makes no more sense than a “pro-segregation Catholic.” In both instances, the issue is not arcane Catholic dogma, but the elementary democratic principle of equal justice for all. In defending the right-to-life of everyone, from conception until natural death, the Catholic Church isn’t imposing its moral strictures on a pluralistic society; it is calling American democracy back to its own fundamental commitments. Isn’t that a noble cause? Isn’t that a liberal cause?

Politicians are good at reading numbers, and perhaps November’s rout of NARAL, Emily’s List, and People for the American Way will help concentrate some Democratic minds. But the party’s enthrallment to the most extreme pro-abortion lobbies and PACs simply has to be  addressed by pro-life Catholic Democrats, one way or another, and sooner rather than later. The contradictions are just too great.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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