The Sebelius Challenge

Published March 3, 2009

First Things: On the Square

President Obama's first choice for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services was former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle–a pro-abortion Catholic Democrat. President Obama's second choice for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services is Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius–another pro-abortion Catholic Democrat, with what some would consider a public record even more disturbing than Tom Daschle's.

The Sebelius nomination is fraught with danger on several fronts. The next secretary of HHS will be in a key position to shape policy on a number of crucial questions. Will conscience-rights protection for pro-life physicians and health-care workers be sustained, amended, or eliminated? Will over-the-counter abortifacients in the guise of “Plan B” contraceptives be available to minors without a doctor's prescription or counsel? Will the government continue to sanction the sale and use of RU-486, the “abortion pill” that has killed seven women since the Clinton administration rammed its approval through the Food and Drug Administration shortly before leaving office?

These issues are grave enough, both for physicians and for women's health. At the same time, there may be more than public policy at stake here. Vigorous, Internet-based support for Sebelius' nomination is already being offered by many of the same Catholic intellectuals who argued that Barack Obama was the real pro-life candidate in 2008.

And this, despite the fact that Kathleen Sebelius is an abortion radical by any reasonable definition of the term, whatever occasional gestures toward pro-life positions she has made. In her years as a state legislator in Kansas, for example, she voted to weaken or eliminate modest regulations of the abortion industry, including parental notification, informed consent, and “reflection periods” for women considering their options in a crisis pregnancy. Her record as governor since 2002 has been even more dramatic. A brief prepared by two respected lawyers, Clarke Forsythe and Denise Burke of Americans United for Life (on whose national board I serve), gathers the evidence:

She has routinely opposed or vetoed several abortion-accountability bills, including medically-supported clinic regulation legislation which she vetoed in both 2003 and 2005. The need for this critical legislation was predicated, in large part, on evidence of shocking conditions in Kansas abortion clinics. For example, two inspections of the same Topeka abortion clinic discovered fetal remains in the same refrigerator as food; a dead rodent in the clinic hallways; overflowing, uncovered disposal bins containing medical waste; unlabeled, pre-drawn syringes with controlled substances in an unlocked refrigerator; improperly labeled and expired medicines; carpeted floors in the surgical procedure room; and visible dirt and disarray throughout the clinic. Dr. Krishna Rajanna, who operated the unsanitary clinic, also consistently violated the practice guidelines for conscious sedation.

Recently, in 2008, she vetoed a measure that would have strengthened the state's existing parental notification law by 1) requiring that any adult accompanying a minor show identification, declare in writing their relationship to the minor, and identify the father of the unborn child; 2) require the minor to show some form of photo identification providing identity and place of residence; and 3) if the minor chooses to seek a judicial waiver, prohibiting any employee of an abortion provider or clinic from assisting her with the requisite court filings and proceedings.

More shocking, however, is her continuing and unyielding support for late-term abortions, including post-viability abortions. Over the past three years she has vetoed measures requiring explicit medical reasons for late-term abortions; requiring abortion providers to report the diagnosis or the nature of the condition which necessitated a post-viability abortion; and permitting injunctive relief for either a completed or about-to-be-performed illegal late-term abortion and adding certain prosecutors (in addition to the Attorney General) to prosecute violations of existing prohibitions on late-term abortions.

And then, of course, there is Gov. Sebelius' relationship with George Tiller, a notorious late-term abortionist who was entertained at the Kansas gubernatorial manse in 2007 and was photographed with the governor while holding a Sebelius campaign t-shirt. (Tiller is currently under indictment for nineteen counts of performing illegal late-term abortions. The equally notorious Nebraska partial-birth abortionist, LeRoy Carhart, was also at the 2007 reception, the story of which only came to light after the Associated Press invoked the Kansas Open Records Act.)

The brief from Americans United for Life notes several pro-life stands by Gov. Sebelius: She supported a measure prohibiting state family-planning monies from going to pro-abortion organizations, and she signed an act that set legal penalties for perpetrators of violence against unborn children. Yet Sebelius' comment on the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, as reported by the Wichita Eagle, was perhaps more instructive than her signature: “I think for me and a lot of other people there are certain inalienable rights established for a person, but those are not applied in utero.”

Gov. Sebelius' record in the legislature and as governor caused the Catholic archbishop of Kansas City, Kansas, Joseph Naumann, to enter into private conversation with the her, in an effort to persuade Sebelius that her positions and actions violated both first principles of justice and the settled teaching of the Catholic Church on the gravest civil-rights issues of the day. The governor was unpersuaded.

The archbishop then publicly asked the governor to refrain from presenting herself for Holy Communion, lest her doing so require him to take further canonical action. Gov. Sebelius' Catholic supporters claim that “she agrees with Church teaching that abortion is wrong and has lived and acted according to that belief.” It is a claim that Archbishop Naumann clearly regards as spurious. Given what's on the public record, so would most objective observers.

The Catholic supporters of Sebelius–which include such familiars from the 2008 election cycle as Douglas Kmiec and Nicholas Cafardi, as well as Peggy Steinfels, Fr. Thomas Reese, Fr. David Hollenbach, and Lisa Sowle Cahill–concede in a statement that “the governor has had disagreements over public policy with leaders of her Church,” but they aver that this “disagreement has never been over the morality of abortion but over what prudential policy is best in dealing with abortion in Kansas.”

How does one square a “prudential” attempt to advance the pro-life cause with the governor's record of support for late-term abortions and what would seem her unwillingness to subject abortion clinics to the same sanitation regulations that are enforced in the local Subway sandwich shop? The attempt is an exercise in sophistry that will strike many as impossible, indeed absurd.

The Sebelius nomination poses two serious challenges to the leadership of the Catholic Church in the United States.

Gov. Sebelius' local bishop made considerable efforts to catechize her and persuade her that her public actions involved grave moral errors. Having failed in that effort, he then took the pastorally appropriate step of asking her to refrain from receiving Holy Communion, which would put her in peril of further damaging herself, morally and spiritually.

There is no question here that the governor does not understand the teaching of the Church and what the Church's leaders believe to be the public-policy implications of that teaching, and there is little likelihood that the governor, as a cabinet secretary in an administration that has already unfurled its pro-abortion
flag, will be persuaded by further catechesis, further argument, or further pleas from Church authorities.

What, therefore, will other local bishops do when Secretary Sebelius establishes a residence within their jurisdictions and begins to attend Mass there? Perhaps yet another effort at dialogue can be attempted. But if, as seems likely, that fails, then what? Is Kathleen Sebelius not to receive Holy Communion in Kansas, but welcome to do so elsewhere? And if so, what are we to conclude from that?

Then there is the challenge posed by those pro-Sebelius Catholics. Their strategic goal seems clear: to nail down the “pro-life/pro-Obama” position pioneered by Douglas Kmiec and others, and indeed to extend it by arguing that the “universal health care” to which the Obama administration proposes to lead us is the real and overarching pro-life position, irrespective of the administration's reversal of the Mexico City policy, its likely assault on the conscience rights of Catholic health care professionals, and what one can reasonably assume will be its refusal to revisit the RU-486 controversy or to examine the abortion/breast-cancer link.

This attempt to spin and redefine the pro-life position, such that one can claim to be a pro-life Catholic while supporting candidates or nominees who have taken extreme pro-abortion positions, must be publicly repudiated by the appropriate Catholic authorities at Gov. Sebelius' hearings so that, no matter what the fate of her nomination, a clear, bright, and unmistakable line is drawn.

–George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today