In April, I wrote an article encouraging the pro-life movement to be very smart. It seemed to me that the pro-choice groups were overreaching in ways that would alienate people who are ambivalent about the issue of abortion. This week, four news items put my challenge to the pro-life movement in very clear focus.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Texas law requiring abortion clinics and doctors to meet certain requirements they had not previously needed to meet was unconstitutional. The pro-life and pro-choice groups agreed that this was the most important Supreme Court decision on abortion in a generation, which is their way of encouraging people to give more money. This is what both sets of activists always agree on, that the fight is at a critical moment, and if you will send 10 or 20 or 100 dollars, you can really make a difference.
To be clear, the value of the Texas law was debatable: After Kermit Gosnell's house of horrors was exposed, and he was convicted of murder in 2013, there is more merit in the idea that the state has a right to expect certain standards in abortion clinics. On the other hand, the idea that the safety of women was the principal motivating factor of the Texas Republican party was risible, and the majority opinion saw it as an attempt less to guarantee women's health than an effort to shutter abortion clinics.
I would have voted to sustain the law if I were on the Supreme Court, assuredly, on grounds that state governments should be able to enact such provisions if they wish. But, I doubt I would have voted for the law if I were a member of the Texas legislature because that legislature has, in other regards, demonstrated its utter lack of regard for women's health, most obviously in refusing to extend Medicaid as encouraged to do so by the Affordable Care Act. The key to success in the pro-life movement is to be more persuasive, and I think chasing policies that are not really about what we claim they are about makes us look fraudulent not persuasive.
The second item also comes from the court. Yesterday, the Supreme Court declined to hear a case from Washington state, challenging a law that requires all pharmacies in that state to provide contraception, even items like Plan B that some people consider an abortifacient. Individuals who work at the pharmacy can decline to provide a given contraceptive, but the business must have someone else ready to provide it. I do not share the fear expressed by the three justices in dissent: "If this is a sign of how religious liberty claims will be treated in the years ahead, those who value religious freedom have cause for great concern," opined Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
Bosh. The claim rests not only upon a certain valuation of religious freedom but as well on a certain understanding of a corporation. I believe corporations, like unions, like other groups, have rights, but those rights are different in both their source and their reach from the rights that a human person possesses. The human person was created by God and whatever rights he or she has are God-given. Corporations are human creations, and their rights must be viewed in an entirely different light from those proper to the human person. And, within the overall category of "corporation," a religious organization has different rights than a non-religious one, especially when it comes to issues that touch on conscience. A Catholic hospital or parish may be incorporated one way or another in different jurisdictions, but what is distinctive about that diocese or this hospital is that it is a ministry of the church, not that it is incorporated in a particular way because of the civil jurisdiction in which it is located, at least for the purpose of this discussion.
The USCCB has been debating this issue for some time, and they decided that they would not draw a clear line between the religious rights of our religious organizations and the rights of secular corporations. "The Knights of Columbus and EWTN and other deeply religious corporations have always stood with us, we have to stand with them" was one of the winning arguments I am told. The Knights, of course, are not a single organization that is obviously religious, but a Catholic charitable organization and also, and distinctly, a large insurance company, and there is no reason to think that latter part of the organization has any particular religious character. I would note, as well, that the Knights have been led since 2000 by former GOP operative Carl Anderson, so it should not surprise that the Knights have been urging the bishops to pick fights with the Obama administration as much as Valerie Jarrett has been urging Obama to pick fights with the Catholic church.
The USCCB felt vindicated when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of this proposition that corporations have a right to religious liberty in the Hobby Lobby case. I still think it was a mistake. The norms that govern a public business, whether it was a lunch counter in North Carolina in the or a pharmacy in Washington state today, are more subject to government regulation than, say, a Catholic hospital. Last week, I called attention to the ACLU's efforts to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions. I fear, and fear greatly, that the USCCB and other full-time religious liberty activists, will have so diminished the religious liberty brand that we could end up failing to defend, in legislatures and in the courts, the simple proposition that a religious hospital should not be coerced by the government to undertake an act as violent as an abortion.
So far, the USCCB has not issued a statement on the Supreme Court's decision regarding the Washington State case. I suspect they recognize the additional difficulty that such a statement would normally come from the Chairman of their Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, Archbishop William Lori. The difficulty is that when he was the bishop of Bridgeport, Lori badly misjudged the political climate in Connecticut and led an effort to prevent the legislature from passing a law requiring hospitals to administer Plan B to patients who had been raped, bused in people to protest at the state Capitol, the whole nine yards. The law passed, the (Republican) governor signed it, and then the Connecticut bishops issued a statement that was the ecclesial equivalent of Emily Litella, played by Gilda Radnor, saying "Never mind" in a Saturday Night Live sketch. Turns out the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had told the Connecticut bishops all along that, while the bishops could best judge, or misjudge, the political situation, there was no doctrinal reason to cause such a snit.
The third item on my list was the decision by the Democratic National Convention's Platform Committee to essentially tell us pro-life Democrats to go find a different party, for example, rejecting "big tent" language on the issue of abortion and adopting unprecedented language opposing the Hyde Amendment. Platforms were once important documents but now they are little remembered except by activists who use losses and victories on platform fights to plead for more money. Nonetheless, behind the scenes, pro-life Democrats should let the party's presumptive nominee know that we do not appreciate being told to leave the party and we just might be forced to do so if the party continues to stick its finger in our eye. It would be good to ask these zealots how they plan to ever win a majority in the House if they adopt this language and if they really like being in the minority. It is time for Democratic Party members who are Catholic to speak up, to stop being a cheap date, not to hide behind the argument that the pro-life groups can be extreme to ignore the fact that the pro-choice groups are extreme too.
The fourth item is the strangest, because to my mind, its connection to concern for human life is not evident. LifeSiteNews and other professional pro-life groups continue to be at the forefront of anti-gay efforts within the church and society. The editor of LifeSiteNews threw a fit this wake in response to Pope Francis' comments about the church's needing to apologize to gays, telling the pope he misrepresented the catechism, which is a bit cheeky seeing as the pope can change the words in the catechism. Bill Donohue of the Catholic League had a meltdown on CNN, and it would have been total if Chris Cuomo had merely had the presence of mind to lean over and kiss Donohue on the lips halfway through the interview. The meltdown would have been complete and epic.
I don't get the connection between the gay attacks and the pro-life cause; indeed, I think the argument can be framed in such a way that we in the pro-life would see gay rights activists as our natural allies. In the fight over elective abortions, and whether or not our insurance plans should be required to cover them, such elective abortions include those performed to achieve a certain sex selection. The unborn child is a girl, and the parents want a boy? Abort? What if scientists discover the gene that disposes a person to homosexuality, and that gene can be discerned in utero? Would gay rights organizations really think there is nothing wrong with aborting children because they are disposed to be gay? This is the problem with libertarianism: If freedom is untethered from some conception of the good, there is nothing to prevent our society from promoting, and our laws from protecting, the eugenic idea that parents are free to abort a child because it might be gay or disabled or the wrong gender. This nightmare is no fantasy: In some countries, sex selection abortions are happening right now, and they are not aborting boys. How do pro-choice feminists believe those abortions serve the cause of female emancipation?
There is am additional connection between the gay rights issue and the abortion issue, one that Donohue and LifeSiteNews would not like to admit: If they succeed in making the Catholic church the face of anti-gay bigotry, and if they further succeed in making discrimination against gays the face of the religious liberty fight, we will lose and we will deserve to lose.
I repeat my April call for the pro-life movement to be smart, now with an amendment, to get smart. The officialdom of the pro-life movement has led that movement into a quagmire. It is time to rescue it from the zealots and be about the business, the slow, and patient business, of persuading people that life is precious, and neo-natal life is as precious as any other. It will take time. It will take effort. It will take prayer. But, it is the only way we will ever succeed. Sham laws, silly lawsuits, anti-humanistic understandings of corporations, getting in bed with one party, and anti-gay bigotry, none of these will advance the pro-life cause. None of these have advanced the cause. It is time for the pro-life movement to pursue a different route.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]