Catholic bishops have changed course on abortion — but their end goal is the same

Realizing that the faithful aren't following them, bishops adopt a "moderate" strategy — to reach a total ban

Published December 15, 2022 5:45AM (EST)

Thousands march and rally in support of legal abortion access after the U.S. Supreme court overturned the federal constitutional right to an abortion. Anti and pro demonstraters hold up signs showing their different opinions. Anti demonstrators yelling that Jesus would not forgive them. (Michael Siluk/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Thousands march and rally in support of legal abortion access after the U.S. Supreme court overturned the federal constitutional right to an abortion. Anti and pro demonstraters hold up signs showing their different opinions. Anti demonstrators yelling that Jesus would not forgive them. (Michael Siluk/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A funny thing happened to the U.S. Catholic bishops doing a victory lap after the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision, which overturned a woman's constitutional right to an abortion. When they turned around, they found that not many ordinary Catholics were running with them. Since the court's ruling, ballot measures protecting a women's right to choose have been approved in six states. Like other Americans, most Catholics support legal abortion with some restrictions, 

At their annual fall meeting last month, the bishops were not exactly the picture of elation. Rather they looked like tired, old and mostly white men, not sure what had happened but unwilling to admit that their obsession with abortion was a problem. Luckily, their leaders had a new plan. 

They're changing tactics, but not their goal — cloaking their iron-fisted opposition to reproductive choice within a velvet glove, with a legislative and PR strategy designed to woo more Catholics back into the anti-abortion fold.

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, who headed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops anti-abortion committee, and now is the group's vice president, warned his colleagues: "[T]he demise of Roe was a great victory, but it will be a pyrrhic victory if we fail to win the minds and hearts first and foremost of our fellow Catholics." Bishops, he said "must encourage them to be closer in heart and mind to the Church." 

That acknowledgment in no way changed their goals. It only changed their strategy. Overturning Roe was just the beginning. Now the action moves from the Supreme Court to Congress and the states, and most importantly to public opinion, including the views of their own flocks. 

Lori told his colleagues: "[Y]ou and I must do away with 'zero-sum-gain' thinking … inviting the very parishioners who are 'on the fence' about abortion to participate in knowing, loving and helping moms in need and their children, and working together to address their long-term needs holistically. It is a beautiful way of serving need and evangelizing 'in one fell swoop'."

The church's ground game relies in part on a kinder, gentler approach to abortion, so that Catholics feel that banning the procedure is just a part of giving women what they really want — which of course is not full reproductive choice or moral agency, but rather financial help (likely temporary) to aspire to only one goal: motherhood.

Admittedly, this is a far cry from where the institutional church was less than a decade ago. As recently as 2015, the church considered any woman who had an abortion to have committed a sin so grave it warranted excommunication. Indeed, in 2010, a nun and administrator at an Arizona Catholic hospital was publicly excommunicated by her bishop after she permitted an abortion to save the life of the mother. 

Pope Francis permitted any Catholic priest to forgive the sin, and to welcome the errant woman back into the church. Now the church is more apt to describe these women as victims, driven to abortion by poverty and suffering terrible trauma afterward. 

The second part of the strategy is to appear to compromise, without really compromising. In September, Lori wrote a letter of support for a nationwide 15-week ban on abortion proposed by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J. The bill includes exceptions for rape and incest, and to save the life of the mother. 

"Although we will never cease working for laws that protect human life from its beginning and supporting mothers in need," Lori wrote, the proposal presented "a place to begin uniting Americans regardless of their views on abortion. Further, we strongly agree that there is a federal role for protecting unborn human life." 

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Of course, accepting a 15-week ban seems like a big concession, since it could potentially legalize roughly nine out of 10 abortions in the U.S. Indeed, a Catholic theologian chided the bishops for their "jaw-dropping" failure in endorsing the bill. 

But how much of a concession is this really? At the very least, enacting such a nationwide ban would mean that no state, no matter how progressive, could be a safe haven for women seeking abortions after the 15-week limit.

Lindsey Graham has admitted his 15-week abortion ban is dead in the water. But like Republicans, Catholic bishops are looking to Ron DeSantis and 2024.

Moreover, with increasing numbers of states banning nearly all abortions, terminating a pregnancy may take much longer. It can require more travel, perhaps across state lines, as well as finding the money to cover the procedure, which costs several hundred dollars, and arranging for child care and time off from work. Most women seeking to terminate their pregnancies are low-income mothers.

Minors who are pregnant for any reason, including rape, also face delays, some caused by their unfamiliarity with pregnancy, others by state requirements for parental consent. 

Equally troubling, the Graham bill's fine print is rife with landmines for both women and physicians who seek to navigate its limited exceptions. 

For example, rape victims must get counseling or medical treatment before getting the procedure. A minor whose pregnancy results from rape or incest must either report it to law enforcement or child protective services, which is not so easy to do when the rapist is a parent or a sibling. 

Any physician who performs an abortion after 15 weeks must use a method most likely to preserve the life of the fetus, an absurd and frankly cruel requirement. In some situations, the bill mandates the presence of a second physician, an expert in neonatal resuscitation.

Violating the law can land an abortion provider in jail for up to five years. To top it all off, there are no exceptions for fetal abnormalities, even serious or fatal ones, which are often discovered later than 15 weeks. 

But the worst part of the bill is its one-sided permission slip to states: They may only adopt laws that impose stricter limits on abortion. No relaxation of the federal law is allowed. 

Graham told reporters that for now his proposal is dead in the water, and that's true enough. But after the 2024 election, the bill could make a comeback. A 15-week ban with no exceptions for rape and incest is already the law in Florida, and has been strongly endorsed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely 2024 contender. In a statement, Florida's bishops heaped praise on DeSantis for his "leadership and support" for the new law. 

Keep in mind that the U.S. bishops have never been fans of Joe Biden, who is only the second Catholic to serve as president. As recently as Oct. 25, Biden, who supports a federal abortion rights bill that would effectively reinstate Roe, was condemned by the bishops for his "single-minded extremism" on abortion. 

There are an estimated 30 million Catholic registered voters, who in recent decades have been almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. (Biden narrowly won the Catholic vote in 2020, mirroring the overall results.) Will this more "moderate" approach on abortion shift more Catholic voters to the party that seems to carry the bishops' seal of approval?

If the 2024 presidential election ends up pitting two Catholic candidates against one another for the first time — Biden and DeSantis — the bishops will surely try to drive faithful voters toward the candidate who is willing to sign the Graham ban into law.

By Celia Viggo Wexler

Celia Viggo Wexler is the author of “Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope” (Rowman & Littlefield), and writes frequently on Catholicism, feminism and politics.

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