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Legatus Magazine

Cover Story
Brian Burch | author
Feb 01, 2009
Filed under Guest Editorial

The 111th Congress and Catholic conscience

In 2001, many Catholics celebrated a new day in Washington. Michael Novak noted at the time, “Better laws are coming. Public consciences are thawing.” After a hard-fought election campaign and results contested (and ultimately resolved) by the Supreme Court, Catholics welcomed the inauguration of President George W. Bush with high hopes.

Eight years later, the Catholic vote has swung to the Democratic Party, with a small but significant majority of Catholics supporting the recently-inaugurated Barack Obama. For a host of reasons — from concerns about the economy, opposition to the Iraq War or simply an eagerness for change — a sizable number of Catholics abandoned the GOP and embraced a candidate some have called “the most pro-abortion president in history.”

Catholics appalled by the injustice of abortion are rightfully concerned. More than likely, the gravest threat pressing the conscience is the Obama campaign statement before a Planned Parenthood audience in which he pledged: “One of the first things I would do is sign the Freedom of Choice Act,” otherwise known as FOCA.

The ominous legislation would do more than enshrine Roe v. Wade in federal law. FOCA would eliminate laws such as parental consent requirements, required ultrasound testing and bans on partial birth abortion. The proposed law is so far reaching that Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki warned that the measure would have “devastating consequences” and could force the closure of all Catholic hospitals.

As menacing as FOCA might appear, the evidence suggests that the deepening recession and other pressing issues will likely prevent serious consideration of the legislation this year. Obama’s political instincts are sharp; he is unlikely to expend the political capital necessary to press FOCA so early in his presidency. Given these circumstances, it might be said that our greatest danger is setting expectations so low that the absence of FOCA becomes our only measure of success.

Instead, abortion advocates are already pressing for a series of incremental changes designed to re-orient every significant federal agency in favor of pro-abortion policies. A report signed by 55 abortion leaders in December recommended a series of sweeping changes in the Obama administration’s first 100 days, including $1 billion in international funding for abortion providers and $700 million domestically.

The report also gives a detailed outline of vacancies in the federal district courts and a list of appointments to various executive agencies, which are expected to be staffed with allies where — according to columnist Deal Hudson — “the billions being demanded for abortion funding will eventually flow unimpeded.”

Certainly one of the biggest pro-life battles to come in the 111th Congress will be the fight over taxpayerfunded abortions. Despite the fact that Americans have channeled hundreds of millions of dollars annually to organizations for services related to abortion, the U.S. taxpayer has not directly funded abortion (except in the case of rape, incest or the life of the mother) since 1976.

The pertinent provision, called the Hyde Amendment, was held intact all eight years of the Clinton Administration and prevents Medicaid funds from being used directly for abortion. The abortion lobby is salivating over the prospect of removing this restriction, which would result in federally subsidized abortion for low-income women, the demographic where most abortions occur. The Hyde Amendment must be approved each year and is likely to spark an intense fight in Congress. Similar measures to the Hyde Amendment include limits on tax dollars for abortion for members of the military, Peace Corps, Indian healthcare services and federal prisoners. Abortion advocates have these provisions in their sights; some have already been lifted.

The debate over taxpayers and abortion will grow more intense as economic conditions remain difficult. With many Americans losing their jobs and homes — and trillions being expended on bailout programs — the nearly $3 billion in new funding proposed for the abortion industry should not pass without vigorous public debate.

Perhaps of deeper concern, however, is the question asked by papal biographer George Weigel in a Newsweek column last November: “Does the payment of federal taxes that go to support abortion constitute a form of moral complicity in an ‘intrinsic evil’? And if so, what should the conscientious Catholic citizen do?”

These questions loom large as the newly aligned power structures in Washington begin to enact a panoply of changes likely to make demands on the pocketbooks of American Catholics — and also their consciences.

Elections indeed have consequences. Yet if recent history is any guide, political winds can change unexpectedly, and what typically begins in high hopes ultimately must face the realities of American politics. America remains a broadly diverse country where prolife sentiments, however fashioned, run deep. Not every Democrat is a pro-abortion extremist, and not every campaign promise becomes law.

What to do? We must take up the challenge as Catholics throughout history have taken up challenges of such import — renewed prayer, fasting and spirited engagement. Thankfully, in American politics there is always hope. And change.

Brian Burch is the president of Fidelis, a national Catholicbased advocacy group which received national attention for its online election video at


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