As the annual March for Life unfolds in Washington on Friday, marking the anniversary of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, one of America’s most influential Catholic anti-abortion thinkers says the cause could take a cue from Pope Francis’ jubilee Year of Mercy.
“We need to convince those who disagree with us that the pro-life message is about excluding nobody, that it means love and respect for those with whom we disagree,” said Richard Doerflinger of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. But he conceded that’s not always the impression people get.
“The logic of the pro-life position is that everybody matters,” he said. “We need to make that much more visible, to be sure it permeates everything we do.”
Among signs of hope, Doerflinger sees the rise of younger people, opposed to abortion but sensitive to feminist concerns, who are also clear that “the pro-life movement is not a branch of the right wing.”
This is a good time to make the pitch, Doerflinger argues, because on the other side of the fence, he detects a growing “extremism” among abortion rights supporters.
“They’re opposing conscience rights,” he said, as well as pressing “semi-permanent” means of abortion and contraception which, he said, limit a woman’s ability to change her mind.
“Women’s freedom is being demoted,” he said. “It’s an increasingly coercive agenda.”
All that, Doerflinger believes, gives those opposed to abortion a chance to reframe the debate.
“It gives us an opportunity to win people over by asking, ‘Is this what the movement formerly known as ‘pro-choice’ actually means?’”
Doerflinger, whose formal title is associate director of pro-life activities for the US bishops, but whose actual role is more akin to Catholic guru for the entire anti-abortion movement, is set to retire in April after 36 years on the job.
Depending on where one stands in the wars of culture, he’s either a villain or an icon.
Mother Jones magazine referred to him in 2010 as “the man who almost killed health care reform,” for his role in stoking the bishops’ opposition to contraception and abortion provisions. One year later, he became the first recipient of the Evangelium Vitae Medal, awarded by the University of Notre Dame “to honor individuals whose outstanding efforts have served to proclaim the Gospel of Life.”
Crux spoke with Doerflinger just before the Jan. 22 March for Life in Washington, DC. The following are excerpts from that conversation.
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Crux: This is the 43rd March for Life, and Roe v. Wade is still standing. Is there evidence the march has accomplished something?
Doerflinger: I think it has. We’ve seen it even in the federal courts, because Roe has been reinterpreted to allow for more regulation of abortion, at least, than once was the case. I think the march has helped keep the issue alive, as a public concern and a moral concern.
What are the trends in terms of public attitudes?
I think most people continue to be ambivalent. They don’t like the idea of unlimited abortion, they don’t like taxpayer-funded abortion, but they also don’t want to completely prohibit it. What’s interesting is that if you ask people the circumstances under which abortion should be allowed, they often center on hard cases that are quite rare — incest, rape, urgent medical need, and so on. Those account for maybe 5 percent of all abortions performed today.
Does that ambivalence have a political effect?
I think it’s evident at the level of government where representatives are most responsive to local opinion, which is in the states. There’s much more legislative activity to try to limit abortion … such as banning public funding of abortion, parental notification and consent, informed consent requirements, [and] waiting periods.
The abortion rate in America has been going down. Why?
It’s dropped from a peak of 1.6 million abortions a year. Statistics lag, but it’s probable that it’s now under 1 million. That’s still a lot of abortions, but significantly fewer.
Part of the reason is that young people are getting involved in premature sexual activity somewhat less often. It’s also a result of these new abortion laws. If you look at where rates have gone down the most, it’s states with the most protective laws for the unborn.
Abortion and contraception have been around for a long time. What are some new pro-life issues?
Increasingly, conscience rights are an issue. For a long time, federal laws allowing conscientious objection on abortion had strong bipartisan support, but at least the leadership of the Democrats has moved away from that. Existing laws are not being enforced by the administration, and efforts to improve them have been opposed.
In terms of a really new issue, there’s a pro-life advance in the recent appropriations act, which is a provision to stop the FDA from approving protocols for germ line genetic engineering of human embryos. There’s a new technique for modifying the genetic code, called CRISPR, and with it the prospects of genetic engineering have become much more science than science fiction … in a sense, it’s both a pro-life issue and an environmental issue.
Jeremy Rifkin once predicted that a ‘new bio-politics’ would upset the usual left/right divide, with pro-lifers and Greens coming together. Is that happening?
I remember some years ago I was testifying [before Congress] on human cloning on the same side with Judy Norsigian, author of “Our Bodies, Ourselves.” The New York Times picked up on it, saying it’s a new political event when the guy from the Catholic bishops is there alongside a pro-choice activist.
The difference is that my associates said, ‘Wow, what big circles you’re moving in!’, while hers said, ‘How dare you deal with these people!’ In general, these kinds of alliances tend to stir more agitation on the left than the right.
So far, this doesn’t seem to have blossomed into a real political coalition. There are places here and there where those connections have been made, and we may have to explore it more fully if genetic engineering erupts.
Early on, there was concern among abortion opponents that Pope Francis might be too soft. Where are they at now?
I think some of that early criticism has fallen away. The Holy Father has made some tremendous statements on the sanctity of human life …. It seems to me that some of those early criticisms were based on this pope’s style. Very often he takes a more casual approach, but this man is obviously a leader on pro-life concerns.
I think the crowd at the March for Life tends to be young and enthusiastic, and if you talk to the Catholics there, you’ll find they’re pretty enthusiastic about Pope Francis. The pro-life movement is not a branch of the right wing. This is a movement that, at least for the Catholics, is about being Catholic first and then looking to politicians to ask, ‘What are you going to do for us?’ It’s not about being Republicans or Democrats.
In the pope’s Year of Mercy, does the movement need to find a more merciful way of making the case?
I think so …. We need to convince those who disagree with us that the pro-life message is about excluding nobody, that it means love and respect for those with whom we disagree. That’s the logic of the pro-life position, that everybody matters. We need to make that much more visible, to be sure that it permeates everything we do.
All of us are God’s children, including folks who work in abortion clinics.
The difference religion makes in the pro-life movement is not answering the question of when life begins, because all you need for that is biology. The difference religion makes is to remember what this is all about. We’re pro-life because we’re trying to reflect the love God has for everyone. That’s an entirely different attitude than what you often see in the political realm.
Where do you see opportunities for winning people over?
One new element is that pro-abortion groups seem to be getting increasingly extreme.
Interestingly, they’re dropping the theme of “pro-choice” they’ve had for 40 years, preferring to talk about “women’s health,” which I suppose makes it easier to oppose conscience rights. They’re also tending to press for semi-permanent methods [of contraception and abortion], such as injections and implants, that last for months. Women can’t remove them on their own; they need a doctor’s help.
Women’s freedom is being demoted, not only as a theme, but in reality.
It’s an increasingly coercive agenda, which I think gives us an opportunity to win people over by asking, “Is this what the movement formerly known as ‘pro-choice’ actually means? Maybe you agree with us more than you think.”