US Catholic leadership foresees challenges after repeated election defeats for abortion opponents

Dec 20, 2023, 6:03 AM

Repeatedly in recent years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has stipulated that “the threat of abortion remains our preeminent priority.” In the face of recent election setbacks for abortion opponents, leading bishops and their lay allies are reassessing how to move forward with that stance.

The latest rebuff came Nov. 7 in Ohio, when voters decisively approved a constitutional amendment that ensures access to abortion and other forms of reproductive health care. It was the seventh consecutive state where voters decided to protect abortion access since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the nationwide constitutional right to abortion in June 2022.

The Ohio result was particularly stinging for abortion opponents, coming in a state where tough anti-abortion measures had been approved by the Republican-controlled legislature.

“Today is a tragic day for women, children, and families in Ohio,” the state’s Catholic bishops said in a joint statement as the outcome became clear.

“We must look ahead,” the bishops added. “Despite the obstacles this amendment presents, the Catholic Church in Ohio will continue to work for policies that defend the most vulnerable, strengthen the child-parent relationship, and support women in need.”

Brian Hickey, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Ohio, noted that support for the abortion-rights amendment was particularly strong among younger voters, signaling that it could take many years to build an anti-abortion majority in the state’s electorate. Exit polls suggested that more than 75% of voters aged 18 to 29 backed the amendment.

“How do we reach this next generation of Ohioans?” Hickey asked during an interview with The Associated Press. “We know there is a lot of work to do.”

The chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-life Activities, Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, recalled how he and his colleagues celebrated 18 months ago after the Supreme Court — in its so-called Dobbs decision — struck down the much-debated Roe v. Wade ruling of 1973. The result was to end the nationwide right to abortion, and leave it to individual states to decide whether to ban it or allow it.

“There was a moment to celebrate, but we also knew it was only a brief moment, because rightfully this issue is back in the states,” Burbidge said. “These ballot-measure results are very unsettling.”

Burbidge said the Catholic leadership needed to convey more clearly that it is “pro-women” — even as it supports state legislation aimed at limiting their options regarding unwanted pregnancies.

“Not even our parishioners are aware of all of the support the Catholic Church will give to single moms in need — counseling, financial assistance, housing — so mothers know they are being accompanied,” he told the AP. “We will be with them every step of the way.”

“We look at the results, and they are not favorable,” Burbidge added. “We have a good message to convey. … Even if it hits some more bumps in the road, some disappointments, eventually we believe that what is true, what is just, will triumph.”

2024 will bring many opportunities for disappointments and triumphs. Abortion is sure to be a key issue in many political contests, and efforts are underway in several states — including Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Missouri and Nebraska — to get Ohio-style abortion-rights measures on the ballot.

Burbidge and Hickey said the Catholic leadership, as it moved ahead in the abortion debate, should avoid sounding harsh and punitive. Hickey, for example, suggested that abortion restrictions would receive greater public support if they offered exceptions, perhaps allowing abortions for women impregnated by rape.

“We need to have those conversations,” Hickey said. “The Catholic Church is a place for refuge. It’s not a place for condemnation.”

Some Catholic abortion opponents favor an aggressive approach, whether or not it sways voter sentiment.

“The church will never compromise, it cannot compromise. It will always stand for the truth that every single human life is sacred,” said Brian Burch, president of the conservative advocacy group CatholicVote.

“But it’s very clear the public is completely divided on this,” he added. “Recent trends show the public is not willing to go where many pro-life entities had hoped to go in the wake of Dobbs.”

Burch said state legislatures with anti-abortion majorities should avoid punishing women who get abortions. But he approves of penalties against medical personnel who provide abortions, and favors new laws that could punish people for pressuring a woman to get an abortion.

“The abortion divide has become more heightened because of Dobbs,” he said. “There is no question the Democrats will use the issue next year. It’s a political gamble and I hope they’re wrong.”

Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life, hopes the Democrats do highlight the issue – and says abortion opponents should engage head-on in the ensuing debate, rather than skirting the issue.

“We need an honest debate about abortion — a debate that starts with a clear, objective and public description of what the abortion procedure is,” Pavone says in a strategy memo he’s distributing to political candidates. “Abortion supporters refuse to describe what they defend … abortion itself is the last thing they want to talk about.”

Pavone was a Catholic priest from 1988 until 2022, when the Vatican removed him from the priesthood for “blasphemous communications” on social media, and persistent disobedience of his bishop. Over many years, he had drawn attention for partisan political activities that accompanied his anti-abortion activism.

In common with Burbidge, Hickey and Burch, Pavone advocates showing compassion for women considering abortion.

But Catholics who support abortion rights question how this rhetoric can be reconciled with a stance that would deny these women the freedom to choose for themselves how to proceed.

“Solidarity with women — what does that mean?” asked Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice.

“Women do not have equality in the church. We’re not allowed to lead, to be ordained,” she said. “I don’t know what ‘solidarity’ means when you have an entrenched second-class status for women.”

Manson would like to see a new kind of conversation within Catholic ranks.

“Many Catholic women have had an abortion — they have a story to tell,” she said. “What I’m hoping and pushing for is for Catholic leaders to listen to why women made that choice and have no regrets.”

For now, the U.S. bishops conference has signaled it will press ahead with existing strategies on abortion. Last month, a week after the abortion-rights amendment was approved in Ohio, the bishops elected Daniel Thomas, the bishop of Toledo, Ohio, to succeed Burbidge in November 2024 as chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

Thomas had forcefully appealed for Ohioans to defeat the amendment, calling it “extreme, dangerous and unacceptable.”

Manson depicted the election of Thomas as “ironic,” given that Catholic dioceses in Ohio had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars unsuccessfully opposing the amendment.

“The Catholic bishops are doubling down on their losing abortion strategy through 2024,” she said. “The Catholic Church will continue to spend big in elections — and they will continue to lose.”


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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US Catholic leadership foresees challenges after repeated election defeats for abortion opponents