Abortion & Conscience

  • Michael Sean Winters* | . . . We are called to conform ourselves to the moral law and so form our consciences that this conformity is understood, properly, as a genuine liberation, a freeing of one’s capacity to choose so that we choose the good. In short, our exercise of conscience is not just a legal claim of immunity. . .
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J’ACCUSE! Why Obama is wrong on the HHS conscience regulations

National Catholic Reporter
Distinctly Catholic

21 January, 2012

Reprinted by permission of National Catholic Reporter,
115 E Armour Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64111

Michael Sean Winters*

The fact that there is much to defend in the President’s record does not mean that anyone need defend everything in that record, especially something as indefensible as this decision. And, it is a mistake of analysis to see this as a decision about contraception. The issue here is conscience.

President Barack Obama lost my vote yesterday when he declined to expand the exceedingly narrow conscience exemptions proposed by the Department of Health and Human Services. The issue of conscience protections is so foundational, I do not see how I ever could, in good conscience, vote for this man again.

I do not come at this issue as a Catholic special pleader, who wants only to protect my own, although it was a little bracing to realize that the president’s decision yesterday essentially told us, as Catholics, that there is no room in this great country of ours for the institutions our Church has built over the years to be Catholic in ways that are important to us. Nor, frankly, do I come at the issue as an anti-contraception zealot: I understand that many people, and good Catholics too, reach different conclusions on the matter although I must say that Humanae Vitae in its entirety reads better, and more presciently, every year.

No, I come at this issue as a liberal and a Democrat and as someone who, until yesterday, generally supported the President, as someone who saw in his vision of America a greater concern for each other, a less mean-spirited culture, someone who could, and did, remind the nation that we are our brothers’ keeper, that liberalism has a long vocation in this country of promoting freedom and protecting the interests of the average person against the combined power of the rich, and that we should learn how to disagree without being disagreeable. I defended the University of Notre Dame for honoring this man, and my heart was warmed when President Obama said at Notre Dame: “we must find a way to reconcile our ever-shrinking world with its ever-growing diversity — diversity of thought, diversity of culture, and diversity of belief. In short, we must find a way to live together as one human family.”

To borrow from Emile Zola: J’Accuse!

I accuse you, Mr. President, of dishonoring your own vision by this shameful decision.

I accuse you, Mr. President, of failing to live out the respect for diversity that you so properly and beautifully proclaimed as a cardinal virtue at Notre Dame. Or, are we to believe that diversity is only to be lauded when it advances the interests of those with whom we agree? That’s not diversity. That’s misuse of a noble principle for ignoble ends.

I accuse you, Mr. President, of betraying philosophic liberalism, which began, lest we forget, as a defense of the rights of conscience. As Catholics, we need to be honest and admit that, three hundred years ago, the defense of conscience was not high on the agenda of Holy Mother Church. But, we Catholics learned to embrace the idea that the coercion of conscience is a violation of human dignity. This is a lesson, Mr. President, that you and too many of your fellow liberals have apparently unlearned.

I accuse you, Mr. President, who argued that your experience as a constitutional scholar commended you for the high office you hold, of ignoring the Constitution. Perhaps you were busy last week, but the Supreme Court, on a 9-0 vote, said that the First Amendment still means something and that it trumps even desirable governmental objectives when the two come into conflict. Did you miss the concurring opinion, joined by your own most recent appointment to the court, Justice Kagan, which stated:

“Throughout our Nation’s history, religious bodies have been the preeminent example of private associations that have ‘act[ed] as critical buffers between the individual and the power of the State.’ Roberts v. United States Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609, 619 (1984). In a case like the one now before us—where the goal of the civil law in question, the elimination of discrimination against persons with disabilities, is so worthy—it is easy to forget that the autonomy of religious groups, both here in the United States and abroad, has often served as a shield against oppressive civil laws. To safeguard this crucial autonomy, we have long recognized that the Religion Clauses protect a private sphere within which religious bodies are free to govern themselves in accordance with their own beliefs. The Constitution guarantees religious bodies ‘independence from secular control or manipulation—in short, power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.’ Kedroff v. Saint Nicholas Cathedral of Russian Orthodox Church in North America, 344 U.S. 94, 116 (1952).”

Pray, do tell, Mr. President, what part of that paragraph did you consider when making this decision? Or, do you like having your Justice Department having its hat handed to it at the Supreme Court?

I accuse you, Mr. President, as leader of the Democratic Party, the primary vehicle for historic political liberalism in this country, of risking all the many achievements of political liberalism, from environmental protection to Social Security to Medicare and Medicaid, by committing a politically stupid act. Do you really think your friends at Planned Parenthood and NARAL were going to support the candidacy of Mr. Romney or Mr. Gingrich? How does this decision affect the prospects of Democrats winning back the House in districts like Pennsylvania’s Third or Ohio’s First or Virginia’s Fifth districts? How do your chances look today among Catholic swing voters in Scranton and the suburbs of Cincinnati and along the I-4 corridor in Florida? I suppose that there are campaign contributions to consider, but really, sacrificing one’s conscience, or the conscience rights of others, was not worth Wales, was it worth a few extra dollars in your campaign coffers?

I accuse you, Mr. President, of failing to know your history. In 1978, the IRS proposed a rule change affecting the tax exempt status of private Christian schools. The rule would change the way school verified their desegregation policies, putting the burden of proof on the school, not the IRS. By 1978, many of those schools were already desegregated, even though they had first been founded as a means to avoid desegregation of the public schools. But evangelical Christians did not look kindly on the government’s interference in schools they had built themselves and, even though the IRS rescinded the rule change, the original decision was the straw the broke the camel’s back for those who wished to separate themselves from mainstream culture. They formed the Moral Majority, entered that mainstream culture, and helped the Republican Party win the next three presidential elections. You, Mr. President, have struck that same nerve. Catholics built their colleges and universities and hospitals. They did so out of religious conviction and, as often as not, because mainstream institutions did not welcome Catholics. It is one thing to support a policy with which the Catholic Church disagrees but it is quite another to start telling Catholics how to run their own institutions.

I accuse you, Mr. President, of treating shamefully those Catholics who went out on a limb to support you. Do tell, Mr. President, how many bullets have the people at Planned Parenthood taken for you? Sr. Carol Keehan, Father Larry Snyder, Father John Jenkins, these people have scars to show for their willingness to work with you, to support you on your tough political fights. Is this the way you treat people who went to the mat for you?

Zola, of course, wrote his famous essay in response to the Dreyfuss affair. Then, the source of injustice was anti-Semitic bigotry. Today, while I cannot believe that the President himself is an anti-Catholic bigot, he has caved to those who are. In politics, as in life, we are often known by the company we keep. Hmmmm. Sr. Carol Keehan, a woman who has dedicated her life and her ministry to help the ill and the aged or the fundraisers and the lobbyists at NARAL? Is that really a tough call? I have not joined the chorus of those who believe that this administration is “at war” with the Catholic Church. Yet, I must confess, when I first learned the new yesterday, an image came into my head, of Glenn Close and John Malkovich in “Dangerous Liaisons” when Ms. Close looks at Mr. Malkovich and says, “War!” That said, while not wishing to detract one iota from the gravity of this decision, the bishops are well advised not to read more into this than is there. It is a shameful decision to be sure, but it is not the end of the world and war is a thing to be avoided whenever and however possible.

Some Catholics have sought to defend the President, to hope that there might be some silver lining in the decision, to argue that because many Catholics use contraception, or because some states already mandate this kind of coverage, this decision is really no big deal. The fact that there is much to defend in the President’s record does not mean that anyone need defend everything in that record, especially something as indefensible as this decision. And, it is a mistake of analysis to see this as a decision about contraception. The issue here is conscience.

Some commentators, including those in the comment section on my post yesterday, have charged that people like me, Catholics who have been generally supportive of the President, were duped, that we should confess our sins of political apostasy, and go rushing into the arms of a waiting GOP. I respectfully decline the indictment and, even more, the remedy. Nothing that happened yesterday made the contemporary GOP less mean-spirited, or more inclined to support the rights of our immigrant brothers and sisters, or less bellicose in their approach to foreign affairs, or more concerned about the how the government can and should alleviate poverty. It is also worth noting that the night before the decision, Mr. Gingrich said that he would halt the U.S. Justice Department’s suit against the State of Alabama regarding that state’s new anti-immigration law, a law that raises exactly the same kind of issues of religious liberty and the rights of conscience as are raised by the HHS decision. Religious liberty cuts both ways. Nor, is religious liberty the only issue. Voters should still consider how candidates for the presidency are likely to address a host of issues. As for myself, I could not, in good conscience, vote for any of the current Republicans seeking the presidency.

But, yesterday, as soon as I learned of this decision, I knew instantly that I also could not, in good conscience, ever vote for Mr. Obama again. I once had great faith in Mr. Obama’s judgment and leadership. I do not retract a single word I have written supporting him on issues like health care reform, or bringing the troops home from Iraq, or taking aggressive steps to halt the recession and turn the economy around. I will continue to advocate for those policies. But, I can never convince myself that a person capable of making such a dreadful decision is worthy of my respect or my vote.

Conscience Exemptions and the Press

National Catholic Reporter
Distinctly Catholic

21 December, 2011

Reprinted by permission of National Catholic Reporter,
115 E Armour Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64111

Michael Sean Winters*

I do not believe the President has any personal hostility to religion generally or to Catholicism specifically. I do think he and most of his advisors come from an intellectual milieu that is only accepting of religion when it adopts the political agenda of the New York Times editorial page.

Some of the remarks in the combox, and conversations at holiday parties, have suggested that virtually no one is going to vote for or against President Obama based on his upcoming decision regarding conscience exemptions for Catholic and other religious organizations from certain mandates under the new health care reform law. This is only half true, and the half that is true is damning. The other half has to do with how our media culture frames issues and how issues and events feed a media narrative.

It is true that very few people who generally support the President’s policies are as riled up about the conscience exemption issue as I am. Frequently, I hear Catholics who have grown suspicious of the hierarchy on other grounds transferring their suspicions to the bishops’ motives on this issue, seeing the entire religious liberty issue as a smokescreen for further aligning the USCCB with the GOP. Yes, there are some bishops who see the Democrats as the “party of death” but it is not the majority of bishops and such extremist sensibilities are voiced not only by the loudest bishops but by the most unhinged. It is another issue, and a very frustrating one, that so few self-described liberals are not more concerned about the issue on LIBERAL grounds. Apart from the casual disregard for the foundational roots of liberalism, you would think that after years of holding up diversity as an important value, the liberal zeitgeist might find room for Catholic institutions to be different.

As I say, however frustrating or not, the assertion is half true that not many voters will change their opinion of the President based on this one decision. But, what about the other half of the proposition that is not true?

The President’s political dilemma is that some have framed the discussion as a debate about contraception not conscience, and polls indicate the overwhelming majority of Catholics do not agree with their bishops about contraception. But, if President Obama decides not to expand the conscience exemption, he will feed the narrative that Democrats are hostile to religion, a narrative that has stalked the Democrats for a long time and one the Obama campaign in 2008 was keen to overcome. I need hardly point out that if President Obama does decide to expand the conscience exemption, there is little possibility that a counter-narrative will emerge that Obama is hostile to women. A few extremist websites and advocacy groups may try to fan those flames but that narrative is a dog that won’t hunt.

The narrative that Obama is hostile to religion has become a staple in certain right wing circles. If you watch Fox News, you would think the fact that the President did not mention the Deity in his Thanksgiving Day remarks was an intentional swipe at religion and the most important story that week. But, the Fox News aficiondos are never going to vote for Obama anyway. His worry, here, is that a series of stories, mostly local in nature, will have the effect of making the “Dems are hostile to religion” meme more plausible to voters who do not watch Fox.

Several Catholic institutions have made it clear that if the conscience exemption is not broadened, they will stop offering health insurance to their employees or, if a college to their students, rather than bow to the pressure to subsidize insurance coverage for procedures they fund morally objectionable. Even someone as generally progressive as Bishop Lynch of St. Petersburg, Florida has said as much. If a local diocese or Catholic college or Catholic hospital stops offering its employees insurance, that will be big news in the local press. There will be interviews with employees worrying about what they are going to do. There will be statements from the Catholic institutions saying they were “forced” to do this, that the Obama administration changed the rules of the game and caved to pressure from pro-choice advocates. These stories will not appear all at once. They will not even merit a mention in the New York Times. But, Joe “swing voter,” who reads his local paper the way my Dad reads his local paper – obituaries first, local stories second – will take note and if Joe “swing voter” is already thinking he is unhappy about the economy, but is unenthusiastic about the Republicans, and is looking for something to push him one way or the other, the thought of those nice nurses who helped his wife when she was in Holy Cross Hospital not getting insurance anymore, that may be just the thing to push him from blue to red.

On the other hand, what will be the media coverage of a decision to broaden the exemption? The President will get two or three days of bad press in the Post and the Times. The same people who chastised Obama for his decision not to make Plan B available to 11-year olds will get interviewed for the news pages. The head of Planned Parenthood will write an op-ed. Cong. DeGette will go on the “Rachel Maddow Show.” But, the story has no “legs” if the President insists on maintaining the kinds of exemptions that are currently found in the federal employee benefit package or in the tax code. It is never “news” when nothing changes. Notre Dame will not be forced to endure a story about the first student to use her new contraception coverage or about how its staff is struggling now that they no longer get health insurance through the university. And, while I am sure that some pro-choicers may be less inclined to write a check for the President’s re-election campaign, I doubt they are going to rush to embrace the candidacy of Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich.

So, I concede that very few people see this issue as decisive the way I see it as decisive. But, I think the President and his political people need to carefully examine the fallout more broadly, especially how it will play out in the media. I have just gotten up to Connecticut and I can virtually guarantee that if the President expands the exemption, it will not merit a mention, certainly no more than a line or two, in the local newspapers. But, if the staff at our extraordinary Catholic schools can no longer get insurance through their employer, that will be on the front page for weeks with interviews of really upset people. Some of those people will blame the bishops, to be sure. But, some will also blame the President and his health care reform.

I do not believe the President has any personal hostility to religion generally or to Catholicism specifically. I do think he and most of his advisors come from an intellectual milieu that is only accepting of religion when it adopts the political agenda of the New York Times editorial page. We know the President, in his own biography, credits the Catholic Church and her many and varied social service programs for inspiring him early in his career, but he clearly does not see how those social service programs are linked, integrally, to the Church’s pro-life position. I do not fault him for that. In my book Left at the Altar, I detailed the sordid history by which the traditional political allegiance of Catholics with Democrats was rent asunder, all of which came before Obama entered the White House.

But, if the President wants to stay in the White House he needs to think about Catholic swing voters in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Florida. They care more about the economy than they do about conscience exemptions to be sure. If the President is lucky, the economy will be murky come November. (If unlucky, the economy will be in the tank and then there is nothing to be done about his re-election prospects.) They will admire him for his decision to go after bin Laden. They likely support the decision to end our involvement in Iraq. But, they will be really upset if their local Catholic college or hospital was forced to stop offering its employees insurance because the government mandated that the institution violate the Church’s moral teachings. Even those who don’t agree with the teaching on contraception are likely to get upset. There is a bullying aspect to a mandate. On the other hand, does anyone think that a card-carrying member of NARAL is going to vote for Romney? C’mon. That is why I think that anyone who says “no one cares about this issue except the bishops” misunderstands how an issue like this can play out. There is no reason for Obama to feed the narrative that the Democrats are hostile to religion. He has every reason to rob his opponents of that charge.

Catholic Pride and Conscience Exemptions

National Catholic Reporter
Distinctly Catholic

1 December, 2011

Reprinted by permission of National Catholic Reporter,
115 E Armour Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64111

Michael Sean Winters*

. . . even those Catholics who do not agree with all the Church’s teachings know that the mission of the Church, expressed in educational, medical and social justice organizations, is something integral, something in the DNA of those institutions, and that we don’t want the government mucking around in our Church.

One of the more interesting developments in the debate about whether or not to expand the conscience exemptions regarding mandated insurance coverage for procedures the Catholic Church finds morally objectionable, such as contraception, sterilization and some drugs the Church considers abortifacients, is the fact that so many Catholics who do not share those moral objections are nonetheless vociferous in urging a broader exemption. Friends who denounce the bishops as naïve or willing tools of the GOP, who think that contraception is fine, or who otherwise seldom miss the opportunity to trash the hierarchy, nonetheless find themselves disturbed by the idea that the federal government would force Catholic institutions to abide by rules that conflict with the dictates of the Church.

Some of this concern manifests an understandable awareness that if the government can mandate contraception today, it might mandate abortion coverage tomorrow. Many Catholics who are not morally troubled by contraception remain morally troubled by abortion. Some also perceive the essential religious liberty issues at stake. Unlike those champions of the “wall of separation” like the ACLU, who now can’t climb over that wall fast enough in order to tell Notre Dame or Catholic Charities what insurance plans they must buy, these Catholics recognize that the government should be wary of intruding into the religious sphere.

But, there is a yet deeper issue, and one that I suspect has not occurred to the people at the White House advising the President. It has to do with Catholic pride. There was a time when Catholics had to build their own schools because mainstream schools like Harvard did not welcome Catholics and public schools forced Catholic students to pray with Protestant texts like the King James Bible. The vast array of Catholic social service agencies often began as a ministry to immigrant co-religionists who faced all manner of hostility and little succor from the government. To the great credit of the Church, those ministries continued even when they were no longer primarily serving Catholics.

Those institutions were built by our ancestors, who often had only their pennies to contribute. They are “ours” not only in a legal sense but in a cultural sense. And, Catholics do not take kindly to institutions their forbears built because the mainstream culture would not admit them to their institutions, now being ordered to change their ways by the same people whose forbears kept Catholics out in the first place.

The current episode recalls the 1978 attempt by the IRS to change the rules governing the tax-exempt status of private Christian schools. Many of those schools had been created by southern Protestants in response to Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 Supreme Court decision that ordered an end to segregation in the public schools. In 1969, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights filed a suit seeking to strip these schools of their tax-exempt status and won. The Nixon administration issued a rule that only required the schools to insert a non-discrimination pledge into their bylaws, but organizations continued to sue. On August 22, 1978, the IRS issued a rule that required the schools to prove they did not discriminate rather than, as previously, forcing the IRS to prove that they did.

The backlash was immediate and intense. Robert Billings, who would become the first executive director of the Moral Majority the following year, launched a campaign to turn back the rule. The IRS received some 126,000 letters of protest. The calls to Congress were so many, they overwhelmed the switchboard. Richard Viguerie, one of the found fathers of the modern religious right, believed that the IRS backlash was decisive in driving conservative evangelical Christians into politics. “It kicked the sleeping dog,” Viguerie said. “It galvanized the religious right.”

It should be noted that by 1978 most private Christian academies had a few black students. But, these church-run schools were predominantly white in part because the churches they attended were predominantly white. It has been well said that Sunday morning remains one of the most segregated of times in American life. Students whose parents belonged to the church might receive discounted tuition, and those students whose parents went elsewhere might not be able to afford the full tuition. In short, you can explain the disproportionate lack of black students at the schools without recognizing explicit racism as the cause. Additionally, by 1978, Christian academies were often founded not to avoid segregation but to avoid sex education in the public schools. Having built these schools to escape what they believed were pernicious secular influences in the public schools, they did not take kindly to an assault on them from the government.

The Obama administration should be very careful in making its decision. Polls may indicate that many Catholics do not agree with the teaching of their bishops about contraception, but those same Catholics will not take kindly to any efforts to tell them how to run their schools, hospitals and social service agencies.

Most of all, Catholics understand that our schools and our hospitals and our social service agencies grow out of our faith. Unlike Luther, we have always put a high value on good works. Catholics take seriously Jesus’ words, found in the 25th Chapter of the Gospel of St. Matthew – whatever you do for one of these the least of my brethren, you do for me. Catholics grow up learning the corporal works of mercy – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, etc. – and that list is drawn from that same Bible passage. These institutions are expressions of our self-identity as Catholics. And even those Catholics who do not agree with all the Church’s teachings know that the mission of the Church, expressed in educational, medical and social justice organizations, is something integral, something in the DNA of those institutions, and that we don’t want the government mucking around in our Church.

As noted earlier, President Obama is struggling with white, working class voters in Pennsylvania. Many of those voters are Catholics. They care about the economy, to be sure, but that is not the only thing they care about. Picking a fight with Catholics is one thing he should avoid. Pricking their pride is just plain dumb.

Conscience Rights, Nurses & Abortion

National Catholic Reporter
Distinctly Catholic
29 November, 2011

Reprinted by permission of National Catholic Reporter,
115 E Armour Blvd, Kansas City, MO 64111

Michael Sean Winters*

I take second place to no one in my championing of the cause of religious liberty, both in the context of the HHS mandates and in denouncing attacks on Gov. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism. But, there are circumstances in which the issue of religious liberty can be invoked in ways that cloud the issue or, worse from my point of view, misunderstand what religion calls us to do. The facts of a case matter.

Yesterday, the Washington Post reported on a group of nurses at a public hospital in New Jersey who are suing the hospital because it has decided they must participate in caring for women who are going to have an abortion and women who have just undergone one. Federal and state law guarantees the right of hospital workers not to participate in an abortion. President Obama’s administration re-wrote the conscience rules it inherited from President Bush, but the new rules drew a bright red line on the issue of abortion: No one can be forced to participate in one against their conscience.

The Post’s article was not clear exactly what was expected of the nurses in question. Certainly, there are no religious grounds I can think of for declining to care for a woman who has procured an abortion. If that were so, why would we have Project Rachel, the Catholic Church-run program that specifically tries to minister to women who have procured abortions. Indeed, at the recent USCCB meeting, several bishops spoke about the need to expand the efforts and activities of this wonderful program which brings the mercy of God to women who desperately need it. On the other hand, if a nurse is expected to discard the aborted child after the procedure, or otherwise deal with the immediate effects of the surgical operation, I think that would cross the line into participation in the act itself.

We need to keep the bright red line around abortion, not only because individual consciences are at stake, but because it is vital, really vital, that we in the pro-life movement continue to insist that abortion is not health care. I have said it before and will say it again: The medical profession exists to prevent disease and to heal wounds. Disease, wound, baby. Which one is not like the others? The didactic value of insisting on the differentness of abortion is important to our on-going efforts to change the culture.

But, we also need to treat people as adults. Some of the comments by pro-choice activists seeking to narrow the conscience exemption regarding mandated insurance coverage of contraception have been demeaning to those women who choose to attend or work at a Catholic institution. Those women choose a Catholic university over a secular one for a variety of reasons, but they know what they are signing up for. The same goes for nurses. They should be able to decline, on conscience grounds, to participate in an abortion, but they should not have carte blanche to eliminate those parts of their job description they don’t like. They, too, knew what they were signing up for when they applied to work at a hospital.

The cause of religious liberty will not be advanced by instances of overreaching.