on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics

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The Record (U.S.), October 14, 2004

Why Is Bush Getting the Bishop's Blessing?

NEWARK'S ARCHBISHOP John Myers wrote an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal last month on why Catholics cannot in good conscience vote for a pro-choice candidate. It was titled "A Voter's Guide."

Myers wrote that abortion and research that destroys human embryos are evil and that no other issue outweighs that evil in this presidential race: not the death penalty, poverty, or the war in Iraq.

The archbishop did not name names, but his message is clear: Catholics can't vote for John Kerry. Since Catholics make up one-quarter of the voting population, Myers would hand the election on a silver platter to President Bush.

Another archbishop, Charles Chaput of Colorado, is even more blunt: Voting for a candidate who is pro-choice or supports embryonic stem cell research is a sin, and the voter must confess it before receiving communion.

These dire warnings are part of an attempt by both the Bush campaign and conservative bishops to deliver the Catholic vote for the 2004 Republican ticket. In other words, Bush is endorsed by God.

This is a hard pill for many Catholics to swallow. In any election, American voters do not like to be dictated to - and this is no ordinary race. How can it be reduced to one issue when so much is at stake?

Bush and Kerry have starkly different views on preemptive war, how to fight terrorism, reducing nuclear proliferation, preserving the environment and expanding health care. All of these issues have the potential to save or destroy a great many lives.

Yet Catholic Kerry supporters are being told they must put aside their opposition to Bush's policies, which many of them have reached on moral grounds, and vote for a man who they believe has done some rather immoral things: taken the nation to war on false pretenses and made the world less safe by recklessly concentrating his resources on Iraq instead of the war on terror.

Some Catholic voters would consider their positions on these issues "pro-life."

But Myers says in his article that it's a numbers game: What other issue can outweigh 1.3 million abortions in America each year? Sadly, other issues do rival those numbers. Millions have died in civil wars in Africa in recent years, and genocide is happening in the Sudan right now. Millions have died from AIDS, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, and millions continue to be infected around the world. Millions could die in a military showdown with North Korea, for instance, if nuclear weapons were used.

Bush is pro-life, although he said during his first campaign he would not try to overturn Roe vs. Wade. But this time around, if reelected, he would likely name one or two justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. Given that his favorites on the court are Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, it's certainly possible that a future court would have enough votes to ban abortion.

But so far, Bush has done little to significantly lower the abortion rate in the United States. In some places, abortions have likely increased due to unemployment. And the U.N. Population Fund estimates that Bush's repeated withholding of U.S. funds pledged for family planning programs has led to hundreds of thousands of abortions in poor countries.

The conservative bishops have the right to speak out, even organize voter drives, although in coming so close to campaigning for a particular candidate, they may be jeopardizing the church's tax-exempt status.

For the record, I am pro-life. I believe life begins at conception and therefore, abortion is wrong.

But I also believe most wars are wrong.

I believe it's wrong to stand by while half a continent needlessly suffers and dies from AIDS. It's wrong to allow people in this country to die of easily curable illness because they have no health insurance. It's wrong to condemn children to lifelong poverty and waste their minds by denying them even the most basic education. It's wrong to allow corporate greed and influence to take precedence over fairness and generosity in the workplace, in the environment and in how we care for the most vulnerable in our nation and the world.

All of these issues, and a host of others, are relevant in this pivotal, polarized election, which defies reduction to a simple referendum on abortion.

The church should be working to lower the abortion rate in this country. But telling people how they must vote, on condition of losing their souls, goes too far.

Mary Ellen Schoonmaker is a Record editorial writer. Send comments to

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