Sursum Corda
"an insightful Catholic Blog that eschews extremism in any direction."
--Commonweal Magazine
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Friday, November 15, 2002
A FEW STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION: Earlier in the week, I concluded some commentary on abortion and the law with the following paragraph:

Most Americans have made their peace with legal abortion. If the choice they are given is whether or not to employ criminal sanctions to stop it, their answer is likely to be negative. But a substantial majority of Americans still believe—despite 30 years of pro-choice arguments to the contrary—that abortion is the taking of human life. If they will not support recriminalization, there may be other approaches to reducing the number of abortions that they would support. The challenge is to find them.
After spending the week expressing some doubts about the pro-life movement’s legislative agenda for the new Congress (scroll down if you are interested, links are not working), I thought I should at least offer a few constructive suggestions. I’ll admit up front that I believe the focus of the Administration’s efforts should be on supporting women with crisis pregnancies (and preventing those pregnancies in the first place) rather than seeking new legal restrictions on abortion. This is not to say that you can’t do both, but I think a more credible effort at the former is really needed. Okay, without further ado:

The Bully Pulpit: Rather than phoning in to this January’s March for Life, President Bush could put in a personal appearance. The President should take this opportunity to reach out beyond the ranks of those who explicitly identify themselves as pro-life to the millions of Americans who are morally troubled by abortion, but conflicted as to what to do about it. The President should highlight the work of crisis pregnancy centers and those involved in post-abortion counseling and encourage Americans to support that work and even volunteer themselves.

Federal funding for crisis pregnancy centers: I have no idea whether those who actually operate these centers have any interest in this idea, but it’s not as crazy as it sounds. After all, the federal government dispenses about $275 million a year in federal family planning funds. Why not give these centers the resources to reach out to and support more women with crisis pregnancies? There’s nothing coercive about it and in a real sense it is about expanding the range of choices available to a woman in this situation.

Of course, those who accept the Queen’s coin must accept the Queen’s command. A small number of pregnancy centers have skirted the ethical edge, with advertising that sometimes fails to make clear to pregnant women up front that they are not abortion providers. The price of getting Congress to approve federal funding would almost certainly be some regulations on advertising practices. Would crisis pregnancy centers think it worth the tradeoff?

Address the barriers: I’d like to see the President accept the suggestion of Serrin Foster, the President of
Feminists for Life, and call a national summit on pregnancy and parenting aimed at eliminating the root causes that lead women to choose abortion. I suspect a full and free-wheeling debate on these issues would highlight the fact that neither political party has all the answers here.

I think, for example, that we need to look at things like increasing federal funding to support paid family leave and child care. The majority of women (61%) who have abortions already have one or more children. Many of these women are single mothers who already have to strike a difficult balance between work and family and it’s hard for them to contemplate adding an additional child to the mix. It should be noted that low-income women are the only population for whom the abortion rate has increased over the past five years.

You don’t need to create new federal entitlements to do this. There are existing block grants that states could use to design programs that fit their needs. They could use a little bump in funding. If you want to keep costs under control, the programs could also be targeted to families below a certain income threshold.

These are just a few ideas. I don’t claim that any of them are original, or even very good. And I haven’t included any ideas for preventing crisis pregnancies in the first place, which is another—if you’ll excuse the term—fertile area of inquiry. But I'll leave that for another time.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:19 PM
. . .
TURNING OUR EYES TOWARD HEAVEN: In his weekly column, Fr. Ron Rolheiser talks about the importance of personal prayer. Many good words, all of which you should read, but these in particular struck me:

Prayer is not a question of insight, of being smarter than anyone else; nor of will, of being stronger than anyone else; nor of emotional restraint or sexual aloofness, of being less passionate than anyone else; nor of withdrawal, of being less exposed to temptation than anyone else. Prayer is a question of unity and surrender, of uniting one's will with someone else and surrendering one's will to that other. Prayer is the desire to be in union with someone, especially in union with that other's will.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:32 PM
. . .
THE NEW CONVERGENCE: Interesting article by Greg Easterbrook in Wired about the "new covergence" between science and religion. Worth reading.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:19 PM
. . .
OVERLOOKED: While virtually all the press attention was on the norms, the Bishops approved a number of other statements at their recent conference that are worth reading.

A Place at the Table, the Bishops reflect on the persistence of poverty in the United States and in the world. The document sketches out some general trends in domestic and international poverty, and affirms the role of four key institutions in combating poverty: 1) families and individuals; 2) religious and community institutions; 3) the private sector; and 4) government:

The debate about how to address poverty in the United States and abroad too often focuses on just one of these four foundations and neglects others. While these four elements work together in different ways in different communities, a table may fall without each leg. Some emphasize family responsibility or the role of religious and community groups. Some insist the market can solve all our problems. Others see a government solution for every challenge, while still others see government corruption as an insurmountable obstacle to development. These narrow positions are not our tradition. The Catholic way is to recognize the essential role and the complementary responsibilities of families, communities, the market, and government to work together to overcome poverty and advance human dignity.
The Bishops also issued a revised version of their pastoral statement on domestic violence, When I Call for Help, which was first issued in 1992. The statement speaks forcefully against misunderstandings of scripture and faith that are used to justify domestic violence:

As bishops, we condemn the use of the Bible to support abusive behavior in any form. A correct reading of Scripture leads people to an understanding of the equal dignity of men and women and to relationships based on mutuality and love. Beginning with Genesis, Scripture teaches that women and men are created in God's image. Jesus himself always respected the human dignity of women. Pope John Paul II reminds us that "Christ's way of acting, the Gospel of his words and deeds, is a consistent protest against whatever offends the dignity of women."

Men who abuse often use Ephesians 5:22, taken out of context, to justify their behavior, but the passage (v. 21-33) refers to the mutual submission of husband and wife out of love for Christ. Husbands should love their wives as they love their own body, as Christ loves the Church.

Men who batter also cite Scripture to insist that their victims forgive them (see, for example, Mt 6:9-15). A victim then feels guilty if she cannot do so. Forgiveness, however, does not mean forgetting the abuse or pretending that it did not happen. Neither is possible. Forgiveness is not permission to repeat the abuse. Rather, forgiveness means that the victim decides to let go of the experience and move on with greater insight and conviction not to tolerate abuse of any kind again.
Earlier in the week, the Bishops issued a statement on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade entitled A Matter of the Heart. While strongly condemning the decision and reaffirming the Church's defense of human life in the womb, the statement also reaches out to women who may be considering abortion or who have had abortions:

Among those who defend abortion, there are many who do so despite the pain abortion has brought into their lives, or even sometimes because of it. Many contemplating abortion believe they have no other choice. We listen to them, we understand their sense of isolation and despair. We must strive to know their hearts.

We renew our offer of assistance to anyone considering abortion: If you are overwhelmed by the decisions you face, if you cannot afford medical care, if you are homeless or feel helpless, whatever your needs, we will help you. The Church and her ministries, inspired by the word and example of Jesus Christ, will help you with compassion and without condemnation.

Roe v. Wade has left a trail of broken hearts. Through Project Rachel and other ministries, we will continue to help the broken-hearted. Those who resort to abortion out of a sense of desperation often find the cruel reality of abortion too difficult to bear. But it is too difficult only in a world without God and therefore without hope. We must reach these hearts and give them hope. These are the converted hearts that will at last bring an end to abortion.
You can find links to all these statements, plus some others, by clicking here.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:30 AM
. . .
BACKSTAGE WITH THE BISHOPS: John Allen does his usual good job at rounding up on-the-record and off-the-record comments from the Bishops at their just concluded meeting. Allen notes that while the new norms do give the bishop the right to remove a priest from active ministry, canon law will still allow those priests to appeal to Rome:

I played out this scenario for one U.S. bishop in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Hotel. He granted its logic, then responded with grim determination: “They’re not going to force me to reinstate a man against my will. It’s not going to happen.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:06 AM
. . .
Thursday, November 14, 2002
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? Amy Welborn has a fine post-mortem on the Bishops approval of the norms.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:21 PM
. . .
IT TAKES A WEDDING: Alex Kotlowitz, author of There Are No Children Here reports on the rising popularity of marriage in inner-city neighborhoods.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:19 PM
. . .
GOOD TO HAVE THAT CLEARED UP: The General Synod of the Church of England has apparently decided that the United States and Great Britian do not need to return to the United Nations if the Iraq regime fails to comply with the latest UN Security Council resolution. However, the Synod feels that that it would be a good idea if they did. For more on this rather confusing statement, click here.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:18 PM
. . .
PARTIAL VICTORY? There’s a lot of hand wringing going on about whether Bush is going to push hard for the partial-birth abortion ban or not. Frankly, it’s hard to get terribly excited about legislation that is almost completely symbolic.

I’ve never been convinced by the argument that the partial-birth procedure is so much more horrific than the other major means of performing abortions at this stage of pregnancy. I don’t really want to go into the details, but they are at least as stomach churning as the partial-birth procedure. If the partial-birth procedure is banned, physicians will use other methods, or modify the partial-birth procedure in ways that allow them to evade the intent of the ban. Again, I’m not really sure I want to go into the details, but believe me, it won’t be that difficult.

If the pro-life movement seriously wanted to push the policy envelope on this in a way that could survive judicial review they should have taken a different approach. For starters, the legislation should have banned all abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. At the present time, 22 weeks is the outside edge of viability (about 10 percent of infants born at this point survive), so by pushing the legal point of viability back to 20 weeks you would effectively cover any infant with even an infinitesimal chance of survival outside the womb.

Something like this probably wouldn’t have been possible until the Supreme Court’s Casey decision modified the original Roe trimester framework, which essentially defined 6 months (about 25-26 weeks) as the legal point of viability. Casey clarified that the point of viability is really the critical point after which the state can regulate to protect life in the womb.

By banning abortion after a given point tout court, you avoid some of the problems inherent in trying to regulate abortion procedure-by-procedure. The first, already mentioned, is that providers will merely switch to another, equally repugnant procedure. The second is that you make explicit that you aren’t trying to regulate abortions prior to viability that are performed with a similar procedure. Vagueness on this point was one of the key reasons the Supreme Court struck down the Nebraska partial-birth abortion law in Stenberg v. Carhart.

Now to survive judicial review, the legislation would also have to have the usual exceptions for pregnancies that endanger the life and health of the mother. The controlling decision here is Doe v. Bolton (1972), which held that states could not restrict abortion between six months and delivery if the woman’s physician "in his best clinical judgment," in light of the patient's age, "physical, emotional, psychological [and] familial" circumstances, finds it "necessary for her physical or mental health."

Pro-life activists hate the Doe decision because they believe—correctly—that the health exception creates a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. My suspicion, though, is that the current Court would be willing to clarify and potentially tighten the definition of “health.”

How might this work? The law could specify that a health exception requires that carrying the pregnancy to term result in a permanent loss of function or temporary loss of function (physical or mental) likely to last 12 months or more. This is fairly close to the federal definition of disability for purposes of the Social Security Disability Insurance program. Physicians would be required to document their judgment that a strong potential for such disability exists. There are existing penalties for falsification of medical records that could be imported from the DI program.

Could physicians get around this? Sure they could. But at least you’ve raised the ante a bit and clarified that physicians need to justify their decisions to their peers and to the community as a whole. I think this approach offers a better chance for success than the partial-birth legislation in preventing post-viability abortions.

Would such a law survive judicial review? Who knows? I’d bet that it would stand a better chance of surviving then most of the bans on partial-birth abortions that I’ve seen. Without some kind of health exception and clarity that the ban does not apply to abortions performed prior to viability, these laws just aren't going to make it past the Court, at least not as it is currently constituted.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:17 AM
. . .
Wednesday, November 13, 2002
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Eve Tushnet suggests that my post on abortion overlooked what other parts of the pro-life movement are doing to combat abortion. I did not mean to do so. My post was focused on the pro-life movement's political strategy, but Eve is right that the movement is engaged in many other kinds of work as well: crisis pregnancy centers, post-abortion counseling, etc. Check out Eve's site for more details. But I did want to excerpt one of her paragraphs that I particularly liked:

Among the most important things you can do to prevent abortion: Reach out to women in need. (In case it's useful for people, here's a quick list I wrote with characteristics of a great pregnancy center.) Support marriage-based education. Feminists for Life's college outreach program is one of the best efforts--it changes minds, and also provides immediate practical help for women at high risk of abortion. Be a mentor--work with young people. Young women--and their boyfriends, very much so--need someone they can talk to when they're facing an unwanted pregnancy. And they need someone they can talk to about their relationships, or simply someone to provide a model of responsible and loving womanhood or manhood, so that the unplanned pregnancy doesn't happen in the first place. If you're an employer, be sensitive to the needs of families; I've seen several high-achieving women feel like they had to choose between their children and their future, and no matter which they choose it's not pretty.
There were hot links in that paragraph that I didn't try to replicate, so if you want to read them, click over to Eve's site.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:05 PM
. . .
A MATTER OF THE HEART: Click here for the USCCB statement on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:48 PM
. . .
NOT AS BAD AS YOU THINK: Fr. Andrew Greeley opines on the new norms. Thanks to Amy Welborn for the link. After reading through the new norms, I think I generally agree with Greeley and, while I have a few quibbles, I think that the new policy will do as much as any policy can to protect children while preserving the due process rights of the accused. It's not perfect, but I can live with it. What about the rest of you?

posted by Peter Nixon 3:38 PM
. . .
WHAT WOULD JESUS DRIVE? I love reading Michelle Cottle's essays in the New Republic. I don't always agree with her, but she's young, hip and can write about serious issues without taking herself too seriously (wish I had that talent). Today she talks about a campaign by the Evangelical Evangelization Network to highlight the environmental damage caused by SUVs. Here's a sample paragraph:

Now, no one is suggesting that all Christians should turn in their car keys and start hoofing it. This is not a nation of extremists--religious or otherwise. But there are undeniable costs to the consumer choices we make every day, and spiritual leaders should absolutely remind their flock that treating Earth as your own personal garbage dump isn't exactly being a good steward of the land over which God has ostensibly given us dominion. When we make bad choices, we deserve to feel guilty. And God-fearing, church-going suburbanites could stand to hear a few guilt-inducing lectures about precisely how bad their nasty little SUV habit is for all God's creatures. You--yeah, Mrs. Sunday School Teacher ferrying your two kids to choir practice in the Ford Expedition (lest Chevy feel unfairly targeted)--you are gratuitously destroying the miracle of nature for the sake of a little extra space, comfort, and status. (You are also lining the pockets of corrupt, oppressive, petrodollar-dependent regimes throughout the Middle East, but that's a sermon for another day.) With every mile you drive that monstrosity, you are thumbing your nose at God's glorious world. Appalling really.
For the record, our family car is a 1994 Saturn 4-door sedan and I'm getting pretty freaking tired of being unable to see anything around me on the road because I'm surrounded by vehicles the size of an Abrams Tank. The parking lot at the train station is packed with these things, all of which were driven there by one person. Someone tell me what the point is of having a vehicle with 60,000 cubic feet of cargo space and having it sit all day in a train station parking lot. Okay. Rant over.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:50 AM
. . .
Tuesday, November 12, 2002
MVP! MVP! MVP! MVP! Okay, it has nothing to do with Catholicism and I suppose it's not very important in the infinite scheme of things, but I just want to note that Miguel Tejada of the Oakland A's has won this year's A.L. Most Valuable Player Award. It doesn't completely erase the debacle of the playoffs, but every little bit helps.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:53 AM
. . .
COMPARE AND CONTRAST: The Voice of the Faithful web site has a helpful document that compares the norms the Bishops adopted in Dallas to the norms they are voting on this week. The unchanged text is in black, the deleted text has been crossed out in red, and the new text is in purple. Very useful.

And while we're on the subject of the norms, you might want to check out this column from Rod Dreher in the National Review.

posted by Peter Nixon 11:07 AM
. . .
Monday, November 11, 2002
POST ON THE NORMS: The Washington Post, that is, not blog posting. Another interesting "overview" article on the norms.

posted by Peter Nixon 4:41 PM
. . .
UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: The National Catholic Reporter's John Allen has a good piece on some of the outstanding issues left unresolved in the recent revision of the U.S. Bishop's policy on clerical sexual abuse.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:53 PM
. . .
WHICH STRATEGY FOR SOULS? An interesting article in this week's Tablet talks about recent changes in how the Catholic Church in England and Wales is supporting evangelization. Should the historical focus on parish missions be retained? Or should the Church be supporting small church communities within parishes or new ecclesial movements that cross parish boundaries? The article makes for interesting reading.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:50 PM
. . .
ABORTION AND THE LAW: Many pro-life activists are feeling almost giddy about the results of last week’s elections. For the first time since the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade in 1973, the executive and legislative branches of the federal government are controlled by a political party that is—at least rhetorically—committed to the defense of the unborn.

Pro-life activists are about to learn the same lesson that the health care reformers of the Clinton Administration learned almost a decade ago: the Framers designed the federal system to frustrate political change rather than enable it.

For three decades, the pro-life movement has had both a short-term and a long-term political strategy. In the short term, the idea was to fight for whatever restrictions on abortion were possible within the Roe framework. But in the long term, the idea was to use control of the executive branch and the Senate to appoint Supreme Court justices that would overturn or weaken the Roe v. Wade decision.

That strategy came close to paying off in the late 1980s. Republicans had controlled the Presidency for almost 10 years and had appointed a number of conservative justices who were thought to favor overturning Roe: O’Connor, Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, Souter.

But in the 1989 Webster decision and the 1992 Casey decision, the Court declined to overrule Roe, although it did loosen its restrictions somewhat. Webster was a 6-3 decision, with O’Connor, Kennedy and Souter joining the majority.

The outcome of Webster and Casey confirmed what Court watchers have known for some time: it’s hard to predict how Supreme Court justices will vote once they are on the Court. The Court is a strange and insular culture, with extraordinary respect for its own traditions. If you read the Casey decision, it’s clear that the swing voters—O’Connor and Kennedy—were as much concerned with the impact that oveturning Roe would have on the Courtas the impact it would have on the country.

One might argue that, having been burned once, the pro-life movement will not make the same mistake again and will demand that the President Bush appoint unambiguously pro-life justices to the Court. But getting such justices confirmed in a closely divided Senate will not be easy. Only two Republicans need to defect to defeat a nominee and there are at least four Republican senators—Snowe, Collins, Specter, and Chafee—who are pro-choice.

It also depends on which Justices decide to retire. There is widespread speculation that Chief Justice Rhenquist would like to retire, but since he voted against Webster and Casey, this would leave the balance of power on the Court unchanged. From a pro-life scenario, the best option would be for Justices O’Connor and Stevens to retire, and there is a possibility that both will.

But if those retirements occur, the pro-life movement should hope that they happen in 2003, because the last thing the Bush Administration wants is a high-profile confirmation fight over the abortion issue as it is gearing up for re-election in 2004. The high-profile of the abortion issue in 1992 hurt the Republicans in suburban swing districts, districts they largely carried last week at a time when abortion was less politically prominent.

But assume for a moment that these difficulties can be overcome and Roe was overturned. What then? The issue would be returned to the states, which would then have the freedom to legislate. I think it is safe to assume that most of the states of the Pacific Northwest, the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic region would do what California just did this year—enact the core provisions of Roe as legislation. The Midwest and the South would probably be a battleground, but my expectation is that the resulting restrictions on abortion would be quite modest, with serious restrictions limited to abortions performed in the second trimester.

But there would probably be a small number of states that tried to go farther and recriminalize even first trimester abortions (although there would probably be the usual exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother). Would such restrictions be effective?

It is unlikely. Even if the pro-life movement succeeded in passing more restrictive legislation, the margin of legislative victory is likely to be small. There would be a lot of resistance to the new law. Many physicians would continue to offer clandestine abortions in their offices, as was the case in many states before Roe. As was also the case prior to Roe, women would travel to states where abortion remained legal.

A key question would be how aggressively prosecutors would go after physicians performing abortions. It is often forgotten that enforcement of state abortion laws prior to Roe had been seriously eroded by the unwillingness of prosecutors to take the cases to court. Prosecutors hate to lose, and many were having a increasingly hard time finding juries willing to convict.

It should also be noted that over the last 30 years, the technology of abortion has changed, making it easier to conceal. While medicines like RU-486 have received a lot of publicity, there are actually a large number of pharmaceuticals that, taken in the right combination, can induce abortion. Most of the countries in South America—where abortion continues to be illegal—have a higher abortion rate than the United States. A large number of those illegal abortions are induced using a popular anti-ulcer drug in combination with another drug. Such drugs are not used for abortions in the United States because of the risk of side effects. But if abortion is recriminalized, many women without access to surgical abortion will probably be willing to take the risk.

As we approach the thirtieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the window for significant policy change with regard to abortion has probably closed. Even if the Roe v. Wade decision was overturned, it is unlikely that a majority of Americans will be willing to return to the legal restrictions of the pre-Roe era.

One can wonder, if Roe had been decided differently, whether a different path might have been possible in the United States. Rather than short-circuiting the political process, the Court might have allowed that process to find a better balance between the various interests at stake in the abortion debate. We might have decided that a rising abortion rate was something we wanted to seriously combat rather than celebrate as the exercise of a “fundamental right.”

There is a chance, of course, that the latter option has not been entirely foreclosed. Most Americans have made their peace with legal abortion. If they choice they are given is whether or not to employ criminal sanctions to stop it, their answer is likely to be negative. But a substantial majority of Americans still believe—despite 30 years of pro-choice arguments to the contrary—that abortion is the taking of human life. If they will not support recriminalization, there may be other approaches to reducing the number of abortions that they would support. The challenge is to find them.

posted by Peter Nixon 1:42 PM
. . .

. . .