Catholic Leader Joins Unity Debate On Abortion

Richard Doerflinger, associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, weighs in on the ongoing debate about abortion. The discussion is another installment of the conversation started last week with the Rev. Jim Wallis, an evangelical who told Tell Me More he believes America can reach a common ground in the fight over abortion.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up, the Barbershop guys talk politics, movies and sports. But first, our weekly Faith Matters conversation, where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality. Last week, we spoke with Evangelical leader the Reverend Jim Wallis about President Barack Obama's call for opposing sides to try to find common ground on the most divisive social issues, particularly abortion. The Reverend Wallis says he believes that is possible. Today, we want to ask the same question to Richard Doerflinger. Mr. Doerflinger is the deputy director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In that role, he is one of the country's most prominent pro-life voices. He's here with me in the studio now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. RICHARD M. DOERFLINGER: (Deputy Director, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops): Thank you.

MARTIN: First, I wanted to ask you just your take on this whole question of seeking middle ground on an issue like abortion, on a values question. There are those who say that is a worthy goal, but there are those who would say it is not, that only total victory on a matter of fundamental belief is the worthy objective. What is your take on that question?

Mr. DOERFLINGER: Well, I think objectives are one thing and intermediate steps are another. I don't think the Catholic Church or the pro-life movement is ever going to change their basic belief that everyone, from conception to natural death, has an equal right to life and should be respected by society, by their parents and by the law. Now, given that, there are lot and lots of things that I think we can agree on among people who disagree with that message about helping women to feel that abortion is not the only choice they have, to providing them life-affirming alternatives, to reducing the numbers of abortions. And in doing that, there are some, you know, more divisive and less divisive ways of doing that as well. And there are more effective and less effective ways, and we need to have that discussion.

MARTIN: Can I just push you on one more question on this question of accommodation? If you buy the argument that abortion is like slavery in the sense that it is the ultimate oppression of human dignity, one would not say we need to reach accommodation on slavery; we need to find a way that we can all sort of live together. Do you buy that analogy?

Mr. DOERFLINGER: Well, I do accept the analogy with slavery, frankly, because there's another area in which an entire class of human beings of Americans are being denied any real rights under the law. But if you...

MARTIN: Then how can compromise be possible?

Mr. DOERFLINGER: Well, I guess the person who's most admired in terms of ending slavery is Abraham Lincoln, and he compromised all the time. He compromised in terms of trying to decide whether you could still have, temporarily, slave states and free states, whether there was some way to work things out with the South and so on. And you know, when the Supreme Court said no to accommodation, we're going to have the Dred Scott decision - we're going to force the anti-slave states to act as though they're pro-slaves states in terms of returning fugitive slaves - then that broke the compromise, and he went strongly against this takeover of the issue for one extreme side. There're very similar - you know, similar situation now in terms of the debate on conscience rights and health care, where pro-abortion groups, to my mind, trying to say to doctors and nurses who oppose abortion, you must act as though you agree with us; you must perform and provide abortions against your moral and religious beliefs. And that's one of those steps that, you know, destroys compromise and accommodation.

MARTIN: Do you see any steps in your view that you can accept that move toward compromise, tolerable compromise?

Mr. DOERFLINGER: Well, I think one thing that is proved extremely effective at reducing abortions - and abortions have been going down; the abortion rate's been going down since about 1981, fairly steadily, through Democratic and Republican administrations - one of the things that's been proven most effective at reducing abortions is making sure the government doesn't promote and fund abortion itself. 1980 is the year when the Supreme Court upheld the Hyde Amendment, saying we won't force taxpayers to fund abortions. And the studies that have been done on the effect of that by my opponents, by Guttmacher Institute, that's affiliated with Planned Parenthood, say that today, the abortion rate among Medicaid-eligible women in a state that has public funding of abortion is two and half times the rate in the state that doesn't provide public funding.

Now, we need to reach the other side as well, not just say, we're not going to support subsidized abortion, but we are going to support and subsidize things that give you alternatives. And one answer to that is a piece of legislation that we've been supporting, along with the number of Democratic senators and congressmen, the Pregnant Women Support Act, which helps to expand support for aid to pregnant women and their new born children that increases the tax credit for adoption assistance, that gives money to colleges, so that students who find themselves pregnant do not have abortion as their only recourse, that gets information out to women about what the available alternatives are and so on. We think that's an area for common ground, the people who are pro-life and pro-choice to say, let's say, at the very least, abortion should not be something that women are pushed to because they have no other choice.

MARTIN: What signals do you draw from President Obama's moves on this issue so far? Last week, for example, he lifted the ban on U.S. government funding for foreign health organizations that offer or even counsel about abortion; that's the so-called Mexico City Policy. And of course, as you well know, this policy has been implemented or revoked based on whichever party was in power at the time. Now, some say they feel it - in fact, Reverend Wallis feels that the way the president did this showed sensitivity to the pro-life side in that he did not do this on the very day the Supreme Court - the anniversary of the day that the Supreme Court approved Roe v. Wade, that there was a large pro-life march, that he did this quietly on a Friday as a way to sort of show a gesture of sensitivity. What is your take on that?

Mr. DOERFLINGER: Well, you know, it was one day, and the effect is the same in terms of the policy, and I'm more concern about the substantive policy and about how it's been misunderstood, because the Mexico City Policy did not cut support for family planning by one dime. What it said was, let's put these programs, let's put these funds, into the hands of organizations that are with the program, that are - that have the same goal in promoting family planning that we do, which is to reduce abortions. If you're trying to reduce abortions through family planning, you will not be giving the money to groups that are dedicated to promoting and performing abortions. And so, it was just a matter of who gets the money.

MARTIN: Well, but if I just - but I have to say that these groups disagree that they are dedicated to promoting and performing abortions. They would not agree with your characterization. They would agree that they are dedicated to women's health, and this is one aspect of it and not their sole function. And that would be their argument, as you know.

Mr. DOERFLINGER: Maybe not the sole function, but in fact, when the policy went into place, many of the Planned Parenthood affiliates in developing nations accepted the conditions and said, we will not promote abortion, but we will promote family planning. We'll take the U.S. money. International Planned Parenthood and Planned Parenthood Federation of America was so upset with them that they said, we will no longer raise money for you in the United States, because you have violated our fundamental belief that family planning is indivisible and abortion must be part of it. So, I think they have long held that abortion is just another method of family planning, and that's what, I think, we're agreeing now is not the case, that it's different, that it's something we should have less of, so let's talk about what does that.

MARTIN: OK. So, what would do less of that, and is there any area on which you agree with President Obama? Is there anything that causes you and those for whom you speak to believe that there is a way that we can move off these walls, where we just seem to shift, really, from one side of the barrier to the other and that there really doesn't seem to be any change in our fundamental views on this issue?

Mr. DOERFLINGER: Well, I think the whole area of support for pregnant women is a very important one. In the studies that have been done by Planned Parenthood researchers, for 23 percent of women, simply expense is a significant factor on whether they have an abortion - I'm sorry, 73 percent say it's a significant factor; 23 percent say it's the main factor. So, let's address that through support for those women and their children. Let's have programs that lift up the poor and especially poor women who are left to their own devices, so that they do not feel pushed into this. I think that's an area for huge agreement. Now, where you get into disagreement is on saying that by giving a lot more money to Planned Parenthood to promote contraceptive programs and so on, we are going to reduce abortions. There is a great deal of scientific evidence to say that just doesn't work, that those programs do not reduce abortions.

MARTIN: Forgive me, I don't mean to parse your words, but I keep talking about President Obama and you keep returning to specific pieces of legislations, and I don't mean to parse your words, but I'm wondering if that's intentional. Is it your intention to try to decouple the issue from him, because he's a dominant willful figure?

Mr. DOERFLINGER: Only because he hasn't been very specific as to what he is going to do. I mean, there was, you know, story in the Washington Post today about this and how President Obama has said, we want to reduce abortions. And in terms of details, it didn't go very much beyond that. For example, I assume, and he has said this before, that reducing unintended pregnancies is a part of that, and by that I - you know, I don't want to assume, but I think he means contraceptive programs, and I would say, in tune with what he said in his inaugural address, about restoring science to its rightful role in making federal policy, excuse me, but look at the science, they don't work. They might reduce live births, but that's not our goal. Our goal is reducing abortion.

MARTIN: But the fundamental question is always in a society which there is religious diversity in which, you know, Catholics are certainly free to submit to the authority of the religious tenets of their faith, but others who do not share that faith don't wish to be bound by that, there always is this question of how these competing values are to be moderated. And I...

Mr. DOERFLINGER: Of course. Yeah, I haven't said anything about faith commitment.

MARTIN: Sure.

Mr. DOERFLINGER: I'm just saying, you know, just one example...

MARTIN: But could we - I'm sorry, we only have a couple of minutes. I'm sorry.

Mr. DOERFLINGER: OK.

MARTIN: I just wanted to return again to this question of, obviously, I think you would agree that the pro-life movement had a friend in the White House over the last eight years in President George W. Bush. I assume you agree with that. Do you now feel, though, that this is a time in which - how do you see these next four years, or eight if it be that, as a time of when you must defend the position, or is it a time when you can at least achieve some advances on this goal of - the ultimate goal, in your view, which is respect for life and creating a culture of respect for life? What's your take?

Mr. DOERFLINGER: Well, yeah. The Bishops Conference doesn't take position on candidates. We take position on what our goals are, and we'll work with any administration that wants to talk about sharing those goals, and we will criticize any administration if we think they're doing things that are inimical to those goals. There are very practical things that can be done to reduce abortions without changing the legal status of abortion. One thing that'll be a good sign of good faith is that there are not dedicated efforts in the next few weeks as they deal with the appropriations bills and so on. They are not dedicated efforts to end the current restrictions on public funding of abortion because we know that just makes abortions skyrocket if you start funding it.

We think that the children's health-insurance program that was just reauthorized is, in general, a very good program. We hope that President Obama will retain the regulation that's in law now to allow expanded prenatal care called the unborn child rule, because that reaches some of the neediest women, especially immigrant women that, don't have coverage in any other way. As a practical step, we need that coverage that's used now in 14 states. We hope he will not allow ideological people to tell him to rescind it on ideological grounds. But you know, we're ready to explore all of those things, and to do so on the basis of the facts ,not just not on the basis of what our faith says.

MARTIN: Richard Doerflinger is the associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He was kind enough to join us in our studios here in Washington, D.C. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. DOERFLINGER: Thank you.

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