RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Pro-life Catholics have mostly voted Republican with the hope that that would lead to a ban on abortion. That's been the case for years, until this year. As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, some staunchly conservative Catholics are rethinking their political strategy and supporting Democrat Barack Obama.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: In September, Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden went on "Meet The Press" and wandered into the religious minefield that has harmed so many Catholic politicians. Citing Thomas Aquinas, he said it's not clear when life begins.

(Soundbite of TV show "Meet the Press")

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware; Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate): There was a debate in our church, as Cardinal Egan would acknowledge. It existed back in...

BRADLEY HAGERTY: One of those watching was Carl Anderson, the supreme knight of the Knights of Columbus. Days later, Anderson bought full-page ads in several newspapers criticizing Biden's stand on abortion. Anderson says he wanted to correct what he saw as bad theology.

Mr. CARL ANDERSON (Supreme Knight, Knights of Columbus): We felt, look, this is taking the discussion to a different level, and it is a level which can confuse members of the Catholic community about the church's teaching.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Anderson signed the letter on behalf of the 1.3 million Knights of Columbus.

Mr. RICK GEBHARD (Third-Degree Knight of Columbus): Well, he doesn't speak for me.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Rick Gebhard is a third-degree knight in Manistee, Michigan, and an Obama supporter. He says he knows a lot of other pro-life Catholics who are.

Mr. GEBHARD: I think a lot of people have been frustrated with supporting the pro-life movement for 30-some years and not seeing it accomplish anything.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Gebhard set up a Web site called Knights for Obama. A few days later, an officer in its local council called to say his membership in the Knights could be terminated. That hasn't happened yet, but the clash indicates how razor-sharp the divide has become within the conservative Catholic community.

(Soundbite of Catholics praying)

Unidentified Congregants: Hail Mary, full of Grace. The Lord is with thee

BRADLEY HAGERTY: At the gates of Seton Hill University near Pittsburgh, about a dozen Catholics are protesting the appearance of Pepperdine University Law Professor Douglas Kmiec. He's a pro-life Republican who worked in the Reagan and Bush One administrations, but is endorsing Obama. For that, he's paid dearly. He's been denied communion, publicly criticized by a U.S. bishop, and told by many fellow Catholics that he's going to hell.

Professor DOUGLAS KMIEC (Law, Pepperdine University): We are not baby killers. We are just simply finding an alternative way to build up life.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Kmiec told the students that Obama's policies would reduce the number of abortions, more than John McCain's. He says the pro-life position goes beyond abortion. It's health care, living wages, caring for the poor. Kmiec insists he's following the moral teachings of the church. In an interview, he noted that in their document called "Faithful Citizenship," the U.S. Catholic bishops tell Catholics to judge candidates by their stand on a variety of moral issues.

Professor KMIEC: If they just wanted to say, find the candidate who labels himself pro-life and vote for that candidate, they wouldn't have given us a 36-page document. They would have sent us a postcard, or printed a line in the bottom of the parish newsletter.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: But other pro-life Catholics aren't buying Kmiec's argument. Robert George, a Princeton law professor, says one million abortions occur every year. How can any other issue compare with that?

Professor ROBERT GEORGE (Law, Princeton University): Given the scope and magnitude of the injustice as it stands today, it's got to be the central issue in the consideration of any voter who really believes in the equality of all members of the human family.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: And this debate goes beyond theology to political strategy. Canon lawyer Nicholas Cafardi is a Democrat, but for three decades he has voted for the Republican candidate who would appoint the, quote, "elusive fifth justice" to overturn Roe v. Wade.

Professor NICHOLAS CAFARDI (Civil and Canon Lawyer): But it finally dawned on me that these promises were being made, sure, but there was no follow-through. And we Catholics were being asked to ignore all the other important social justice issues in exchange for voting for what was basically an empty bucket.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Even if Roe is overturned, Cafardi says, the debate does not go away. Abortion would still be allowed in 30 states. It's time, he says, to stop focusing on the U.S. Supreme Court and look for other solutions. That's nonsense, says George Weigel, a Catholic scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He says the Supreme Court has chipped away at abortion, upholding parental consent laws, for example, and banning late-term abortions.

Mr. GEORGE WEIGEL (Senior Fellow, Ethics and Public Policy Center): Moreover, what does it mean to say that a fundamental injustice has been written into our law and that we must be prepared to live with that? I'm not prepared to live with that.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: What this debate shows is these divisions within the pro-life movement are likely to grow whether or not Barack Obama wins. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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