The pro-life duel started quickly, with U.S. Catholic bishops and President Barack Obama crossing swords on abortion and stem-cell research issues.
On Monday, the eve of Obama’s inauguration, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops unveiled a letter urging him to retain federal policies that protect healthcare workers’ conscience rights, ban funding of stem-cell research that destroys human embryos, and block foreign aid to overseas organizations promoting abortion.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, head of the bishops conference, said a new president can be expected "to take executive action soon to reverse current policies." Doing so on life issues could be "a terrible mistake — morally, politically, and in terms of advancing the solidarity and well-being of our nation's people," George said, quoting the letter, which went out over his name.
On Tuesday, as the final words of Obama’s oath of office echoed from the Capitol steps and across the Mall, the White House Web site unveiled lists of the new president’s priorities, including his opposition to efforts to reverse the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that allowed abortion.
The bishops have sought long and hard to rescind that decision, the Jan. 22 anniversary of which prompts annual demonstrations in the nation’s capital and across the country.
Also on the abortion front, the bishops’ letter urges Obama to retain the policy the Bush administration passed last month protecting doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers from being forced to help provide services they object to on religious or moral grounds. The policy, which opponents contend expands the rights of anti-abortion activists, allows the government to yank federal funding from any of almost 600,000 hospitals, clinics, doctor offices, and health plans that refuse to accommodate health workers who don’t want to be involved with abortions or other procedures that violate their principles.
The bishops’ Jan. 16 letter describes the policy as a "common-sense regulation, which explicitly protects the right of health professionals who favor or oppose abortion to serve the basic health needs of their communities."
The letter also encourages Obama not to upend the federal policy on stem-cell research, which the bishops note aims "to ensure that Americans are not forced to use their tax dollars to encourage expanded destruction of embryonic human beings for their stem cells."
Such research is available with other cell options or in programs that don’t use federal money, Cardinal George said. In addition, the announcement last fall of the ability to reprogram adult cells so embryonic cells aren’t needed was hailed as the “scientific breakthrough of the year.”
Contrarily, the White House Web site notes that Obama, as a U.S. senator, co-sponsored the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, which called for permitting “research of human embryonic stem cells derived from embryos donated (with consent) from in vitro fertilization clinics. These embryos must be deemed in excess and created based solely for the purpose of fertility treatment.”
The measure, which the Catholic Church deemed unacceptable because it believes that even embryos labeled “excess” should not be used, passed both houses of Congress. But President Bush vetoed it, as he had a similar proposal in 2005.
The third issue the bishops’ letter addressed is the so-called Mexico City Policy. That 1984 U.S. regulation bans federal family-planning funds to private organizations overseas that perform and promote abortions.
The policy has endured a back-and-forth existence. President Ronald Reagan initiated it, and President George H.W. Bush retained it. Although Bill Clinton nixed it upon becoming president, President George W. Bush reinstated it in 2001.
The policy stands at the mercy of Obama, who signaled before the inauguration that he planned to take the same tack Clinton did and negate it.
That intention prompted the bishops to warn: "A shift toward promoting abortion in developing nations would also increase distrust of the United States in these nations, whose values and culture often reject abortion, at a time when we need their trust and respect.”
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