Lynn Paltrow Photo credit: Christy Balich

(WOMENSENEWS)–As the campaign season heats up it’s a good time to take political stock of the Catholic bishops’ June proclamation permitting bishops to refuse to give communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians.

This is the latest strategy in the church’s on-going campaign to incorporate its beliefs into all aspects of U.S. law and policy. As the church becomes more successful, its beliefs are increasingly being used to deny women the very “human life and dignity” the bishops claimed,in their statement, they have a “duty to teach.”

In addition, I suspect that this announcement was in part a deliberate attempt to turn the media’s attention away from the church’s ongoing childhood sexual abuse scandal and from stories about the latest parish closures. The Catholic bishop’s statement provides a convenient distraction from the church’s persistent and seemingly systemic inability to protect actual children.

The statement that condemns Catholic pro-choice candidates–a category that includes John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate–also distracts attention from the extent to which church doctrine on fetal life has resulted in policies and practices that in fact undermine the health and well-being of women and children.

Politicians Denounced

In June, the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops approved a statement on “Catholics in Political Life,” issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, that labels politicians who support the right to choose abortion as “cooperating in evil” and permits bishops to deny communion to such lawmakers.

The statement, after receiving significant and ongoing press attention, has helped shift the public debate away from the persistent allegations of child abuse by Catholic clergy and of ongoing church efforts to protect offending clergy from accountability.

Instead, the media has been focusing on the abortion issue and the church’s views on how Catholic politicians should vote on matters affecting fetal life, which the Bishops describe in their statement as “innocent and defenseless life.”

The bishops’ assault on pro-choice politicians–who say that abortion is a private and personal matter and not a matter for the state–fails to address the devastating consequences of government policies that adopt the church’s religious position that life begins at conception. The case of Angela Carder is one example.

Court Echoes Church Argument

In 1989 Carder, a Maryland resident, was 25 weeks pregnant, critically ill and in George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. She and her family and her doctors all agreed to keep her alive for as long as possible. Echoing the Catholic argument that a fetus has a right to life, the Superior Court of the District of Columbia ordered that Carder undergo a Caesarean section to save the fetus. Over the objections of the pregnant woman, her family and her attending physicians, the surgery was performed. The fetus was born alive but survived for only two hours. Carder died two days later with the C-section listed as a contributing factor.

After Angela Carder’s death, her Catholic family appealed the court’s decision because they did not want any other family to suffer the same kind of brutal intrusion. (Courts often decline to hear moot cases, such as when it is too late to intervene, but this case was considered an exception because the order could influence treatment of other pregnant women at the same at hospital.)

The Carder family had extraordinary support for reversing the decision. The American Medical Association, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Public Health Association, American Society of Law and Medicine and the United Church of Christ Office for Church in Society were among 118 groups and individuals who joined friend-of-the court briefs urging that the lower court decision be overturned.

Only two groups defended the court ordered surgery that resulted in Angela Carder’s death.: the Chicago-based Americans United for Life, and the D.C.-based United States Catholic Conference–now known as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the group that issued the statement on communion.

In 1990 the District of Columbia Court of Appeals vacated the trial court’s order, holding that the forced surgery violated Angela Carder’s right to informed consent and bodily integrity, clarifying that these rights apply to pregnant women, even once their fetuses become viable. That decision set a standard endorsed by major medical groups and followed by other courts.

Even though Carder’s family won the appeal, fetal-rights arguments continue to be used to punish pregnant women and threaten the sanctity of “marriage and family” that the church also claims to support.

Fetal Rights Argument Persists

On Jan. 14, a Pennsylvania hospital obtained a court order to force a pregnant woman to undergo a C-section her physician believed was necessary to protect the fetus’s life.

The woman and her husband believed the procedure was unnecessary. The couple–who happened to oppose abortion rights–believed in their own right to make medical decisions. The family fled the hospital and the woman gave birth vaginally to a healthy baby. Even though this was not an abortion scenario, the rationale for the court-ordered surgery was the same as that underlying the U.S. bishops’ position on communion: that fetuses have a right to life.

Adoption of this view under South Carolina law has lead to similarly disastrous consequences. In February 1992 Cornelia Whitner gave birth in Pickens County, S.C., to a healthy baby who tested positive for cocaine. She was arrested and charged with criminal child-endangering, based on the theory that viable fetuses are persons and that her inability to overcome an addiction during pregnancy somehow constituted intentional abuse of a child. Whitner begged the trial-court court for help in getting treatment. The judge responded, “I think I’ll just let her go to jail,” sentencing her to eight years in prison.

In 1997 Jean Toal, the Roman Catholic chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, wrote the majority opinion upholding the decision to send Whitner to jail. Chief Justice Toal, whose re-appointment to the court had been endorsed by South Carolina Citizens for Life, an anti-abortion organization based in Columbia. In her opinion, she declared that viable fetuses are full persons under South Carolina law.

The result has been the arrest and prosecution of scores of pregnant women who need access to health care not jail. Far from advancing life, this decision and the message it sends to pregnant women–seek help and you will go to jail–has coincided with a statewide increase in infant mortality.

Across the country, health and welfare indicators for children are looking grim. Families USA, a national nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., reports that 27 million children–or 37 percent of all U.S. children–went without health insurance for part or all of 2002-03. Nearly 1-in-5 U.S. children live in poverty.

Remarkably, however, the Catholic bishops did not, in keeping with their self-proclaimed “duty to teach about human life and dignity,” propose denying communion to political leaders who repeatedly cast votes that result in decreased funding for health care, education and social services for children.

Many people share the church’s commitment to human life, including the value of fetal life. Nevertheless, adopting a statement that diverts attention from the church’s own failures to protect children and from policies that dehumanize pregnant women and that fail millions of children is simply the wrong use of the church’s significant moral and political authority.

Bio: Lynn M. Paltrow is executive director of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women in New York.

For more information:

National Advocates for Pregnant Women

Catholics for a Free Choice

Families USA

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin from Illinois prepared an analysis of votes and actions of Catholic senators based on the official positions taken on legislation by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Open letter to media from leading American and Canadian medical researchers challenging misinformation and stigma surrounding children exposed to cocaine while in utero.