Last year, Georgia Right to Life introduced a Human Life Amendment (HR 536) in the state legislature that would amend the Georgia constitution to define the human person and protect unborn life from the threat of abortion. Hearings were held last week by the Georgia Judiciary Committee in the midst of swirling controversy over the lack of support from the state’s two Catholic bishops, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory (Atlanta) and Bishop J. Kevin Boland (Savannah).
In the weeks leading up to the hearing, Catholic and Evangelical pro-lifers were split on whether HR 536 was the best anti-abortion strategy at this time. The Georgia Catholic Conference and National Right to Life were on one side, Georgia Right to Life and the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on the other.
Brian Rooney, attorney and spokesman for the Thomas More Law Center (which crafted the language of the bill), testified at the hearings; he told me that he was very concerned about the impact of the bishops’ opposition.
“It’s one thing not to support it, and another to oppose it. I think this is going to weaken and divide Georgia’s pro-life community and harm, especially, the relationship between Catholics and Evangelicals.” Sitting next to Rooney in the hearing was the president of the Georgia Baptist Convention, who also testified in favor of the amendment.
Evangelicals who had worked together with Catholics in the pro-life movement for decades could not understand why these two Catholic bishops would not support their effort to overturn Roe v. Wade through a constitutional amendment.
“We thought the time was right to offer this challenge to Roe,” explained Rooney. But the Catholic bishops, and National Right to Life, disagreed. “They want to continue the abortion battle within the framework of Roe; we want to fight it by repealing it.”
Archbishop Gregory explained his position on the amendment:
While we agree with the objective of HR 536 to defend human life at all stages and share the conviction that human life begins at the moment of conception, we have come to the conclusion that the approach taken by HR 536 to amend the state constitution does not provide a realistic opportunity for ending or reducing abortion in Georgia. With admiration and respect for those who have crafted this legislation, we do not support the passage of HR 536.
In addition to this statement, a document written by the Georgia Catholic Conference titled “Reflections on Georgia House Resolution 536” was distributed on February 5 to those participants attending “Catholic Day at the Capitol.” A copy of both statements was mailed to Catholic pro-life leaders on February 11. “Reflections” lists four legal/constitutional concerns and four potentially negative consequences of HR 536.
The Conference argues, for example, that HR 536 will not change the federal constitution on the legality of abortion, and the federal constitution trumps all state constitutions. It points out the odds against the Supreme Court accepting the HR 536 case on appeal. And even if it were accepted, the Conference fears the passage of HR 536 could give the Supreme Court the opportunity to “reaffirm the right to abortion yet one more time.” These reasons are also among those given by National Right to Life for opposing the amendment.
“The problem with the bishops taking this position,” according to Rooney, “is that it’s being used to label pro-lifers as extremists. This was clear at the hearings where the legislators cited the archbishop’s opposition to the amendment and by the dismissive way they treated those of us testifying for the bill.”
The bishops’ argument against the amendment was used by the chairman of the Judiciary committee, Sen. Edward Lindsay (R), to explaining the tabling of HR536 to his supporters. “They tabled it because it was an election year,” said Rooney. “Georgia Right to Life wanted a vote for the same reason — they wanted to find out who truly was pro-life. The votes were there in the House and the Senate, and 60 percent of Georgia voters would have voted for it, but we couldn’t get it out of committee.”
After Archbishop Gregory announced his opposition to the amendment, the archdiocesan pro-life office sent out “guidelines” to all parish pro-life committees reminding their members that lobbying activities on specific legislation had to be preapproved by the archdiocese: “The Pro-Life Office will communicate with lay leaders when a decision has been made to participate in a public policy effort relating to the life issues.”
I asked Dan Becker, president of Georgia Right to Life and an Evangelical, what impact the bishops’ decision had on his organization. “We had Catholics tell us they had to pull out. They didn’t agree with him but they had to do what their bishop told them to do.” One high-level volunteer — Dr. Sarah Fitzgerald, an expert on embryonic stem cells — “respectfully” resigned after the archbishop’s statement.
Not all Catholic pro-lifers followed the archdiocesan directive, however. Nancy Stith, executive director of Georgia Right to Life, told me that several prominent Catholic leaders had resigned from parish pro-life committees over the bishops’ opposition.
Becker said an “open letter” he had written to the Georgia Catholic bishops was taken down from his Web site because Catholics and Evangelicals in the pro-life community were becoming so divided over the issue. “We have acknowledged the division,” he told me, “but we have tried not to encourage it, that’s why we took the letter down.” That seven-page letter, written with the assistance of a Catholic attorney and member of the Georgia Right to Life board, is a detailed explanation of why they disagree with the prudential decision of the bishops and National Right to Life.
Now that the Human Life Amendment has been tabled, the effort of Georgia Right to Life to overturn Roe v. Wade is over, for now. Similar initiatives are being undertaken elsewhere (Colorado, for instance), and eventually litigation will make its way to the Supreme Court, forcing a reconsideration of Roe before a bench containing new conservative justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.
Several Catholic members of the Georgia legislature approached Rooney, asking why the bishops opposed the bill. “They were confused, but I didn’t try to explain the bishops’ position. Instead, I showed them a quote from the 2007 statement of the USCCB on ‘Faithful Citizenship’: ‘The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.'”
Obviously, the opinion of Georgia Right to Life and the Thomas More Law Center differs significantly from the Catholic bishops, Gregory and Boland, on the best tactics for implementing the overall strategy of always opposing abortion. Both sides hope Catholics and Evangelicals, longtime allies in the pro-life movement, will remain united in seeking the end of abortion-on-demand.