Pro-Abortion Catholics in Congress: Look Who’s Helping to Promote Abortion on Demand

One reason abortion on demand continues to be routine practice in the United States, exacting a toll of more than a million lives a year, is that self-proclaimed Catholics in the U.S. Congress continue to promote abortion. They restrict efforts to prohibit abortions, they oppose parental notification laws for teenagers seeking to have abortions, they bottle up pro-life initiatives in committee, they vote for taxpayer funding of abortion, and they even seek to export abortion abroad.

In other words, Catholics have themselves to blame, in large part, for the current tragedy of abortion. To paraphrase from Pogo, we have met the enemy and he is us.

Catholic politicians give various reasons why they vote for abortion. Commonly they say they are “personally opposed” to abortion but think it should be legal. The oddity of this view is that it does not grapple with its own implications. Why is one personally opposed to abortion? Is it not because it is unjustified killing? If so, how can one permit legalized homicide?

If logical reasons are unconvincing, perhaps historical reasons can be given for Catholic votes for abortion. Perhaps congressmen and senators are visceral Democrats who go with their party on issues rather than break ranks. It is certainly true that the vast majority of pro-abortion Catholics, in both the House and Senate, are Democrats. Nevertheless a sizeable segment of Catholic Democrats in the House vote pro-life, and many of the pro-abortion Catholic Democrats have found the strength to oppose their party on other issues, from the tax cuts of 1981 to free trade to arms control.

Justifications aside, it remains a fact—and a very uncomfortable one—that a number of Catholics in Congress have backed the legalization, legitimation, and subsidy of abortion on demand.

In many cases these politicians continue to describe themselves as Catholics, to identify with Catholic or ethnic persona for the purpose of winning votes; to belong to Catholic organizations and fraternities; to seek and win awards, honorary degrees, and honoraria from Catholic educational institutions; to court and receive the blessings of the hierarchy. It is clear that there is something glaringly contradictory and hypocritical about this. It is also clear what the Church, or the Catholic community, can do about it.

Before considering solutions, however, we should be clear about the problem. According to the Congressional Yellow Book, of the 432 voting members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 121 are Catholic. That’s a large number, 28 percent, the most numerous of any religious block. Nearly a third of all women in the house, 7 out of 23, are Catholics. Four out of 23 blacks are Catholic. Reflecting their traditional roots, 81 of the Catholics in the House are Democrats, compared to only 40 Republicans.

Catholics are much less represented in the Senate, where they comprise only 19 of the 100 members. Thirteen of the Catholic Senators are Democrats, only six are Republicans. Thus whether in the House or the Senate, Catholics in Congress are twice as likely to be Democratic as Republican.

In calculating the positions of congressmen on abortion, this study examines recorded votes on both procedural and substantive issues. As the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) rightly notes, “A congressman’s true position on abortion is most clearly demonstrated by his votes on crucial ‘procedural’ motions” because such votes often determine the outcome on substantive issues.

The following issues were used to assemble voting profiles for Catholics in the House:

—Funding abortions for federal employees.

—Restricting the Medicaid funding for abortion.

—Neutralizing the proposed Equal Rights Amendment with respect to abortion.

—Creating reporting procedures for denying care to handicapped infants (the Baby Doe Amendment).

—Voting to condemn China’s coercive abortion policy and eliminating funds for United Nations Fund for Population Activities.

—Denying funds to overseas organizations which perform or encourage abortion as a method of family planning (the so-called Mexico City policy).

—Prohibiting the Legal Services Corporation from using funds to engage in abortion litigation.

—Prohibiting the Bureau of Prisons from funding abortion of inmates.

—Prohibiting the District of Columbia government from paying for abortions.

A similar set of votes is used to compute Senate records. Because of the wide variety of issues raised in the context of abortion, it might be expected that Catholic congressmen and senators vote inconsistently. Actually, this is not the case. More than 85 percent of Catholics in Congress vote straight pro-life or pro-abortion. (Even on so-called “procedural” matters the lines appear clearly drawn, and the stakes clearly recognized.)

With recently elected officials only one vote was used to compute their pro-life or pro-abortion stance: whether they supported, or opposed, the use of government money to pay for abortions in the nation’s capital.

Even with congressmen with mixed records, a strong tilt either in the pro-life or pro-abortion camp is easily evident. These representatives and senators have been classified as “predominantly pro-life” or “predominantly pro-abortion.”

Perhaps the most striking fact to observe from the data is that 41 percent of Catholics in Congress vote pro-abortion. There is a pro-life majority overall in the House; there 75 Catholics vote pro-life and 46 Catholics vote pro-abortion. In the Senate, which is more pro-abortion overall, only four Catholics vote pro-life and 10 Catholics vote pro-abortion.

A second notable observation from the data is that party affiliation turns out to be the most reliable index of voting behavior on the abortion issue. Of 40 Catholic Republicans, 35 have perfect or near-perfect pro-life records, one is predominantly pro-life, and four are pro-abortion. Among 81 Catholic Democrats in the House, only 31 are solidly pro-life, eight are predominantly pro-life, nine are predominantly pro-abortion, and 33 are solidly pro-abortion.

Put differently, 88 percent of Catholic Republicans in the House are staunchly pro-life, whereas only 33 percent of their Democratic counterparts are the same. By factoring in those representatives who are “predominantly” pro-life or pro-abortion, the figures show that 52 percent of Catholic Democrats are pro-abortion, compared with only one in 10 Republican Roman Catholics.

The partisan contrast is even greater in the Senate. Of the 19 Catholic senators, all six Republicans vote consistently pro-life. On the Democratic side, 10 of 13 senators vote consistently pro-abortion.

What this adds up to are 56 Catholic legislators (46 House, 10 Senate; 52 Democrats, 4 Republicans) who always or nearly always vote in favor of expanding abortion rights. Many of them do so while continuing to parade their Catholic identification. A large number of them hail from Catholic districts and are elected with predominantly Catholic votes.

That this is anomalous becomes evident when one considers that there are very few issues in public life where the Catholic position is unequivocal. Whatever Church teaching on the just war, the public official who votes to increase defense spending and his opponent who votes to reduce it can both make a case that their views are congruent with Catholic principles. The same is true with social programs to help the poor, with national health insurance, with the death penalty, with strategic defense.

But there is not a multiplicity of Catholic positions on abortion. On no other public policy issue does the Church speak with greater clarity. Perhaps no other issue is more identified with a “Catholic position.” No wonder that national organizations which militate for abortion declare themselves in fierce opposition to the Catholic Church.

Catholics in Congress who care about being Catholic should carefully reconsider their pro-abortion position. The Church hierarchy should take a pro-abortion position into account when dealing with a congressman or senator, even if he or she is Catholic—perhaps especially if he or she is Catholic. The same is true of Catholic schools and organizations. Already the Knights of Columbus has a policy of prohibiting public officials who vote for abortion from speaking at their national gatherings.

Nevertheless, it must be said that Catholics in Congress who vote pro-abortion do so with relative impunity, at least insofar as their church or the Catholic community is concerned. The notoriously pro-abortion senators Kennedy and Dodd, for instance, continue to belong to the Knights of Columbus. Other Catholics who vote against the pro-life position are invited to speak at their Catholic alma maters. Some are given positions of honor in their local parish. Certainly there is no concerted effort on the part of Catholics or their church to put sharp distance between them and these pro-abortion congressmen.

Perhaps this will change when more people recognize that the country is on the verge of a reconsideration of this vital issue, and Catholics in Congress could make the difference. (On the level of the Supreme Court, the most vociferous pro-abortion vote, Brennan, is a Catholic. Perhaps the most predictable negative vote, Scalia, is also Catholic. So is the most likely swing vote, Anthony Kennedy.)

If Catholic Congressmen vote consistently pro-life, that would create a huge pro-life majority in the House. This would help eliminate congressional inaction on crucial abortion votes. It would give new life to proposed Constitutional amendments to overturn the Supreme Court’s legalization of abortion—amendments which have died without action in the Democratically controlled Judiciary Committee. A “discharge petition” could get the bill out of committee, even over the objections of a notorious pro-abortion committee chairman, through the signature of 218 members. Thereafter the amendment would require a two-thirds majority—about 290 votes—which becomes nearly feasible with Catholic support.

In the Senate, Catholics have been swing votes on several pro-life defeats, aside from their unsuccessful attempts to prevent other pro-life victories. For three straight years Catholics provided swing votes to kill bills prohibiting the District of Columbia government from paying for abortions. (Over these Catholics’ votes last October, the District was prohibited from paying for abortions in the next fiscal year.) Catholic Senators could help to prevent this permanently. Catholic Senators could also have made the difference in confirming Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. They did not, and a spokesman for the National Abortion Rights Action League declared, “The defeat of Bork was the single most important victory for pro-choice forces during the 1980s.”

  • David A. Shaneyfelt

    David A. Shaneyfelt is a shareholder at Anderson Kill, California, LLP, where he represents numerous private and public entities in coverage disputes against insurance carriers and joint powers agencies. Mr. Shaneyfelt is also a member of Anderson Kill's Financial Services Industry Group. A former trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., Mr. Shaneyfelt has extensive background in complex civil litigation, trials, and appeals in numerous state and Federal courts.

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