Thirteen Catholic lawmakers in the U.S. Senate voted Monday in favor of a failed attempt to pass a sweeping new abortion law that threatened to override states’ pro-life laws and remove restrictions on abortion up to the point of birth, in some cases.
Their support of the defeated bill, called the Women’s Health Protection Act, placed them sharply at odds with the clear teaching of their Catholic faith, which strictly prohibits abortion and condemns efforts to promote it. Church leaders and Catholic pro-life advocates were quick to criticize the senators’ votes after the measure was defeated on Feb. 28.
“Catholics are tired of seeing their faith used as a political football on the campaign trail, then thrown aside by Catholic political figures when they need to vote along the party line against the Church’s most fundamental moral teachings,” Joshua Mercer, the communications director for CatholicVote, said Monday.
“One of the standout examples tonight was Sen. Bob Casey, a self-proclaimed Catholic who has again and again presented himself to Catholic voters as pro-life.”
Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, took to Twitter to denounce that state’s two Democrat senators — Jack Reed, a Catholic, and Sheldon Whitehouse — for supporting what Tobin called a “very extreme pro-abortion bill.”
“Shameful. The judgement will be God’s,” he tweeted, citing Pope Francis statement that abortion is murder.
Fortunately, the very extreme pro-abortion bill did not pass in the U.S. Senate. Unfortunately, both R.I.’s Senators, Reed and Whitehouse voted for its approval. Shameful. The judgement will be God’s. “Abortion is murder.” (Pope Francis)
— Bishop Thomas Tobin (@ThomasJTobin1) February 28, 2022
The following Catholic senators voted in favor of the bill: Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Bob Casey, D-Penn; Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Mark Kelly, D-Ariz.; Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.; Ed Markey, D-Mass.; Bob Menendez, D-N.J.; Patty Murray, D-Wash.; Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Jack Reed, D-R.I.
While Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., was absent, he co-sponsored the bill.
Another Catholic, President Joe Biden, strongly supported the measure and would have signed it into law.
“At a time when women’s access to reproductive health care is under increased assault in states across the country, it is extremely disappointing that Senate Republicans blocked passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would strengthen health care access and codify constitutional rights affirmed half a century ago by Roe v. Wade and in subsequent Supreme Court precedent,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a March 1 statement. “This is a moment for us to recommit to strengthening access to women’s health care, defend the constitutional right affirmed by Roe, and protect the freedom of all people to build their own future.”
A hedge against Roe’s demise
Pro-choice Democrats sought to pass the bill to enshrine and even broaden the legalized abortion framework created 49 years ago by the landmark Roe v. Wade decision.
The urgency to pass the bill stemmed from fears that the U.S. Supreme Court may strike down Roe later this year in the Mississippi abortion case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
In the end, though, the bill failed to garner the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster. The final vote — 46 for and 48 against the WHPA — fell mostly along party lines, with just one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voting against it.
In a Feb. 28 press release, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty, criticized the WHPA, also known as H.R. 3755.
“The failure to advance this extreme measure today is a tremendous relief,” the prelates stated. “Passing H.R. 3755 would have led to the loss of millions of unborn lives and left countless women to suffer from the physical and emotional trauma of abortion.”
“Rather than providing comprehensive material and social support for a challenging pregnancy, H.R. 3755 fails women and young girls in need by instead offering a free abortion as the ‘solution’ to their difficulty,” they added. “Women deserve better than this. We implore Congress to promote policies that recognize the value and human dignity of both mother and child.”
Clear Church teaching
The Catholic Church condemns abortion in the strongest possible terms.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which summarizes Church teaching, recognizes the inherent dignity and worth of the unborn human person and considers abortion a “crime against human life.”
“Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception,” the catechism reads. “From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.”
In his Evangelium Vitae encyclical, Pope St. John Paul II addressed abortion in light of politics.
“I repeat once more that a law which violates an innocent person’s natural right to life is unjust and, as such, is not valid as a law,” he wrote. “For this reason I urgently appeal once more to all political leaders not to pass laws which, by disregarding the dignity of the person, undermine the very fabric of society.”
The “Church encourages political leaders, starting with those who are Christians, not to give in, but to make those choices which, taking into account what is realistically attainable, will lead to the re- establishment of a just order in the defence and promotion of the value of life,” he added.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith later explained the late pontiff’s teaching in a doctrinal note on “The Participation of Catholics in Political Life.”
“John Paul II, continuing the constant teaching of the Church, has reiterated many times that those who are directly involved in lawmaking bodies have a grave and clear obligation to oppose any law that attacks human life,” it read. “For them, as for every Catholic, it is impossible to promote such laws or to vote for them.”
A total of 11 Catholic senators, including Manchin, voted against the WHPA. They are: Mike Braun, R-Ind.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; John Hoeven, R-N.D.; Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.; Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Jim Risch, R-Idaho; Mike Rounds, R-S.D.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska; Thom Tillis, R-N.C., and Pat Toomey, R-Penn.
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