WASHINGTON — Among the top life issues for Catholics are abortion, capital punishment and assisted suicide, but only abortion is addressed by both Democrats and Republicans in this election.
“It’s been less about these issues than what these issues signal about a candidate, or what they stand for,” said Charles Camosy, an associate professor of ethics at Fordham University.
With the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, President Donald Trump’s promise to name judges who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion on demand, may find fulfillment with a new court majority. Vice President Mike Pence also opposes abortion and would like to see Roe reversed.
Barrett, however, at her 2017 confirmation hearing for her federal appeals court post, said she considered the Roe decision settled law.
The 2020 Democratic Party’s platform states: “Like the majority of Americans, Democrats believe that every woman should be able to access high-quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion.”
The party pledges to fight to overturn federal and state laws “that create barriers to women’s reproductive health and rights; and “repeal the Hyde Amendment, and protect and codify Roe v. Wade.”
The Democrats’ presidential nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic who supports legalized abortion, and his running mate, U.S. Sen Kamala Harris, have not called for modification of that language.
Until 2019, Biden supported Hyde, which each year is a rider on an appropriations bill and bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion except to save the life of the woman or in case of rape or incest.
Biden now says the amendment would obstruct his health care proposal from covering low-income women. Trump wants to codify Hyde.
Pro-life groups say Democrats are abortion extremists intent on promoting it until the moment of birth.
Democrats for Life released a letter in August, signed by 100 current and former Democratic lawmakers from several states, urging the party to change the platform language on abortion and return to the language used in 2000, which stated that differences of opinion were a “source of strength.”
As for the other issues: There’s no Republican platform this year, only a reaffirmation of the 2016 platform, which called capital punishment “firmly settled” as a constitutional issue.
Catholic opponents of the death penalty were outraged that Trump’s attorney general, William Barr, last year lifted the moratorium on federal executions. This summer, seven men on federal death row at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Ind., were executed and an eighth execution is scheduled for Nov. 19.
In a Sept. 22 statement, the chairmen of the U.S. bishops’ domestic policy and pro-life committees told Trump and Barr: “Enough. Stop these executions.”
In his new encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” released Oct. 4, Pope Francis reiterated what St. John Paul II said about the death penalty being “inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice,” and then went further, adding: “There can be no stepping back from this position. Today, we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible.’“
The Democratic National Platform does not address capital punishment, instead stressing injustice in law enforcement and the courts toward defendants of color. Four years ago, the Democratic platform called for the abolition of the death penalty. Neither party has addressed assisted suicide.
There are no death penalty referendums on state ballots in the Nov. 3 election.
As in 2016, when the Trump campaign had a 34-member Catholic Advisory Group and sent a letter to the Catholic Leadership Conference, his campaign’s policy statement on abortion was put into a separate document.
On Sept. 3, his campaign issued a letter to a broadly based entity, Pro-Life Voices for Trump, which includes evangelicals. Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, is the national co-chair along with Christina Bennett, the communications director for the Family Institute of Connecticut.
The letter reprises some promises of four years ago: “transforming the federal judiciary” with pro-life judges, fighting to overcome Democratic Senate filibusters to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, a permanent ban on federal funds for Planned Parenthood, and a proposed new law, recently reinforced by Trump’s promised executive order, requiring full medical care for babies who have survived botched late-term abortions.
Trump also has put in place the Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance Policy, which bans all foreign nongovernmental organizations that receive U.S. foreign aid from using the funds to perform or promote abortion as a method of family planning in other countries. The administration also issued a Title X ruling that bans recipients of federal family planning funds from referring women to abortion services — which opponents call a “gag rule.”
The Democrats vow to repeal the Title X rule and restore federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which in August 2019 announced it would withdraw from receiving federal money because of the Trump rule.
The party’s platform also states support for “protecting and advancing reproductive health, rights and justice.”
The term gained attention this year when it was spoken by Harris in a video montage shown the first night of the Democratic National Convention. Her acceptance speech mentioned only “the injustice in reproductive and maternal health care.”
Four years ago, when Kristan Hawkins president of Students for Life, attended an outreach meeting between Trump and evangelicals, she told Catholic News Service she was struck at how he seemed to be unfamiliar with some issues: “He kept saying ‘the pro-life.’“
Now, “President Trump has claimed the movement as his own,” said Mallory Quigley, vice president for communications at the Susan B. Anthony List. Trump has appointed “more than a quarter of the federal bench at this point” with pro-life judges.
The March for Life Education and Defense Fund, headed by Jeanne Mancini, has launched a campaign in support of Trump’s nomination of Barrett to the high court, as it did earlier for Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Regarding Harris, Quigley noted the senator’s support for preclearance by the Justice Department of state abortion laws, which “shows how radical she really is.” “Preclearance” would require states “with a history of restrictive abortion laws” to clear any new regulations with the Justice Department before they can go into effect.
Dannenfelser, Hawkins and Mancini all attended Trump’s nomination acceptance speech on the South Lawn of the White House. Convention speeches also included one from Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director in Texas who founded the And Then There Were None ministry.
Camosy left the Democratic Party and resigned from the board of Democrats for Life earlier this year citing the party’s support for abortion at any stage.
In a Feb. 6 commentary in the New York Post, he said the “straw that broke this camel’s back” was the “extremism” of Pete Buttigieg, then a presidential candidate. This “mainstream Democratic candidate” suggested “at one point, that abortion is OK up to the point the baby draws her first breath,” Camosy wrote.
Still, he told Catholic News Service, “I can’t vote for Trump. He’s just too uncomfortable.”
But he thinks the values voters, which he has long thought of as working-class Catholics in the upper Midwest — “a certain kind of pro-lifer who feels very strongly about the issues and really struggles to support (Trump)” — might have been more easily persuaded had the president not moved to nominate Barrett right away, as he did Sept. 26.
“I wonder if, having a Supreme Court justice just dangling there, there would be enough for people to hold their nose and vote for him,” Camosy added.