By WILLIAM H. MARSHNER
July 11, 1974
From the very beginning of the anti-abortion movement, long before there was a Supreme Court decision, two camps vied for leadership. One stressed the need for national action (include here The Wanderer Gang); the other preferred to work primarily at the State level (include here Msgr. James T. McHugh).
Then came Black Monday, Jan. 22nd, 1973. The two camps changed focus to some extent, but essentially the same leadership struggle went on. The same quarrel — over effective national action — remained central. It is still central.
Now mix, shuffle, and complicate the above quarrel with another one. From the very beginning, pro-life people agreed that there could be no final victory without the Catholic vote, suitably mobilized by the Catholic Church. That much was obvious. But should the Catholic profile be high or low? Many Catholics, Protestants, and Jews said it should be low. Other Catholics, Protestants, and Jews said it should be high. The argument is still going on, with good people on both sides, which is bad enough. But there is something worse. Regardless of what the Church’s role should be, there is a mystery wrapped within an enigma over what in fact it is. This uncertainty is delaying, distorting, and poisoning everything. The words of the hierarchy are not matched by the deed of its agents. Between the verbal record and the factual record there is a growing contradiction. Consider just one case.
On the verbal record, the Bishops of the United States are firmly committed to a constitutional amendment as the only way to protect the unborn. Thus they are firmly opposed to compromise efforts which seek to conform to the terms of the Supreme Court decision. When the Bishops’ Administrative Committee met on Feb. 10th, 1973, they declared that the Court’s decision was “an immoral law” such that no State or national law embodying it could be supported. However, in the same statement, the Bishops encouraged pro-life groups to “assure the most restrictive interpretation of the Court’s opinion at the State legislative level.” Contradiction! Any “restrictive interpretation” allowed to stand by the Court as constitutional would have to be precisely an embodiment of the original decision. At a press conference held in connection with the same Feb. 10th meeting, Msgr. McHugh dissipated the contradiction by making the following unambiguous declaration:
“We do not support, endorse, or promote legislation in conformity with the opinion of the Supreme Court. … No one is under any illusion that there is any moral way to defend human life under the provisions of the Supreme Court decision.”
Think about that declaration, and try to reconcile it with the factual record.
The factual record? Yes, the fact that one State Catholic Conference after another has poured time and effort into so-called “restrictive” State laws which nevertheless conform in one way or another with the Supreme Court decision! Now, nobody is opposed to working on real restrictions. That is why the best elements of the pro-life movement have ignored the State legislatures as a hopeless theater and have acted directly at the national level to secure such real victories as the Helms amendment barring the use of foreign-aid funds to perform or promote abortions, the Buckley amendment barring the use of Medicaid funds (Social Security) to pay for abortions, the Froehlich amendment to the Community Services Act, and many more. But not a single one of these efforts was aided, seconded, or effectively supported by the U.S. Catholic Conference. Why not? Too busy piddling around in the States? Meanwhile, the best elements of the pro-life movement have also slaved day and night to get signatures on the Hogan discharge petition and to speed up efforts to reach agreement on the ideal amending language. Again, the U.S. Catholic Conference and the State Catholic Conferences have done nothing to aid these efforts and in fact, in the case of the Hogan discharge petition, have actively opposed them. Why? Too busy with LB 286 in Nebraska?
The Nebraska law is a typical case of the sort of “restrictive legislation” on the State level with which the Catholic Church has been busying itself for about a year. Frank Morriss has performed a remarkable service for Catholics everywhere in exposing this law as a Swiss cheese. I repeat, nobody is opposed to working on real restrictions, but Morriss has shown that what many people no doubt thought might do some good would in fact do no good at all and thus would have no real effect other than to involve the Catholic Church in a morally repulsive compromise. What thanks did Morriss get for this honest piece of reporting? None from the Nebraska Catholic Conference, that’s for sure. Paul V. O’Hara, executive secretary of that conference, dismissed Morriss arguments with an appeal to higher authorities. What authority? Why, Msgr. James T. McHugh’s, of course. O’Hara cites McHugh as having said on Jan. 27th, 1973, that “if the State legislatures do not pass regulatory statutes, then anarchy may prevail in this regard.”
Well, for heaven’s sake. Will the real McHugh please stand up!
Look: There is no such thing as a State law which (a) restricts abortion but (b) does not conform to the Supreme Court decision. Such a law would be struck down overnight. Msgr. McHugh is a big boy. He must know this. Therefore, Msgr. McHugh either desires State laws in conformity with the Court decision or he doesn’t. He either agrees with what he said on Jan. 27th, 1973, or else with what he said on Feb. 10th, 1973. In the latter case, O’Hara is following an outdated directive. In the former case, Msgr. McHugh is talking out of both sides of his mouth. Which is it?
And more fundamentally: either the State Catholic Conferences are going to shift gears so as to work for national pro-life goals by generating local pressure on Congress and the bureaucracy, or else they’re going to keep working with the State legislatures. Either the sweat of the Catholic people is going to be invested at the national level where it counts or at the State level, where it doesn’t. Which is it?
The whole right-to-life movement is waiting for an answer. We get tired, bone tired, of this nonsense — nonaction, noncooperation, nonsense — from the official agents of the Catholic Church.