SAN FRANCISCO — On March 27, Planned Parenthood will bestow its highest honor on Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., minority leader in the House of Representatives and a self-identifying Catholic. The Margaret Sanger Award, named for the organization’s founder and a known proponent of eugenics, will recognize Pelosi for her legacy of “excellence and outstanding contributions to the reproductive health and rights movement.”
The move will revive questions from Catholics and pro-life activists who have pressed Church leaders in the United States to direct the congresswoman to refrain from receiving the Eucharist due to her public acceptance of what the Church calls intrinsic evil. And the ensuing debate will likely draw attention to Pelosi’s repeated and often contradictory references to her faith while defending or advancing her position on controversial legislation.
“Abortion and Catholicism never go together. When a national leader, such as Speaker Pelosi, conflates the two, it, unfortunately, can lead other Catholics — who believe there is no issue with pro-abortion beliefs and the practice of their Catholic faith — to miss the opportunity to reconcile their views with Church teaching,” Scot Landry, the director of Catholic Voices USA, told the Register.
“That is sad, a tremendous scandal in our Church and a disservice to all those who follow her example.”
In 2013, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who heads the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, stated in a published interview that Canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law “must be applied” to determine whether Pelosi should receive the Eucharist.
“This is a person who, obstinately, after repeated admonitions, persists in a grave sin — cooperating with the crime of procured abortion — and still professes to be a devout Catholic,” said Cardinal Burke.
Brought Up Catholic
Over the years, Pelosi has occasionally acknowledged her disagreement with Church leaders.
“I have some concerns about the Church’s position respecting a woman’s right to choose,” she said during a 2009 interview, where she confirmed past meetings with “her archbishop in San Francisco” to address her views.
“I practically mourn the difference of opinion because I feel what I was raised to believe is consistent with what I profess, and that is that we are all endowed with a free will and responsibility to answer for our actions,” she said, adding that “women should have that opportunity to exercise their free will.”
Pelosi has not discussed how she came to believe that “free will” trumped Catholic teaching on a grave moral issue. Meetings with Church leaders, including a 2009 visit with then-Pope Benedict XVI, who outlined natural-law precepts, appear to have had little impact.
She grew up in a political home — her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., served as both a Democratic U.S. congressman and the mayor of Baltimore. Pelosi graduated in 1962 from Trinity College, a Washington-based Catholic college for women.
Mary Meehan, a pro-life writer and a Catholic, attended Trinity College when Pelosi was there.
“Trinity was then a fairly conservative college," Meehan told the Register. "But I don’t recall any mention of abortion in our theology classes. I don’t think students were ready to meet that issue," when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark Roe v. Wade decision about a decade later.
“Pelosi and many other politicians either are not personally opposed to abortion or, if personally pro-life, have a long and deeply ingrained habit of separating personal convictions from a contradictory public position,” said Meehan.
The future speaker of the House married Paul Pelosi, a California native, and the couple raised five children. For a quarter of a century, she has represented California’s 12th District in the House of Representatives, including much of San Francisco.
In 2007, Pelosi made history when she became the first woman to serve as the speaker of the House. And her website celebrates her work “strengthening America’s middle class through job creation, reforming the political system to create clean campaigns and fair elections, enacting comprehensive immigration reform and ensuring safety in America’s communities, neighborhoods and schools.”
Pelosi’s tireless advocacy for abortion rights and her more recent efforts to defend the controversial Health and Human Services contraception mandate may not get top billing in her official biography, but are no less central to her legacy on Capitol Hill.
“As a Democratic leader, Pelosi often has successfully pressured other Democratic lawmakers to oppose protections for unborn children,” Doug Johnson, the legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, told the Register.
In 2009, when the newly elected President Barack Obama sought to pass his signature health-reform legislation, Speaker Pelosi helped overcome resistance from pro-life House Democrats, who feared that provisions in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) might permit federal subsidies for elective abortions.
Later, in 2012, when the U.S. bishops and other faith leaders called for a broad religious exemption to the HHS contraception mandate authorized under the ACA, Pelosi organized a hearing in the House for Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown University law student who would emerge as an icon for so-called reproductive rights during the 2012 election year. Pelosi’s efforts would help launch the Democrats’ “war on women” campaign that reframed the U.S. bishops’ concerns about the HHS mandate as an attack on women’s access to contraception and abortion.
Weeks after a contentious February 2012 House hearing on free-exercise issues posed by the HHS mandate, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee reported that it had raised “$1.1 million from its ‘War on Women’ campaign.”
Contradicting the Faith
Given Pelosi’s Catholic affiliation, some co-religionists might have expected her to help broker a robust exemption to the HHS mandate and thus calm the anxiety of Catholic charities that used precious time and resources to challenge the law in court and develop contingency plans if they failed to obtain a reprieve.
But while Pelosi has spoken out on human rights and religious persecution abroad, she has been skeptical of free-exercise claims raised by the U.S. bishops and other Christian groups who seek protections in the face of shifting cultural norms.
In 2011, as House Republicans prepared to vote on a bill that offered conscience protections for health-care providers who opposed abortion, Pelosi went on the attack.
“When the Republicans vote for this bill today, they will be voting to say that women can die on the floor and health-care providers do not have to intervene if this bill is passed. It’s just appalling,” she charged.
Later, Pelosi told the Washington Post, “I’m a devout Catholic, and I honor my faith and love it ... but they have this conscience thing’’ — an apparent reference to the Church’s prohibition of direct abortion.
Last June, when the grisly murder trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell was in the news, a reporter asked Pelosi to explain the difference between late-term abortions and the unlawful killing of infants who had survived abortions performed by Gosnell.
Pelosi called Gosnell’s actions, which resulted in multiple murder convictions, “reprehensible,” but she did not address the morality of late-term abortions. Instead, she referenced her religion.
“As a practicing and respectful Catholic, this is sacred ground to me when we talk about this,” Pelosi responded, without explaining the connection between her cradle faith and the issue at hand. “This shouldn’t have anything to do with politics.”
Democrat Party leaders have already signaled their plans to revive the war-on-women campaign for the midterm election cycle and make it even more central to their strategy.
That means the Democrat House leader will help put pro-life candidates and others who support religious freedom on the defensive.
But pro-life activists on Capitol Hill and in state battles are working hard to counter that strategy, and some argue that the Gosnell trial and its power to reshape national views about late-term abortions could make a difference.
The NRLC’s Johnson noted, “While Pelosi is quick to throw around rhetoric about a ‘war’ on women, she is always extremely evasive on the subject of late abortion.”
Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a political advocacy group that backs pro-life candidates for national office, said they were developing a strategy to counter the argument of Pelosi and other abortion-rights advocates: that “women can’t be free unless they have the right to kill their children.”
“Margaret Sanger and Pelosi have a merciless legacy couched in the language of women’s rights,” said Dannenfelser, because “mercy is only reserved for the privileged and planned and perfect.”
Added Dannenfelser, “There is a different model articulated by pro-life candidates: We accept all the children in our lives. We do not decide who is worthy or whether they may be an obstacle to our success.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.