Richard Doerflinger, the associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) — and among the most influential activists and policymakers on life issues in the nation — is retiring from the conference after 36 years of service.
In 1980, Doerflinger took a break from theological studies at The Catholic University of America to join the bishops’ conference as a legislative assistant — and never returned to the academy. As the U.S. bishops’ point man on life issues, he became a leading strategist and policy analyst for the pro-life movement, influencing the development of legislation on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures. Doerflinger helped write the Stupak-Pitts amendment, and so was thrust into the center of the bruising fight to include anti-abortion language in the Affordable Care Act.
Doerflinger also played an outsized role in legislative battles over emerging threats to the sanctity of human life, from assisted suicide to embryo-killing stem-cell research.
In 2011, Doerflinger was appointed to the Pontifical Academy for Life, and during that year, his pro-life work was recognized by the Notre Dame Fund to Protect Human Life, which awarded him the first Evangelium Vitae Medal. Doerflinger also serves as a public-policy fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture and at the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
On April 26, Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond spoke with Doerflinger about his work at the conference and his future plans.
What brought you to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops back in 1980?
I wanted to take a one-year sabbatical from doctoral work in theology. I had studied pro-life moral issues and was convinced the Church was right. My CUA adviser said, “I know you are looking for some work, and there is an opening at the bishops’ conference.” I applied and was offered the job.
Everything I learned on public policy I learned on the job. And at the end of the year, when I thought I would be going back to academics, I couldn’t pull myself away. It was so worthwhile. I was putting my work in ethics and theology to use and found I couldn’t leave.
When you arrived at the conference in 1980, the bishops had been leading a lonely crusade to raise awareness about the evil of legal abortion and the devastating consequences it would have for the culture.
Abortion was the first issue in which the bishops had resolved to help Catholics to become a policy force in a sustained way.
Thanks to the first director of the pro-life office, Father James McHugh, we had dug in for the long haul. We already established an office, as an activity of the family-life office of the conference. By 1972, there was a separate office; and in 1975, we had a pastoral plan for pro-life activities. That was the long-term blueprint affirmed for this struggle, and it was updated subsequently.
The pastoral plan was major, because it called for activity on legislation by Catholics in individual dioceses and parishes and established organizations to make that possible. It prepared the bishops to be speaking out on other things.
At that time, many state Catholic conferences were not as developed as they are today. We received requests for analysis of state legislation and got copies of bills introduced on abortion, living wills and sterilization.
How did the “Reagan Revolution” give new prominence to pro-life concerns?
During the Carter-Reagan presidential-election season, the public was very divided on the issue of abortion, as they are today.
The big debate [among Catholics] was over “single-issue” voting. A lot of Catholics admired Reagan’s position on abortion, but they didn’t like his position on other issues. There was a very vigorous discussion about whether abortion could outweigh other issues.
Grover Joseph Rees (who would be appointed the chief justice of the high court of American Samoa) made the case that life is the fundamental issue. And he made this case not from a “Catholic [position],” but from a human moral standpoint.
What was a top priority in the early years?
I was almost immediately drawn into [the campaign] for a constitutional amendment. At the time, the pro-life movement was strongly divided over whether to support Sen. [Orrin] Hatch’s human-life amendment or [Sen. Jesse] Helms’ human-life bill.
There was a major debate, sometimes very fierce, [about whether to push for] “imperfect legislation” by moving forward with an amendment that did not establish personhood for the unborn child, but would reverse Roe v. Wade. The human-life bill would establish personhood, but pro-life attorneys did not think it would survive court scrutiny.
In the end, neither amendment passed, and 1983 was the last time we had a floor vote on a constitutional amendment.
During this period, the women’s movement argued that increased access to abortion was a precondition for gender equality, and pro-life activists feared that the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment would sweep away any restrictions on abortion. What do you recall about that debate?
We were sympathetic to the idea of more firmly establishing women’s rights, but had serious concerns about the implications for abortion. We wrote to Congress in support of an abortion-neutral amendment stating that the ERA could not be used to promote abortion.
We said, "We oppose bringing up the ERA under a rule that forbids consideration of this amendment." House leaders insisted on such a rule, and they were defeated.
It was odd: People kept saying the amendment had nothing to do with abortion, but the attorneys and organizations behind it kept saying it would very much add to the constitutional basis of abortion.
In the mid-1990s, Pope St. John Paul II released his groundbreaking encyclical Evangelium Vitae. What impact did his moral teaching and critique of a “culture of death” have on the abortion debate?
John Paul’s 1993 encyclical, The Splendor of Truth (Veritatis Splendor), rejected a consequential approach to moral choices that were objectively wrong. There were things that by their nature could not be turned into good and could not serve God: Evangelium Vitae was an application of that teaching. The encyclical formally reaffirmed, at the level of papal teaching, the Church’s opposition to abortion, euthanasia and any directly intended killing of the innocent.
But it also called on Catholics to build a broader culture of life, and that had a great effect on young people. To this day, we are amazed to see the huge numbers of young people who come to the March for Life. John Paul appealed to their idealism and inspired them to do something truly great.
During the Clinton administration, pro-lifers focused on an “incremental” approach to overturning Roe, starting with a proposed ban on partial-birth abortion. How has the ban, and similar legislation, changed the debate?
Evangelium Vitae offered an analysis of the problem of imperfect legislation and explained that a Catholic who opposed all abortion could support incremental steps. The encyclical’s analysis influenced [the discussion about a proposed ban on] partial-birth abortion. This debate over incremental change was not so fierce [as it had been in the previous battle over the choice between the human-life amendment and the human-life bill].
Partial-birth abortion became the new, visible face of abortion, with all the grotesque characteristics of that procedure. During that time, more Americans began to say they were pro-life. They started to see what abortion was, and they didn’t like it.
Even more modest laws that have been passed by the states — like parental consent, informed consent and restrictions on federal funding — help to keep abortion from becoming entrenched as a public good. The research by Michael New has shown that seemingly modest measures have reduced abortion rates, and that is reassuring.
In the lead-up to the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), you played a key role in the development of the Stupak amendment, which barred federal funds for abortion services in plans authorized by the Affordable Care Act. Looking back, what are the lessons learned?
We didn’t want to simply join with those who were opposed to the legislation in general. We felt it was important to work with those who supported the ACA in principle and also shared our view on abortion.
In the House, that approach was effective, and the ACA passed with the Stupak amendment in place. Even the Democratic leadership seemed to resign itself to the fact that in order to pass the bill they would have to accept this.
But in the Senate, we faced a brick wall when we tried to do the same thing. There were not as many pro-life Democrats.
In the end, something happened that I thought was very tragic. The Democrats who pushed forward with the Stupak amendment, but then had their arms twisted to support the bill, were targeted in the next election.
It was a bad vote. But pro-lifers’ decision to target these legislators was unwise. They were pro-life members of the House, a force for our values within the Democrat Party, and you lost them as allies.
Our effectiveness on this issue was also compromised by a lack of unity within the Catholic community. The media was happy to present it as a conflict between bishops and the “nuns on the bus.”
There has been a lot of debate about whether the ACA has facilitated federal funding of abortion. Where do things stand now?
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) report showed that federal funds are being used to subsidize health plans that cover abortion. In other programs, federal funds cannot be used to support a benefit package if it includes elective abortion. And in some states, every plan included abortion services.
At the same time, the ACA has allowed states to make their own policies on this. Twenty-five states have forbidden health plans on their state exchanges to cover most abortions, so in those states abortion coverage is less prevalent than it used to be.
By next year, the law requires that all 50 states have a multi-state plan that excludes abortion.
The four-year battle over the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate could end with a divided Supreme Court issuing a ruling in late June. Would you briefly discuss the key moments in the bishops’ campaign against the mandate and your expectations regarding the legal decision?
We are cautiously optimistic about the Supreme Court’s willingness to explore ways to remove the burden on the religious freedom of the Little Sisters of the Poor and other plaintiffs. Throughout this process, the bishops have been polite but firm in raising arguments against this intrusion into our right to run our own institutions in accord with our teachings.
The administration has made minor changes in the mandate over the years, but it still does not understand that serving the needy is just as much a part of the Gospel for us as prayer and worship are. And it does not understand that people of faith are called to exercise that faith in the business world on weekdays, not only on Sundays. It has a very distorted notion of religion.
The HHS mandate legal fight has paralleled a decline in legal support for religious freedom and conscience protections. How can the Church regain the high ground?
We should keep making the case that religious institutions make a unique contribution to the common good that needs to be preserved. Everyone, whether Catholic or not, benefits from the fact that Catholic schools, hospitals and charitable agencies are driven by their faith to serve the most vulnerable. Our nation’s founders thought those energies should be put to work, not suppressed.
How has the USCCB’s work on pro-life issues changed since you arrived 36 years ago?
I hope we have become a respected voice in Washington — one that argues issues on their merits and always backs up the arguments with good documentation. People know that we will happily work with members of any party, but are beholden to none. And some tensions of the past about prioritizing issues have been resolved. First among human rights is the right to life, and defending life is the first step in standing up for human dignity in all respects.
Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. What has kept you going during tough moments?
I’m encouraged that, 43 years after The New York Times announced that the Supreme Court had “resolved” the abortion issue, it is more unresolved than ever. Millions of young people are on fire with the pro-life message, and more laws are being passed to limit abortion than ever before. And in the end, we Catholics know that the victory over death has already been won — we’re just catching up.
What are your plans after you retire from the conference?
I plan to keep engaging these issues, with a bit more time to research and write on them in greater depth. I’ll be available to consult on legislation and on emerging issues in bioethics. These are not matters you walk away from easily.
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.