WASHINGTON — The unanimous passage through the Senate of a defense-spending bill that expands abortion access for military personnel has generated concern that pro-life politicians are in retreat because of the November election results.
"It’s extremely disappointing," Tom McClusky, vice president of the Family Research Council, said of the National Defense Authorization Act’s almost certain endorsement by the House of Representatives after passage by the Senate. "And we’re concerned that we’ve allowed the other side to frame the debate entirely in terms advantageous to helping women. Everyone wants to help women. But we also want what happens to the child to be part of the debate. The child is a human being."
But McClusky said he saw the passage of the bill as a result of a general failure by the pro-life movement. "We all have to take responsibility," he said. "If we point fingers, the pointing would go full circle."
The defense bill was passed by the Senate unanimously Dec. 4 with an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., that provides medical coverage for military personnel to obtain abortions at military facilities in the case of rape or incest.
Since 1976, Congress has annually attached an amendment to all funding bills banning federal spending on abortions except when the mother’s life is threatened by the pregnancy. The amendment is named after its initial proponent, Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois. During the Clinton administration, congressional Democrats forced the rape and incest exemptions into the Hyde Amendments, and these have remained in place. But they were never added to military appropriation bills until now, said McClusky.
McClusky and other pro-life analysts said the House was almost certain to accept the inclusion of Shaheen’s amendment when the Senate and House negotiate the final version of the defense bill.
In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II confirmed that "the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral."
Added Blessed John Paul II, "The deliberate decision to deprive an innocent human being of his life is always morally evil and can never be licit either as an end in itself or as a means to a good end" (57).
Marie Hilliard of the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia said that politicians were wrong to vote for the bill, but pro-life Americans should have been contacting their congressional representatives to let them know "there are two victims or potential victims when there is a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, the woman and the child."
Hilliard added, "It is a tragedy when a woman is sexually assaulted, but the unborn child should not be treated as a perpetrator. The child is innocent and should not become a victim too." Society, or, in this case, the military, should reach out to support women in this situation and offer them alternatives to abortion, she said.
As for congressional politicians, Hilliard rejected the idea that they had to vote for the bill because its good features outweighed the pro-abortion aspects.
"Pope John Paul II’s teaching on incremental legislation allowed politicians to support laws that made abortion a little more difficult though not eliminating it altogether," she said. "But I don’t think this teaching allows support for laws that make abortion a little bit easier."
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, refuses to find any fault with the pro-life senators who supported the bill, given the "complex politics involved."
But Dannenfelser shares McClusky’s concern about the impact of the election on pro-life advocacy in the corridors of power.
"I am concerned generally about the lack of courage shown by the Republican Party and about the wrong conclusions being drawn from the election results," Dannenfelser said.
McClusky said the way the abortion issue played out in the November elections was problematic for the pro-life cause, especially in the case of Missouri Republican senatorial candidate Todd Akin, whose controversial use of the term "legitimate rape" to explain his opposition to abortion in the case of rape contributed to his loss.
Richard Mourdock similarly lost his bid for a Senate seat in Indiana after he said that a pregnancy resulting from rape was "something that God intended to happen." This was widely and deliberately misconstrued by Democrats and mainstream news media to mean that he thought God approved of rape when it resulted in pregnancy.
McClusky said, "The pro-life movement has failed to defend or argue well enough the position that we care about women, yes, but we care about children in all circumstances." He added that the Republican Party and the pro-life movement should have prepared its candidates better to advocate for life and not fall back into a defensive stance.
Despite the losses of a few pro-life politicians, Dannenfelser rejected the misconception within the Republican leadership that social issues cost them the November election and that they should now tread softly with the life issues. "There is no data to support the idea that the Republicans suffered generally or in the presidential race from socially conservative positions," she said. It is true that in a few individual races they did suffer.
"But, overall, it was a wash; socially conservative issues helped in some areas and hurt in others."
The Republican Party’s pro-life position on abortion would have been more of an asset, Dannenfelser believes, if Republicans had been more willing to promote it during the campaign and if they had defended themselves less feebly against attacks that accused the party of being anti-women.
"The Republicans were on the defensive from the start," she said. "They let the other side slap the extremist label on them without response. They never tried to label the other side as extreme."
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.
Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.