The story of what happened in Connecticut should serve as an example of how effective laypeople can be when they support the Church — and what can happen when they don’t.
In 2006, Connecticut lawmakers proposed changing the law regarding rape victims and hospitals. The Connecticut bill would require all hospitals in the state to provide “emergency contraception” — high doses of the same hormones used in oral contraceptives — to all rape victims who wanted it. Catholic doctrine has no problem with contraception in the context of rape. But Catholic doctrine does have a problem with aborting any child — even if the child’s father is a rapist and the mother, a victim.
Catholic hospitals already provided emergency contraceptives to rape victims. But they did so after a victim has been tested and found not to be pregnant or not to be in the ovulation stage of her fertility cycle. After all, there is no reason to administer contraceptives to a pregnant woman, and bioethicists feared giving them to women during ovulation, because the drug might act as an abortifacient, killing a newly conceived boy or girl.
But lawmakers wanted to end the ovulation test rule at Catholic hospitals, and so hearings began on a new bill.
Connecticut State Victim Advocate James Papillo appeared March 6 before the state Legislature’s Public Health Committee. Papillo — a Catholic deacon — stood up for the Church and argued against the bill. “I felt compelled to do so because of my role as the state victim advocate,” he told the Register. “The reason is this: I have come to realize that some groups will use crime victims, and the cause that they have, in order to further other agendas.”
He added: “First and foremost, it’s a freedom-of-religion issue. It seems to us to be unfair to the Catholic hospitals and a violation of our religious rights.”
Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., applauded the deacon. On his blog, he said the bill “truly crosses the line.”
“About 50 to 60 victims of sexual assault are served at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Bridgeport each year,” he wrote. “They receive respect, kindness and compassionate care that includes listening to their stories, counseling and the administration of a powerful contraceptive known as ‘Plan B’.”
“Our Catholic hospitals,” he added, “because of their respect for all human life, will not risk inducing an early abortion.”
Even then, he referred to the discussion about Plan B among Catholic bioethicists. The science of the question is complicated and unclear, and therefore, bioethicists are revisiting the question. Bishop Lori called the risk of abortion in these cases “remote. To my knowledge, no Catholic hospital in Connecticut has ever denied an assault victim Plan B — a medication that can be readily obtained over the counter.”
Bishop Lori stressed that he opposed the bill because religious freedom was at stake. “The long arm of the law is about to reach into our Catholic hospitals to stay their hand,” he warned.
But the courageous Catholic witness of the victim advocate turned the tide. Gov. Jodi Rell, a pro-abortion Northeastern Republican like Rudy Giuliani, was critical of Papillo, but said she could tolerate keeping things the way they were. The Hartford Courant, a newspaper that takes a pro-abortion editorial line, agreed.
Perhaps legislators figured that many Catholics would be as adamant as Papillo and feared a backlash over religious rights. At any rate, the bill never made it out of committee.
But pro-abortion activists don’t give up. They brought up the bill again the following year. In 2007, they learned a very different lesson from Catholic reaction. Or lack of reaction.
The Connecticut Catholic Conference planned a “Catholic Concerns Day” at the state Capitol — a great opportunity for the state’s 1.5 million Catholics to stand up and be counted. But only 100 people showed up. In the past, concerned voters have changed the minds of legislators by inundating them with phone calls and urging their friends to do the same. They could have done the same this time, making it clear that they weren’t about to let their elected representatives bully the Church on this or any other topic.
But they didn’t. At the crucial moment most pro-lifers did nothing.
So the Legislature passed the law and the governor signed it. And still no outcry came from the laity of Connecticut.
Then the law went into effect. Said Bishop Lori, “we carefully explored with very competent experts the possibility of challenging the law. Unfortunately, such a challenge would most likely not succeed. Failure of the hospitals to comply would put them and their staffs at risk.”
And the outcry began — but against the bishops, not the Legislature. Meanwhile, the legislators who took away the Church’s rights seem to have escaped the wrath.
If the Second Vatican Council — or the U.S. Constitution — taught us anything, it should be that laypeople are the ones given the job of engaging the democratic process.
What happened in Connecticut in 2006 is an inspiration — a lesson in how speaking out can strengthen the Church’s rights in society. What happened in Connecticut in 2007 is a warning — a lesson in how keeping silent can allow the state to encroach on the Church’s freedom.