Catholic Democrats’ Curious Claim: We’re the Real ‘Pro-Lifers’

Professor Stephen Schneck of The Catholic University of America offers scant data when he asserts that President Obama’s commitment to social programs will bring down abortion rates, critics charge.

Stephen Schneck
Stephen Schneck (photo: Catholic University of America)

WASHINGTON — In a last-ditch effort to woo as many Catholic voters as possible, prominent Catholic Democrats are wrapping themselves, their party and President Barack Obama in pro-life colors.

Given that the Democratic Party has been committed for decades to a pro-abortion plank, and has highlighted its abortion-rights commitment throughout the current presidential campaign, this pro-life claim might seem hard to justify.

But during a panel discussion hosted by Democrats for Life during the Democratic National Convention Sept. 4-6 in Charlotte, N.C., political scientist Stephen Schneck, head of the Institute for Catholic Policy Studies at The Catholic University of America and a member of the Democrats for Life board of directors, declared that “the most powerful abortifacient is poverty.”

Schneck's underlying assertion that there is a proven link between anti-poverty programs and reduced abortions has been questioned. He received a challenge from academic critics, who insist there is no empirical data to support this claim, and Schneck has not responded to their requests for peer-reviewed statistical evidence. Other critics, meanwhile, have pointed out that Scheck's DNC remarks failed to acknowledge the Democratic Party's aggressive promotion of abortion during Obama's presidency.

In his speech to the Democrats for Life, Schneck's core argument was that the best way to be pro-life in contemporary American politics is to support generous government programs intended to alleviate poverty. And he insisted that a victory for the Republican ticket of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan consequently would promote abortion because of the “shocking” cuts Schneck said they would make to social programs like Medicaid.

The Republicans’ promise to rescind Obama's signature health-care legislation, the Affordable Care Act, would be equally damaging, according to Schneck. He said “all the evidence” indicates the federal health-care law will reduce abortion, once its provisions to assist the economically disadvantaged come into full effect.

“We Democrats for Life understand the challenges facing pro-life voters in this election,” Schneck said. “But the Romney-Ryan ticket offers no pro-life guarantees and raises profound moral questions that pro-life voters can neither shirk nor ignore.”


Where's the Evidence?

After Schneck made his pro-life case for the Democrats, Patrick Fagan and Henry Potrykus of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute, a subsidiary group of the Washington-based Family Research Council, replied with a formal challenge. In a Sept. 25 letter to Schneck, they requested that the Catholic scholar either provide specific data to prove his claims or retract them.

Fagan and Potrykus cited several studies of the impacts of changes in equivalent state-level programs that indicate reductions in programs for the poor, such as Medicaid and housing supplements, would either have no impact or actually decrease the incidence of abortion. Much of the data they cited came from studies published in Family Planning Perspective, a periodical of the Alan Guttemacher Institute.

After Schneck sent a courteous but brief reply, defending his earlier arguments while declining to provide supporting evidence, Fagan and Potrykus repeated their challenge in an Oct. 4 letter that cited additional data in rebuttal of Schneck.

Wrote Fagan and Potrykus, “Your concerns are not founded in sound analysis; the weight of scientific evidence is contrary to your personal beliefs.”

In an interview with the Register, Fagan said Schneck is guilty of the same mistake both political parties have been making for decades: “believing that you can cure social problems by throwing money at them.”

Fagan also dismissed Schneck's comparisons in his DNC speech between the U.S. and other countries with generous social programs and lower abortion rates as pointless because “there are too many variables involved” to draw any meaningful conclusions.

“There is no silver bullet,” said Fagan. “In fact, the welfare system that both Republicans and Democrats are equally guilty of erecting is wrecking marriage and the family, which are the very institutions that do most in our inner cities to combat poverty and abortion.”

Another critique was offered by Michael Fragoso, in a commentary entitled “Poverty, Abortion and Budgets: Democrats for Life Need Better Arguments,” published on the Witherspoon Institute’s website. No causal link between poverty and abortion has ever been established by social science, Fragoso noted. But even if there were such a link, he said, Schneck's DNC claim that Romney would cut anti-poverty programs such as Medicaid by 40% was groundless, since the Republican candidate never made such a commitment.  And even if Romney had, Fragoso continued, there is still no clear evidence that cutting poverty programs increases poverty, let alone abortion.


Democrats 'Double Down'

Despite the criticisms triggered by the 'pro-life' arguments offered by Catholic Democrats, they haven't been shy about repeating their case as the campaign draws to a close. 

Schneck told the Register this week that he stands by his DNC presentation. Contacted while traveling in the Midwest away from his office, Schneck was unable to cite his sources, but he insisted that the abortion rate for the poor was three times what it was for those better off.

“In the U.S. and around the world,” he said, “what is not in dispute is the pattern associating the poorest countries and the poorest people with more abortions.”

Schneck did concede that the Democratic Party has handled the abortion issue “stupidly” in this election cycle by choosing to “double down” on their support for abortion.

“They haven’t been open at all to the third of their supporters that are pro-life,” he said. “And that’s a big reason why this election is so close.”

Additionally, Schneck asserted that his own pro-life position is not satisfied by health care and social programs:  “I want to see Roe v. Wade overthrown. And I am in favor of the restrictions by state governments such as the one requiring [women seeking abortions first to see their baby via ] ultrasound. Anything that reduces abortions is good.”

Last week, University of St. Thomas law professor Douglas Reid picked up on the pro-life argument with an Oct. 26 entry at the Huffington Post entry entitled, “Catholic, Pro-Life and Voting Obama.” After listing Obama’s Catholic credentials, such as the fact his late mother worked for a Jesuit and that his community organizer office was located in a Catholic church in Chicago, Reid cited a book called America Undecided: Catholic, Independent and Social-Justice Perspectives on Election 2012.

The book was co-authored by three other pro-Obama Catholics — law professors Douglas Kmiec and Ed Gaffney and pediatrics specialist Patrick Whelan, one of the founders of Catholic Democrats.

Kmiec, the author of Can a Catholic Support Him?, a 2008 book which argued that Catholics and pro-lifers could support then-candidate Obama, was later appointed for a period as ambassador to Malta.  The former ambassador recently elaborated on his support for Obama in an interview published Oct. 24 on the opinion page of the Los Angeles Times.

And the Democrats’ highest-ranking political Catholic, Vice President Joe Biden, released a TV ad in late October aimed towards his co-religionists. In it, Biden recounted how his parents and “nuns and priests” taught him “Catholic social doctrine,” which he said was exemplified by Obama's health-care law.


Clear Differences

Fragoso had harsh words for the pro-life claims of Catholic Democrats at the conclusion of his Witherspoon Institute commentary about Schneck’s DNC remarks.

“Nowhere in the speech does Schneck even mention the planks in the Democratic Party’s eye on health care — like the HHS mandate or even the removal of anti-trafficking funding from Catholic Charities, the threatened removal of Medicaid funds from Texas in retaliation for the state’s defunding of Planned Parenthood or the potential effects of the Independent Payment Advisory Board on end-of-life care,” Fragoso pointed out.

“In the end, when one looks past the posturing and the rhetoric, one sees that there are clear differences between the parties,” Fragoso added. “One favors publicly funded abortion on demand as a matter of law and has used its time in power to stifle the culture of life. The other favors the protection of the unborn by law and effects that goal to the extent possible. All that Schneck’s Democrats for Life speech tells us is that one should prefer the former if one thinks liberal social welfare policy is more important than abortion, because he does not provide any sound arguments that the two issues are related.”

Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.


Editor's note:  This article was updated from the original version to include comments

from Professor Schneck that the reporter had inadvertently omitted.