Catholics Will ‘Play Defense’ on Pro-Life, Religious-Freedom Issues in New Congress
The new Democratic-controlled House of Representatives immediately passed pro-abortion legislation.
WASHINGTON — The 116th Congress got underway last week and grappled with the current impasse on immigration that has resulted in a government shutdown.
The new Congress has 163 members who identify as Catholic in the House and Senate, but their stances on issues like immigration and abortion fall largely along party lines, which means trouble for pro-life efforts in the House.
The shutdown began when President Donald Trump was unable to reach a compromise with Democrats over his insistence on $5.6 billion in funding for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. Democrats argued that the current $1.3 billion in funding for border security is adequate and a wall would be ineffective and even “immoral.”
The Democratic-controlled House passed a bill to fund the government last week that omitted the president’s requested border-wall funding — and also expanded taxpayer funding for abortion.
The bill would have ended Trump’s “Protecting Life in Global Health Assistance” policy that blocks taxpayer funds to nongovernmental organizations that perform or promote abortion overseas. It also increased funding by $5 million to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), which Trump had previously cut off due to UNFPA’s participation in coercive abortion and involuntary sterilization in China.
Shortly after the vote, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., admonished House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a statement for invoking her Catholic faith as she opened the new Congress but ignoring the Church’s steadfast teaching on abortion.
Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., and Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., both pro-life Catholics, deplored the attempt to expand abortion funding in the House.
Fortenberry said the move from House Democrats showed the “complexity” behind efforts to end the shutdown.
“We’re not subsidizing the abortion industry overseas,” he emphasized, calling Trump’s policy “an appropriate expansion of the Mexico City Policy.”
He acknowledged “a great cultural and philosophical divide” on the abortion issue, but said that “one agreed-upon, one settled issue is that taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to pay for abortion and that [was] what was so good and proper about the Trump administration’s rule.”
Fortenberry also pointed out that the language repealing Trump’s pro-life policy that the House Democrats took up and passed was also in a bill that had unanimously passed the Republican-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee last June with the backing of “so-called pro-life Senate Republicans.”
He said the pro-life Senate Republicans on the committee should “explain why they want Americans to pay for taxpayer-subsidized abortion overseas in coordination with the Democrats” and called it “very upsetting.”
Lipinski said that, on the abortion issue, moving forward “the biggest concern is going to be making sure that we continue to have the Hyde Amendment applied, that is so no taxpayer funds will be used to pay for abortion in any of the appropriations bills.”
“Unfortunately, we’re going to be mostly having to play defense in Congress, now that there’s no longer a pro-life majority in the House,” he said.
He also expressed hope that some sort of common ground can be found on the issue.
“We just need to keep speaking out about the horrors of abortion,” he said, “and that being pro-life is being pro-woman — but politically we may see some tough times in the next couple of years.”
A Pro-Abortion Shift
Many Catholic groups expressed concern about the extreme pro-abortion shift that the Democratic majority in the House has demonstrated so early on in their leadership.
Maureen Ferguson, senior policy adviser for the Catholic Association, told the Register that the inclusion of abortion language in the funding bill is a “pretty strong signal” from the Democratic House of where their priorities lie.
She warned that this was “just the beginning,” anticipating continued attacks on appropriations riders that prevent taxpayer funds from being used for abortion.
“They’re making this one of their conditions to reopen the government, which is a pretty extreme position to say, ‘We’re going to force funding, U.S. taxpayer dollars, to promote abortion overseas as part of our foreign policy,’” she said.
Ferguson pointed out that the Trump administration cited the attempted expansion of abortion funding in their statement, promising to veto the Democrats’ funding bill last week, and she predicted that the administration will stand firm on the issue along with the pro-life leadership in the Senate.
However, she emphasized that “because these funding bills originate in the House and the pro-life majority is pretty slim in the Senate, we’re still on defense.”
Greg Schleppenbach, the associate director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, agreed, telling the Register in a statement that protecting pro-life policies is crucial in the new Congress.
“A top priority of the USCCB is to protect all pro-life policies from being repealed or weakened, including the Mexico City Policy, Hyde Amendment and other policies that prohibit taxpayer funding for abortion or its promotion,” he said.
Pro-Life Democrats Dwindle
Tom McClusky, the president of March for Life Action, pointed to the extreme, pro-abortion shift in the Democratic party in recent years.
“We have seen the number of pro-life Democrats dwindle from, at one point, over 40 to just two: Reps. Lipinski and [Minnesota’s Collin] Peterson,” he noted. “Additionally, their party platform has become rabidly pro-abortion.”
Lipinski said he remembered when the Stupak Amendment, aimed at preventing the use of taxpayer funds for abortion in the Affordable Care Act, had the support of 64 of his Democratic colleagues.
“It was 64 Democrats then, and the last time we voted on it in the last Congress I think we had three or four Democrats who supported similar language in a little different context,” he noted, acknowledging that “things have changed significantly in the Democratic Party.”
Lipinski said that he will continue to fight for a place for pro-lifers in the party.
“They need to stop pushing pro-life Democrats out of the party,” he said. “I faced a very serious primary challenge last time and expect I may face one again, largely based on the abortion issue and the question of whether or not a Democrat can be pro-life.”
Regarding the current immigration debate and government shutdown, Fortenberry and Lipinski raised concerns about border security and immigration reform.
“No one wins in a government shutdown, but no one wins when the border’s not secure, so to try to resolve this impasse quickly ought to be the highest priority of everyone here,” Fortenberry said. “I think most Americans look at this through the lens of ‘Why don’t you just get this done?’ — robust, advanced, important border security, as well as funding the government.”
Despite the current impasse, Lipinski hoped that a deal could be reached to settle the status of those in the country due to the Obama-era “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) program.
“I think, though, that this may be a time where we can have some sort of agreement to compromise that we can at least help take care of the ‘Dreamers,’ including those who are protected by DACA right now,” he said.
Ashley Feasley, the director of Policy, Migration and Refugee Services at the USCCB, told the Register some of the things the group hopes to see on immigration from the new Congress.
“USCCB is hopeful for and supportive of the introduction of legislation which calls for permanent legal status for Dreamers and TPS (Temporary Protected Status) holders,” she said. “With several TPS designations set to expire this year and the possibility that DACA will be before the Supreme Court, we urge Congress to find a legislative solution that allows Dreamers and TPS holders to fully integrate into American life and no longer fear deportation.”
She also emphasized the USCCB’s concern that immigrants along the border would be treated with dignity.
“We will continue to advocate for the humane and dignified treatment of immigrants and refugees, as well as the promotion of policies that encourage legal immigration pathways, family unity, extensive examination of root causes and humane enforcement policies,” she said.
Both Lipinski and Fortenberry expressed concern over increased polarization on issues related to religious freedom heading into the new Congress.
“More and more, when it comes to freedom for religious organizations and for individuals,” Lipinski said, “it continues on some issues to truly be potentially under attack, when it comes to some of the marriage and gender issues.”
“I would never, ever have expected that membership in the Knights of Columbus would be something that would be viewed with suspicion and maybe even worse,” he said. “It’s terrible to see membership in the Knights of Columbus questioned like that, but at the core this gets back to the question of religious freedom, and it’s something that we have to continue to speak out about because we, our country, can’t afford to lose that freedom that we’re guaranteed in the First Amendment to the Constitution.”
Fortenberry called the scrutiny of the Knights of Columbus not only “shocking,” but also “unconstitutional, because it implies a religious test for office.”
“It was shocking that two U.S. senators would be so unfamiliar with the extraordinary charitable works of the Knights of Columbus,” he said.
“I was shocked that that happened and frankly shocked by the non-response of the Church hierarchy,” he added. “This is a religious test for office; it’s anti-Catholic bias; it shows just how deeply the Catholic Church has lost its footing in America, in terms of cultural impact.”
Ferguson called the scrutiny of the Knights of Columbus “outrageous.” She pointed out that the senators’ line of questioning clearly centered on the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion and support of traditional marriage.
“It really shows how captive they are to the ideological left, and it’s just because it’s a Catholic organization; and as such, they support Catholic teaching on life and marriage,” she said.
“This is a charitable organization with 2 million members. They gave $185 million to charity last year, donated millions and millions of hours of service — philanthropic service,” she said.
Ferguson added that for people of faith, the “best hope to protect our religious liberties are all of these judicial nominees that the president is nominating and that the Senate is confirming.”
“What’s just incredibly important is having constitutionalist judges who recognize our basic, First Amendment freedoms,” she said, praising Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., for “brilliantly navigating” the judicial nominees thus far through “a closely divided Senate.”
McClusky of March for Life Action noted the positive significance of having a larger pro-life majority in the Senate.
“An increase in pro-life senators should hopefully make confirming judges who follow the Constitution, as well as pro-life administration nominees, easier,” he said.
Register correspondent Lauretta Brown writes from Washington, D.C.