Nation's Cardinals Hope Vigil Will Help Effort to Outlaw Partial-Birth Abortion

AN UNPRECEDENTED public prayer service was held Sept. 12 on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. Its goal: To override of President Clinton's veto of the Partial-birth Abortion Ban Act.

All eight U.S. cardinals-James Hickey of Washington, D.C. William Keeler of Baltimore, Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, John O'Connor of New York, Bernard Law of Boston, Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and Adam Maida of Detroit-more than 50 bishops and archbishops and a host of religious leaders presided over a crowd of over 2,500 participants.

Two days later, at a Christian Coalition rally in Washington for Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, his running mate, Jack Kemp, added his voice to those calling for an override of the veto. “It is impossible for our nation to be a city set on a hill while partial birth abortion is allowed in this country….,” he said. “Let me say that Bob Dole as president would never veto any attempt by Congress … to save those precious lives.”

The Sept. 12 prayer service crowned an ongoing effort that, according to Cardinal Keeler, hinged on prayer, education, and action.

Immediately following the veto, the cardinals and bishops wrote to the President in protest. At that time, they pledged to “do all we can to educate people about partial-birth abortion…. We also urge Catholics and other people … to do all they can to urge Congress to override this shameful veto.” Since April, more than 5 million educational fliers on partial-birth abortion have been distributed; a mail campaign (still underway) is expected to send close to 32 million postcards to Congress. An Aug. 20 memo from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America affirms the effectiveness of this grassroots effort: “The Catholic bishops' postcard campaign has generated overwhelming pressure on Members.… A House office reports getting 9,000-plus anti-choice (sic) postcards, 600 anti-letters and only one (emphasis in the original) letter supporting the member's pro-choice position.”

In a historical first, the U.S. Catholic cardinals and the head of the Catholic bishops' conference jointly wrote to each member of Congress urging them to vote to override the veto. In the letter, dated Sept. 10, the prelates addressed concerns about “the claim that partial birth abortion is sometimes medically necessary to preserve a woman's health or her ability to bear children,” by calling attention to the Physicians' Ad Hoc Coalition for Truth (PHACT), a group of more than 300 doctors appalled by repeated false claims of “medical necessity.” They also noted former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop's statement that Clinton “was misled by his medical advisors on what is fact and what is fiction in reference to late-term abortions.”

In a June 7 letter protesting media bias in the 60 Minutes story on partial birth abortion, Rep. Tom Coburn (ROkla.), lawmaker and obstetrician, said: “From my experience as a physician and having delivered more than 3,000 babies in my lifetime, I know that it is never necessary to take the life of a child in the process of being born.”

In order to override the veto, a two-thirds majority is required in both Houses. The House vote is expected to pass, but Doug Johnson of National Right-to-Life cautioned that a battle lies ahead for pro-lifers. “Two pro-life members are in the hospital and may not make the vote” said Johnson; “this is not a done deal.” A victory in the House would force a Senate vote. The ban passed in the Senate last spring with only a 54-44 margin; 13 more senators are needed for the override to pass. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) said that “it is going to take a miracle for this to pass the Senate. There is only one way I know of to obtain a miracle, that is why I am out here praying. A culture is defined by what it does. We must show moral outrage about what is going on in our culture. It is not a pretty picture.”

The prayer service was preceded by a press briefing in which Helen Alvare of the Pro-Life Secretariat of the bishops' conference noted the significance of meeting “at the place where life and death decisions are made among law-makers” in order to “reject the cruel destruction of infants seconds away from taking their first breath.” Cardinal Hickey set the tone for the gathering: “You and I stand at the edge of a new century and a new millennium. Either it will be an era of life or an era of death. Either we will protect life or destroy it … we pray that this nation will choose to protect life … and we are here because we believe that prayer changes things. Prayer can awaken a nation caught in the grip of the culture of death.”

Opposition to partial-birth abortion, crosses party lines and even bridges the gender gap. According to a recent Tarrance Poll, 71 percent of all Americans support the bill vetoed by the President, breaking down as 78 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of Democrats, and 68 percent of “ticket-splitters” or independents.

When asked whether the prayer service was staged close to the election deliberately, Cardinal Law said that “we have spoken about this time and again, we will defend life at any time.”

The service began with a greeting by Cardinal Law and a passage from the Pope John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) read by Cardinal Bernardin.

Cardinal O'Connor lead the opening prayer. Bishop Basil Losten of the Ukranian Diocese of Stamford, Conn. lead the gathering in the “Litany for Life” authored by Cardinal O'Connor, while petitions taken from the prayer-books of different denominations were also read.

Pastor George Anderson of Mt. Oak United Methodist Church in Mitchellsville, Md., highlighted the ecumenical nature of the event by saying that, “this is not a Catholic issue, it is a moral issue, a human issue.”

Former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Thomas Melady said that “we are here to protest a heinous act, but to protest within the Constitution. We are committed to follow the Constitution and to do so as Catholics in the public square.”

Edward Mulholland is based in Washington, D.C.