Preeminence of Life: US Bishops Discuss Ballot Losses and Upcoming Tests

Communicating the sanctity of unborn human life is more urgent in the post-Roe political climate.

Pro-life demonstrators hold signs at Market Square during the annual Life Chain Sunday in Bloomsburg, Pa., on October 8, 2023. (Photo: Paul Weaver)

WASHINGTON — Following a string of pro-life losses at the polls post-Dobbs, U.S. bishops in the states that faced 2023 ballot tests and those looking ahead to abortion-related measures at the polls in 2024 remain determined to stand for life. 

Earlier this month, Ohio voters moved to add a right to “reproductive freedom,” including abortion to the state Constitution in a decisive vote of 56%-43%. In Virginia, Democrats took the General Assembly, defeating Republican messaging supporting a 15-week abortion limit. And voters in Maryland and New York are facing abortion-related ballot initiatives in 2024, with a potential for abortion-related ballot initiatives in nine other states.

As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops held their fall plenary assembly Nov. 13-16 in Baltimore, bishops from states that had faced pro-life losses this year and those facing abortion measures on their 2024 ballots spoke with the Register about how to stand for life amid election challenges and disappointments. 


Lessons After Losses

Bishop Earl Fernandes of Columbus, Ohio, told the Register that while the results in his state were demoralizing, the bishops spoke with a “united voice” on the ballot initiative and made good efforts to get the word out about the dangers of the measure. He said the pro-life side was outspent and faced a hostile media. 

He said that it’s important to remember, regardless of the Nov. 7 ballot measure’s disappointing outcome, there are still “women contemplating abortion and we as a Church have a moral duty to make abortion morally unthinkable for them, which means we have to provide these networks of support for them that continue to accompany them, continue to help them to see that having a child is actually a great blessing.” 

Bishop Fernandes added that “the battle isn’t just a legal battle, it’s a battle for hearts, and that’s where we now have to take the fight to eliminate abortion and save as many lives as possible.” He also saw a need in Catholic education to form consciences with a pro-life ethos, incorporating “how faith and reason are compatible and how human life actually develops” and discussing “the human person and his dignity.”

He called the result of the measure a “wake-up call” to give the issue a higher profile and “coordinate with our crisis-pregnancy centers” like Heartbeat International, which is headquartered in his diocese, and state groups like the organization Bottoms Up, which provides diapers to those in need. 

Bishop Fernandes noted that it might take time to reach people on the issue, given how long it took for Roe to be overturned. 

“I was born in September of 1972, just before Roe v. Wade, so we worked two generations to see a decision overturned, only now to have a setback, but we keep persevering,” he said. “We can’t give up.”

He quoted Pope Francis, who wrote in his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Gospel of Joy) that a “defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right,” as “it involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development.”


Bishop Burbidge’s Perspective

Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, told the Register that in Virginia the bishops “did so much to inform and to inspire our parishioners and citizens and members of our community,” but, unfortunately, “abortion became the topic on the campaign trail and those who supported life were not victorious.”

He called the outcome “disappointing.” But, he added, “We can’t despair because we have the truth; so we know we’re going to win because the truth always wins, but it’s also a wake-up call of: We have more work to do.”

“We celebrated when Roe v. Wade was overturned,” he said, “but maybe we didn’t realize how hard the work going forward is going to be because, in a sense, it really sparked a lot of reaction from those who do not agree with our position, and they are being very aggressive in forcing their position as they run for office.” 

“We have to promote laws, for sure, that will enshrine the protection of the pre-born and all the vulnerable,” he said of the pro-life movement’s continued work. “We also have to transform hearts and minds, and I think that one of the ways that we do that is we have to point to the extreme positions of those who are embracing abortion without limits, with no limits until the ninth month.” 

Bishop Burbidge said that it is important to contrast those positions with the pro-life perspective that’s anchored in truth and say “here is the extreme position, and here is a position that is consistent with the gospel of life.” 

Another element of reaching people on the pro-life issue, he said, is reassuring people via a positive and encompassing message.

“We are pro-mother. We are pro-woman. We are pro-father,” Bishop Burbidge said. “We walk with moms in need. We provide help with women in crisis pregnancy. We provide counseling, finance resources, housing,” thereby demonstrating that “abortion does not have to be a choice.”


Preparing for Battles Ahead

While there will likely be many ballot tests on the abortion issue in 2024, the two measures on the issue already on state ballots are in New York and Maryland. 

In New York, where abortion is already widely permitted through all nine months of pregnancy, the measure would amend the state Constitution to prohibit the denial of rights to an individual based on their “pregnancy, pregnancy outcomes, and reproductive health care and autonomy.”

In a memo opposing the measure, the New York Catholic Conference wrote in January that “including ‘reproductive health care and autonomy’ in the litany of protected classes in Section 11 of the New York State Constitution is another unnecessary step in the state’s quest to be the abortion capital of the country. The amendment is gratuitous, as abortion is already legal in New York with virtually no restrictions, and has, in fact, been declared a ‘fundamental right’ by the Reproductive Health Act of 2019.”

Bishop Robert Brennan of Brooklyn, New York, told the Register that he was not surprised by the ballot initiative in New York, given the state’s widely permissive abortion stance. He wondered if the measure is an attempt to “get out the vote for the larger elections by rallying around this thing, which is a terrible commentary on New York.” 

He observed that Democratic candidates in the state have “rallied around the abortion argument” and painted pro-lifers “as extremists to advance a political agenda, and that worked.” Setting aside the issue of Democrats versus Republicans, pro-lifers have to push back on that portrayal, he said, and show “the extremes on the other side and point out that a lot of the things we’re proposing are things that if you took them step by step and you really looked at them, most Americans, even a lot of New Yorkers, would agree.”

Bishop Brennan said that the pro-life movement’s principal concern in this moment should be “to work hard at transforming hearts and minds” by getting people “to embrace that foundational issue of respect for all life, for all people created in the image and likeness of God,” along with pointing out the extreme stance of the pro-abortion side: allowing abortion up through birth. 

Bishop Brennan, who was born in the Bronx, previously served in the Diocese of Columbus from 2019 to 2021. He said he was “surprised and concerned” by the results of the Ohio ballot measure because Ohio is “a pro-life state,” not just because of the Catholic community, but more widely. He believes the other side was successful there in painting pro-lifers as the extremists, despite the fact that the language in the amendment about an individual’s right to reproductive freedom was so broad it could mean “even a parent can’t get involved in a child’s choice about gender.” 

The Brooklyn bishop said that across the country — and particularly in states like New York — “it’s going to take a lot of discernment, even in the pro-life community, to set the priorities, to have a measured, very patient, step by step, brick-by-brick building of a political agenda that embraces the pro-life culture. We may not be able to accomplish everything at once, but we have to try to take the gains that we can get and use those opportunities to transform the culture.”


The Situation in Maryland

In Maryland, voters will decide in November of 2024 whether to add a “right to reproductive freedom” to the state Constitution, defined to include “the ability to make and effectuate decisions to prevent, continue, or end one’s own pregnancy.” 

Maryland already allows abortion with few limits all through pregnancy, and an “all-trimester abortion clinic,” offering abortions up to 34 weeks in pregnancy, opened up in the state last September.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the vice president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, told the Register that while the state “has among the most permissive abortion laws anywhere,” he is hopeful that “Marylanders and the Catholic community in particular would come to understand what this would allow and promote, namely, abortion right up to the moment of birth.” 

“I think that we can do so much better, and we must do better,” Archbishop Lori said. “We recognize that it’s politically very challenging, but, nonetheless, we have to speak and speak prophetically in our culture about this.” 

He called the outcomes of the state referenda on abortion thus far “distressing,” but said “at the same time, we have to continue to stand with vulnerable human life in every circumstance.” 

“One of the most convincing ways to open minds and hearts to the sanctity of unborn human life is to lift up what the Church is doing for unborn mothers in crises and for their children,” Archbishop Lori said. The Church’s “radical solidarity with mothers and their unborn children” has been hard to communicate “over the false and misleading claims that have been made in these various state referenda — but we have to continue doing it; no matter what the law says, we have to continue to help people forsake abortion as the solution to anything. 

“It’s not a solution,” he said. “It’s destruction.”

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