‘The War on Women’: Lessons Learned

Catholic leaders respond to recent cultural attacks

WASHINGTON — In September 2012, with Planned Parenthood and its allies warning of a "war on women" by lawmakers seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade, pro-life activist Lila Rose of Live Action sought to redirect public attention to the harm that abortion inflicts on women.

During an appearance at the 2012 Values Voter Summit, Rose recalled the death of 24-year-old Tonya Reaves, who left behind a 1-year-old son following an alleged botched abortion.

"Tonya is the real face of the war on women — women who have been lied to by powerful interests with powerful population-control ideologies who are telling us women that abortion will liberate us, that abortion will solve our problems," Rose stated.

Rose wasn’t the only pro-life leader to challenge the "war on women" drumbeat during the 2012 election year. But many activists and religious leaders had trouble getting through to the majority of female voters, who, according to exit polls, backed candidates who pledged to defend women’s rights by supporting legal abortion and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ contraception mandate.

A year and half later, pro-life legislators and their supporters are gearing up for midterm elections, and they expect the "war on women" mantra to return with a vengeance. The issue now, they say, is: What are the "lessons learned" from the last time abortion-rights groups effectively reframed opposition to abortion and the HHS mandate as an attack on women?

The question acknowledges the political consequences of failing to counter such charges. But for Church leaders in the United States, it also addresses the challenge of engaging poorly catechized Catholics and other Americans of goodwill who are struggling to understand whether specific policies help or harm women.

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer brought this simmering debate to a boil with a Jan. 30 column, "How to debunk the ‘war on women,’"  which proposed new tactics for dealing with the next round of attacks.

Krauthammer argued that pro-life lawmakers should stay focused on policy and avoid sensitive subjects like rape that trigger strong emotions and often obscure the central issues at stake. And he suggested that pro-lifers should set aside their mission to overturn Roe and act on a "straightforward strategy for seizing the high ground on abortion in a way that transcends the normal divisions and commands wide popular support: Focus on the horror of late-term abortion — and get it banned."

In the wake of the 2013 trial of Kermit Gosnell, the abortionist found guilty on three counts of first-degree murder for killing babies born alive at his business, Krauthammer concluded, the nation has turned away from late-term abortions. But no such consensus exists on early abortions, he suggested.

The pro-life movement has long debated whether activists should be content with an incremental strategy for overturning abortion. But Church leaders have been wary of such arguments, partly because their first responsibility is to teach and defend the faith, including non-negotiable moral absolutes that prohibit direct abortion at any stage.


Defending Religious Freedom

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the U.S. bishops’ point man on religious freedom, witnessed firsthand the partisan attacks that tied opposition to the HHS mandate to a "war on women." The federal law requires virtually every private employer to provide co-pay-free contraception, sterilization and abortion-inducing drugs in their health plans, even if those services violate the employers’ religious beliefs.

Back in 2012, then-Bishop Lori testified at a House committee meeting about the threat the mandate posed to the free exercise of Catholic institutions. But supporters of the federal law countered that the voices of women were being suppressed by an all-male Catholic hierarchy, and Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown law student who opposes Catholic teaching on contraception, became a national icon to abortion-rights supporters (Fluke is now running for Congress in California).

As Americans grappled with the substance and scope of the federal law, Archbishop Lori led the bishops’ campaign to explain the threat it posed — and then the call for legal and legislative remedies to fix the narrow religious exemption.

Predictably, abortion-rights groups attacked those efforts as further evidence of the Church’s animus toward women, but some Catholic groups and commentators also chastised Church leaders for needlessly stirring up trouble. Still, the bishops did not waver, and their unity and patience helped to keep the legal strategy on course and the controversy in the public eye.

At present, 47 for-profit employers and 46 nonprofits have filed legal challenges to the mandate, with the U.S. Supreme Court scheduled to hear oral arguments for Hobby Lobby’s case in March. Lawmakers from both parties have filed briefs with the high court, highlighting the importance of this case.

EWTN is among the slew of nonprofit employers filing legal challenges. The Register is a service of EWTN.

"We need to be true to ourselves," Archbishop Lori told the Register. "What does that mean? It means that as a Church we have a profound understanding of the dignity of each person. It means that we are seeking religious freedom not to preserve our prerogatives, but, rather, so we will have the freedom to serve, to bring the Gospels to the margins."

In homilies and public statements, he offers "two simple messages: Religious freedom is part of human dignity," and those who oppose the mandate are "seeking the freedom to serve. That means serving the common good, the needs of others, according to the vision of human dignity that flows from our faith."


Archbishop Chaput

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia shares that long-term commitment.

"The ‘war on women’ rhetoric is just the latest cloud of tear gas from the other side; another attempt at crowd control — useful in the short term, useless in the long run," Archbishop Chaput told the Register.

He acknowledged that powerful abortion-rights advocates in government and media made it tough, at times, for a new generation of articulate, well-catechized young pro-life leaders to get their message across.

"Abortion is, in effect, a federally encouraged cult, made worse by an administration that talks about compromise and does exactly the opposite," Archbishop Chaput said. "It takes a very long time to wear down that kind of granite because it’s not encumbered by honesty. But we’ll get there."

Even so, he believes the message that "Abortion hurts women" continues to "resonate."

Abortion "feeds a culture of violence because it’s a uniquely intimate form of violence. And the wound lasts a very long time. It demeans women’s dignity. It steals their integrity, while claiming to protect their options. And, in the end, nothing is gained by it," he said, explaining the substance of his own message.


Countering Rhetoric

Thomas Farr, the director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, told the Register that the "war on women" campaign had been an effective strategy for supporters of the HHS mandate, despite the patent falseness of the accusations.

But as the debate continues and the impact of the law is better understood, Farr predicted that the strategy of abortion-rights activists will "unravel," and it is critical for opponents of the mandate to get the truth out.

"As preposterous as the ‘war on women’ assertion is on its face, however, it descends to the ridiculous when it is applied to the Little Sisters of the Poor. Just as the sonogram has provided a picture of the little girl in the womb who is to be killed and has thereby increased opposition to abortion, pictures of the gentle (and unmistakably female) sisters give the lie to the charge of misogyny," said Farr.

Bringing that message to mainstream America has become a central mission for new groups that seek to engage the "war on women" argument, like "Women Speak for Themselves,"  co-founded by Helen Alvaré, a longtime pro-life leader and law professor at George Mason University.

Scot Landry, the executive director of Catholic Voices USA, which trains Catholics to present Church teaching in a compelling, positive way, said more women are now well-equipped to address arguments suggesting that pro-life beliefs put women down.

"Throughout the United States, there are mothers, daughters, sisters, women representing us in politics and the Church who witness to and support policies that would help women and families flourish. I know: I see them all the time in Catholic Voices training," Landry told the Register. "We’re actually a nation with some common ground to work on in defense of the dignity of human life, as a recent Marist poll commissioned by the Knights of Columbus clearly demonstrates."

Lila Rose, for her part, welcomes the renewed awareness that the "war on women" must be addressed head-on.

"One reason why it had an impact was because we didn’t respond to the assault rhetoric," Rose told the Register of her efforts, and those of others, to counter such attacks reasonably. "We need to say, ‘We cannot reduce women in the political discussion to the question of controlling their fertility.’"

Rose has learned something from the 2012 attacks on pro-lifers. But she rejected Krauthammer’s suggestion that pro-lifers should retreat, for now, from advocating for a ban on all abortion, including those in the first trimester.

"The only way you build consensus is to get the truth out there," she said. "That is our responsibility — to speak boldly about the great violence of abortion at all stages."