What Will the US Bishops’ Post-Roe Pro-Life Advocacy Look Like?
ANALYSIS: Even before the midterm’s disappointing results, the U.S. bishops have been signaling the approach they’ll likely be emphasizing in post-Roe America.
If discussing their post-Roe strategy for supporting women and children hadn’t already been on the U.S. bishops’ agenda for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ general assembly this coming week, you can bet it would’ve been immediately added following the brutal results of pro-life efforts to limit access to abortion in this Tuesday’s midterm elections.
In all five states where a proposal related to abortion access was on the ballot, the pro-life position was defeated. This was true in progressive strongholds like California and Vermont, as well as swing-state Michigan, but also in reliably “conservative” Kentucky and Montana. Factoring in the defeat of the “Value Them Both” initiative in Kansas this past August, efforts to protect life by limiting abortion access have been rejected by voters every time they’ve been on the ballot in post-Roe America.
In light of the latest slew of setbacks, the wider pro-life movement is grappling with its way forward. Should it continue with the approach it knows best, limiting access to abortion via the courts and legislation, especially with President Joe Biden backing efforts to codify Roe into law and, on the flipside, the future prospect of a 15-week federal abortion ban? Or, perhaps especially in light of the movement’s failures to achieve further protections for the unborn via popular vote after Roe’s demise, should there be a shift in focus to what has been dubbed “Pro-Life 3.0,” an approach that aims to make abortion “unthinkable” by addressing the material and social factors that often lead women to seek abortion in the first place?
This may remain an open question in some pro-life circles. But even before the midterm’s disappointing results, the U.S. bishops have been signaling the approach they’ll likely be emphasizing in post-Roe America.
Consider a recent letter from the heads of four significant USCCB committees, calling on members of Congress to respond to the “historic opportunity” to build a culture of life in the post-Roe context by embracing “radical solidarity” with “mothers, babies (born and preborn) and families throughout each person’s entire lifespan.” The bishops go on to express their hope “for the day when abortion is unthinkable because society has successfully reckoned with the challenges of raising children in the modern world and has decided to make the full flourishing of children and their families the highest goal, without anyone being excluded.”
To achieve this, the bishops advance what they describe as a “worldview of prioritizing the support of the family” and emphasize the role public policy should play. For instance, the importance of affordable health care, adequate parental leave and poverty alleviation are all stressed. The document even includes an appendix of 15 different “policy recommendations to support women and families,” such as the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act and the Child Tax Credit.
The letter, which was sent to all senators and representatives on Oct. 26, is signed by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, head of the pro-life committee; Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, chair of the domestic policy committee; San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, who chairs the committee on marriage and family; and Bishop Mario Dorsonville, a Washington auxiliary bishop and chairman of the committee on migration. In many ways, the letter builds on and incorporates many of the insights of “Building a Culture of Life in a Post-Roe World,” a statement issued days earlier by Archbishop Lori in his capacity as the USCCB’s pro-life chair.
The USCCB chairs don’t label their effort to broaden pro-life advocacy to include a proactive social vision of flourishing families as an instance of “Pro-Life 3.0,” but it fits the bill. And in many ways, this is the approach already being pursued in the form of state-level Catholic advocacy initiatives, like the Minnesota Catholic Conference-backed “Families First Project” or the California Catholic Conference’s “We Were Born Ready” post-Roe initiative.
But it is noteworthy to see such a vision presented by the bishops to members of Congress, particularly right before the topic of post-Roe advocacy is set for discussion in Baltimore. It also shouldn’t be ignored that the letter’s three archbishop signatories are candidates in the USCCB’s upcoming election for conference president, indicating that this approach to pro-life advocacy isn’t a marginal view, but one that’s likely popular among the body of bishops, or at least among those who will likely be driving the conference’s lobbying agenda in Washington.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the USCCB won’t be turning to the pro-life playbook to push for limiting legal access to abortion — something Archbishop Lori, for instance, has done recently by endorsing the proposed 15-week abortion ban and criticizing Biden for the president’s stated prioritization of codifying a right to abortion into federal law. Making abortion both illegal and unthinkable, after all, are not mutually exclusive goals.
But when it comes to advocacy, time, resources and messaging opportunities are finite, and priorities must be made. And there seems to be a clear sense among Church leadership that now is a singularly important time to emphasize expanding pro-life advocacy beyond legal strategies to limit abortion.
Part of that calculus may have to do with the fact that significant changes in abortion law at the federal level don’t appear imminent: As expected, the midterms have resulted in a divided government, blocking the Democrats’ immediate path to pushing federal abortion legislation. Meanwhile, Republicans also likely don’t have the political will to push the pro-life cause forward at the national level anytime soon, given the backlash to the overturn of Roe that may have contributed to a disappointing midterm performance for the GOP. So rather than wait around for an opening on the “make abortion illegal” front, the bishops are calling for immediate action in the “make abortion unthinkable” vein.
In fact, there may be a sense that building a culture of life via family-friendly policies is a necessary step before further progress can be made in convincing lawmakers and the public to legally restrict abortion.
But another factor may be a sense among the bishops that the “Pro-Life 3.0” approach offers opportunities to build a culture of life that break free from partisan gridlock and acrimony — and not just in political life.
The bishops likely think their call for “radical solidarity” has potential for bipartisan collaboration, bringing economically progressive Democrats and socially conservative Republicans together. For instance, in his own individual letter, Archbishop Lori writes that the end of Roe can bring about a “new politics,” in which “those who disagree on the morality or justice of abortion should nonetheless come together to pursue common-ground solutions to provide care and support to mothers, children, and families in need.”
But what may be more interesting to consider is the potential the vision articulated by Archbishops Coakley, Cordileone and Lori and Bishop Dorsonville has for bringing about greater unity among the bishops themselves.
It’s no secret, after all, that differing perspectives on how the USCCB should teach and advocate regarding abortion have been a source of division within the U.S. episcopacy in recent years. For instance, during a fall 2019 discussion of the USCCB’s introductory letter for “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago and others protested against maintaining the decades-old practice of describing the threat of abortion as the bishops’ “preeminent priority” on the grounds that it distorted Catholic social teaching by reducing it to one issue. The bishops voted to maintain the language, adding that “efforts to protect the unborn remain as important as ever,” given state-level initiatives to expand abortion access. A year later, immediately prior to the 2020 general election, now-Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego made similar criticisms of the “preeminent priority” language and was publicly criticized by Bishop Thomas Daly of Spokane, Washington.
The new post-Roe context, which has seen a 6% decline in total abortions in the U.S. since the Dobbs decision, does not diminish the particular moral abhorrence of abortion, and it seems unlikely that a majority of bishops will be willing to back down from including “preeminent priority” language in “Faithful Citizenship,” which, by the way, is slated for a general discussion at the upcoming assembly. At their meeting only three years ago, for instance, 143 bishops voted to keep the language, compared to only 69 who supported its removal.
But the new landscape of abortion in the U.S. does suggest a shift in how the bishops may call for addressing that preeminent priority. While the threat of laws expanding or enshrining abortion access remain real, and while the possibility of a Supreme Court ruling on fetal personhood or federal limits on abortion may still be desirable, the bishops seem to be indicating that the most impactful way to curtail the killing of unborn children today is by building a culture of life and making abortion unthinkable: embracing “radical solidarity” and an advocacy approach that focuses on family flourishing, integrating Church teaching on life, marriage, economics, immigration and other social issues.
Such an approach is likely more broadly appealing among the U.S. bishops and may even find some bipartisan traction in Congress. But it could also cause angst within a pro-life establishment built to limit abortion access via legislation and the courts, underscoring some of the nuances and complexities involved in the issue. Watching how the bishops navigate this conversation, what approaches are emphasized and by whom, and how the discussion about pro-life advocacy after Roe plays into debates about how to formulate “Faithful Citizenship” will be one of the most interesting and significant dimensions of the upcoming general assembly.