Actions taken by the Bishops of the United States
By William E. May


With respect to partial-birth abortion, note must be made of two major actions taken by the Bishops of the United States.


The first of these was a statement entitled "Stand Up for Life", issued on 20 June 1996, after Clinton's veto of the first "Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act" but prior to congressional efforts to override the veto. Adopted unanimously by the Bishops on the first day of their 20-22 June 1996 meeting, the statement declared that partial-birth abortion is a particularly heinous and violent way of killing an infant during the process of birth. The Bishops then noted that "Congress voted to stop this shameful practice. However," they continued "because the President vetoed the bill partial-birth abortion - more truly a form of infanticide - continues in our country". They then concluded, "we urge the Congress of the United States to override the President's veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act". (8)


The second action taken by the Bishops of the United States is a much more extensive and forceful defense of innocent human life and a firm reminder to Catholics in positions of leadership, in particular, those holding political and legislative authority, to do all that lies within their power to repudiate abortion and to provide legal protection to the lives of the unborn. This step was taken by the Bishops at the annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops during their November 1998 general meeting when they overwhelmingly approved a document entitled Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics. (9)


This episcopal document has particular relevance to partial-birth abortion and the responsibilities of Catholics in public office, in particular, legislators. Referring obliquely to the specious efforts of President Clinton and those congressmen who refused to override his veto of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act, the Bishops declared: "Bad law and defective reasoning produce the evasive language used to justify evil. Nothing else", they said, "can explain the verbal and ethical gymnastics required by elected officials (emphasis added) to justify their support for partial-birth abortion, a procedure in which infants are brutally killed during the process of delivery". (10) In this document the Bishops, "in a special way", called "on U.S. Catholics, especially those in positions of leadership - whether cultural, economic, or political - to recover their identity as followers of Jesus Christ and to be leaders in the renewal of American respect for the sanctity of life.... No one, least of all someone who exercises leadership in society, can rightfully claim to share fully and practically the Catholic faith and yet act publicly in a way contrary to that faith". (11)


Pointedly singling out elected Catholic officials, the Bishops affirmed that "Catholics who are privileged to serve in public leadership positions have an obligation to place their faith at the heart of their public service, particularly on issues regarding the sanctity and dignity of human life." (12) They then declared: "We urge those Catholic officials who choose to depart from the Church teaching on the inviolability of human life in their public life to consider the consequences for their own spiritual well-being, as well as the scandal they risk by leading others into serious sin. We call on them to reflect on the grave contradiction of assuming public office and presenting themselves as credible Catholics when their actions on fundamental issues of human life are not in agreement with Church teaching". Concluding this passage they then solemnly proclaimed: "No public official, especially one claiming to be a faithful and serious Catholic, can reasonably advocate for or actively support direct attacks on innocent human life.... no appeal to policy, procedure, majority will or pluralism ever excuses a public official from defending life to the greatest extent possible". (13)


8. This statement of the U.S. Bishops, "Stand Up for Human Life", can be found in Origins: CNS Documentary Service 26.7 (4 July 1996) 110.


9. This document was published in November 1998 by the United States Catholic Conference in Washington, DC.


10. Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, n. 12.


11. Ibid., n. 7, emphasis added.


12. Ibid., n. 31, emphasis in original.


13. Ibid., n. 32.



Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology, John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, Washington, USA

L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, 1 September 1999, pp. 6-7.

Printed with permission from Priests for Life.


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