U.S. Bishops’ pro-life office corrects ‘misleading’ FOCA novena message

U.S. Bishops’ pro-life office corrects ‘misleading’ FOCA novena message

Tom Grenchik / President-elect Barack Obama
Tom Grenchik / President-elect Barack Obama


Officials at the Pro-life Secretariat of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) have issued statements seeking to correct “misleading” information provided in a widely-circulated announcement for a novena to stop FOCA.

The officials insisted that the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) would not pass immediately after President-elect Obama takes office, but they reaffirmed that the possible coercion of pro-life medical institutions and changes to abortion funding restrictions are real concerns.

The novena announcement in question, which did not originate with the USCCB, asks Catholics to pray to stop FOCA, legislation designed to protect abortion rights even if the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade is overturned. The novena was to start on January 11.

One variant of the novena announcement begins by warning “If you are opposed to abortion then there is bad news on the horizon.”

Information with this novena announcement claims that FOCA is “set to be signed if Congress passes it on January 21-22 of 2009.” It claims that all hospitals, including Catholic hospitals, will be forced by FOCA to perform abortions on request.

The novena announcement says informed consent laws and parental notification laws will be eliminated and claims that partial birth abortions will be legalized. Further, it warns that all U.S. taxpayers will be funding abortions if FOCA passes.

The anonymous novena announcement writer then speculates:

“Perhaps most importantly the government will now have control in the issue of abortion. This could result in a future amendment that would force women by law to have abortions in certain situations (rape, Down syndrome babies, etc) and could even regulate how many children women are allowed to have.”

In a Friday email to those with questions about the novena, Richard Doerflinger, Associate Director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-life Activities, stated “this novena item is misleading in any number of ways.”

“Of course there is no possibility of FOCA being passed this month,” he stated. He also denied a rumor that, upon taking office, President-elect Obama could enact FOCA simply by executive order.

“There may or may not be presidential orders in the first few days of the Administration to reverse President Bush's policies on stem cell research” and the Mexico City Policy, which forbids funding for international organizations which perform or promote abortions.

“We are fairly sure that our opponents will try for various less ambitious efforts before they try for FOCA, including possible attacks on some of the pro-life riders contained in appropriations bills that must be renewed by the first week of March,” Doerflinger explained, noting that the Prevention First Act which mandates contraception coverage is of concern to the Secretariat.

He said a postcard produced for pro-lifers by the Secretariat emphasizes that FOCA is one of many threats. The postcard urges Congress to oppose FOCA, “any similar measure, AND to retain current policies that prevent government funding and promotion of abortion.”

Doerflinger did warn that if abortion rights advocates succeed in lesser efforts, such as overturning the Hyde Amendment or a similar “longstanding funding rider” prohibiting abortion funding, “they will probably be emboldened to go for bigger goals.”

The novena announcement’s contention that women could be forced to undergo abortions, Doerflinger said, is “very strange.” He said such laws would “presumably” be unconstitutional under Roe v. Wade.

“But even FOCA itself is expressed throughout in terms of the woman's freedom of choice over pregnancy, birth and abortion, so such a pro-coercion amendment would have to say the exact opposite of what the text of the bill now says.”

However, he added, coercion of pro-life health care providers under FOCA is “indeed a legitimate and grave concern.”

“FOCA itself would not directly force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, but could be used to invalidate the laws that currently prevent others (including governmental bodies) from exerting such pressure,” Doerflinger explained.

FOCA’s provision that government may not “discriminate” against the exercise of the abortion right in providing public benefits, information and services, he added, “seems to insist that all health programs that involve women of childbearing age must cover abortion to the same extent that they cover childbirth.”

“That mandate would be used to nullify or undermine conscience clauses within those programs, to create new ‘basic benefits’ mandates that pro-life providers cannot provide in good conscience.”

“The effect would be to push Catholic and other pro-life providers increasingly out of public health programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, etc., making it impossible for them to survive.”

“We have to remember that FOCA is a very unusual kind of statute.  It does not require or prohibit actions on the part of private individuals.  It is a law about what kinds of laws you are allowed to have.  It is a statute written to do the kind of thing that Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Constitution ordinarily do -- but it is even more extreme than the Supreme Court's own decisions,” Doerflinger wrote.

“In that sense, it is indeed a power grab on the part of Congress, telling all 50 states what laws they are not allowed to enact,” Doerflinger argued.

“But we also need to be careful that we don't make charges we can't back up.  FOCA is radical enough to be frightening without doing that!”

Tom Grenchik, Executive Director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-life Activities, also sent a Friday e-mail to the diocesan Pro-Life Directors and Catholic conferences of U.S. states asking that they correct the false information conveyed in the novena announcement should they come across it.

Grenchik further noted the prayer resources on the Pro-life Secretariat web site at http://www.usccb.org/prolife/liturgy/index.shtml , explaining that January 22 shall be observed as “a particular day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life.”

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