For some 26 years now, since New York's Cardinal John O'Connor launched a vigorous attack on Geraldine Ferraro's pro-choice stance when she was the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 1984, commentators on Catholic politics have debated the reason for the church's intense political focus on the single issue of abortion. The church, after all, in theory supports a more extensive list of human rights than most contemporary religions and philosophies. The list includes the right to life, food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and the necessary social services for old age and disability. The human person also enjoys a right to religious freedom, to freedom of speech and publication, to marry and raise a family, to earn a just wage, to join a union, and to immigrate and emigrate. The church has long advocated a theory of just war, which restricts not only the wars in which Catholics may fight but the military means that may be employed in any war.
Nonetheless, communion is denied to Catholic politicians only for their support of abortion rights, and, very occasionally, euthanasia and same-sex marriage.
The abortion priority was confirmed by the American Catholic bishops' recent decision to oppose health care legislation because it did not adequately limit federal abortion funding. Because the bill already restricted government funding of abortion, it became clear that the bishops' goal was to restrict as much abortion as possible by making it more difficult for women to attain any insurance coverage for abortion, even that paid for with their own money. The bishops abandoned their longstanding commitment to a universal right to health care in favor of abortion limitations. The bishops were very, very, very engaged in drafting Rep. Bart Stupak's anti-abortion legislation. They worked with Stupak's staff. Stupak consulted the bishops to make sure they were on the same page and knew what he was doing. The bishops were really engaged in this battle in a way that is unprecedented in recent history.
Why would the bishops ignore health care, just wages and aid to the poor during an economic downturn; tolerate presidential policies about just war, torture and detention of enemy combatants; and abandon immigration reform and other issues connected to Catholic social teaching in exchange for a single-minded focus on abortion? Allegedly the bishops emphasize abortion because they see themselves as crusaders for human rights--protectors of the innocent, the voiceless, and the powerless.
The historical record belies that thesis. In 1985, the Rev. Thomas Doyle alerted the bishops to the overwhelming scope of the sexual abuse crisis. Doyle was fired and ignored, as were the innocent, the voiceless, the powerless and the deaf victims of sexual abuse around the world. The church, including the current pope, repeatedly protected the priests' rights at the expense of innocent children.
It would be foolish to conclude that the same hierarchy has targeted abortion at the expense of all other human rights because of its concern about fetal life. The real battle is about women's equality, which the church opposed before and since its 1984 attacks on Geraldine Ferraro. That American legislators cooperated with the church to limit women's rights is yet another offensive chapter in a decades-long saga of abuse of the legal system.