Catholic voters' shift

Why the flock disregarded some bishops' advice and helped sweep Barack Obama into office

November 16, 2008|By Patrick Whelan and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend

Catholics voted decisively in this month's election for Barack Obama, 54 percent to 45 percent, according to exit polls. This was a big reversal from four years ago, when Catholics favored George W. Bush by 5 percentage points. Now the debate is on. The U.S. Bishops, meeting last week in Baltimore, wrestled with the implications of election results that showed Catholics rejecting the dictates of the most conservative and outspoken bishops, who urged parishioners to vote Republican.

The putative argument for these bishops was that only Republicans are sufficiently pure on the abortion question. The facts show otherwise. Analysis of abortion statistics over the past 28 years demonstrates that Democrats do a better job of reducing the number of abortions than Republicans. Significantly more progress was made against abortion during the Clinton administration than during any of the three Republican administrations that preceded or followed it.

Overall, the national abortion rate fell about 50 percent faster under President Bill Clinton than it has under President George W. Bush. We conservatively estimate that an additional 274,800 children might be alive today had abortion rates continued to drop during the first five years of the Bush administration at the same rate that they fell during the same period under Mr. Clinton.

In other words, while the Republicans have been focused on laws such as the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act that have not been proved to have stopped even a single abortion, the Democrats oversaw meaningful reductions.

What was stunning about this election is that a number of leading pro-life Catholics, including some staunch Republicans, switched their allegiance to Barack Obama. Law professors M. Cathleen Kaveny, Douglas W. Kmiec and Nicholas P. Cafardi joined groups like ours in vigorously advancing abortion-reduction strategies. Indeed, Mr. Obama included these strategies - such as expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program, expanding prenatal care and facilitating adoption - in the Democratic platform for the first time. We believe such strategies have been shown to be much more effective than the Republican focus on promoting the possibility that some abortions in some smaller states might be made illegal if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned someday.

When the Democrats used Catholic language to advance the reduction strategies, Republican operatives, conservative columnists and some bishops accused the Obama advocates of "misusing" the bishops' words to support the more liberal candidate. A few, such as Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City, went so far as to suggest that a trip to hell was the likely outcome for voters who marked Mr. Obama on their ballots.

All this talk about abortion and the need to vote Republican demonstrates what is really at the heart of some of the bishops' concerns: They wanted the Republican to win. But Catholics care about many issues: torture, war and peace, health care, immigration - as well as how to be a good neighbor, how to care for the least among us and how best to work for the common good.

That is what most of the bishops care about too. In fact, bishops have told us in private that they applaud our efforts to advance a Catholic ethos within the Democratic Party. We hope that in the course of their deliberations, these bishops will speak out and recommit to the "faithful citizenship" ideas that represent the heart of Catholic teaching.

This election has demonstrated that American Catholics want leaders who are serious, deliberative and have a sense of gravitas about the questions confronting us. Pope Benedict XVI has reached out to President-elect Obama, and there is a new spirit alive in the Vatican for focusing on the big questions of our day. We stand ready to join our bishops, in this moment of new hope and opportunity, to work for the common good.

Dr. Patrick Whelan, a pediatric specialist, is president of the Catholic Democrats. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a former lieutenant governor of Maryland, is on the group's board.

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