Monday, December 9, 2013

New York Times Editorial on ACLU Case vs. USCCB: Bishops' Squandered Pro-Life Case

After Time started the new year with an article about how the pro-life movement is carrying the day in the U.S., there's been a lot of talk in Catholic circles (see, e.g., this posting by Greg Sisk at Mirror of Justice) about how pro-lifers are winning the war against abortion. The National Opinion Research Center's survey of trends in attitudes (pdf file) about abortion this year showed support for the label "pro-life" inching up among younger Americans. This trend has been taken as a sign that the pro-life movement is winning, though this study and others continue to indicate that many Americans who claim the label "pro-life" also support the right of a woman to choose an abortion when that decision appears medically warranted.

And now along comes the case filed last week by the ACLU against the USCCB, about which I've previously posted (here and here), and about which the New York Times editorializes today with a headline reading, "When Bishops Direct Medical Care." The editorial argues that beyond the many state efforts now underway to restrict women's access to reproductive healthcare, a "quieter" threat "is posed by mergers between secular hospitals and Catholic hospitals operating under religious directives from the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops."

As the editorial points out, in the ACLU suit vs. the USCCB, a Michigan woman, Tamesha Means, is alleging that she was subjected to substandard treatment at a Catholic hospital--the only one in her county--when she was 18 weeks pregnant and her water broke:

Doctors in such circumstances typically induce labor or surgically remove the fetus to reduce the woman’s chances of infection. But according to the complaint, doctors acting in accordance with the bishops’ directives did not inform Ms. Means that her fetus had virtually no chance of surviving or that terminating her pregnancy was the safest treatment option. 
Despite acute pain and bleeding, Ms. Means was sent home twice, and when she returned a third time with a fever from her untreated infection, she miscarried even as the paperwork was being prepared to discharge her again. The fetus died soon after.

Regardless of how the case plays out, the Times thinks it deserves serious consideration for the following reason:

Catholic hospitals account for about 15 percent of the nation’s hospital beds and, in many communities, are the only hospital facilities available. Allowing religious doctrine to prevail over the need for competent emergency care and a woman’s right to complete and accurate information about her condition and treatment choices violates medical ethics and existing law.

As I read the Times editorial, I ask myself how the U.S. Catholic bishops have managed to get from point A at the beginning of 2013--we're winning the pro-life war against abortion!--to point B by the end of the year--Catholic hospitals are increasingly seen as a threat to the health of women because the bishops dictate the kind of healthcare provided in these hospitals, using doctrinal norms and not medical best-of-practice norms to make their decisions.

From where I stand, the reason that the bishops have ended up at point B when point A appeared so promising is obvious: they have spectacularly squandered the opportunities indicated by point A through the negative publicity they're now gaining by point B. In between the two points lies episcopal overreach. 

For some time now, and especially with their ludicrous Fortnight for Freedom events and their ugly partisan war against the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act, the bishops have been loudly defending their right to dictate public policy in a pluralistic, secular democracy. They've been pushing a notion of religious freedom that would afford them the right to override the rights (and consciences) of any citizens who disagree with them in a pluralistic, secular democracy.

They have been, in other words, vastly overreaching. Instead of relying on measured, respectful, open interchange in the public square about the complex issues involved in the abortion debate to persuade the public of their moral position, they've sought to command. They've sought to coerce. 

They've sought to command and coerce even non-Catholics. They have refused to grant the complexity of the issues involved in the abortion debate, a complexity apparent when two goods--saving the life of an unborn child and saving the life of the mother--come into conflict in cases like the 2010 case for which Bishop John Thomas J. Olmsted in Phoenix excommunicated Sister Margaret McBride when she supported a decision to terminate a pregnancy in which expert medical consensus had concluded that the fetus was not viable, and that the mother would almost certainly die if it was not aborted.

What the bishops have richly illustrated through their failed attempt to win the pro-life battle by issuing commands is the wisdom of ethicists who have argued for centuries now that the royal road to sound moral insight is not command or coercion, but careful thought. Conscience expands when people are taught to engage in moral reasoning. They engage in good moral reasoning in the same way that they engage in good reasoning in any other areas of their lives: when they're presented with a wide range of accurate information to inform their consciences, when they're challenged to look at issues from a variety of viewpoints and to defend various positions through  debate which engages the viewpoints of those who see things differently in respectful dialogue.

Issuing coercive commands has an effect that runs precisely counter to the direction taken by formation of sound conscience. It stunts conscience and results in moral deformation that keeps people at the level of infants as they seek to grapple with complex moral problems requiring adult heads and adult hearts.

Americans are, by inclination and cultural formation, middle-of-the-road sorts of people with a strong pragmatist bent. When a sizable percentage of Americans define themselves as pro-life, they appear to mean by that label that they reject the notion that abortion should ever be a casual decision taken lightly by anyone making that choice. I don't know anyone who is "pro-abortion" in the casual, mindless sense that many pro-lifers imagine when they characterize their opponents as pro-abortion.

What pro-choice Americans--and many pro-life Americans, as well--want to defend is the right of women to make the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy free of coercion or the imposition of religious commands issued by anyone, when compelling medical reasons appear to warrant that decision. The American Catholic bishops have failed to convince even their own flocks to accept their notion of pro-life thinking--that is, the bishops' unilateral right to dictate to the public at large a Catholic magisterial understanding of the abortion issue that brooks no opposition or entertains no discussion. Case closed.

The bishops will continue to have an uphill climb in convincing even their own Catholic flock of this position, it seems to me, until they themselves (and their cheerleaders in the Catholic media--see here and here) are seen in their own lives as credible witnesses to the values of life. And I fail to see how they can be seen in that way as long as we continue to learn that one bishop after another has exposed children to harm by protecting pedophile priests. Or while they try to browbeat the public into accepting their positions by fiat, as they permit no open, respectful engagement with their opponents in the public square . . . .

Or while the bishops continue to beat the war drum against gay citizens of the U.S., who are the children, siblings, mothers, fathers, aunts, and uncles of somebody, after all, and whose lives count for those who love them . . . . Or while the bishops continue to defend a single political party whose values appear to many Americans to run directly counter to pro-life values, in how that party treats those on the margins of society, immigrants, those without healthcare, jobs, and so forth . . . .

The graphic is from this 2012 article by Lydia Saad about the gradual tilting of American views in a pro-life direction.

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