Roman Catholic bishops are trying to regain the momentum in the long fight over abortion rights, and it is Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua who will lead their charge.
Elected chairman of the Pro Life Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops last November, the 78-year-old prelate says he will expand a pro-life advertising campaign that ran last year in his city and bring an aggressive lobbying effort to elected officials.
As part of the campaign, Cardinal Bevilacqua will be in Washington Tuesday for the annual March for Life, which commemorates the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade that legalized abortion.
The cardinal argues that lawmakers’ support for abortion with some restrictions muddles the issue in a way that an outright ban would not.
“The current situation is almost a compromise; it removes it as an absolute. Abortion is an absolute evil about which no exceptions are permitted,” he said in a recent interview. “People see something wrong with it. We have to make more people aware and take it to the next step.”
The advertising campaign, which ran in the Philadelphia area last year, encourages people to re-evaluate their thinking.
“Because ‘choice’ means being able to have an abortion at any time for any reason, today in America one out of every four pregnancies ends in abortion. We simply ask the question, ‘Have we gone too far?,’” reads the text of one of the radio spots.
The ads, and events such as March for Life, are aimed at political leaders who took little action on the abortion issue last year.
Although President Bush opposes abortion, he has not proposed any legislative initiatives on it during his first year in office and Congress took no action in 2001.
Aides to leaders of both parties in Congress said there are no plans to take up any abortion-related legislation, at least not in the next few months, and the White House has not announced plans to propose any such measures.
Some religious leaders like the status quo on abortion policy, and would be happy if the bishops are unsuccessful.
“It’s not a right of any religion to impose its doctrine on others,” said the Rev. Carlton Veazey, president of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a Washington-based lobbying group.
Mr. Veazey believes the majority of religious people favor abortion rights, and that while the bishops “have an aura of being effective” they have lost most abortion policy disputes.
In Cardinal Bevilacqua, the bishops have a leader unlikely to be deterred by a tough fight.
The cardinal is highly disciplined, and has an intellect that even adversaries concede is first rate. He routinely rises at 5 a.m. to pray, lift weights and run on a treadmill. At night, he reads detective novels before going to sleep.
Having served as bishop of Pittsburgh and the auxiliary bishop in Brooklyn before being named to the Philadelphia post in 1988, Cardinal Bevilacqua has a reputation as a tough administrator with a forceful, perhaps even strident personality.
He is also a conservative on matters of church doctrine. He is a strong supporter, for instance, of Pope John Paul II’s position against the ordination of female priests. The Catholic hierarchy believes the all-male priesthood maintains the tradition Jesus started when he chose 12 male apostles.
On abortion, Cardinal Bevilacqua said he sympathizes with the difficult situations that cause women to consider having an abortion, but protecting the fetus takes precedence.
“The personal circumstances don’t change the horror of the act,” he said.
With degrees in both canon and civil law he earned a law degree from St. John’s University in New York Cardinal Bevilacqua said he is able “to see the legal flaws in Roe vs. Wade” and help the bishops frame their argument in moral and legal terms.
He and other critics argue that the justices created a nonexistent right to privacy that they used to guarantee access to abortion. They also say the court’s determination of when the fetus is viable is too arbitrary and violates against the principle that life begins at the moment of conception.
He said the bishops’ job is made harder by Catholic politicians who say they personally oppose abortion but support policies that guarantee a right to the procedure.
“These people are respected and their positions confuse people,” he said.
Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, a practicing Catholic who opposes abortion but doesn’t want legal restrictions, disagrees with Cardinal Bevilacqua on that point.
“If opposing abortion is your belief, are you required to insist that the rest of the country believe it as well? I don’t think so,” Mr. Cuomo said in an interview.
Another prominent observer of the Catholic Church doubts that Cardinal Bevilacqua will have much luck swaying either the public or politicians.
“They are going against the American culture and public opinion. Have they articulated their views well? Yes. Have they changed the majority opinion? No,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a weekly Jesuit magazine.
Cardinal Bevilacqua’s term as chairman of the Pro Life Committee runs through 2004, though it could be cut short.
Church rules required him to submit his retirement to Pope John Paul II in 1998, when he turned 75, but the pontiff did not accept it a sign the pope holds the cardinal in high regard.
Cardinal Bevilacqua said he expects he will have to retire when he turns 80, in 2003, and loses his vote in the College of Cardinals. Until then, he will keep pushing for his pro-life agenda.
“The people are with us and we have to be sure that we can convince the leaders to change their mind on it,” he said.