Two Catholic lawyers went head-to-head Thursday night on whether the Obama administration has any common ground with the pro-life movement and came down on opposing sides on the goals of the new president.
In an invitation-only forum at the National Press Club, sponsored by Catholic University and attended by more than 200 people, Doug W. Kmiec, a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University law school, held fast to an assertion that the Obama administration is serious about reducing abortions.
Contesting him was Robert P. George, a constitutional law professor at Princeton University, who challenged the administration to do something concrete such as forbidding second- and third-term abortions, sex-selection abortions and partial-birth abortions.
“If President Obama were interested in reducing the numbers of abortions, he would not subsidize abortion by public money,” Mr. George said. “He would not oppose parental consent laws, waiting periods and other laws that reduce the number of abortions.”
The two men represent different views on how to deal with a pro-choice Democratic administration that holds majorities in both chambers of Congress. Mr. Kmiec, a Republican, broke ranks with many Catholics by endorsing Barack Obama for president in March 2008, saying Catholics would not be violating the tenets of their faith by supporting him. He has consistently supported Mr. Obama since then.
“Are we as Catholics expected to sit on the sidelines aloof with the truth talking to ourselves,” Mr. Kmiec asked, “or are we to engage our fellow citizens and offer that faith? The 2008 election was very much a test of that.”
The new president lined up on the right side on the environment, immigration and health care reform, he said, before taking a swipe at Catholic leaders who opposed him.
“And then there is abortion; how to handle that question,” he added. “I don’t think the way … is with intimidation. The denial of Communion is intimidation. To be separated from the body of Christ even once is intimidation,” he said, referring to an April 2008 incident in which a priest in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles denied Mr. Kmiec the sacrament because of his support of Mr. Obama. The priest later apologized.
For Catholic bishops to oppose pro-choice Catholics, he said, “is not either an effective nor a Catholic approach. Nor is it a Catholic approach to endorse candidates. Yet certain bishops endorse candidates. Nor should churches allow materials in their vestibule saying it is a sin of the highest order to cast a vote for Barack Obama.”
Fifty-four percent of Catholics — including those who attend Mass regularly — voted for Mr. Obama, he said.
Mr. George did not discuss the actions of Catholic bishops but instead concentrated on the president’s legislative record.
“Citizens must oppose the Obama administration’s [efforts] to expand abortion license and stem cell research,” he said. “I call on all pro-life Americans to find common ground with us in this great struggle for human equality, dignity and rights.”
“[Mr. Obama’s] views on the status and dignity and rights of the child in the womb are irreconcilable,” he said. “The issue cannot be fudged as people try to do by asking whether it really is a human being.”
He added: “Obama’s record as an activist, legislator and now as president is that an unborn baby possesses no rights. Throughout his career, he has denied every fundamental legislation that would discourage its practice or limit its liability.”
“President Obama does not profess to be personally opposed to abortion or feel it is a wrongful act. … His belief [and] his policy is that abortion, if a woman chooses it, is not wrong.”
At the president’s May 17 speech at the University of Notre Dame, “he chose his words carefully,” Mr. George said.
“He did not say he’d reduce abortions but the number of women who choose abortions. … The president and people he’s placed in charge of this issue such as [Domestic Policy Council Director] Melody Barnes feel nothing is wrong with abortion because the child in the womb actually has no right not to be killed.
“He rejects what we and pro-lifers propose is common ground. … He does not believe human beings acquire rights until after birth.”
The polite debate, which was moderated by former Ambassador to the Vatican Mary Ann Glendon, lasted about 90 minutes but came to no obvious conclusion. The two men took a handful of questions from the audience.