Pro-life and politics: Goals met, challenges remain during current legislative session

May 24, 2011

HOUSTON — Being a proponent of life references something greater in Catholic Social Teaching — the respect for all human dignity, a fundamental right to life.

"God's love does not differentiate between the newly conceived infant still in his or her mother's womb and the child or young person or the adult and the elderly person," Pope Benedict XVI said in 2006 to participants at the 12th General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life and Congress. "God does not distinguish between them because He sees an impression of His own image and likeness (Gn 1:26) in each one."

To those tracking the activities in the State Legislature and U.S. Congress, the issues regarding right to life certainly encompasses more than a singular proposed bill.

In Austin, the sonogram (House Bill 15) and "Choose Life" license plate (HB 238) bills are two high-profile pieces of legislation that have garnered strong support from state legislators. Both are advocated by the Texas Catholic Conference.

HB 15, which was signed by the Senate and sent to Gov. Rick Perry as of this report, requires a physician to provide a sonogram to a woman seeking an abortion between 72 and 24 hours before the abortion. In addition, it expands the materials provided as a part of informed consent to include a referral to abortion alternatives providers and free sonogram providers that do not provide abortion-related services and creates fines for violations of this act.

According to the TCC, the Texas bishops support the bill because it provides a mother with more information about her unborn child and may help the mother realize the humanity of her unborn child.

HB 238 allows the issuance of "Choose Life" license plates; a portion of the purchase price of every plate would be collected into an account from which grants would be distributed to charitable organizations that help pregnant women place their children for adoption. Organizations that provide abortions or abortion-related services or make referrals to abortion providers would not be able to receive this funding. The TCC supports this bill because it would help promote a Culture of Life within the state and would also create support for pregnancy centers that advocate adoption and not abortion.

While numerous TCC-backed bills did not make it through the House, pro-life supporters have noticed an increased awareness towards such issues with legislators on the state and national level.

"There has been some encouraging [news]," said Dr. Marcella Colbert, the Office of Respect Life director for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. "The passing of the sonogram bill is quite significant, and although the license plate legislation may look trivial to some, the passage of that into law can be a very positive sign of how representatives are becoming more aware of the issues relating to respect life."

At the time of this report, the U.S. House of Representatives voted in favor of the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," which bans direct federal funding of elective abortions and federal funding of insurance policies that cover elective abortions. The in-favor tally was 251 to 175.

Such developments in support of life are unprecedented — and welcome, Dr. Colbert said. 

"This is very significant in that the whole House has taken a stand on this as they haven't taken before," she said. "It is very unusual. There is a sort of a swing in legislation towards the life position."

However, concerns still remain on the pro-life front, noted Deacon Sam Dunning, the Office of Justice and Peace director and an Archdiocesan liaison with the TCC.

"The sonogram bill passed and that was a pretty successful advocacy effort on [the TCC's] part as we had a lot of allies. But then strangely, all of the [state] bills that prohibit tax funding for abortions have died."

Deacon Dunning believes some of that lost momentum may be due to the pressure on legislators to focus extensively on the state budget. He estimated that there were approximately 500 bills the TCC was tracking (either by supporting or opposing); as of this report, there are around 80 still in play.

"[Legislators] may identify themselves as pro-life, but they are not as staunch pro-life as we would like them to be," Deacon Dunning said. "There were other issues within the budget bills and the health care bills … that kind of superseded their particular interest in pro-life." 

Still, he encourages Catholics to continue making their voice heard, though he said there can be divides and confusion with faith beliefs and partisan politics.

"It is very difficult for a Catholic in the public square to find an identity within one political party because no party covers all of the issues we are concerned with," Deacon Dunning said. "We form alliances around the life issue like abortion, euthanasia and so on … but we also form other alliances around issues of dignity like the immigration piece, health care issues and the like. When you try to straddle the gap between those two, it can be really tough."

He said that there are considerable victories that can be attributed in good measure to the Church's presence in the Capitol and added that Catholic advocates have to remind themselves that they are people of faith, "not called to be effective first but faithful first." In the waning days of the session, Deacon Dunning urges Catholics to continue calling and e-mailing their legislators with hopes of amendments being added to active bills.

"Our political currency is our moral voice and our numbers, and making sure the legislators know that we vote and we intend to vote," Deacon Dunning said. "We vote around issues we see as moral issues. We have to have faith that the spirit of God is with us. If we pursue God's calls, we will ultimately succeed."

- Additional Source: Texas Catholic Conference