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I was working in New York in 1992, when the Democratic National Convention was held in that city. One day I strolled down to Madison Square Garden, the site of the convention. It was during the afternoon, and there was nothing going on inside. On the sidewalk across the street, two areas had been set up for demonstrations about 25 yards apart. I can’t remember what topics were being demonstrated about when I first arrived, but sometime during the afternoon, the abortion debate took over. Folks looking like everyday people, couples, singles, moms, dads, some children, clerics, all with their props and signs and bullhorns, took up their respective places behind barricades marked out for the two sides of the debate. For the next half hour or more these ordinary folks were transformed into screaming maniacs. Across that 25-yard divide they screamed. And screamed. They yelled chants and barbs and insults and slogans. The only constant was that they screamed. At each other, at passersby. Sometimes a few would enact a skit. And sometimes new signs would appear. But through it all they kept screaming. And screaming.

A few years later, after moving to the Midwest, I went back East on two occasions, to Washington, to attend meetings of the nation’s Catholic bishops.

On each visit, I had the chance for private conversation with a leading figure in the Catholic antiabortion movement. In each case -- once it was a bishop, once a lay person -- the leader told me that the church had been badly used by politicians during the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration.

They admitted that the Catholic hierarchy had given tacit approval to certain candidates on the promise of pro-life votes, but ultimately had received little for their efforts. They further volunteered that support for those candidates was costly in other ways. Many of the candidates the bishops implicitly endorsed had no inclination toward any of the other elements on the bishops’ social agenda. In the end, the bishops spent an enormous amount of political capital courting pro-life votes from politicians who took the support with little intention of delivering on anything the bishops supported.

The bishop and the lay person made clear they would never say such things in public, and they would keep fighting the same battle.

In hindsight, I think the scene of the screamers behind the barricades was as fitting an image as any one might conjure for much of the political debate about abortion that has occurred in this country during the past 30 years.

Unfortunately, Catholic leaders have allowed themselves to be sucked into this political face-off, a national screaming match where few real changes occur and few hearts are changed. The Catholic church’s unyielding defense of human life in all of its dimensions actually gets submerged in the overheated rhetoric. And, as our stories point out in this issue, it is unlikely any significant changes will occur anytime soon. Certainly not even Republicans, political speeches aside, are going to really push to overturn Roe. It just isn’t in their political interest.

We return to the debate this issue on the 30th anniversary of Roe v. Wade not because we have any magic answers but because we think that as a culture and a church we might yet find a way around the public standoff. Maybe some of the voices in these stories, voices that don’t often get a hearing, convey wisdom that might allow us to get beyond the stalemate of old enmities.

That hope gets a boost from the perspective that Washington writer Joe Feuerherd brings to the topic in his political analysis and the insights from women’s research and work on abortion surfaced by the reporting of Margot Patterson.

Too much has already been sacrificed to a futile political battle.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 2003