National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  February 13, 2004

Pro-life Democrat criticizes bishop's move

Buffalo County, Wis., dairy farmer Kathleen Vinehout should be Archbishop Raymond Burke’s sort of Catholic politician. Besides running her 40-head, 230-acre dairy farm, Vinehout is secretary of the local Democratic Party, active in the Catholic Rural Life Conference, and a prospective candidate for a soon-to-be vacant seat in the state assembly. She’s pro-life, pro-social spending, and vehemently pro-family farmer -- all positions embraced by the former bishop of La Crosse, Wis., prior to his appointment to the St. Louis archdiocese last month.

“I really love the bishop,” says Vinehout of Burke. “I know him personally and he’s a brilliant man. I know his concern about the farmers is genuine.” Such concern is welcome, said Vinehout, as the price of milk drops to record lows and U.S. trade negotiators prepare to open the dairy market to Australian farmers. That trade deal will put thousands of small dairy farmers out of business, said Vinehout.

But with friends like Burke, 45-year-old Vinehout doesn’t need political enemies. Burke’s decision to deny Communion to pro-choice Catholic legislators, said Vinehout, demonstrates that the bishop is either “blatantly partisan or ignorant of how political the issue of abortion is.”

How political? Last year, said Vinehout, state legislators considered a bill that purported to grant a conscience exemption to health care professionals who would not participate in abortions. “But the bill actually replicated a law that already existed,” said Vinehout, “and the way it was written would gut the living will law.

“Everybody there knew it was a bad bill, that the governor was going to veto it, and that the only purpose of the debate was to put your name on a list that the pro-life people could use. Everybody knew it was partisan,” said Vinehout, but that nuance will be impossible to explain in the heat of next fall’s elections where Republicans will use the vote as a “litmus test” of pro-life commitment.

Meanwhile, Burke’s targeting of legislators who don’t vote the church line on abortion could contribute to dairy farmer woes. “Dave Obey is our best friend in the House of Representatives,” says Vinehout, who praised the congressman’s work to gain price parity between Midwestern dairy farmers and their counterparts in the Northeast. Likewise, said Vinehout, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., is a non-Catholic pro-choice friend to dairy farmers.

“I’m working with my fellow farmers to try to survive and then I go to Mass and hear that if these guys are pro-choice we shouldn’t be voting for them,” says a frustrated Vinehout.

Meanwhile, as Vinehout plans her bid for office, she worries that support from traditional Democratic backers will not be forthcoming because of her antiabortion views. “I’ve been told that if I run as a ‘pro-life Democrat’ that I won’t get any union money, Sierra Club money or environmental money,” says Vinehout.

“You know what ‘pro-life’ means to a lot of Democrats: It means you support life from conception to birth. But that is very wrong. If a woman is pregnant, we need to open the door to resources and we need to do everything we can to support that woman. But over and over and over again the Republicans have voted against programs we need to help these women,” said Vinehout.

Vinehout plans to soft-peddle her pro-life stance when she runs for office.

“If somebody asked, ‘How do you feel [about abortion],’ I’d tell them,” said Vinehout, but she will go out of her way to avoid the “pro-life Democrat” label.

-- Joe Feuerherd

National Catholic Reporter, February 13, 2004

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