National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  May 7, 2004

Pro-choice protesters set sights on Catholic church


George W. Bush is political target number one of pro-choice activists, who used the April 25 “March for Women’s Lives” to energize opponents of the administration’s domestic and international abortion and family planning policies.

The Catholic church, however, runs a close second.

“If a man could get pregnant,” according to the lyrics of the song that served as the opening act at the rally preceding the march, “then abortion would be a sacrament.” And, continued the ditty, if such biological constraints were lifted, priests would be handing out “morning-after pills” following Mass.

It was red meat for the large crowd gathered on the National Mall, some of whom already had a taste of what was to come at a pre-march protest near the Vatican embassy. “Opposition from the Roman Catholic church and of the hierarchy is a major reason this issue stays controversial,” Feminist Majority president Eleanor Smeal told hundreds of demonstrators at the Catholics for a Free Choice-sponsored protest. “We’ve got to keep more pressure on this hierarchy [because] they’re vulnerable now” due to the clergy sex abuse scandals, Smeal told the cheering crowd.

“If there is a culture of death anywhere,” Catholics for a Free Choice president Frances Kissling told the crowd, “its leaders are in the Roman Catholic church” which, she said, stands in the way of providing contraceptive services to the poor in countries where HIV/AIDS is an epidemic. Kissling termed the Catholic hierarchy a “crass political machine.”

The weekend of protests came just after a top Vatican official said pro-choice Catholic legislators should be denied Communion. Cardinal Francis Arinze, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, made no specific mention of Democratic presidential contender John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic. But Arinze’s statement provided rhetorical ammunition for those on each side of the debate.

“If [the bishops] use the sacraments selectively then they are going to be in big trouble,” Kissling told NCR. “They are going to have to do this for every [Catholic] pro-choice policymaker in the country … because if they don’t it is clear electioneering.”

If the church does not apply a Communion ban “fairly,” said Kissling, Catholics for a Free Choice would look to initiate IRS and Federal Election Commission investigations of the church “for violation of the rules restricting nonprofits from endorsing or opposing candidates.”

Pro-life protesters on the other side of the police line at the Vatican embassy said it is time the bishops took a stand against Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

“It comes down to whether you can call yourself Catholic and advocate something so violent and abhorrent as abortion,” said Joseph Starrs, director of the American Life League’s “Crusade for the Defense of our Catholic Church.” Through newspaper advertisements and letter-writing campaigns, the organization has led the effort to get bishops to deny Communion to pro-choice Catholic legislators.

“After 31 years [of legal abortion in the United States] American Life League believes something has to be done on the part of the hierarchy [to demonstrate] that ‘pro-abortion’ and ‘Catholic’ are not compatible,” said Starrs.

Meanwhile, religious support for abortion rights was celebrated at a pre-march interfaith prayer service on the Mall. “Pro-Faith, Pro-Family, Pro-Choice” was among the slogans emblazing the buttons and banners of the hundreds gathered at the Capitol’s reflecting pool for the Sunday morning service.

“We are part of a community of people who support choice as a religious action,” said Rev. H. Scott Matheney, chaplain at Illinois’ Elmhurst College, a United Church of Christ institution. “I have to support women as God’s moral agents,” said Matheney.

“I’m here to be a pro-faith, pro-choice voice that needs to be heard in this country,” said 24-year-old Jennifer Barrett, a student at Harvard Divinity School.

The pro-choice hymn singing and prayer struck antiabortion protester Beverly Murch as contradictory. “Their point of view goes against what God’s word says,” said Murch, who counterdemonstrated with her husband and nine children amidst the sea of abortion-rights supporters. “People think they can do anything they want these days and they forget the true God and what his word tells us.”

Murch’s view has millions of adherents nationwide, but not too many among the hundreds of thousands who promised to take the message of the “March for Women’s Lives” back home in time for November’s elections.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 2004

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