Abortion: Its Shifting Place in the Political Landscape: Tom Roberts: The Emergence of Lay Efforts

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The emergence of new lay Catholic voices this year has altered the quadrennial faith and politics debate that goes back to the legalization of abortion with Roe v. Wade in 1973.

And while it will likely be economics, not abortion, that trumps other issues in the current presidential election, these new voices are already reshaping the means by which Catholic social teachings are delivered to the wider society as well as, to a degree, the message itself.

For the first time individual Catholics and lay groups, in concert with a number of bishops, are insisting that Catholic teaching does not prohibit a vote for a pro-choice politician.

To the contrary, groups like Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and Catholics United say that church teachings, including the bishops' own repeated instructions on voting, prohibit bishops from endorsing or opposing specific candidates or determining that Catholics need consider only one issue in deciding how to vote.

"I think they've changed the conversation on abortion," said Peter Steinfels, longtime church observer and writer of the Beliefs column for The New York Times.

Referring to figures such as lawyers Douglas Kmiec and Nicholas Cafardi, both of whom own unassailable pro-life credentials and have publicly endorsed Democratic candidate Barack Obama, Steinfels said, "I think that by disconnecting their moral opposition to abortion from their political support for Republican candidates, they've actually returned emphasis to the moral question. They've provided a witness to the moral seriousness of what's involved in abortion."

How much that witness influences Catholics, who have a solid record of voting for the popular vote winner, will be apparent in the post-election analyses. We'll also know then whether a vocal minority of bishops will have convinced Catholics that voting for Obama is prohibited. (See John Allen's accompanying story on the statements of bishops.)

In recent days, several bishops have spoken out clearly against the one-issue approach. Memphis Bishop J. Terry Steib released a letter citing the bishops' voting guide and stating, "We must recognize that God through the church is calling us to be prophetic in our own day. flour conscience is well formed, then we will make the right choices about candidates who may not support the church's position in every case." (See Steib's full statement on ncronline.org.)

Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala of Los Angeles told E.J. Dionne that his fellow bishops have long insisted that "we're not a one-issue church. But that's not always what comes out." In Dionne's column in The Washington Post, Zavala said the church believes "one abortion is too many." But, he added, "There are many other issues we need to bring up, other issues we should consider, other issues that touch the reality of our lives."

Except for a brief exchange during their third and final debate, presidential candidates Obama and Republican John McCain have pretty much steered clear of the topic, and it hasn't been the subject of stump speeches or commercials.

Probably for good reason, as politics goes. This year abortion has consistently taken a low or nonexistent position in surveys of issues that are of greatest concern to voters according to PollingReport.com.

Even a recent poll commissioned by the Knights of Columbus and conducted by Marist College's Institute for Public Opinion, found that while 90 percent of all Catholics polled said they favored restrictions on abortion, they were evenly split when describing themselves as pro-life (48 percent) and pro-choice (47 percent). While deeper polling can elicit greater detail about positions (for instance, what type of restrictions people favor), the figures of the Knights' poll are comparable to recent polls of the general public. A general equivalence between Catholics and the rest of the population when it comes to surveys on abortion has existed for a number of years. …