Life Support: The Pro-Life Movement Is Hardly Monolithic, Those Responding to U.S. Catholic's Reader Survey Reveal, and That's a Good Thing. Activists, Nurses, Priests, and Parents Are All Needed to Create a Culture of Life

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TWO THINGS BECOME IMMEDIATELY APPARENT whenever Catholics are tapped to discuss the role of faith in defending human life.

First: Most American Catholics support the sanctity of human life, all human life--"from womb to tomb," as the old saying goes. In a recent survey of U.S. CATHOLIC readers and website visitors, a full 60 percent said that being pro-life means everything from opposing abortion and assisted suicide to alleviating poverty and injustice. A meager 3 percent said pro-life means opposing abortion only.

Second: "Religion and politics don't mix"--at least not very well whenever Catholics to cast a vote consistent with their beliefs. Michael Goodboe of Palm Beach Gardens, Florida speaks for many, complaining that the pro-life movement is "based too much on politics," rather than values.

Others, like Jeanie Lewis of Chicago, dread "the screech factor" that becomes ever more deafening during the heat and hype of an election year. For 85 percent of respondents, confrontational rhetoric and tactics detract from the pro-life movement's message.

Whether they think that abortion should always be illegal (43 percent) or that the government shouldn't prohibit others from making that decision (40 percent), the survey respondents agree that abortion isn't just an issue up for discussion every four years. Being pro-life seems to be a way of life for all sides.

IN THE YEAR FOLLOWING a HEATED ELECTION SEASON, THE pro-life movement has struggled to find its place. Catholics remain an important group to the new administration, especially in the health care reform debate. For Catholics with a broad definition of pro-life, universal access to health care is an important goal, as long as abortions aren't being funded.

A vocal minority of Catholics protested President Barack Obama being honored at the University of Notre Dame, as well as Edward Kennedy's Catholic funeral, but most Catholics were supportive of both. The week after Kennedy's funeral also brought the surprise resignation of Scranton Bishop Joseph Martino, who had dashed with many for insisting Vice President Joe Biden, a Scranton hometown boy, and other pro-choice Catholics be barred from Communion.

Fifty-seven percent of survey respondents are proud of the U.S. bishops' vocal and uncompromising stand on the right to life of the unborn. Still, Bishops John M. Darcy and John R. Quinn recently pondered in America magazine what the bishops could have done differently about the Notre Dame controversy to facilitate a better dialogue among key Catholic decision makers. Catholics everywhere will want to note--if not also model--Quinn's suggestion that his fellow bishops adopt the "policy of cordiality" already so evident "in the example of the Holy See."

WHEN IT COMES TO BISHOPS, ONE IS PARTICULARLY NOTABLE: Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was invoked repeatedly by our survey respondents. In the early 1980s, the now-deceased Chicago cardinal linked abortion to other assaults on vulnerable forms of human life. He won over a multitude of hearts and minds by pointing out Catholicism's inherent consistency on all life issues, which he likened to the "seamless garment" of Christ.

"There are so many pro-life issues going on right now," agrees a Colorado reader. "How can you separate one from all of them? Are unborn children any more precious than children who are already born and need education or health care? Are the people who pick your food and butcher your meat any less precious to God?"

Andover, Minnesota's Kim Jensen, however, takes issue with that view: "Catholics seem to think that all issues--pollution, immigration, war, torture, poverty, health care--are on an equal footing with abortion. But abortion is far more serious; the victims are the most innocent. We must battle all forms of social injustice, but right-to-life issues must take precedence. …