Conservative Catholic Groups Fuel Obama Notre Dame Controversy

David Weigel

The biggest problem for conservative Catholics has not been getting the Obama speech portrayed in the press as a scandal, but in distancing from some extremists trying to take ownership of the outrage.

Within hours of the news that President Barack Obama would give the
commencement address to this year’s graduates of Notre Dame University
in South Bend, Ind., angry opponents of the decision founded a new
Website,, where they could register their complaints and sign a petition asking the school to “halt this travesty.”

“Notre Dame has chosen prestige over principles, popularity over morality,” reads the petition.
“Whatever may be President Obama’s admirable qualities, this honor
comes on the heels of some of the most anti-life actions of any
American president, including expanding federal funding for abortions
and inviting taxpayer-funded research on stem cells from human
embryos.” Within days, tens of thousands of people had signed on.

“Virtually every media story for the first few weeks of this scandal
cited our site and our petition,” said Patrick Reilly, the president
and founder of the Cardinal Newman Society, in an interview with TWI.
“There’s tremendous outpouring of support for the students who are
opposing this outrage at Notre Dame. Some of them have said they’ll
have nothing to do with Notre Dame if this goes forward.”

After eight years of only occasional disagreements with a Republican
president, conservative Catholic activists have moved into the trenches
to oppose Obama. They cite his repeal of the Mexico City rule, or
“global gag rule” that banned providing federal money to international
groups that promote or provide abortions, his stem cell compromise, and
his cabinet nominees like Kathleen Sebelius, the pro-choice governor of
Kansas, to argue that he is the most pro-abortion rights politician
ever to ascend to the job. They are bolstered by new media outlets and
organizations that did not exist at their current strength in 2000, the
last time Catholics had to contend with a pro-choice president. At the
same time, they’re encouraged by a series of high-profile statements
from church leaders on political morality–including the 2004
declarations by bishops that they would deny communion to
then-presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), and Pope Benedict XIV’s 2005 speech
attacking the “dictatorship of relativism.” A small number of
conservative groups, and a more newsworthy group of conservative
bishops — 42 so far — are turning the Notre Dame speech into a
watershed moment, while obscuring the fact that the president enjoys
majority support from Catholics.

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Reilly’s efforts have served as a window into the movement. The
Cardinal Newman Society is recognized as the key advocate for
conservative values at Catholic universities, but it is a relatively
small organization. Reilly is one of seven employees of the group,
loosely affiliated with the conservative Media Research Center, whose
president L. Brent Bozell III serves on the Cardinal Newman Society’s
board of directors. According to tax records filed in 2007, the
organization runs on less than $1 million per year. The
NotreDameScandal site itself is a modest project, using the exact same
design, and same stock photos, as the Cardinal Newman Society’s own
page. Nonetheless, the effort has put the group in the news and
garnered more than 350,000 signatures. It’s bolstered claims that the
group represents ersatz Catholic opinion, which wants Obama to cancel
his speech and Father John Jenkins, president of the university, to
apologize or step aside.

“I haven’t seen polling on this issue,” Reilly said, “but if you see
them you have to do some parsing and ask: Are these faithful Catholics
who are attending mass and living faithful to Catholic teachings? Among
faithful, church-going Catholics there’s been tremendous support for
our efforts. A lot of Catholic groups are dealing with the fact that
Catholics across the United States have drifted and they need to take a

By defining the stakes in the Notre Dame fight, conservative
Catholics are able to overcome two hurdles–the president’s popularity
with Catholics nationally and Notre Dame students in particular. The
piece of evidence most often cited to prove the president’s “Catholic
problem” is a March 2009 Pew Research poll
that revealed a steep drop in the president’s approval numbers among
self-identified Catholics since the inauguration. But the poll gave the
president a 59-28 favorable rating among all Catholics and a 47-41
rating among white, non-Hispanic Catholics. An April Pew poll
gave the president high marks from Catholics on his handling of stem
cell research, a decision that involved Catholic advisers. Obama
carried Indiana in 2008 by a slim margin that included a win in St.
Joseph County — which contains Notre Dame — and a win among Notre Dame
students, who also picked Obama over McCain in a pre-election poll .

“Catholics are a diverse group of people,” said John Green, a senior
fellow at the Pew Center for Religion and the Press, explaining the
poll. “There’s been a decline in Obama’s numbers that’s not too far out
of step with his decline overall. The rest of this, a lot of this, is
internal politics between conservative Catholics and liberal Catholics.”

For Deal Hudson, the president of, and a
political guru who directed Catholic outreach for President George W.
Bush and Sen. John McCain, that analysis missed the mark. “When you are
trying to get the Catholic vote,” he said, “the first thing on the
table is getting a speaking engagement at Notre Dame. I know. I’ve been
there! The Obama political team did this and, I’m sure, expected some
kind of backlash, but nothing like the watershed moment that this has
turned into.”

The “watershed moment” has been heavily debated in Catholic
magazines and web sites–World, Inside the Vatican, Catholic World News,, the New Oxford Review–which have flowered over the last
few years and which have aggressively covered the Obama decisions that
have most upset conservative Catholics. The minor story of Georgetown covering up the monogram “IHS,” meaning “Jesus,” to make room for the staging of an Obama speech, has been aggressively covered.–which, like the Cardinal Newman Center, is directed by L. Brent Bozell–published an enterprise piece asking whether the president would agree to wear the official robes at Notre Dame, since they are threaded with a prayer.

“Blogs can keep issues alive in a way that wasn’t possible before,”
said George Neumayr, the editor of Catholic World Report, a
conservative weekly. “The bishops are bombarded with complaints because
of of the activity level of blogs and the ease with which people can
contact the chancery. A bishop who’s receiving 1,000 messages is more
likely to come out and at least make a statement about the most
anti-Catholic president in modern history.”

The biggest problem for conservative Catholics has not been getting
the Obama speech portrayed in the press as a scandal, but in distancing
from some of the people trying to take ownership of the outrage.
Randall Terry, the anti-abortion activist who converted to Catholicism
in 2006, has moved temporarily to South Bend to mount protests
against the school. Reilly, Neumayr and others accused Terry of being a
trouble-maker and self-promoter whose effort–more than 30 full-time
agitators, 50,000 letters to alumni that include postcards depicting
dead fetuses, bringing fringe political candidate Alan Keyes to speak,
and planning a rumored “alternate commencement for Notre Dame
Heroes”–makes them look fringe. In an interview Terry said that
American bishops were “directly responsible for Obama’s election”
because they hadn’t spoken out against him politically. “The fabric of
Notre Dame’s treachery was woven by American bishops,” said Terry, who
also called Georgetown University “a house of political harlotry” for
allowing Obama and Vice President Biden to speak there.

Terry laughs when the worries of other conservative Catholics are
read back to him. “How can they delude themselves to think this war can
be won in cyberspace?” he asked. “I always tell people that petitions
are no more than a fundraising mechanism to gather your name and raise
money from you. They’re scams. For them to say I shouldn’t be on the
ground shows they are not culture warriors. If Martin Luther King had
taken the advice of the Cardinal Newman Society, black people still be
riding in the back of the bus.”

Catholic supporters of the president are trying to weather the storm
and dispute the idea that Obama has a “Catholic problem.” Douglas
Kmiec, a former Notre Dame professor and constitutional legal counsel to Ronald Reagan who endorsed Obama and published the election tract “Can A Catholic Support Him?”
argued that Reagan had been met by protests when he gave his celebrated
1981 commencement speech. “No one thought,” said Kmiec, “that when
Reagan came to accept his honorary degree he’d engage in a symposium
where a bishop would give him the evangelium vitae on capital
punishment, or the early draft of pastoral letter of American bishops
on reducing nuclear weapons.”

Kmiec characterized much of the Notre Dame talk as politicized and unrepresentative of what Catholics think, especially the activity of Newt Gingrich, who became a Catholic this year.

“For Newt Gingrich to say, as a latter-day Catholic, that this
president has ignored Catholic issues, means that he needs to go back
to adult religious education class to learn more deeply about the
social justice elements that he probably missed,” Kmiec said. “The
notion that this president is not in line with those sentiments is not
befitting of the former speaker, who was a former scholar, and who I
admire as someone who normally has creative ideas.”

Analysis Politics

The 2016 Republican Platform Is Riddled With Conservative Abortion Myths

Ally Boguhn

Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the Republican platform, which relies on a series of falsehoods about reproductive health care.

Republicans voted to ratify their 2016 platform this week, codifying what many deem one of the most extreme platforms ever accepted by the party.

“Platforms are traditionally written by and for the party faithful and largely ignored by everyone else,” wrote the New York Times‘ editorial board Monday. “But this year, the Republicans are putting out an agenda that demands notice.”

“It is as though, rather than trying to reconcile Mr. Trump’s heretical views with conservative orthodoxy, the writers of the platform simply opted to go with the most extreme version of every position,” it continued. “Tailored to Mr. Trump’s impulsive bluster, this document lays bare just how much the G.O.P. is driven by a regressive, extremist inner core.”

Tucked away in the 66-page document accepted by Republicans as their official guide to “the Party’s principles and policies” are countless resolutions that seem to back up the Times‘ assertion that the platform is “the most extreme” ever put forth by the party, including: rolling back marriage equalitydeclaring pornography a “public health crisis”; and codifying the Hyde Amendment to permanently block federal funding for abortion.

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Anti-choice activists and leaders have embraced the platform, which the Susan B. Anthony List deemed the “Most Pro-life Platform Ever” in a press release upon the GOP’s Monday vote at the convention. “The Republican platform has always been strong when it comes to protecting unborn children, their mothers, and the conscience rights of pro-life Americans,” said the organization’s president, Marjorie Dannenfelser, in a statement. “The platform ratified today takes that stand from good to great.”  

Operation Rescue, an organization known for its radical tactics and links to violence, similarly declared the platform a “victory,” noting its inclusion of so-called personhood language, which could ban abortion and many forms of contraception. “We are celebrating today on the streets of Cleveland. We got everything we have asked for in the party platform,” said Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, in a statement posted to the group’s website.

But what stands out most in the Republicans’ document is the series of falsehoods and myths relied upon to push their conservative agenda. Here are just a few of the most egregious pieces of misinformation about abortion to be found within the pages of the 2016 platform:

Myth #1: Planned Parenthood Profits From Fetal Tissue Donations

Featured in multiple sections of the Republican platform is the tired and repeatedly debunked claim that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue donations. In the subsection on “protecting human life,” the platform says:

We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide healthcare. We urge all states and Congress to make it a crime to acquire, transfer, or sell fetal tissues from elective abortions for research, and we call on Congress to enact a ban on any sale of fetal body parts. In the meantime, we call on Congress to ban the practice of misleading women on so-called fetal harvesting consent forms, a fact revealed by a 2015 investigation. We will not fund or subsidize healthcare that includes abortion coverage.

Later in the document, under a section titled “Preserving Medicare and Medicaid,” the platform again asserts that abortion providers are selling “the body parts of aborted children”—presumably again referring to the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood:

We respect the states’ authority and flexibility to exclude abortion providers from federal programs such as Medicaid and other healthcare and family planning programs so long as they continue to perform or refer for elective abortions or sell the body parts of aborted children.

The platform appears to reference the widely discredited videos produced by anti-choice organization Center for Medical Progress (CMP) as part of its smear campaign against Planned Parenthood. The videos were deceptively edited, as Rewire has extensively reported. CMP’s leader David Daleiden is currently under federal indictment for tampering with government documents in connection with obtaining the footage. Republicans have nonetheless steadfastly clung to the group’s claims in an effort to block access to reproductive health care.

Since CMP began releasing its videos last year, 13 state and three congressional inquiries into allegations based on the videos have turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of Planned Parenthood.

Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund—which has endorsed Hillary Clinton—called the Republicans’ inclusion of CMP’s allegation in their platform “despicable” in a statement to the Huffington Post. “This isn’t just an attack on Planned Parenthood health centers,” said Laguens. “It’s an attack on the millions of patients who rely on Planned Parenthood each year for basic health care. It’s an attack on the brave doctors and nurses who have been facing down violent rhetoric and threats just to provide people with cancer screenings, birth control, and well-woman exams.”

Myth #2: The Supreme Court Struck Down “Commonsense” Laws About “Basic Health and Safety” in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt

In the section focusing on the party’s opposition to abortion, the GOP’s platform also reaffirms their commitment to targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. According to the platform:

We salute the many states that now protect women and girls through laws requiring informed consent, parental consent, waiting periods, and clinic regulation. We condemn the Supreme Court’s activist decision in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt striking down commonsense Texas laws providing for basic health and safety standards in abortion clinics.

The idea that TRAP laws, such as those struck down by the recent Supreme Court decision in Whole Woman’s Health, are solely for protecting women and keeping them safe is just as common among conservatives as it is false. However, as Rewire explained when Paul Ryan agreed with a nearly identical claim last week about Texas’ clinic regulations, “the provisions of the law in question were not about keeping anybody safe”:

As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion declaring them unconstitutional, “When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.”

All the provisions actually did, according to Breyer on behalf of the Court majority, was put “a substantial obstacle in the path of women seeking a previability abortion,” and “constitute an undue burden on abortion access.”

Myth #3: 20-Week Abortion Bans Are Justified By “Current Medical Research” Suggesting That Is When a Fetus Can Feel Pain

The platform went on to point to Republicans’ Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, a piece of anti-choice legislation already passed in several states that, if approved in Congress, would create a federal ban on abortion after 20 weeks based on junk science claiming fetuses can feel pain at that point in pregnancy:

Over a dozen states have passed Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts prohibiting abortion after twenty weeks, the point at which current medical research shows that unborn babies can feel excruciating pain during abortions, and we call on Congress to enact the federal version.

Major medical groups and experts, however, agree that a fetus has not developed to the point where it can feel pain until the third trimester. According to a 2013 letter from the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, “A rigorous 2005 scientific review of evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. A 2010 review of the scientific evidence on the issue conducted by the British Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists similarly found “that the fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior” to 24 weeks’ gestation.

Doctors who testify otherwise often have a history of anti-choice activism. For example, a letter read aloud during a debate over West Virginia’s ultimately failed 20-week abortion ban was drafted by Dr. Byron Calhoun, who was caught lying about the number of abortion-related complications he saw in Charleston.

Myth #4: Abortion “Endangers the Health and Well-being of Women”

In an apparent effort to criticize the Affordable Care Act for promoting “the notion of abortion as healthcare,” the platform baselessly claimed that abortion “endangers the health and well-being” of those who receive care:

Through Obamacare, the current Administration has promoted the notion of abortion as healthcare. We, however, affirm the dignity of women by protecting the sanctity of human life. Numerous studies have shown that abortion endangers the health and well-being of women, and we stand firmly against it.

Scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that abortion is safe. Research shows that a first-trimester abortion carries less than 0.05 percent risk of major complications, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and “pose[s] virtually no long-term risk of problems such as infertility, ectopic pregnancy, spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or birth defect, and little or no risk of preterm or low-birth-weight deliveries.”

There is similarly no evidence to back up the GOP’s claim that abortion endangers the well-being of women. A 2008 study from the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Mental Health and Abortion, an expansive analysis on current research regarding the issue, found that while those who have an abortion may experience a variety of feelings, “no evidence sufficient to support the claim that an observed association between abortion history and mental health was caused by the abortion per se, as opposed to other factors.”

As is the case for many of the anti-abortion myths perpetuated within the platform, many of the so-called experts who claim there is a link between abortion and mental illness are discredited anti-choice activists.

Myth #5: Mifepristone, a Drug Used for Medical Abortions, Is “Dangerous”

Both anti-choice activists and conservative Republicans have been vocal opponents of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) March update to the regulations for mifepristone, a drug also known as Mifeprex and RU-486 that is used in medication abortions. However, in this year’s platform, the GOP goes a step further to claim that both the drug and its general approval by the FDA are “dangerous”:

We believe the FDA’s approval of Mifeprex, a dangerous abortifacient formerly known as RU-486, threatens women’s health, as does the agency’s endorsement of over-the-counter sales of powerful contraceptives without a physician’s recommendation. We support cutting federal and state funding for entities that endanger women’s health by performing abortions in a manner inconsistent with federal or state law.

Studies, however, have overwhelmingly found mifepristone to be safe. In fact, the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals says mifepristone “is safer than acetaminophen,” aspirin, and Viagra. When the FDA conducted a 2011 post-market study of those who have used the drug since it was approved by the agency, they found that more than 1.5 million women in the U.S. had used it to end a pregnancy, only 2,200 of whom had experienced an “adverse event” after.

The platform also appears to reference the FDA’s approval of making emergency contraception such as Plan B available over the counter, claiming that it too is a threat to women’s health. However, studies show that emergency contraception is safe and effective at preventing pregnancy. According to the World Health Organization, side effects are “uncommon and generally mild.”

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Hints at More Supreme Court Retirements

Imani Gandy & Jessica Mason Pieklo

In a recent interview, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dishes on the last Supreme Court term and hints the next president may have more than one justice to appoint.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggests the next president is going to have a couple of U.S. Supreme Court nominations to make, which means the Court could be effectively up for grabs depending on this election’s outcome.

This summer, the Supreme Court ordered the Obama administration and religiously affiliated nonprofits who object to providing contraception to try and find some kind of compromise. While they hammer one out, a University of Notre Dame student has asked a federal appeals court to let her join in the litigation, to fight the university’s stance of trying to deny access to contraception coverage.

Anti-choice protesters will be descending on Wichita, Kansas, this week to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Summer of Mercy clinic sieges.

A state judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (R) against Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky for purportedly performing abortions without license.

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Florida officials have not yet appealed a federal district court ruling blocking a law that would have prevented Medicaid funds from going to Planned Parenthood reproductive health care centers. The law would also mandate a state regulator review of patient records from half of the approximately 70,000 abortions in the state each year.

An Ohio appeals court ruled a Cleveland abortion clinic can move forward with its lawsuit challenging requirements that prohibit public hospitals from entering into transfer agreements with clinics, along with another requirement that mandates providers to check for a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion.

Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) sued to block an Indiana law requiring that a patient getting an abortion must have an ultrasound 18 hours before the procedure.

Meanwhile, abortion rights supporters in Wisconsin are urging lawmakers to repeal the state’s admitting privileges requirement.

Anti-choice lawmakers in Texas plan to try to require aborted fetuses to be buried or cremated in an attempt to add additional emotional burden and administrative expense to the procedure.

Free speech for whom, exactly? The man who posted the video of the police killing of Alton Sterling has been reportedly arrested on charges of assault and battery.


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