More than 55 leading Catholic Bishops, all members of the United
States Catholic Conference of Bishops, are speaking out against the
University of Notre Dame’s decision to host and honor President Barak
Obama at their commencement ceremony on the 17th. Much of their ire is
due to President Obama’s support of the right to choose abortion. And,
indeed coverage of the Bishops’ opposition has largely, and
unfortunately, centered on the issue of abortion, rather than on the
pregnant women who have them. Sixty one percent of women who have
abortions are already mothers and 84 percent of all women become
pregnant and give birth over the course of their lifetimes. While
Bishops criticize the president for being unwilling "to hold human life
as sacred," an examination of the United States Catholic Conference of
Bishop’s (USCCB) public positions in two historic legal cases makes
clear that that the USCCB itself is unwilling to "hold human life as
sacred" when the life belongs to a pregnant woman.
Twenty-two years ago this June, when a District of Columbia court
ordered 27 year-old Angela Carder to undergo cesarean surgery against
her wishes, she said: "I don’t want it done. I don’t want it done." The
unborn child who the surgery was intended to save survived for just two
hours. Carder died two days later with the cesarean listed as a
In the highly publicized appeal that followed, and that reversed the
order, only two groups defended the forced surgery: one was the United
Catholic Conference — now known as the USCCB.
While the USCCB defended the forced surgery that contributed to a
pregnant woman’s death as "the correct choice," it vigorously opposed
removing Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube because it would lead to her
death. Terri Schiavo who was not pregnant had suffered irreversible
brain damage and had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15
years. Experts who examined her concluded that she had no consciousness
whatsoever, and that there were no treatments that could possibly
improve or reverse her condition. Nevertheless, according to the USCCB,
Schiavo’s condition was anything but futile, describing her as someone
with "cognitive disabilities." The USCCB rejected the notion "that
there are some lives that aren’t worth living."
In contrast, the USCCB explicitly viewed efforts to preserve
Carder’s life as futile and her life as not worth living. According to
the USCCB the forced cesarean surgery was justified because Carder "was
lying very near death" and "had at most one, possibly two days, to
live." At best, "A.C. might have lived 24-48 hours without surgery"
arguing that, "with or without the cesarean operation, A.C. would most
probably die within 24-48 hours of the court hearing." Although Carder
had specifically agreed to treatments that might prolong her life, the
USCCB defended the surgery because the "attempt to save A.C.’s unborn
child properly recognized . . . the futility of improving A.C.’s
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Not only did the USCCB discount the value of Carder’s life, it urged
the court to ignore her pain and the fact that subjecting her to a
c-section — major abdominal surgery — could only make that pain
worse. The USCCB argued that refusing a c-section "could not save her
life or even make it more bearable."
The USCCB did not even object to the fact that Carder was stripped
of due process –the opportunity to have her rights fully reviewed. Her
rights were decided at an emergency hearing, leaving her no opportunity
to select a lawyer, obtain medical records, or find experts. Still, the
USCCB hoped a precedent would be set for the "next case" so that future
courts could similarly force surgery on pregnant women whose rights
would be "decided in the same emergency setting." In contrast, the
USCCB supported legislation to guarantee that Schiavo, who had eight
years of judicial review, would have additional access to the court
In other words, according to the USCCB, eight years of due process
is not enough for someone in a persistent vegetative state, but less
than a day of due process is plenty for a pregnant woman.
In Terri Schiavo’s case, the USCCB argued "every human life has
incalculable worth and meaning, no matter its age or condition." Their
position in the Angela Carder case, one that they have never recanted
and that is embodied in the Religious Directives in force in Catholic
Hospitals across the country, suggests that the one form of life that
does not have incalculable worth or meaning is that of pregnant women.
If it is true that the USCCB in fact prioritizes some lives over
others, and excludes pregnant women from the right to life it claims to
so vehemently defend, Notre Dame should be praised for inviting a
speaker, President Obama, who is committed to promoting a true culture
of life–one that includes and values the women who give that life.