Just the Facts, Sir: The False Dichotomy of Catholics vs. “Pro-choice” on Common Ground

Jodi Jacobson

As the anticipated release by the White House of a "common ground" proposal on abortion draws near, numerous members of the male pontificator commentariat are trying to spark anxiety by claiming that Obama will have to make a choice betwen "the Catholic vote," and "the pro-choice community."  Nothing could be further from the truth. To get past this, the Administration just has to stick to the facts.

As the anticipated release by the White House of a "common ground" proposal on abortion draws near, numerous members of the male pontificator commentariat are trying to spark anxiety by claiming that Obama will have to make a choice betwen "the Catholic vote," and "the pro-choice community."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The facts:

  • Obama got the majority of the Catholic vote in 2008.  Fifty-four percent of Catholic voters went for Obama as opposed to 45 percent for McCain.  More conservative Catholics gave McCain a slim margin.  Among more observant Catholic voters–those who attend church weekly–McCain got 50 percent to Obama’s 49 percent.
  • A majority of Catholic voters approve of the President’s peformance to date, and a majority support a woman’s right to decide what is best for her when facing an unintended pregnancy, and the majority also support access to contraception.  As noted by the Pew Research Center:

Catholics’ overall approval of Obama is consistent with the fact that
many Catholics themselves do not share the Catholic Church’s opposition
to abortion and embryonic stem cell research. 

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  • The real-life practices of Catholic women and couples when it comes to contraception and abortion is consistent with that of the general population.


There is no danger of the Administration losing the broad support of Catholics on this particular issue, as long as the Administration makes clear its values and principles and goals and objectives, and as long as it sticks to the facts.  The assertion that unless he bows to the most conservative Catholic position he will lose widespread support is a scare tactic of the right. (And in any case, this should not be the priority consideration in regard to freedom of choice, freedom of religion and the decision of whether, when and how many children to have).

While it is now clear from recent reports that any common ground proposal will not be accepted by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), this is also no surprise.  We knew that already.  The only thing that will suffice for the USCCB is if Catholic doctrine becomes the law of the land.

Here is what the White House proposal needs to do:

  • Underscore what everyone already knows: This is a pluralistic society with a variety of complicated collective views on sex and abortion, but that the vast majority of Americans understand and agree that these personal decisions must be left up to women and their families.
  • Make clear that the White House is committed to evidence-based policies in public health that will yield the greatest results in promoting both the health of women and their families, while meeting social goals of reducing unintended pregnancies and reducing demand for abortion in the long run.
  • Make clear that the number of abortions in the United States has been declining and that with the right policies in place, this trend can continue without compromising women’s reproductive choices or their family wellbeing.  The Administration is in line with the vast majority of the American public in its position that how to deal with an unintended pregnancy is a decision that needs to be made by women, their partners, their families, and their doctors, not the White House or the Congress.
  • Acknowledge that while some progress has been made, the number of unintended pregnancies in the United States remains unacceptably high.  Recent reversals in positive trends, such as the upward swing in teen pregnancies, can be traced back to years of abstinence-only programs and efforts to stigmatize basic reproductive health care.
  • Underscore that all the best public health data show that the best way to reduce unintended pregnancies, and hence the need for abortion, is to provide universal access to prevention services.  Refer to data showing that the rate of unintended pregnancies and hence abortions is highest among those populations of women with least access to family planning services.
  • Underscore that it is not the job of the government to convince women what to do when faced with an unintended pregnancy but to ensure that all options can be weighed fairly.
  • Base the policy proposal on the following:
  1. Increased funding for basic family planning services to reduce unintended pregnancies, including dramatically expanded access to emergency contraception.
  2. Increased emphasis on expanding access to early abortion for those who choose to terminate a pregnancy.
  3. Dramatically increased funding for comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education, and evidence-based approach increasingly shown by research to be highly effective in delaying sex among teens, reducing unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion and reducing sexually transmitted infections.
  4. Ensuring women facing unintended pregnancy receive evidence-based, unbiased counseling on all their options: continuing a pregnancy to term, choosing to carry to term and give a child up for adoption, and choosing to terminate a pregnancy.  The government should support, not direct, proscribe or limit, women’s choices.

Focusing on facts will ensure that the public understands that the Administration is committed to what the President promised–evidence-based public health policies.  It will also show the majority of the public that the Administration is not accommodating ideology, but standing on fact.

By doing so, the Administration can, in the long run, actually bring profound change to this debate: evidence-based policies put into practice will achieve many of the goals we seek and take the air out of the ideological fight in which we have been engaged.

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