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Posted November 15, 2006

Pro-life Outlook After the U.S. Elections

Interview With Russell Shaw

WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 12, 2006 - After having progressed in the last six years, the pro-life cause in the United States suffered a blow in last Tuesday's elections, says veteran journalist Russell Shaw.

Shaw, who was recently appointed to a third, five-year term to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, shared with ZENIT his views about the election that saw Democrats win control of Congress.

Q: Six years into the Bush administration, how do you see the pro-life situation in the country?

Shaw: I'm glad you asked that in the perspective of the last six years, since in that time frame the pro-life movement in the United States has made very significant progress.

Remember, six years ago we were nearing the end of the aggressively pro-choice -- that is, pro-abortion -- administration of President Bill Clinton. Those were eight very bad years for the pro-life cause. But although the Bush administration hasn't been perfect, the last six years have on the whole been positive ones.

Possibly the most positive development of all was the nomination and confirmation for the Supreme Court of Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justice Samuel Alito. We can't be absolutely certain where they stand on abortion until the Supreme Court announces its decision in two partial-birth abortion cases, probably next spring.

But there are indications -- and very high hopes -- that both will come down on the pro-life side. Significantly, the pro-choicers have been fretting lately that reversal of the 1973 decision legalizing abortion, Roe v. Wade, could be a real possibility in the foreseeable future.

Also at the national level, these six years have seen some significant pro-life legislative victories. For instance, there was Congress' enactment in 2003 of the federal ban on partial-birth abortion that the Supreme Court is now reviewing.

Other pro-life measures also have been adopted during this time. And pro-lifers have held the line on the restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research that President George Bush put in place.

On the whole, it's a record of solid achievement. I wish things had moved faster in the pro-life direction, but they definitely have moved.

Q: What kind of impact do you think the elections will have on pro-life efforts?

Shaw: The impact is strongly negative. A number of pro-life members of Congress were defeated -- people like Senators Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Mike DeWine of Ohio, and Jim Talent of Missouri. That means no new pro-life legislation at the federal level in the next two years. In fact, pro-lifers will have their hands full protecting gains already made.

Even more serious, in the new Senate the pro-choice side will be able to defeat any new Supreme Court nominees resembling Roberts and Alito that the president might send up. Of course there's no certainty Bush will get another opportunity to nominate anyone, but he might.

He will certainly have opportunities to name judges for other federal courts below the Supreme Court.

In order to win confirmation of his choices in the new Senate, he'll have to send up either compromise candidates who are weak on abortion and other social issues, or stealth candidates whose views simply aren't known. The best-known stealth candidate was David Souter, who was named to the Supreme Court by the current President Bush's father, and has been a disaster from the pro-life point of view.

The pro-life movement also suffered a very serious setback in South Dakota. The voters there handily rejected a tough new law on abortion, which the state legislature enacted last February and which supporters hoped might lead to a successful challenge to Roe v. Wade. The intention was good but the strategy backfired.

Now, pro-lifers must stick to seeking incremental legislation that only nibbles at the edges of permissive abortion -- and for a while what happened in South Dakota may make it harder to get even laws like that passed.

Parental notification measures also were rejected by voters in California and Oregon, but that was hardly a surprise. Both are pretty liberal states.

Q: How will the elections affect other key issues, such as immigration and health care?

Shaw: The next two years will be dominated by political maneuvering focusing on the election of a new president in 2008. That will make it difficult to enact substantial new legislation on much of anything.

This year, Congress passed, and the president signed, legislation to crack down on illegal immigration into the United States. That includes the famous -- or infamous -- 700-mile "wall" along the U.S.-Mexico border, which may get built some day and then again may not.

Next year I suspect Bush will reach out to congressional Democrats to try to find common ground on regularizing the status of illegal immigrants already in this country. But it won't be easy.

As for health care -- either expanding insurance coverage or controlling costs -- I'm skeptical. I doubt that there's a sufficient consensus in either party to get new legislation passed, and the political maneuvering I mentioned will make it that much harder.

Q: Has the Church been effective in recent years in its pro-life efforts?

Shaw: I think so. Catholics have been a key part of the pro-life coalition responsible for the progress of the last six years.

The big problem for the Church lies in the evidence that Catholics as a group are wobbly on pro-life issues. Regular churchgoers vote fairly solidly pro-life, irregular churchgoers less so, and those who seldom or never go to church tend to be pro-choice.

That's hardly a surprise, but it's disturbing, especially when you consider that the rate of Sunday Mass attendance by Catholics in the United States continues to decline -- it's now around one in three.

I don't think there's a strict cause-effect connection here, but I do believe there's a real link. Catholics strong in their faith tend to be pro-life. Catholics who aren't strong in their faith do not. The Church needs to work on all of these things together -- faith formation, sacramental participation, and commitment to the defense of human life -- because they stand or fall together.

Q: You have an article in Crisis magazine about the possibility of downsizing the staffs of the U.S. bishops' conference. How do you think this would impact the Church's ability to evangelize?

Shaw: Actually, it's a plan for downsizing not just the staff but the budget and program as well. If it works as intended, it isn't going to hurt the Church's ability to evangelize and it may actually help.

The idea is to cut waste and inefficiency out of the bishops' conference and make it a leaner, more effective instrument for carrying out the bishops' priorities and meeting the Church's needs. The U.S. bishops' conference could become more of a service agency, responsive to the pastoral priorities of the local churches.

As someone who worked at the conference for 18 years, from 1969 to 1987, I think there's plenty of waste and inefficiency to cut, and I applaud what's happening.

Still, some people inside the conference say there's a lack of vision guiding the process. If the bishops can come up with the vision -- and maybe they will -- then the downsizing could be a very good thing.