updated 4/23/2004 2:39:47 PM ET 2004-04-23T18:39:47

Democratic candidate John Kerry said Friday a woman’s right to abortion is a major part of his campaign for president, ignoring a prominent Vatican official’s call for denying Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

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“I believe that in the year 2004 we deserve a president who understands that a stronger America is where women’s rights are just that, rights, not political weapons to be used by politicians of this nation,” Kerry said during a rally he had scheduled with women’s rights groups.

“More than 30 years after Roe vs. Wade became the law of the land, it has never been more at risk than it is today,” Kerry said. “We are going to have a change in leadership in this country to protect the right of choice.”

Earlier Friday, Cardinal Francis Arinze would not comment on whether it was right to give Communion to Kerry, who is Catholic. Arinze spoke to reporters while issuing a Vatican directive, commissioned by Pope John Paul II, that clamps down on liturgical abuses in Mass. The 71-page document does not address the question of pro-choice politicians, an issue reporters raised with the cardinal.

When asked in general about “unambiguously pro-abortion” Catholic politicians, Arinze said such a politician “is not fit” to receive Communion. “If they should not receive, then they should not be given,” he said.

Kerry spokesman David Wade would not respond directly to Arinze, but he reiterated Kerry’s position on the separation of church and state that “helped make religious affiliation a nonissue in American politics.”

“The decisions he will make as president will be guided by his obligation to all the people of our country and to the Constitution of the United States,” Wade said in a statement. “Every American — whether they be Jewish, Catholic, Protestant or any other faith — must believe their president is representing them.”

Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt said: “John Kerry’s position in favor of partial-birth abortion shows how far outside the mainstream he is. The president supports a culture of life.”

Kerry scheduled the rally to compare his stand on abortion with what he says are Bush’s extreme anti-abortion positions. On Sunday in Washington, the National Organization for Women, NARAL Pro-choice America, the Planned Parenthood Federation and other groups plan to march for abortion rights.

The Planned Parenthood Action Fund endorsed Kerry on Friday, citing his support for abortion rights. Planned Parenthood’s political arm, which has never before endorsed a presidential candidate, said it will focus on bringing single women to the polls in November.

Judy Brown, president of the anti-abortion American Life League, said the cardinal’s comments “should reinforce for the bishops that they must enforce canon law” by denying Communion to public figures who advocate abortion. She estimated that more than 500 politicians at the state and national level fall into that category.

“My impression is that the vast majority of bishops do not enforce the law,” Brown said.

Kerry’s position of being personally opposed to abortion but supporting abortion rights is hypocritical, Brown said. “There is no such thing in the Catholic Church as personal morality. There’s only right and wrong,” she said.

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, USA, said statements such as Arinze’s “debase the political campaign” and would isolate the church from its Americans members, most of whom she said support abortion rights.

“Do they really want to tell Senators Kennedy, Mikulski, Leahy and 70 other members of the U.S. Congress that they can’t receive Communion?” Kissling asked. “Because they can’t just tell this to Senator Kerry.”

Kissling said the statement could have a negative impact on Kerry’s campaign. “It has the effect of making Senator Kerry’s task of describing himself to the American public very difficult because it places him on the defensive. He should not be having to explain to the American public his relationship to the Roman Catholic Church,” she said.

Kerry has said he would nominate only Supreme Court justices who support his position. Bush approves of abortion only in cases of rape or incest or when the pregnancy endangers a woman’s life.

Bush recently signed two pieces of legislation that have alarmed abortion rights advocates. The first bans the procedure that critics describe as “partial-birth” abortion; the second established new protections for the unborn by making it a separate crime to harm a fetus during an assault on the mother-to-be.

Last week, Kerry met with Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Washington archbishop heading a task force examining whether there should be church sanctions for Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. The seven-member task force, created last year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is studying what steps to take against Catholic politicians who vote and support positions at odds with church teachings.

Among the options are denying access to Catholic schools or hospitals that might be venues for campaign events to excommunication, but McCarrick made it clear that he does not favor the latter choice.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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