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Obama’s view on abortion may divide Catholics

The Obama campaign is being close-mouthed about its convention plans that may include Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who is Roman Catholic and opposes abortion rights.
Image: Barack Obama
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., will likely face a Republican campaign geared to depict him as a radical on the question of abortion.Alex Brandon / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

Sixteen years ago, the Democratic Party refused to allow Robert P. Casey Sr., then the governor of Pennsylvania, to speak at its national convention because his anti-abortion views, stemming from his Roman Catholic faith, clashed with the party’s platform and powerful constituencies. Many Catholics, once a reliable Democratic voting bloc, never forgot what they considered a slight.

This year, the party is considering giving a speaking slot at the convention to Mr. Casey’s son, Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, who like his late father is a Roman Catholic who opposes abortion rights.

The likely shift reflects concern among Democrats that they need to do more to regain the allegiance of Roman Catholic voters, who broke decisively for President Bush in 2004 and could be crucial to the outcome in a number of battleground states this year. Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, lost the Catholic vote badly to Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who, like Mr. Obama, is a supporter of abortion rights, during the primaries in states like New Hampshire, Missouri and Ohio. In Pennsylvania, Catholic voters preferred Mrs. Clinton to Mr. Obama by a 40-point margin.

The Obama campaign is being close-mouthed about its convention plans and would not confirm whether Mr. Casey would be given a prime-time speaking slot. Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said that the call was Mr. Obama’s, but that a prominent speaking role for Mr. Casey would assist in the candidate’s efforts to woo Roman Catholic voters.

Mr. Casey, who endorsed Mr. Obama early and campaigned extensively for him in Pennsylvania, said there was no formal offer yet from Mr. Obama or the party. But, he said, “I think we’ll get something worked out.”

Mr. Casey’s appearance would be an important signal to Catholics, especially those who follow church teachings and oppose abortion. Mr. Obama could also use his choice of a vice-presidential running mate to reassure Roman Catholics. Among those that his campaign is vetting is Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Roman Catholic whose faith has been part of his political identity. At least three other Catholics have also been mentioned as possible running mates: Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas.

Although abortion is central to the political crosscurrents around Catholics — Ms. Sebelius has vetoed a number of bills that would restrict abortion rights in Kansas, prompting the archbishop of Kansas City to suggest that she stop receiving communion — part of Mr. Obama’s strategy is to emphasize that there are other issues on which they can base their votes. It would be a way to address the perception that Mr. Obama has a “Catholic problem.”

Douglas W. Kmiec, a conservative Catholic legal scholar at Pepperdine School of Law, said that although the formal teachings of the American Catholic bishops put primacy on the sanctity of life, including fetuses and embryos, doctrine allows for voting on other grounds, including the Iraq war, which the Vatican has opposed from the start.

Mr. Kmiec, a Republican who served in the Justice Department under President Ronald Reagan, said he was supporting Mr. Obama because his platform met the standard of justice and concern for the poor the church has always defended. This year, Mr. Kmiec was denied communion by a priest at a gathering of Catholic business people because of his support for Mr. Obama. Mr. Kmiec said, “The proper question for Catholics to ask is not ‘Can I vote for him?’ but ‘Why shouldn’t I vote for the candidate who feels more passionately and speaks more credibly about economic fairness for the average family, who will be a true steward of the environment, and who will treat the immigrant family with respect?’ ”

He urged Mr. Obama to invite Mr. Casey to speak as an answer to those who believe they cannot vote for someone who supported abortion rights.

Mr. Kmiec’s and Mr. Casey’s views put them in conflict with millions of lay Catholics, for whom abortion is a nonnegotiable issue, and many Catholic clerics, including Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver, the site of the Democratic convention.

Archbishop Chaput, who has stopped short of telling his flock how to vote, has called abortion a “foundational issue.” He has said that a vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights or stem-cell research, like Mr. Obama or Senator John Kerry in 2004, was a sin that must be confessed before receiving communion. Mr. Obama’s Republican rival, Senator John McCain, an opponent of abortion rights, met last week in Denver with Archbishop Chaput.

The archbishop declined an interview request but his spokeswoman, Jeanette DeMelo, said that his views had not changed. In a column this year, Archbishop Chaput wrote that Catholics could support a politician who supported abortion only if they had a “compelling proportionate reason” to justify it. “What is a ‘proportionate’ reason when it comes to the abortion issue?” the archbishop wrote. “It’s the kind of reason we will be able to explain, with a clean heart, to the victims of abortion when we meet them face to face in the next life — which we most certainly will. If we’re confident that these victims will accept our motives as something more than an alibi, then we can proceed.”

That is a tough standard for Mr. Obama, or any supporter of abortion rights, to meet. Republicans are gearing up campaigns to depict Mr. Obama as a radical on the question of abortion, because as a state senator in Illinois he opposed a ban on the killing of fetuses born alive.

Mr. Obama has said he had opposed the bill because it was poorly drafted and would have threatened the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that established abortion as a constitutional right. He said he would have voted for a similar bill that passed the United States Senate because it did not have the same constitutional flaw as the Illinois bill. Mr. Obama has opposed the federal ban on so-called partial-birth abortions for similar legal and constitutional reasons.

That explanation did not wash with many abortion foes and most Republicans.

“When you look at his opposition to the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act in Illinois and the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban, which many Mass-attending Catholics view as bans on infanticide, Obama’s more extreme than any other Democratic presidential candidate,” said Leonard Leo, who directed Catholic outreach for Republicans in 2004, and is an informal adviser to the party and the McCain campaign.

Mr. Leo also said that the appearance of Mr. Casey on the dais at the Democratic convention would not be enough to address the concerns of faithful Catholics.

“He might get a slight bump from Casey among Catholics generally, but it doesn’t get him all the way there because Casey-the-Younger isn’t his father, and Mass-attending Catholics have figured that out,” Mr. Leo said.

William A. Galston, a domestic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said Catholics were the quintessential swing voters. Mr. Galston said they were roughly a quarter of the electorate but lived in disproportionate numbers in the swing states of the Midwest. Polls show them closely divided between the two candidates. Mr. Galston said Mr. Obama could improve his standing with Catholics by, like Mr. Clinton in 1992, conferring with a group of Catholic leaders and then giving a substantive speech at Notre Dame or another Catholic institution.

Mr. Obama should also speak out in favor of legislation now before Congress to provide financing for alternatives to abortion like free prenatal care and adoption assistance, Mr. Galston suggested. Mr. Obama should also invite Mr. Casey to speak at the convention, he said.

“I spend a lot of time with Catholic intellectuals, and no matter how liberal they are and inclined to support Democrats, they speak with vehemence about the exclusion of Casey’s father from the 1992 convention,” Mr. Galston said. “They don’t accept any of the explanations. I think it would be a dramatic act of historical rectification that would resonate with Catholics.”