WASHINGTON — Roman Catholic bishops have called on state legislatures to restrict abortions and cautioned abortion opponents about the dangers of internal political bickering.
In a lengthy statement issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee for Pro-life Activities, the hierarchy also said the abortion debate is being diverted from the issue of the "humanity of the unborn child" to questions of a woman's privacy and personal autonomy.
The statement, "An Opportunity to Defend Life," is the church's first major analysis of the abortion situation following the U.S. Supreme Court's July 3 ruling upholding a series of state restrictions on legal abortion while ostensibly leaving untouched the key 1973 decision legalizing most abortions.
"The new direction taken by the court is cause for hope," said the committee, headed by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. "There is promise in the court's invitation to states to establish new legislative limits on abortion."
At the same time, however, the bishops noted that the court "did not fully recognize the right to life of unborn children," and said the church must press its argument that "the evil of abortion begins with the humanity of the unborn child."
"This central truth is often obscured in the current debate, where abortion is presented solely as an exercise of personal autonomy or as a conflict between state prerogatives and the individual right of privacy," the bishops' statement said.
In the area of public policy, the bishops said the opportunities opened up for states to restrict abortion by the court's Webster ruling "are limited and complex."
But it urged legislators to push for short-term goals such as placing limits on direct and indirect government funding of abortion, parental notification laws and efforts to delay and make "hasty" abortions more difficult to obtain.
"We are committed to establishing constitutional protection for the unborn child to the maximum degree possible," the bishops said. "Therefore, we urge legislators, especially Catholics, to help build a consensus in our society in support of the unborn child's right to life."
The bishops also took note of the deep divisions that have sometimes hampered the anti-abortion movement's efforts. The bishops, led by Bernardin, have sought to place their opposition to legal abortion in a context of "respect for life" that also includes opposition to the death penalty, support for anti-poverty social welfare programs and opposition to the U.S. nuclear arms buildup.
Conservative abortion opponents, however, reject the bishops' strategy of making abortion a part of such a "seamless garment."
"The movement in support of abortion on demand is united in its agenda," the bishops' statement said. "Pro-life Americans must not give their adversaries an easy victory by launching attacks on each other over questions of political strategy."
The bishops also warned that the post-Webster debate could lead to a new wave of anti-Catholicism in the nation.
"Anti-Catholic sentiment has never been entirely absent from the pro-abortion campaign," the bishops said, "but abortion rights advocates apparently seek to revivify it now that the efforts of Catholics and other pro-life citizens have begun to bear fruit."
But the bishops said they "do not intend to be ruled out of this or any social debate by spurious interpretations of the 1st Amendment" that claim that the church is seeking to establish and impose its theological views of the fetus on the rest of the nation.