By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 12, 2008; www.washingtonpost.com
BALTIMORE, Nov. 11 -- The nation's Catholic bishops Tuesday approved a statement declaring that if the Democratic-controlled Congress and the incoming Obama administration enact proposed abortion rights legislation, they would see it as an attack on the church.
The statement, to be formally issued Wednesday by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, assails the proposed Freedom of Choice Act, which would remove most state and federal restrictions on abortion.
President-elect Barack Obama pledged during the campaign to sign the legislation.
Still being drafted last night, the bishops' statement is expected by church leaders to warn that the legislation would reduce religious freedom, make tax money available for abortions and alienate millions of Americans who oppose abortion.
The annual meeting of 220 bishops comes a week after the election of a Democratic ticket that supports abortion rights and includes Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr., who is Catholic.
Many bishops urged Catholics to make opposition to abortion a priority when they voted last week. But exit polls showed that Obama won 54 percent of the Catholic vote.
The Freedom of Choice Act is sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Many abortion rights activists said they think Congress is unlikely to pass the legislation.
Nevertheless, during public sessions of their meeting Tuesday, bishops took turns rising to condemn the legislation.
Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Chicago warned of "devastating consequences" to the Catholic health-care system if the act nullified conscience laws that allow providers and institutions to decline to perform abortion-related procedures. He said it could force the closure of all Catholic hospitals.
Auxiliary Bishop Robert Hermann of St. Louis said that "any one of us would consider it a privilege to die tomorrow -- to die tomorrow -- to bring about the end of abortion."
Although the church's leadership remains committed to outlawing abortion, the feelings are less adamant among many lay Catholics.
An August poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that almost one-half of U.S. Catholics think that abortion should be legal in all or nearly all cases.
Jon O'Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, said many of the bishops are "in a tailspin" after unsuccessfully urging Catholic voters to make abortion a priority.
"These people represent a minority view of Catholics in the United States and in the world," he said. "These are people who don't even believe contraception can be used."
The bishops had been scheduled Tuesday to publicly review "Faithful Citizenship," a statement they adopted last year to guide Catholic voters. During the presidential election campaign, some bishops said the statement did not sufficiently emphasize the church's teachings on abortion.
Instead, the bishops took up the issue in private Tuesday, and the debate over the statement's effectiveness turned pointed, said sources familiar with the discussion who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Behind closed doors, many bishops defended the statement as appropriately emphasizing a broad range of social justice issues, sources said