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With Roe overturned, state Catholic conferences have full agendas

Editor’s note: This report was first published before the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Casey on June 24, 2022.

The lobbying groups which represent bishops at the state level are mobilizing in advance of a seismic Supreme Court ruling that could upend Roe v. Wade and send the matter of legal abortion back to the states. 

If Roe is overturned, the legality of abortion will depend upon what state - or what region - a woman resides in. More than half of states are certain or likely to ban abortion outright if Roe is overturned.

Other states, like Florida, have restricted abortion after a certain stage in pregnancy such as 15 weeks. And still other states - among them California, Colorado, and New York - have liberalized their abortion laws in attempts to become abortion “havens.” 

State Catholic conferences - which lobby on behalf of bishops at state legislatures - have told The Pillar they are advocating for an expansion of state safety nets for expectant mothers, working on abortion specific legislation, and aiming to reach abortion-minded women with information and resources, in the knowledge that the number of mothers in need might soon increase.

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California: What is a ‘sanctuary,’ exactly?

California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has promised his state will become an abortion “sanctuary” if Roe is overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court this summer.

After a leaked Supreme Court draft decision that would overturn Roe emerged last week, the governor visited a Los Angeles Planned Parenthood facility, and chastised fellow Democrats for not doing more to promote abortion.

Newsom’s plea punctuated a flurry of pro-abortion activity in which California’s state legislators have introduced more than a dozen bills to expand abortion or fund it. Included are efforts to fund travel, accommodations, and meals for women seeking abortions, proposed scholarship funds for medical students learning how to perform abortions, and other measures to fund abortion coverage gaps in insurance plans. 

The state’s leaders are also pursuing an amendment that would enshrine a right to abortion in the state constitution. 

But when Newsom called California an abortion “sanctuary,” the state’s Catholic bishops took notice, Kathleen Domingo, executive director of the California Catholic Conference, told The Pillar. 

“[Sanctuary] is our term,” she said of the centuries-old Christian tradition of a church being a legal refuge for innocents fleeing violence. “We know where a sanctuary is.”

If the conference cannot stop the introduction of state abortion laws, it says it is working to meet abortion-minded women where they are, and give them all the support they need to carry their child.

The state’s bishops released their own call to action in January, committing to walking with mothers in need while also pledging to unite the state’s pregnancy centers and push for “transformative family policies” such as paid leave and housing assistance. 

The Church in California is “tired” of being on the defensive against anti-Christian policies, Domingo said. 

No matter which legislators are in power - or what laws are in effect - “you can’t stop us from doing this every day,” she said of the Church’s ministry.

Domingo said the conference is working in conjunction with a group called Options United - which represents more than 170 pregnancy centers in the state - to create a website and phone number hotline for women facing unexpected pregnancies. Women can then be directed by trained call center professionals to places that meet their needs: local pregnancy centers, professional counseling clinics, or tangible state resources such as Medi-Cal. 

The coalition will advertise the hotline on billboards and church flyers with the tagline “Support changes everything.” 

Catholic Charities in California has pledged to make rental assistance and motel vouchers available to women in need, Domingo said. 

“One of the biggest hurdles” for women seeking stability is housing, she said. “To be able to fill that gap I think is just a huge commitment on the part of the Catholic community in California.”

The conference is also inviting Catholics and evangelical Christians across the country to get involved in the pro-life effort with the “We Were Born Ready” campaign, through which believers can share best practices and concrete examples of how to help women in need.

“As Christians, by virtue of our baptism, this is absolutely what we are called to do,” Domingo explained. “We’ve been doing it for 2,000 years.”


Ohio: ‘The temperature will be up for us’

If California’s Catholics are pushing simultaneously against abortion and in favor of an expanded social safety net, Ohio’s Catholic leaders are doing the same thing - but in a somewhat friendlier political environment, at least when it comes to efforts that would restrict abortion itself.

Ohio is one of 17 states with a 20-week abortion ban in effect. The state is also one of several to have enacted a “heartbeat” bill banning abortions after detection of a fetal heartbeat - which can occur as early as six weeks. That bill, however, was halted from going into effect by a court. 

The state’s Catholic leaders “are in prayerful expectation” of a Supreme Court decision striking down Roe, Jerry Freewalt, executive director of the Ohio Catholic Conference, told The Pillar.

Still, if Roe is repealed, “the temperature will be up for us to really step up,” Freewalt added.

The conference’s legislative strategy now is twofold, he said: support a “trigger” abortion ban that would go into effect post-Roe, and push for an expansion of benefits for mothers facing unexpected pregnancies. 

Freewalt noted that the Church doesn’t just advocate against abortion; it supports programs for refugees, children in foster care, students in after-school programs, and at-risk infants. The conference is advocating for “transformative” policies such as expansions of the Child Tax Credit, housing assistance, paid leave, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, and state support of pregnancy centers. Last year’s budget included at least $6 million for TANF and pregnancy centers, Freewalt noted. 

Not all those initiatives are met with sympathy from lawmakers opposing abortion.

The conference is meeting with legislators and Gov. DeWine to push a continued expansion of the safety net. 

“We have to create a life-affirming alternative for women and families in a post-Roe world,” Freewalt said. 

Brian Hickey, associate director of the Ohio Catholic Conference, added that group’s the advocacy aims to be rooted in evangelization, by witness to a vision of the human person, born and unborn, created in the “image of God.”

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New York: Finding dignity in the ‘abortion capital of the country’

To show his support for abortion in 2019, New York’s former governor Andrew Cuomo lit up the spire of the World Trade Center’s Freedom Tower in pink, after he signed into law a bill that permits abortions in some cases up to the point of birth. 

That state landscape has not changed since then. Catholic leaders are now facing a proposal to pay for abortions for out-of-state residents, with the state Catholic conference calling that idea “appalling.”

New York was one of the first states to legalize abortion in 1970, before Roe was even decided. In the next decade, Gov. Mario Cuomo gained notoriety for articulating his pro-abortion views as a Catholic in public office.

Yet the upstate’s far west corner of Buffalo, Catholics for years have grown their pro-life ministry from humble beginnings in a nondescript room to an outreach center that serves 1,700 families per year in five locations - the St. Gianna Center.

Founded in 2009, the center provides material, emotional, and spiritual support to families after a pregnancy. Catholics work ecumenically with Baptists and evangelical Christians to take referrals from area hospitals, OB/GYNs, and parishes. The ministry also connects women to education and housing benefits, and the WIC program. 

“If we’re going to say to a woman to not consider terminating a pregnancy, what are we doing for her and with her?” said Cheryl Calire, the director of respect life ministries in the Buffalo diocese.

As her ministry grew over the past decade, Calire said a moment in Eucharistic adoration convinced her to take it one step further. 

Six years ago, Calire started what became the Mother Teresa Home, a privately-funded shelter for women pressured to undergo abortions. Women have come to the shelter from as far away as Chicago, Long Island, and Pennsylvania, Calire noted. There they receive community services and education referrals, in addition to safety and security. 

“One person at a time, you just try to meet people where they’re at,” Calire told The Pillar. While counseling women facing all sorts of dangers, she says women have often felt they “didn’t have any other options” than abortion.

“We’re just trying to be that option,” she said. 

Asked how she feels that the Supreme Court is at the cusp of overturning Roe, Calire answered that she’s a “realist,” and that “[w]here I live, in New York state, [abortion] is not going away.”

New York’s unofficial status as an abortion destination also presents an opportunity of sorts for local pro-life groups, she added.

“Keep on doing what we’re doing and then do more of it,” she explains her philosophy of ministry. 

Calire also believes, as the tensions rise across the country over abortion, that Catholics should avoid polemic confrontations or a bombastic tone. 

“Let’s talk about these things,” Calire said. “We don’t have to shout.”

“I believe that we can treat each other with dignity.”

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Colorado: Confronting the ‘massive machine’

Perhaps nowhere is the emerging post-Roe dichotomy felt so clearly as it is in Colorado. 

Surrounded mostly by states with pro-life laws on the books, Colorado’s abortion activists have sought to create a haven for women seeking abortion. Colorado has a history with abortion - in 1967, six years before Roe, it became the first state to decriminalize the procedure. 

“We’re going up against a massive machine,” Brittany Vessely, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, told The Pillar

The Democratic-controlled state legislature earlier this year passed a bill recognizing a fundamental right to abortion - the Reproductive Health Equity Act. On April 4, the state’s Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed it into law, making Colorado one of several states allowing for abortion throughout pregnancy.

Pro-abortion lawmakers are already considering their next step: a constitutional referendum in 2024 allowing for taxpayer-funded abortion. 

In response, Catholics have united with evangelical Christians and independent pro-life groups to form the coalition Pro-Life Colorado; they hope to grow in influence to counter the new momentum of pro-abortion lawmakers, Vessely said. 

Immediately, they plan to rescue vulnerable women and preborn children from the abortion industry -  irrespective of the state’s liberal abortion laws. To do this, they plan to advertise state pregnancy centers as alternatives to abortion, through billboards and other signage. 

The conference also plans to identify a leader at each Catholic parish in the state to involve fellow parishioners in pro-life politics.

While the legislature has a solid pro-abortion voting bloc that includes both irreligious progressives and pro-abortion Catholics, the state’s bishops have been trying to reach the latter group. According to Vessely, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver “has opened his door to speak with any pro-abortion Catholic in the legislature.” 

The archbishop has received no response, Vessely told The Pillar. 

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Iowa: Expanding the safety net

To the east in Iowa, the state’s Catholic conference is prioritizing an amendment to the state’s constitution that would clarify that there is no right to abortion in the state. 

In addition, the state’s bishops support expanded Medicaid benefits for new mothers through the Iowa MOMS (More Options for Maternal Support” bill; the legislation expands Medicaid until a year after birth and reimburses mothers for expenses such as baby formula and diapers. 

The conference says it also hosted Kat Talalas, assistant director for pro-life communications at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, to discuss the conference’s “Walking with Moms in Need” initiative.


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