More than 55 leading Catholic Bishops, all members of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, are speaking out against the University of Notre Dame's decision to host and honor President Barak Obama at their commencement ceremony on the 17th. Much of their ire is due to President Obama's support of the right to choose abortion. And, indeed coverage of the Bishops' opposition has largely, and unfortunately, centered on the issue of abortion, rather than on the pregnant women who have them. Sixty one percent of women who have abortions are already mothers and 84 percent of all women become pregnant and give birth over the course of their lifetimes. While Bishops criticize the president for being unwilling "to hold human life as sacred," an examination of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishop's (USCCB) public positions in two historic legal cases makes clear that that the USCCB itself is unwilling to "hold human life as sacred" when the life belongs to a pregnant woman.
Twenty two years ago this June, when a District of Columbia court ordered 27 year-old Angela Carder to undergo cesarean surgery against her wishes, she said: "I don't want it done. I don't want it done." The unborn child who the surgery was intended to save survived for just two hours. Carder died two days later with the cesarean listed as a contributing factor.
In the highly publicized appeal that followed, and that reversed the order, only two groups defended the forced surgery: one was the United Catholic Conference -- now known as the USCCB.
While the USCCB defended the forced surgery that contributed to a pregnant woman's death as "the correct choice," it vigorously opposed removing Terry Schiavo's feeding tube because it would lead to her death. Terry Schiavo who was not pregnant had suffered irreversible brain damage and had been in a persistent vegetative state for 15 years. Experts who examined her concluded that she had no consciousness whatsoever, and that there were no treatments that could possibly improve or reverse her condition. Nevertheless, according to the USCCB, Schiavo's condition was anything but futile, describing her as someone with "cognitive disabilities." The USCCB rejected the notion "that there are some lives that aren't worth living."
In contrast, the USCCB explicitly viewed efforts to preserve Carder's life as futile and her life as not worth living. According to the USCCB the forced cesarean surgery was justified because Carder "was lying very near death" and "had at most one, possibly two days, to live." At best, "A.C. might have lived 24-48 hours without surgery" arguing that, "with or without the cesarean operation, A.C. would most probably die within 24-48 hours of the court hearing." Although Carder had specifically agreed to treatments that might prolong her life, the USCCB defended the surgery because the "attempt to save A.C.'s unborn child properly recognized . . . the futility of improving A.C.'s situation."
Not only did the USCCB discount the value of Carder's life, it urged the court to ignore her pain and the fact that subjecting her to a c-section -- major abdominal surgery -- could only make that pain worse. The USCCB argued that refusing a c-section "could not save her life or even make it more bearable."
The USCCB did not even object to the fact that Carder was stripped of due process --the opportunity to have her rights fully reviewed. Her rights were decided at an emergency hearing, leaving her no opportunity to select a lawyer, obtain medical records, or find experts. Still, the USCCB hoped a precedent would be set for the "next case" so that future courts could similarly force surgery on pregnant women whose rights would be "decided in the same emergency setting." In contrast, the USCCB supported legislation to guarantee that Schiavo, who had eight years of judicial review, would have additional access to the court system.
In other words, according to the USCCB, eight years of due process is not enough for someone in a persistent vegetative state, but less than a day of due process is plenty for a pregnant woman.
In Terri Schiavo's case, the USCCB argued "every human life has incalculable worth and meaning, no matter its age or condition." Their position in the Angela Carder case, one that they have never recanted and that is embodied in the Religious Directives in force in Catholic Hospitals across the country, suggests that the one form of life that does not have incalculable worth or meaning is that of pregnant women.
If it is true that the USCCB in fact prioritizes some lives over others, and excludes pregnant women from the right to life it claims to so vehemently defend, Notre Dame should be praised for inviting a speaker, President Obama, who is committed to promoting a true culture of life--one that includes and values the women who give that life.
Follow Lynn M. Paltrow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Lynn Paltrow