Solidifying a schism that spurred several fights during the last session of the Texas Legislature, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops announced late last week that the state's Catholic parishes should cut off cooperation with Texas Right to Life, one of the state's most influential anti-abortion organizations. According to the bishops, Texas Right to Life undermines the anti-abortion agenda laid out by Pope John Paul II because of its extremist policies.
"Texas Right to Life often opposes the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and has implied that the bishops do not faithfully represent Church teaching," the bishops wrote in advisory to all Texas Catholic parishes. "Part of the dispute is rooted in Texas Right to Life’s rejection of incremental pro-life reforms, which bishops support following the guidance of St. John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae."
During the 2017 legislative session, Texas Right to Life threw its considerable weight behind several pieces of anti-abortion legislation that groups on both sides of the aisle, including fellow anti-abortion groups, felt wouldn't hold up in court. Things came to a head during the debate over a ban on dilation and evacuation abortions. Dilation and evacuation is the most common and safest method of abortion for women in their second trimester, according to doctors.
John Seago, Texas Right to Life’s legislative director, pushed legislators to pass the bill, which he and his organization have long identified as a key potential front in their battle to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion nationwide.
“Senate Bill 415 is the next step in educating the public about the violent nature of abortion, and it will stop elective abortions,” Seago said last February, during a committee debate over the bill.
Texas' ban, Seago said, was designed to pass Supreme Court muster, following the path laid out by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision in Gonzalez v. Carhart, which upheld the federal ban on late-term abortion.
Joe Pojman, the executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life, a group the bishops were careful to point out they still support, told legislators that they should pass on the bill — not because it wasn't the right thing to do, but because it would inevitably be struck down by the courts because of the limits it places on women in their second trimester who might seek an abortion.
“With due respect for the author [of SB 415], we just don’t think the bill will survive a federal court challenge,” Pojman said. “We cannot recommend it to you. We’d love to believe that Kennedy would support this. We told you he would support [the Texas anti-abortion law struck down by the Supreme Court in 2016]. We were wrong.”
The ban passed, after being rolled into SB 8, the Legislature's major anti-abortion bill of the session, but hasn't yet gone into effect. Just as Pojman predicted, the ban has been put on hold by a federal district court in Austin and is potentially headed toward the Supreme Court.
In addition to opposing Texas Right to Life's legislative strategy, the bishops also take issue with the organization's method of rating candidates. Stalwart conservatives like Fort Worth's Charlie Geren and Cindy Burkett of Sunnyvale get less-than-perfect rankings from the organization not because they support abortion, according to the bishops, but because they prefer an incremental approach to reform.
"Texas Right to Life publishes a scorecard that purports to show which Texas legislators are pro-life. We believe
this publication is not based on a fair analysis of a legislator’s work, but rather upon whether the legislator has followed voting recommendations of Texas Right to Life. Unfortunately, a number of legislators who have consistently voted for pro-life and end of life legislation have been opposed by Texas Right to Life," the bishops say.
Fort Worth's bishop, Michael Olson, tweeted Thursday that all parishioners attending services Sunday in the Fort Worth diocese will receive a copy of the bishops' advisory. An announcement will also be made from the pulpit at all masses, Olson said.
Texas Right to Life responded to the bishops' advisory Saturday morning, accusing the bishops of being complicit in the "Austin Establishment's" agenda.
"Texas Right to Life, our staff, our board, and our members are unapologetic in speaking the truth, including during election time, about which elected officials help or hurt the Pro-Life cause," a statement from Texas Right to Life spokeswoman Melissa Conway said. "We are unafraid to forge ahead with focused determination in the wake of political attacks from those who work to keep the Austin Establishment and lukewarm incumbents in power."
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