Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Pill Bill Killed

A legislative bill that would have forced Catholic hospitals to provide aborticides to rape victims was itself aborted Monday before the bill could leave the public health committee.

The committee's deadline for reporting out bills was 5:00 p.m., but the debate on the Plan B bill did not begin until 4:43 p.m., which left precious little time for proponents and opponents of the bill to put their opinions on the record.

Following the legislative mercy killing, speculation filled the air. Was the bill scheduled so close to deadline because Sen. Christopher Murphy, the co-chairman of the committee, did not want a public record of a debate certain to cause difficulties for legislative backers of the bill?

Murphy himself this year hopes to be able to unseat U.S. Rep Nancy Johnson, a Catholic politician who, despite her votes against a bill banning partial birth abortion, tends to run well in places like Waterbury, an urban battleground chock-full of Catholic Democrats. One of the reasons a powerful Republican incumbent like Johnson seems to be impregnable is that Democrats cannot field a candidate from the right to run against them. A full throated defense of the Plan B bill so close to an election might have alienated even John F. Kennedy Catholics.

Murphy said that the dead-end scheduling was owing to "a recognition that this is not going to get a vote" in the absence of an agreement between Catholic hospitals and those who support the Plan B pill legislation.

And there's the rub -- because it is plain to Catholics familiar with the relevant church doctrines that there can be no agreement that violates their consciences. Perhaps the most under-reported datum in stories written about the controversy spurred by the bill is that submission to such anti-Catholic legislative dictates entails serious religious penalties: Excommunication is the sanction prescribed in canon law for Catholics who assist in the procuring of an abortion. Catholics who take their faith seriously know that excommunication separates them from the spiritual springs of the sacraments and the life of the church. For those who are not Catholics, or for Catholics who have become secularized, the possibility of excommunication is little more than theological fable and an empty threat.

Some legislators also may have wondered whether important lessons were to be learned from a similar situation in Massachusetts. Did Connecticut legislators see the recent crack-up in Massachusetts in their rear view mirrors and have second thoughts about the Plan B pill bill legislation?

In Sen. Edward Kennedy's state, the legislature passed a measure forcing Catholic adoption agencies to provide adoptees to same-sex households. The Catholic Church responded to the legislative dictate by disbanding Catholic Charities, an agency that had placed mentally retarded and physically handicapped children in homes for more than a century. It seems obvious that the Catholic Church in Massachusetts would not have abandoned its good works -- a religious obligation of all Catholics -- if the legislative order could have been fulfilled without violating both canon law and the communal conscience of the church. The response of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts means, if it means anything at all, that the state's religiously intolerant legislation could not be accommodated: Some things cannot be done. Did Connecticut legislators understand from Massachusetts' ordeal that the demands present in the Plan B pill legislation could not be met by any church forced to violate its precepts?

Cynics, ever more numerous in Connecticut, wondered whether the dead bill did not better accomplish a political purpose. A live Plan B pill bill passed by the legislature certainly would have alienated orthodox Catholics; but the bill also would have caused controversy and alarm among other faiths, for it clearly threatened to dissolve in the crucible of legislation any religious practice or precept that secularists might find obstructive. The bill, unaccommodating to religious precepts, was not hedged round by exceptions that would have preserved the spirit, if not the letter, of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prevents the state from impeding religious practices. It was, in many respects, a bill not written by the people or for the people. Instead, the bill was sponsored and pushed by pro-abortion factions whose votes partisan legislators had hoped to garner.

There may be, however, a political upside to the dead bill: It provided a John F. Kennedy moment for Connecticut's Catholic politicians. JFK made it clear in his first senatorial campaign, waged at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment roiled just beneath the nation's skin, that he would not be tied to papal apron strings. That moment has become distended absurdly in our time, when so-called Catholic politicians blithely support such horrors as partial-birth abortion and bills that force their church to violate precepts that are the foundation stones of their own faith.

Rather than asking what Jesus would have done in the present circumstances, Catholic politicians ought to be asking what JFK would have done when faced with legislation that would have forced him to violate his religious rather than his political obligations.
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