By NANCY FRAZIER O’BRIEN, CNS | Published September 25, 2008
On few topics do presidential candidates Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain diverge as sharply as on abortion. But on other life issues—embryonic stem-cell research, assisted suicide and the death penalty—the differences are not always easy to ferret out.
On abortion, McCain’s campaign Web site said the Republican candidate “believes Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned” as “one step in the long path toward ending abortion.” Obama’s Web site says the Democratic nominee “will make safeguarding women’s rights under Roe v. Wade a priority” and that he “opposes any constitutional amendment to overturn that decision.”
In their 2007 document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility,” the U.S. Catholic bishops stress the importance of the life issues.
“The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many,” the document says. “It must always be opposed.”
Martin Shaffer, a political science professor and dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said the impact of the life issues “may be murky at best given that neither candidate has been known nationally as a leader in either direction on those issues.”
“Although John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin for his ticket is in part an attempt to make connections to voters on the life issues, neither presidential candidate is crystal clear and consistent on these issues,” Shaffer told Catholic News Service Sept. 17.
On stem cells, neither McCain nor Obama fully embraces the bishops’ unequivocal opposition to any stem-cell research that involves the destruction of human embryos.
McCain “opposes the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes” and “will strongly support funding for promising research programs, including amniotic fluid and adult stem-cell research and other types of scientific study that do not involve the use of human embryos,” according to his Web site.
Obama believes “we owe it to the American public to explore the potential of stem cells to treat the millions of people suffering from debilitating and life-threatening diseases,” his campaign site says.
Both candidates voted for—and Obama co-sponsored—the Stem-Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2007, which President George W. Bush vetoed and the U.S. bishops had strongly opposed. The legislation would have permitted the destruction of so-called “spare embryos,” unused after fertility treatments, for use in embryonic stem-cell experiments.
Phyllis Zagano, senior research associate in the religion department at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and a columnist on Catholic issues, said she believes the life issues “will play a very big role in the election, not only for Catholics but for all people of religious faith.”
But because both candidates would permit embryonic stem-cell research and McCain has said he would allow abortions in cases of rape, incest and danger to the mother’s life, “for people for whom life issues are primary, I honestly don’t know how it will fall,” she told CNS Sept. 18.
Zagano said, however, that the combination of Palin’s “appeal to the middle of America” and McCain’s stronger position on abortion will likely mean that religiously motivated voters “will fall more on the McCain side.”
The topic of assisted suicide does not come up on either candidate’s campaign Web site, and neither has taken a public stand on Washington state’s Initiative 1000, which would legalize physician-assisted suicide.
In “Faithful Citizenship,” the bishops say, “The purposeful taking of human life by assisted suicide and euthanasia is not an act of mercy, but an unjustifiable assault on human life.”
The bishops also criticize “our nation’s continued reliance on the death penalty” and said they support “efforts to end” its use and moves to limit it “through broader use of DNA evidence, access to effective counsel and efforts to address unfairness and injustice related to application of the death penalty.”
Asked by U.S. Catholic magazine about their positions on capital punishment, neither candidate embraced that view.
“I support the death penalty for heinous crimes in which the circumstances warrant capital punishment,” said McCain.
Obama’s stand was a bit more nuanced. “Throughout my career I have worked strenuously to ensure that the death penalty is only administered fairly and justly,” he told U.S. Catholic. “But I do believe that there are some crimes that are so heinous that they deserve the death penalty.”
Frank McNeirney, co-founder and national coordinator of Catholics Against Capital Punishment, says he does not expect the death penalty to be much of an issue for Catholic voters in the 2008 elections. Even in 2004, when the Democratic candidate for president, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, opposed the death penalty, “it was not a big factor in any of the debates,” he said.
Republican Party Platform
“Faithful to the first guarantee of the Declaration of Independence, we assert the inherent dignity and sanctity of all human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children. We oppose using public revenues to promote or perform abortion and will not fund organizations which advocate it. We support the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity and dignity of innocent human life.
“We have made progress. The Supreme Court has upheld prohibitions against the barbaric practice of partial-birth abortion. States are now permitted to extend health-care coverage to children before birth. And the Born Alive Infants Protection Act has become law; this law ensures that infants who are born alive during an abortion receive all treatment and care that is provided to all newborn infants and are not neglected and left to die. We must protect girls from exploitation and statutory rape through a parental notification requirement. We all have a moral obligation to assist, not to penalize, women struggling with the challenges of an unplanned pregnancy. At its core, abortion is a fundamental assault on the sanctity of innocent human life. Women deserve better than abortion. Every effort should be made to work with women considering abortion to enable and empower them to choose life. We salute those who provide them alternatives, including pregnancy care centers, and we take pride in the tremendous increase in adoptions that has followed Republican legislative initiatives.
“Respect for life requires efforts to include persons with disabilities in education, employment, the justice system, and civic participation. In keeping with that commitment, we oppose the non-consensual withholding of care or treatment from people with disabilities, as well as the elderly and infirm, just as we oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide, which endanger especially those on the margins of society. Because government should set a positive standard in hiring and contracting for the services of persons with disabilities, we need to update the statutory authority for the AbilityOne program, the main avenue by which those productive members of our society can offer high quality services at the best possible value.”
Democratic Party Platform
“The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.
“The Democratic Party also strongly supports access to affordable family planning services and comprehensive age-appropriate sex education which empower people to make informed choices and live healthy lives. We also recognize that such health care and education help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby also reduce the need for abortions.
“The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child by ensuring access to and availability of programs for pre(natal) and postnatal health care, parenting skills, income support, and caring adoption programs.”