In a rare display of political pressure, all eight of America's Roman Catholic cardinals and 50 bishops from across the country gathered on the steps of Congress and urged lawmakers to override President Clinton's veto of the ban on late-term "partial-birth" abortions.
Cardinal William H. Keeler of the Archdiocese of Baltimore led a prayer at the vigil and brought to the Capitol dozens of boxes of petitions signed last weekend by 200,000 Catholics in parishes across Maryland.
Each box, stacked in a short, long wall as a backdrop for the vigil, had signs taped to the front directed at Maryland's U.S. senators, Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski. The signs urged the legislators to "Override the Veto."
Keeler said the boxes represented at least "200,000 voices, 200,000 pleas" for life.
"In coming to understand it, millions of Americans are repelled at the thought and the reality of this procedure which means virtual infanticide," Keeler said, standing before some 500 people, a crowd of nuns, high school students, priests and Protestant pastors.
"This is an issue which knows no denominational bounds," said Keeler, flanked by his seven cardinal colleagues. "Here today are those from other churches who support the culture of life. Together we are bound by our support of life and our opposition to partial-birth abortion."
Clinton vetoed the partial-birth abortion ban in April, saying that the bill prohibited the controversial procedure -- often conducted in the final trimester -- even in cases when the mother's health was at risk.
With their vigil yesterday, Catholic leaders initiated a public campaign. Besides the 200,000 postcards to Congress from residents of Maryland, the bishops said they have collected postcards from 10 million people across the country. Catholic bishops also plan to make personal appeals to various members of the House and Senate over the next few days.
"Traditionally I've used the pulpit" rather than political rallies to express the church's views, said Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. "But this is such a hideous procedure that I am very proud to be here today."
The cardinals and bishops made it clear that outlawing partial-birth abortions is a chief priority for them. And, although 00 they made no direct threats against members of Congress or Clinton, the bishops' rally served as a reminder of the importance of Catholic voters, who make up 30 percent of the nation's voters.
Historically, the Catholic vote has been a critical swing vote in national politics. For the past 20 years, whichever presidential candidate won the most Catholic voters also won the election.
In 1992, Clinton won more than 40 percent of the Catholic vote. However in 1994, Catholics swung to the right and contributed to the victory of a Republican Congress.
In his appeals to Catholic audiences, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole has emphasized Clinton's veto of the partial-birth abortion ban. Clinton counters that he is striving to make abortion "safe, legal and rare."
At the same time, neither candidate has focused their campaign on the abortion issue. The candidates know that while abortion is No. 1 concern for Catholic leadership, the issue rates low in the minds of most Catholics.
Since 1973, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe vs. Wade, Catholic voters have said they are more concerned about issues such as crime, the economy and jobs, health care, taxes and education.
A CBS News/New York Times poll conducted in May showed that only 9 percent of U.S. Catholics feel so strongly about abortion that they would vote against a candidate who disagreed with their views.
"Abortion is not the most important issue to Catholics," said Francis Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice. "This is only the most important issue to Catholic bishops."
Speaking at a news conference before the prayer vigil, Kissling said: "It is disappointing for us as Catholics that when we are worried about so many other things, the bishops are holding prayer rallies over abortion. This is not why we want religious leaders. We do not want religious leaders operating as political bosses."
At their vigil yesterday, Catholic bishops responded to such sentiments by saying that the importance of partial-birth abortions goes beyond politics.
Pub Date: 9/13/96