It's fitting that journalists couldn't even agree on where New York Cardinal John O'Connor was standing as he opened another chapter in America's bitter struggle over abortion.
The New York Daily News said he was at the St. Patrick's Cathedral altar as he read: "Mr. President, you are in a unique position to insure respect for all human rights, including the right to life which is denied to infants who are brutally killed in partial-birth abortion." But the Associated Press reported that O'Connor spoke out in his "mid-Mass homily, delivered from the pulpit."
It isn't unusual for prelates to speak in cathedrals. Calling attention to the fact that a cardinal delivered a sermon in a pulpit, in the middle of Mass, is like noting that a teacher delivered a lecture in a school classroom. Reading between the lines, the key is that this statement by the seven U.S. cardinals was read in churches that represent undeniable power in mainstream America.
Offered a choice, President Clinton would rather stand next to the cardinals of Baltimore, Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., not turn his back on them. It's easier to score political points by blasting anti-abortion radicals than by repeatedly rejecting the counsel of pro-life clergy who consistently teach that all human life is sacred.
"As long as it's bomb throwers that we keep hearing about in the media, then it's easy for the president to say, `This is what the abortion issue is all about. These right-to-lifers are all right-wing fanatics,' " said Father Paul Keenan, assistant director of communications for the New York archdiocese. "But when the cardinals step out front ... it changes the shape of the debate."
Another reason the cardinals released their statement when they did was the media storm caused by Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers. In an unusual public confession, he said that he "lied through my teeth" during last year's debates over banning the procedure that opponents call "partial-birth abortion" and its defenders call "intact dilation and evacuation." At that time he said the procedure was used no more than 450 times a year. Fitzsimmons recently said it is used as often as 5,000 times a year and that in most cases both the mother and fetus are healthy.
"The abortion-rights folks know it, the anti-abortion folks know it, and so, probably, does everyone else," he said, in a March 3 article in the Medical News.
No one disputes the basic facts of the procedure. It begins with the manipulation of the unborn child into a breech position in the womb. The doctor then delivers the body, except for the head, punches a hole at the base of the skull and suctions out the brain. The skull is then crushed and the delivery completed.
Everything Fitzsimmons said had already been stated in Capitol Hill testimony and in isolated news reports. But this time around, the mainstream media ran the story and abortion-rights leaders had to play defense.
"No sooner does abortion receive a tiny ... bruise than a fresh coat of makeup is applied to its cheek," wrote Frank Bruni of the New York Times. This suggests a "movement enveloped by an extremism that prohibits concessions, compromise, maybe even candor. ... It is a siege mentality that has kept many who favor abortion rights silent about their qualms over late-term abortions."
In this new atmosphere, some are publicly asking questions about the safety of late-term abortions, the role that abusive men play in forcing women to abort, the emotional cost of abortions and how early fetuses become "viable," or capable of living outside the womb.
Meanwhile, O'Connor openly used theological language and compared the abortion issue with a recent Passion Play controversy in New Jersey. The cast there includes a black actor in the role of Jesus and bigots have responded with death threats. Some people, said the outraged cardinal, "can't see the image of Christ in the face of a black man. ... Others struggle to see the image of Christ in the face of the unborn."