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Among Catholics, Political Rifts Over Abortion Have Grown

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By Krissah Williams Thompson and Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 19, 2008

JENKINTOWN, Pa. -- Mary Anne Burke's voice was full of emotion as she left her 31st message of the night, this one for a parishioner of the Church of Immaculate Conception.

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"I'm a member of Our Lady Help of Christians in Abington," she said, "calling with a request that you support McCain-Palin on one nonnegotiable issue. The issue is life -- life from birth to death. Hopefully, prayerfully, you will consider it."

Burke, 76, a volunteer for the Pro-Life Union of Southeastern Pennsylvania, has been an active opponent of abortion rights for three decades, but "it's never been this intense," she said, putting the phone down. "They are muddying it up."

By "they," she means Democrats who are reaching out more aggressively to Catholics than she can ever remember. Rather than argue over the morality of abortion, these Democrats contend that the church's teachings on social justice and such issues as poverty, the environment, health care and unjust warfare should guide Catholic voters as much as abortion.

The Democratic effort includes antiabortion Catholic scholars who have come out in favor of Sen. Barack Obama, a proliferation of progressive Catholic organizations that have sprung up contending that Catholic teachings do not forbid voting for a pro-choice politician, and such high-profile Catholic Democrats as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the party's vice presidential nominee, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"The stakes here are just so much greater," said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "If you're one of those Catholics who makes abortion the absolute priority -- the issue of all issues -- and Obama wins, you could say goodbye for the rest of your life to Roe v. Wade being overturned. At the same time, [people] . . . also think there are other issues and that the last eight years of the Bush administration have raised questions about economic and social justice -- core Catholic issues -- that simply have to be addressed."

In the final trek to Election Day, it is a debate making its way to the center of the presidential contest in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan, home to large and influential Catholic populations. It is a debate McCain appears to be winning. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Catholics supporting McCain by 54 to 41 percent -- a significantly wider margin than a month earlier. But white Catholics are also more apt than other voters to say they could change their minds or remain uncommitted before Election Day, making them a target for both campaigns.

Obama's Catholic outreach team has trained field staff members to be comfortable talking to people about faith, and has run phone banks targeting parishes, as well as held Sunday brunches after mass and house parties to push the message that Obama is a Christian man who welcomes religious voters and who wants to reduce the number of abortions by providing social services to women and children.

McCain's staff has connected with groups such as Pro-Life Union, which also worked hard to elect President Bush as part of a reliable volunteer network of eager conservative Catholics, along with evangelicals. They are buoyed by the growing backlash from conservatives to the outreach by Democrats, and volunteers push McCain's long history of voting against abortion rights.

More significant to Burke is the role of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who has begun frequently talking about her opposition to abortion, pounding Obama on the issue at campaign stops, something McCain has not done. Palin is already a hero to antiabortion advocates, as a mother of five children, including a Down syndrome baby and a pregnant teenage daughter, Burke said.

Catholics are fairly divided over the issue of legalized abortion, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, with slightly more saying it should be legal in most or all cases. As a whole, they rank the economy as the top issue in this election, and at a recent stop in Johnstown, Pa., Palin spoke directly to such voters.

"In times like these, with wars and a financial crisis, it's easy to forget even as deep and abiding a concern as the right to life. And it seems our opponent hopes that you will forget," Palin said. "Like so much else in his agenda, he hopes you won't notice how radical his ideas and record are until it's too late."


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