Yesterday, Melinda Henneberger published an article on Slate that takes seriously the proposed response by the American Catholic in the event the Congress passes the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA). This follows a similar piece by my friend and colleague, Paul Kengor here on Crosswalk which provides background for the Bishops’ stance.

Henneberger and Kengor make the case that the Catholic vote helped push Obama over the top. Surely a Catholic vote that resembled the evangelical vote would have made an Obama presidency more unlikely. Kengor writes,

The bishops are also upset that Catholic politicians helped make this possible. A short list includes vice-president-elect Joe Biden and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, both pro-choice Catholics, and plenty of pro-life Catholic Democrats around the country, such as Senator Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA), who worked his tail off to deliver Pennsylvania’s crucial Electoral College votes to Obama. And there were groups like “Catholics for Obama,” men like Doug Kmiec and Pittsburgh Steelers’ owner Dan Rooney, and all those young people who voted in hordes for Obama, including the 60 percent of students at Catholic colleges who believe abortion should be legal, according to a new study commissioned by the Cardinal Newman Center.

Addressing the crux of this post, Kengor summarizes a recent statement of the American Bishops regarding Catholic hospitals post-FOCA:

Further, the bishops dread that FOCA would require all hospitals with obstetrics programs to do abortions, a natural expectation given that Obama has spoken of abortion as a “fundamental right,” a basic government service, and a vital component of America’s “safety net.” He calls groups like Planned Parenthood a “safety-net provider.” The bishops fear that this aspect of FOCA would mandate Catholic hospitals to provide abortions, which would force the hospitals to shut down rather than compromise their beliefs.

Henneberger believes it could happen, saying,

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Chicago warned of “devastating consequences” to the health care system, insisting Obama could force the closure of all Catholic hospitals in the country. That’s a third of all hospitals, providing care in many neighborhoods that are not exactly otherwise overprovided for. It couldn’t happen, could it?

You wouldn’t think so. Only, I am increasingly convinced that it could.

After correctly noting that Obama said during the campaign that the first thing he would do is sign the FOCA, Henneberg notes the potential moral meltdown for Catholic institutions:

Though it’s often referred to as a mere codification of Roe, FOCA, as currently drafted, actually goes well beyond that: According to the Senate sponsor of the bill, Barbara Boxer, in a statement on her Web site, FOCA would nullify all existing laws and regulations that limit abortion in any way, up to the time of fetal viability. Laws requiring parental notification and informed consent would be tossed out. While there is strenuous debate among legal experts on the matter, many believe the act would invalidate the freedom-of-conscience laws on the books in 46 states. These are the laws that allow Catholic hospitals and health providers that receive public funds through Medicaid and Medicare to opt out of performing abortions. Without public funds, these health centers couldn’t stay open; if forced to do abortions, they would sooner close their doors. Even the prospect of selling the institutions to other providers wouldn’t be an option, the bishops have said, because that would constitute “material cooperation with an intrinsic evil.”

Henneberger concludes her article with hopes that Obama will not be as President who he has always been. As she points out, Obama’s first appointments do not signal the moderate stance which pro-life Catholic Obama voters (somehow) hoped for.

At the very moment when Obama and his party have won the trust of so many Catholics who favor at least some limits on abortion, I hope he does not prove them wrong. I hope he does not make a fool out of that nice Doug Kmiec, who led the pro-life charge on his behalf. I hope he does not spit on the rest of us—though I don’t take him for the spitting sort—on his way in the door. I hope that his appointment of Ellen Moran, formerly of EMILY’s List, as his communications director is followed by the appointment of some equally good Democrats who hold pro-life views. By supporting and signing the current version of FOCA, Obama would reignite the culture war he so deftly sidestepped throughout this campaign. This is a fight he just doesn’t need at a moment when there is no shortage of other crises to manage.

Henneberg's hope that Obama might delay action on the pro-choice agenda may have some basis in fact. In this Reuters article, a NARAL representative said support might not be in place for an easy FOCA passage.

Another looming battle will involve the Freedom of Choice Act, or FOCA, which would further entrench a woman’s right to an abortion. It is seen as codifying Roe v. Wade.

It has never moved beyond the committee stage and is not seen as being at the top of the policy agenda next year.

But Obama has pledged to sign it into law, and the Democratic-led Congress might pass it.

Keenan said NARAL estimated that in the House of Representatives there were “185 fully pro-choice votes … 204 anti-choice votes and 46 mixed.” She added that the Senate was also seen to be still sharply divided on the issue.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before we even get around to considering a FOCA vote,” Keenan said.

FOCA has been like a red flag to social conservatives who say it will sweep aside most restrictions on abortion rights, such as parental notification laws and the Partial-Birth Abortion Act that bans a certain late-term procedure.

Americans United for Life Action said that as of Friday, it had more than 230,000 signatures on an anti-FOCA petition on its website fightfoca.com — virtually all since the election.

If not now, then later. Obama’s choice is clear. Eventually, the Catholics will be introduced to the underside of the bus. FOCA may face some Democratic pro-life opposition and maybe a filibuster, but if (when) it gets out of Congress, Obama will sign it. Word is that he wants to avoid controversy in the first year, however, he built it in to his campaign by promising the troops that he would sign FOCA first thing. If he signals Dem leaders to keep it down, he risks aggravating his base. In the long run and in contrast to the hopeful Ms. Henneberger, I think Obama will at least try to keep his word to his pro-choice base.