ARCHBISHOP JOSEPH L. BERNARDIN
NATIONAL CONFERENCE OF CATHOLIC BISHOPS
BEFORE THE SUBCOMMITTEE ON CIVIL
AND CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS OF THE
HOUSE COMMITTEE ON THE JUDICIARY
March 24, 1976
I am Archbishop Joseph L. Bernardin of Cincinnati, President of the National
Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference. With
me is Terence Cardinal Cooke of New York, Chairman of the Committee for Pro-Life
Activities of the Bishops' Conference. We wish to thank the Subcommittee for
this opportunity to present the views of the Conference, which reflects the
concerns of the Catholic faith community in the United States. We appear here as
spiritual and religious leaders, in the belief that the complex issue of
abortion cannot be justly or rationally resolved without reference to the
profound moral questions which are so intimately involved.
The views of the Catholic Conference are set forth at length in the written
testimony which we respectfully submit at this time. I wish only to highlight
certain points treated there in greater detail.
I would also request at this time, Mr. Chairman, that the testimony which the
Catholic Conference submitted before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee two years
ago be made a part of the record of this hearing.
In the discussion of a constitutional amendment to protect human life, the
so-called "religious issue" has often been raised. Actually there is not one
religious issue -- there are several. There is, for example, the fact which I
have already mentioned: namely, that abortion itself involves profound moral
questions with an unavoidable religious dimension. For instance, what meaning do
we attach to the concept of the sanctity of human life? Under what
circumstances, if any, is it morally right to destroy human life? What moral
commitments and values must law and public policy embody if society itself is to
stand upon a firm basis of respect for human rights -- a respect which demands
that at least certain violations of human rights be proscribed by law? Many more
such questions could be asked. These, however, suggest the complexity of the
real religious issue with respect to abortion.
But there is also a "religious" non-issue on the subject of abortion. This
non-issue is embodied in the assertion that efforts by religious persons on
behalf of a constitutional amendment to protect human life are somehow
inappropriate. I am not responding to these arguments as a constitutional
lawyer, but I do respond as a citizen and as a religious leader profoundly
committed to such an amendment and deeply convinced that my commitment is fully
consistent with the American tradition concerning the role of religion in public
I begin with a fundamental principle. Abortion is not wrong simply because
the Catholic Church or any church says it is wrong. Abortion is wrong in and of
itself. The obligation to safeguard unborn human life arises not from religious
or sectarian doctrine, but from universal moral imperatives concerning human
dignity, the right to life, and the responsibility of government to protect
basic human rights. Commitment to a constitutional amendment to protect unborn
human life arises from these same basic principles. It is certainly true that
the Catholic Church and many other Churches teach that abortion is wrong -- just
as they teach that racial discrimination is wrong, that exploitation of the poor
is wrong, that all injustice and injury to others are wrong. So in my case and
that of many other religious persons, religious doctrine powerfully reinforces
our commitment to human rights. We are publicly committed on a broad range of
domestic and international issues. Within the past week alone, Catholic bishops,
continuing a practice of many years' standing, have testified before committees
of Congress on full employment and on food stamps. No objections are raised when
we give voice to our moral convictions on such matters as these -- and that is
as it should be. For it is not religious doctrine which we wish to see enacted
into law; it is respect for human dignity and human rights -- specifically, in
this case, the right to life itself.
Human dignity and the right to life are proclaimed by the Declaration of
Independence and the Constitution, as well as by the United Nations Declaration
of Human Rights. These are not sectarian principles. They are fundamental
principles upon which our nation, and indeed any civilized human community, is
based. Catholics, as well as other Christians and Jews, believe that human
dignity derives from God's creation of each individual. Humanists and many
people of no particular religious persuasion see human dignity as based on the
inherent value of the individual. This has resulted in a common tradition long
enshrined in law and articulated in the affirmation of the Declaration of
Independence that all persons are created equal and that among the "unalienable
rights" of one who is human is the right to life. For some citizens, religious
belief is a motive for commitment to such principles; for others, it is not.
Whether it is or is not, I assume, is a question which has no bearing on the
merits of efforts to secure legislative or other governmental protection for
human dignity and the right to life.
Our country now faces a startling and terrifying fact. With the approval of
the law -- indeed, with the sanction of the nation's highest court -- one
million human lives are destroyed each year by abortion in the United States.
Considerations of health or economic distress cannot account for this appalling
situation. The plain fact is that many -- probably most -- of these million
lives are destroyed because others find it convenient to destroy them. By the
hundreds of thousands each year we are killing the unborn for convenience's
In its 1973 abortion decisions the Supreme Court's majority alleged that it
was not deciding when human life begins. As a practical matter, the court did
decide. Its decision was that human life begins at birth, and that before birth
the law can provide virtually no protection to the unborn. This conclusion flies
in the face of scientific evidence. The data of genetics, biology and fetology
show that fertilization marks the beginning of the developmental process of a
new and unique human being who -- given no interference or interruption -- will
grow and develop in the womb until birth marks the start of a new stage of life.
This is self-evident. One who wishes to advocate or practice abortion should
at least be willing to acknowledge that abortion destroys human life. As Dr.
Bernard Nathanson, former director of the Center for Reproductive and Sexual
Health, the largest abortion clinic in the United States, has said, it is
necessary to recognize that in abortion "we are taking life, and the deliberate
taking of life . . . is an inexpressibly serious matter." Dr. Nathanson,
incidentally, resigned from his post with the Center for Reproductive and Sexual
Health because of what he has called the "increasing certainty that (he) had in
fact presided over 60,000 deaths."
Similar considerations from the viewpoint of the law are raised by Professor
Archibald Cox in a recent critique of the Supreme Court decision. He writes that
the opinion "fails even to consider what I would suppose to be the most
compelling interest of the State in prohibiting abortion: the interest in
maintaining that respect for the paramount sanctity of human life which has
always been at the centre of western civilization, not merely by guarding 'life'
itself, however defined, but by safeguarding the penumbra, whether at the
beginning, through some overwhelming disability of mind or body, or at death" (The
Role of the Supreme Court in American Government. New York: 1976, page 53).
What should be our response to these facts? I believe the position of the
Catholic Conference is well known, but I am pleased to repeat it here. We desire
a constitutional amendment to correct the tragic situation created by the
Supreme Court's abortion decisions. We desire such an amendment as Catholics,
yes, but also and especially as Americans, who believe that our nation --
founded on respect for human dignity and human life -- should not and must not
continue to sanction the legalized destruction of a million human lives each
With your permission, Cardinal Cooke will present further comments with
respect to our views. I thank you again for the opportunity of testifying today.