Washington Notebook

May 12, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 18

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Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent


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The third way

By Joe Feuerherd

The professional pro-life movement's plan for America is straightforward: replace the current pro-Roe Supreme Court majority with justices who will vote to overturn the 32-year-old precedent and return regulation to the states.

Sure, it's far-fetched, fanciful even. The confluence of events that would have to occur to achieve this outcome is, to say the least, formidable: Three pro-choice justices retire or die and President Bush and his successor -- whoever that might be -- nominate, and the Senate confirms, judges who, presented with an on-point case, vote to overturn what even Bush-Appeals Court nominee Miguel Estrada called "settled law."

A longer shot than Giacomo.

Still, the current state of play has been a boon to both the pro-life and pro-choice industries, whose cynical direct-mail appeals ("so much hangs in the balance") generate millions of dollars from grass-roots activists on each side of the abortion divide. It's a big business, exploited by both parties for political gain.

But even in the post-Roe world envisioned by the most fervent pro-life activists, there is no chance, zero, that California or New York or many other states would repeal their liberal abortion laws. Even "victory," as defined by the pro-life professionals, could result in an outcome where the actual number of abortions stays about the same or, depending on the economy, population increases and other factors, actually goes up.

Some politicians, mostly Democrats and predominantly Catholic, are searching, their political antennas carefully tuned, for a third way. One of them is 42-year-old Thomas R. Suozzi, the county executive of Long Island's Nassau County.

Suozzi, a product of Mineola's conservative all-boys Marianist Brothers Chaminade High School, Boston College and Fordham Law School, is -- as successful Democratic politicians in downstate New York must be -- pro-choice. And he's ambitious. Suozzi was elected Mayor of Glen Cove at age 31 and, in 2001, toppled the corrupt and mismanaged Republican county machine that nearly drove one of the wealthiest counties in the United States into bankruptcy. Having cleaned-up the fiscal mess he inherited, there's talk, which Suozzi does little to temper, of higher office.

In a May 10 speech at Adelphi University, Suozzi unveiled his "Common Sense for the Common Good" program. He didn't retreat from his pro-choice position. But he attempted to frame the issue beyond a question of law and to link specific social programs to a reduction in the county's abortion rate.

"As a Democrat I do not often find it easy to talk with other Democrats about our need to affirm our commitment to the respect for life and how we need to emphasize our party's firm belief in the worth of every human being," said Suozzi. "As a Catholic I do not often find it easy to talk with other Catholics about my feeling that abortion should and will remain safe and legal and that we should instead focus our efforts on creating a better world where there are fewer unplanned pregnancies, and where women who face unplanned pregnancies receive greater support and where men take more responsibility for their actions."

The $3-million, three-year program will fund homes for single mothers, promote adoptions, and support alternatives-to-abortion education. The money is meant to reduce the 3,600 abortions performed annually in the county.

"I do not want to make an argument about abortion," said Suozzi. "I want to make a difference in the number of abortions. We can go forward even if we can't agree. We can have the same goal even if we do not share the same beliefs."

Suozzi's ambitions are matched by political smarts. Prior to his speech, he met with Bishop William Murphy of the Rockville Centre diocese. The fear prior to the speech was that Murphy would criticize Suozzi's less-than-pure approach, making the story more about another Catholic politicians' fight with the hierarchy than about Suozzi's proposals. Instead, Murphy took the only road available to anyone in New York who really wants to reduce the number of abortions rather than score points.

"Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi has made an important and, on the whole, very helpful speech today regarding the need to provide alternatives to abortion, especially through an increase in adoptions," said Murphy.

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He didn't back-down on core church teaching. "As bishop of this Catholic diocese, I continue to proclaim with the pope and all Catholic bishops that every human life is precious from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death and that every Catholic is called by the constant teaching of the church to hold any and every abortion morally wrong and thus unacceptable."

Murphy continued, "As bishop, however, I applaud Mr. Suozzi for his courageous and positive call to move beyond polemic and to work together to find alternatives to abortions. I support every effort that will reduce the number of abortions on Long Island until they disappear completely. I support all those in public life who will join Mr. Suozzi in the good programs helping pregnant women make choices other than abortion, and I support every effort for those sexual education programs that promote abstinence and the true values of human sexuality."

Meanwhile, pro-choice activists criticized Suozzi, Republicans in the County Legislature accused him of "grandstanding," and most everyone accused him of playing politics. Suozzi copped to the latter charge. ""I'm a politician," he told Newsday. "Everything I do has a political aspect to it."

Exactly the point.

Politically, Suozzi and other Democrats are responding to a host of national and state trends. Among them: the pressure John Kerry faced from some members of the hierarchy in the presidential campaign (exactly the type of baggage an ambitious Catholic politician does not need) and the nature of the electorate -- which even in pro-choice New York is wary of both those who promote abortion and those who would abolish it.

Suozzi has positioned himself as a can-do problem-solver, a pragmatist not an ideologue, someone who could clean-up Albany or Washington (in the unlikely event that a senatorial seat opens up) the way he reformed Nassau County.

Now, on abortion, he's established his independence from the Democratic Party's pro-choice activists (without changing his position), gotten a blessing from the hierarchy, positioned himself where the overwhelming number of voters are on the most controversial social issue of the time, and presented a plan that may actually result in fewer abortions.

Not a bad day's work.

An informal adviser to John Kerry's presidential campaign told me this week that pro-choice Catholic Democrats must find a way to address concerns about abortion directly, without pandering to the powerful pro-choice lobby or allowing the perception that they've turned over their judgment to the church.

Maybe they should pick up the phone and have a chat with Tom Suozzi.

The e-mail address for Joe Feuerherd is jfeuerherd@natcath.org

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