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Biden Is Catholic. He Also Supports Abortion Rights. Here's What That Could Mean

Joe and Jill Biden attend Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday morning before his inauguration.
Jim Watson
AFP via Getty Images
Joe and Jill Biden attend Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday morning before his inauguration.

Joe Biden is only the second Catholic president of the United States. He's also a supporter of abortion rights — a position at odds with official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

For some Catholic activists, like Marjorie Dannenfelser, Biden's high-profile example of a Catholic who supports abortion rights is troubling.

"It's a negative example of a deep and important moral issue that is being debated in this country," she said.

For some, a challenge; for others, an opportunity

Dannenfelser is president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a group that works to elect national politicians who are opposed to abortion rights and to advocate for laws limiting abortion.

She's particularly concerned about Biden's embrace of a broader push among Democrats to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for most abortions. He took that position in 2019, while running for the Democratic presidential nomination, after decades of supporting the amendment.

"The church itself has not changed in its view, ever, on the dignity of human life and the need for its protection," Dannenfelser said. "[Biden] can't bring the Catholic Church along with him because of his political needs."

But for those who would like to see the church take a more permissive stance on issues including abortion, Biden's election is an opportunity.

Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, said she hopes for what she describes as a "better dialogue" between church leaders and some rank-and-file Catholics who disagree with aspects of the church's teachings.

"There are many issues in which Catholics are dissenting from the bishops and seeing that these are complex moral issues, whether it's same-sex marriage, whether it's contraception, or whether it's abortion," she said.

On abortion, a divide between clergy and laity

Polling suggests a majority of American Catholics support abortion rights in most or all cases and oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights, most Catholic women say they've used contraception at some point, which the church also opposes.

With a conservative Supreme Court majority and Biden in the White House, Manson predicts continued battles over issues including "conscience exemptions" — for example, for pharmacists who object to dispensing the morning-after pill or employers who oppose including contraceptive coverage in their health insurance plans.

"What I hope one of the impacts on policy will be is to say, 'Listen, that is not what religious freedom is about; religious freedom is about no one being oppressed or having their civil rights lost because of individual religious beliefs,' " Manson said.

A "devout Catholic" president

Conservative Catholics, meanwhile, worry that Biden will roll back Trump administration policies that they've seen as victories for religious liberty or the goal of restricting abortion. During the first White House press briefing of the Biden administration, a reporter from the Catholic network EWTN asked press secretary Jen Psaki about Biden's abortion policies, including the Hyde Amendment.

"I will just take the opportunity to remind all of you that he is a devout Catholic, and somebody who attends church regularly. He started his day attending church with his family this morning," Psaki said, adding that she had nothing more specific to say at the time.

Already, the administration has said Biden is preparing to reverse the Mexico City Policy, which prohibits U.S. funding for organizations that perform or refer patients for abortions in other countries. But a study in the journal The Lancet found that the policy actually increased the abortion rate in some countries, most likely because it also reduced access to contraception.

"So I think that Biden, from a policy perspective, is going to do things that end up reducing the number of abortions," said Natalia Imperatori-Lee, a progressive Catholic theologian and religious studies professor at Manhattan College in New York.

The Communion debate

Some Catholics who oppose abortion argue for denying Communion to Roman Catholic politicians who publicly support abortion rights — an action some priests have taken against Biden, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin and others.

Mary Hasson, a fellow at the conservative-leaning Ethics and Public Policy Center, said that's a decision best left to the clergy.

"But I will say, it is really problematic when you have a Catholic — the most prominent Catholic in the country, which is what President Biden is — taking this stand that he is in favor of abortion — which the church says is a grave moral evil; it's the killing of defenseless, unborn, vulnerable human life — and then presenting himself for Communion," Hasson said.

However divided the rank and file, the church's position remains the same. In a statement released on Inauguration Day, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops praised Biden's "piety" but expressed "deep concern" about several of his positions that the bishops say "would advance moral evils" — including his support for abortion rights.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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