By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published January 17, 2008
Catholics from across the state are being encouraged to make their voices heard in the current legislative session, even as the bishops of Georgia and their representatives focus on key initiatives—opposing more frequent use of the death penalty and supporting the funding of a state umbilical cord blood bank.
At the same time, Georgia’s two Catholic bishops are not supporting House Resolution 536—called the Paramount Right to Life Amendment—which seeks to amend the state Constitution to establish the rights of “personhood” for embryos from the moment of conception. Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah said in a Jan. 8 statement that they believe the proposed amendment “does not provide a realistic opportunity for ending or reducing abortion in Georgia.” The state’s Catholic spiritual leaders said they support an amendment to the federal Constitution that protects human life, an approach which has been endorsed by the U.S. bishops for many years. “We will not retreat from the fight to gain recognition of each child in the womb as a unique individual created by God,” said the bishops’ written statement. The effort on HR 536 here mirrors strategies in other states to combat abortion beyond the recent incremental steps to restrict the procedure. In the West, Colorado activists are collecting signatures to place a personhood amendment on the state’s ballot. Also, efforts are underway in Michigan, Mississippi and Montana. The proposed amendment reads: “Paramount right to life. (a) The rights of every person shall be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life. The right to life is the paramount and most fundamental right of a person. (b) With respect to the fundamental and inalienable rights of all persons guaranteed in this Constitution, the word ‘person’ applies to all human beings, irrespective of age, race, sex, health, function, or condition of dependency, including unborn children at every state of their biological development, including fertilization.” The proposed amendment would require two-thirds passage in both the House and the Senate to be on the ballot for Georgia voters to decide in the fall. The ultimate goal is to force the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Pat Chivers, the communications director of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, said there is not a split between the Catholic Church and the other pro-life organizations. In fact, the Georgia bishops said they have “admiration and respect for those who have crafted this legislation,” but they cannot endorse the legislation. Chivers said the church does not feel the amendment would help reduce the number of abortions and so it won’t advocate for it. “We just can’t agree with this approach,” she said. The church is raising its profile in the statehouse as more Catholics move into the Peach State. For the second year, the Catholic Communications Office and the Georgia Catholic Conference are sponsoring Catholic Day at the Capitol, encouraging members to attend a legislative briefing Feb. 5 and then visit their legislators. When the Georgia Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the church in the state, and the Atlanta Archdiocese last year encouraged Catholics to show up for a day of lobbying lawmakers, more than 100 people took part. Frank Mulcahy, the part-time executive director of the conference, said there is a smaller Catholic agenda this year for the legislature because of recent successes on key issues. “Our biggest vigilance is in the area of immigration. It would be protecting the human dignity of the people who are involved,” he said. Lobbyists for the church are guided by Catholic social teaching as they advocate for laws. They look to the “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility” document, which the U.S. bishops approved last November. “Participation in political life is a moral obligation,” stated the document. With only a handful of Catholic lawmakers among the 236 members of the state Senate and House of Representatives, the organizers are ready for the second annual Catholic Day to energize the faithful to participate in the legislative process. February 5 is also the day presidential primaries will be held in several states, including Georgia. “After you elect someone, you have to let them know how you feel and give them moral direction,” said Chivers. The Catholic lobbyists pointed to successes last year with the passage of education vouchers for special needs students and a bill requiring doctors to offer a woman the option of viewing an ultrasound of her fetus before an abortion, among others. Those two bills were focused on at last year’s Catholic legislative day. On a bioethics issue, Mary Boyert, director of the Pro-Life Office for the Atlanta Archdiocese, said she is watching how lawmakers follow up on the “Saving the Cure” law that called for the preservation of stem-cell rich umbilical cord blood following childbirth. The law established a state-backed umbilical cord blood bank, where the blood donations would be collected for use in medical research and for treatment of illnesses. But the law did not include any money for research. The legislation established a Commission to Save the Cure, which can look for money from the federal government, create a nonprofit foundation for private funding and receive voluntary income tax contributions. Boyert said she wants to see if dollars will be set aside to promote the initiative. Lobbyists are also paying attention to an effort to make it easier for juries to impose the death penalty, which the Georgia Catholic Conference opposed last year. Archbishop Gregory has been outspoken in opposition to capital punishment. In 2007 he joined with other activists in the rotunda of the statehouse in a press conference calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in Georgia. He also appealed last summer for the commutation of the sentence of a death row inmate. With current law, a death penalty case requires 12 jurors to unanimously vote to convict a defendant and then unanimously vote again to impose the death penalty. However, a House-approved bill sits in front of the Senate to remove the unanimity requirement. Instead, a defendant could face death if at least 10 jurors agree. The legislation, HB 185, passed the House 106 to 65. At one point in 2007, the draft legislation stated only nine jurors would have been needed to vote for the death penalty and to put a convict on death row. But through lobbying, the proposal was changed to 10 jurors. “We tried to lessen the damage,” Boyert said. The bill never came out of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2007, but could re-emerge in this session.