Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, said Monday that the results of the Nov. 6 election do not reflect increased support for abortion rights in the United States, even though some of the candidates most staunchly opposed to abortion lost.
O'Malley, who will take over as chairman of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' Pro-Life Committee this week, said a few prominent abortion opponents may have caused a backlash in their own races by talking about the issue in a way that alienated voters, but the economy and immigration were the main issues driving the outcome.
He added that long-term polling data suggest that Americans are becoming less comfortable with unfettered access to abortion.
"I am very confident that the prolife position in the country is growing stronger, particularly among the younger demographic, and I think many people are out of touch with that," O'Malley said in a phone interview from Baltimore, where he was attending the fall gathering of the US bishops.
In remarks to the assembly earlier in the day, O'Malley thanked his fellow bishops and Catholic organizations for their help in defeating physician-assisted suicide in Massachusetts, which he called a "terrible assault on human life."
The Catholic church teaches that all life is sacred, from conception to natural death, and that suicide is always objectively wrong, though whether a person bears responsibility for committing suicide depends on his or her psychological and physiological state.
In his remarks, O'Malley pointed to the Netherlands, where doctor-assisted suicide is legal and where a group is now creating mobile teams that will offer euthanasia to patients at home, making lethal drugs more widely available to patients. The United States, O'Malley said, is a long way from that scenario, but only because voters in all but two states have held the line.
"What has put the brakes on the growth of physician-assisted suicide in the US is that more than 20 states have rejected proposed legislation and ballot initiatives," he said.
The Archdiocese of Boston led the fight against Question 2, the ballot measure that would have allowed people with less than six months to live to obtain lethal prescriptions. The church helped build a diverse coalition of doctors, hospice workers, and interfaith leaders and helped raise more than $4 million, much of it from Catholic organizations and wealthy donors across the country.
Polls indicated that the measure had overwhelming support as recently as the beginning of October, but on Election Day it failed by 2 percentage points.
O'Malley, in the interview after his talk, pointed to the organizational strategy that helped defeat Question 2.
"I think we need to engage with the larger community," he said, discussing his plans for directing the US bishops' agenda on the topic. "That's what we did in Massachusetts on the question of physician-assisted suicide."
For example, he said, "I think there are probably a lot of prochoice people out there who are not happy with the fact that we allow gender-selection abortions to take place in our country."
The defeat of Question 2 was one of the few bright lights for Catholic leaders on an election day that saw victories for gay marriage and abortion rights.
With the help of a majority of Catholics, voters also reelected President Obama. The bishops are nonpartisan and do not endorse candidates, but they have vehemently opposed on religious freedom grounds a new federal health care provision requiring employers offering insurance to provide free access to birth control.
The exemption to the new rule that the administration carved out for religious employers only applies to organizations that primarily employ and serve their own people. Thus it would not apply to some church-affiliated groups, such as Catholic Charities.
"That's not for us what Catholic Charities or hospitals are about – we have to serve the entire community," O'Malley said. "We have to do it in a way that is commensurate with our ideals and the teachings of the gospel."
The bishops' attempts to negotiate a compromise with the administration and to get Congress to pass a broader conscience exemption failed earlier this year; a number of Catholic employers are now suing the Obama administration over the rule.
O'Malley said he hoped the bishops' conference would be able to reengage with the president and "hopefully come to a meeting of the minds" on the birth control provision.
The cardinal said he sees other issues where the bishops and the administration can work together. For one, he said, they are "very anxious" to help pass changes in immigration law.
The bishops, like many Democrats, have been pressing for immigration reform for years. Since Hispanic voters provided crucial support for the president's reelection, several prominent Republicans have expressed a willingness to rethink the issue.