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Leader of pro-choice Catholic group clashes with bishops

JO' Brien is president Catholics for Choice.  I  Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Jon O' Brien is president of Catholics for Choice. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 1, 2012 4:23PM



Jon O’Brien says he’s a good Catholic.

Though his leadership of the group “Catholics for Choice” puts him in clear opposition to Church positions on contraception and reproduction, “I believe in the totality of Catholic teaching, and that includes the right to dissent and freedom of conscience,” he said.

“I’m a real traditionalist,” he adds, with a hint of the subversive humor prevalent in his hometown of Dublin, Ireland.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops disagrees.

“Catholics for Choice is not a Catholic organization. It never has been and was established to oppose the Catholic position on abortion,” Sister Mary Ann Walsh said in an email from the conference.

National Right to Life has called Catholics for Choice “militantly pro-abortion.”

Catholics for Choice was founded in 1973 by three Catholic women responding to opposition to the Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion. It has clashed for nearly 40 years with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which says the group is funded by “powerful and wealthy private foundations ... to promote abortion as a method of population control.”

Not so, according to Catholics for Choice, which operates on a $3 million annual budget. It describes itself as pro-choice — that is, that people should be able to choose to have as many, or as few, children as they want. “The Catholic hierarchy’s ban on contraception and abortion has a disastrous impact on women’s lives,” according to the CFC.

The group drew attention in 1984. Abortion was an exceptionally hot-button issue in the presidential campaign, especially because of the views of abortion-rights supporter Geraldine Ferraro — the Democratic candidate for vice president, and the first woman from a major party on the nation’s top ticket. Catholics for Choice took out an ad in the New York Times signed by Catholic theologians and clergy, saying committed Catholics had “a diversity of opinions” on abortion.

O’Brien, 46, who has headed Catholics for Choice since 2007, is in town to accept an award from an abortion-rights group, Personal PAC.

“We’ve seen here in Illinois, even, bishops comparing the president to Stalin and Hitler;” he said, “condemning a Catholic governor for celebrating the bravery of a rape survivor in Chicago.”

O’Brien was speaking of two local controversies.

In a homily last April, Peoria Bishop Daniel Jenky linked Hitler and Stalin and President Barack Obama’s health care mandate. The plan has drawn strong opposition from Catholic and other faith-based institutions that say it infringes on their religious beliefs by requiring them to cover birth control.

In the U.S., “you’re granted freedom of religion and freedom from religion,” O’Brien said. “You can’t have one religion discriminating against other folk.”

Last year, Illinois bishops slammed Gov. Pat Quinn for his participation in a Personal PAC event. After it was revealed Quinn was presenting an award to a rape survivor — and the woman charged the bishops with insensitivity — Cardinal Francis George said he had not been given all the facts by the Catholic Conference of Illinois before he spoke against Quinn.

“The church is actually all of the people,” O’Brien said. “The bishops are part of it, but they’re not the church. We are all the church. Our position is people should be able to follow their consciences.”

He rejects the notion that so-called “cafeteria Catholics” — who pick and choose which official stances of their faith they accept — are not real Catholics.

“What makes you a Catholic,” he says, “is your Baptism.”

O’Brien’s life is intertwined with the gradual dilution of the Church’s power in overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Ireland, and the continuing battle between anti-abortion and abortion-rights supporters in America.

He previously worked at the Irish Family Planning Association. In the early 1990s, the organization was fined for selling condoms. “We got a call, that ‘the boys’ were very concerned about what was happening, and they wanted to help out,” O’Brien said.

“ ‘The Boys’ turned out to be U2,” he said. The rockers paid the fines.

A watershed event occurred in 1992, when an Irish court prohibited a 14-year-old rape victim from traveling to England to get an abortion. The decision roiled Ireland. A higher court cleared the way for the termination, saying the girl had become suicidal and her life was in danger.

“If you grow up in a country where contraception was seriously restricted, abortion is illegal, and people couldn’t get divorced — the litany of personal rights taken away was unbelievable,” O’Brien said.



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