President Biden is only the nation's second Catholic president, but his position on abortion rights is at odds with the church.



President 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. During the first White House press briefing of the Biden administration, a reporter from a Catholic network asked Press Secretary Jen Psaki about Biden's abortion policies.


JEN PSAKI: 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.

MARTIN: NPR's Sarah McCammon examines what Biden's Catholicism could mean for the abortion debate.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: For Catholic activists like Marjorie Dannenfelser, President Biden's high-profile example of a Catholic who supports abortion rights is troubling.

MARJORIE DANNENFELSER: It's a negative example of a deep and important moral issue that is being debated in this country.

MCCAMMON: Dannenfelser is president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which has worked for years to help confirm conservative Supreme Court justices. She's particularly disturbed by Biden's embrace of a broader push among Democrats to repeal the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding for most abortions, a position he took in 2019 while running for the Democratic presidential nomination after decades of supporting Hyde.

DANNENFELSER: The church itself has not changed in its view ever of the dignity of human life and the need for its protection. He can't bring the Catholic Church along with him because of his political needs.

MCCAMMON: But for those who like to see the church take a more permissive stance on issues, including abortion, Biden's election is an opportunity. Jamie Manson is president of Catholics for Choice.

JAMIE MANSON: 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.

MCCAMMON: Polling suggests a majority of American Catholics support abortion rights in most or all cases. And most Catholic women say they've used contraception, 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 plans.

MANSON: What I hope one of the impacts on public 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.

MCCAMMON: Conservative Catholics, meanwhile, worry Biden will roll back Trump administration policies that they've seen as victories for religious liberty. 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 abortion 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.

Natalia Imperatori-Lee is a progressive Catholic theologian and religious studies professor at Manhattan College in New York.

NATALIA IMPERATORI-LEE: So I think that Biden, from a policy perspective, is going to do things that end up reducing the number of abortions.

MCCAMMON: However divided the rank and file, the church's position remains the same. On Inauguration Day, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement praising Biden's piety but expressing deep concern about several of his positions, including his support for abortion rights.

Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.