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Schleppenbach: Being pro-life is about saving souls

For Greg Schleppenbach, the pro-life movement isn’t just a means of saving the lives of the unborn and vulnerable. It’s a way to save souls. As a leader in that movement, he’s been evangelizing for most of his life.

A native of Pierce, he recalls that his mother joined the pro-life movement immediately after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy. During his studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, he became a member of Students for Life.

With the establishment of a pro-life directorship at the Nebraska Catholic Conference in 1991, he took up that position and served in it until 2014. He worked with Nebraska’s three Catholic bishops to implement the Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Two years as the NCC’s executive director followed. 

In 2016, Schleppenbach succeeded Richard Doerflinger as associate director for the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities. Since then, he has been working to influence public policy on life issues in Washington, D.C., and throughout the 50 states.

On Sept. 20, Schleppenbach will be the keynote speaker at the annual Bishops’ Pro-Life Banquet and Conference, which this year will celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the NCC.

“Greg has the unique gift of inspiring and challenging us to live our lives in witness to the Gospel of Life, and we are confident that he will deliver a great message of encouragement and hope,” said Tom Venzor, current executive director, referring to the theme of this year’s conference, “Abound in Hope.” 

Schleppenbach spoke with the Catholic Voice about the successes he has seen over the years, especially in his new position at the USCCB, about maintaining hearts full of hope and current battles pro-lifers need to be aware of in efforts to build a culture of life.

Q: You have been associate director for the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the USCCB for about three years. What are your primary responsibilities?

My primary responsibilities are to focus on the public policy priorities of the Committee on Pro-life Activities, which is focused on abortion, end of life issues such as assisted suicide and euthanasia, and biomedical-research issues such as embryonic stem cell research, cloning, genetic manipulation and those types of things. Sort of the medical and ethical dimensions of biomedical research.

My primary focus is to look at and analyze and work on federal legislation in those areas of pro-life issues. We also do provide some input as requested from states, on state legislation. We work closely with the state Catholic conferences around the country. When they have legislation that they want our input on, then they will contact us and we will provide help and then analysis for their state legislation.

I work with a team here. It's not only myself. I'm the primary pro-life policy person for the USCCB, but we also have a Government Relations Office and an Office of General Counsel. I work closely with a staff person in the Office of Government Relations and they are the sort of front-line lobbyists for the USCCB and the ones who spend most of the time on the Hill, lobbying for the positions of the church, for the USCCB. I work with that person, but I mostly do the work here at the USCCB and they take that work and our positions and materials and advocacy to the Hill to actually interact with members of Congress and their staff. Occasionally, I'm invited to go as well for certain meetings on policy issues.

And then, the Office of General Counsel, there's an attorney there who is an indispensable partner in our work. She's an expert in legal issues and particularly in the area of pro-life policy. As we analyze legislation, or draft legislation related to pro-life issues, this legal expertise is critical.

That's the majority of it. I do also get involved with related kinds of activities: building coalitions, working on things like – right now, for example, I'm trying to pull together a task force or a coalition group of folks to look at what we can do to preserve authentic hospice and palliative care. To prevent it from going in the direction of any kind of ethical abuses. I've also worked in coalition with other groups to petition or lobby the American Medical Association and other medical associations to retain their opposition to assisted suicide. So that's a little flavor of the types of things that I do.

Q: Have there been any major surprises in your new job?

Yes. I'm not sure I was fully prepared for the quantity of the work, as well as just the general weight of doing this type of work on the national level where your focus is not only national – the federal level – but throughout the whole country. Also, just what it takes to get to understand, in a very detailed way, federal pro-life policy. Now, when I was the pro-life director at the Nebraska Catholic Conference, I had familiarity with most federal pro-life policy. But having to understand it in detail, and the history, and be an expert on those policies is a whole ‘nother matter. And understanding how federal law works in that process is a bit different from how we do things in Nebraska. It's been challenging to learn the system.

Q: How closely do you work with the bishops in your position?

Fairly closely. We have a Committee on Pro-life Activities and that's made up of a number of bishop members. Archbishop Joe Naumann (of Kansas City, Kansas) is our chairman currently, but also there are bishops and lay people who serve as consultants to the committee. We meet three to four times a year with our committee. In addition, we have pretty regular contact with our chairman to discuss more urgent items or when we're issuing statements about actions or events or whatever that have occurred. Those statements are produced in collaboration with them, with the approval of our chairman, and often are written for him in his voice.

Q: Where are these different issues that you're focusing on coming from?

We try to be very in tune to what's happening, not only in Congress but nationally, but we also work in collaboration with a lot of other groups, among all the various groups where we keep track of the various issues that need to be addressed and responded to or, in developing our own proactive agendas on legislation or issues that we want to pursue. So, I would say that that's the primary way, that we keep in touch with what's going on and then present that to the bishops.

But sometimes the bishops will identify things on their own and will come to us and say, “Hey, either somebody contacted me directly about this particular issue,” or they have their own ideas or suggestions of activities that they think we ought to pursue.

Q: What have been some of the major initiatives that you've worked on?

The thing I have to spend a lot of time on is on fighting measures to legalize assisted suicide in the states. I work with an organization called the Patients’ Rights Action Fund. They are a non-sectarian organization that helps to build a coalition. Their primary focus is to build broad, diverse coalitions at the state level to oppose the legalization of assisted suicide. I've worked pretty closely with them on that effort in individual states. I work closely with them on the efforts to urge medical associations to retain opposition to assisted suicide. 

Q: What successes have you seen in your work?

On the federal (Congressional) level there's been little positive. I mean, a little progress made, let me put it that way, on policy measures because of just the significant challenge that it is to get any piece of legislation through Congress. Even when we had a generally pro-life House and Senate and a pro-life president, the Senate was a real challenge to get the legislation through. You could maybe get pro-life legislation through the House, the previous House under Republican control. But you needed 60 votes to get past a filibuster in the Senate, and that has proven to be very challenging to get done. And now with a divided Congress, it's even harder to get legislation through.

So probably the best we can say is that the successes that we've had have been at least maintaining existing policies. And certainly, seeing this year a House of Representatives that has been attacking some existing pro-life policies, we, appear to be poised to prevent that from happening.

With the President, the pro-life groups urged him at the beginning of this Congress in January to issue a letter indicating that he would veto any effort to weaken or repeal existing pro-life laws. That was a pretty significant move and victory. There have been other significant victories with Trump. These include restoration and expansion of the Mexico City Policy; issuance of new Title X regulations requiring recipients to maintain physical and financial separation between any abortion activities and Title X funded family planning activities, as well as a prohibition on making referrals for abortion; issuance of new regulations to better enforce conscience protection laws on abortion and assisted suicide, among others.  And the appointment of two Supreme Court justices and dozens of federal district and appellate court judges who are likely to be more favorable to the pro-life position on abortion cases. 

At the state level, I would say, the successes have been maybe more around helping them to fight off assisted suicide. Even though there's been some additional states that have passed it – just this year in New Jersey, in Maine – the vast majority of states that have had legislation introduced to legalize assisted suicide have failed. And there's even been a handful of states that have passed laws specifically to outlaw assisted suicide. The effort with the American Medical Association, that was a two-year-plus battle of working with local, state medical associations or delegations of the AMA to finally get to this last June where they renewed their opposition to assisted suicide. That was a big win.

Q: Can you tell our readers more about assisted suicide and how it could affect the lives of ordinary Catholics?

It's a huge battle, and it is one that I think a lot of pro-life folks who have been so focused on abortion for so long are maybe not fully seeing the threat that is assisted suicide. It's a whole ‘nother challenge. We're at a point, I think, in this battle where it could go either way. It's somewhat unique in terms of the political dynamics and the cultural dynamics of it in this sense: that at least from a political sense, the abortion issue has sadly become sort of a partisan battle. That's very, very unfortunate because it's not a partisan issue. But generally, it is sort of seen as a Republican issue. I remember the days in Nebraska, when it was Democrats who were leading the pro-life effort in the Nebraska legislature. The abortion issue unfortunately has become very partisan.

The assisted suicide issue has not yet. It's critically important that that not be allowed to happen. One of the reasons why our efforts to oppose it at the state level, even in states, in the blue states, the more liberal states, is precisely because there are a lot of liberal folks and Democrats who are strongly opposed to the legalization of assisted suicide. It's really been a bipartisan effort. 

That's been helped by the fact that some of the strongest opponents of assisted suicide are the disability rights community. They rightly see this pro-assisted-suicide advocacy as undermining their lives. Because the mentality behind assisted suicide is that there are certain lives that don't warrant society's usual response and protection for those who are suicidal. They see the dichotomy that's being put forward by the assisted-suicide movement where you have certain people, certain categories of people, who are suicidal for whom we do everything possible as a society to prevent their suicide. And then there's this other group that assisted suicide folks are suggesting through their legislation, who are suicidal but are terminally ill or disabled who we say, “We will assist you in your suicide.”

So, I would say that the the dynamics clearly are different on assisted suicide and we shouldn't presume that liberal politicians are necessarily going to be against us on assisted suicide. And we shouldn't conversely presume that conservative or libertarian elected officials are going to be with us on assisted suicide.

It's really at a tipping point, I think, and under battle. Compassion and Choices and the pro-assisted-suicide forces have been working steadily with lots and lots of money, to chip away state after state. And they've had real success in recent years. Going back to about 2014 when Brittany Menard, the woman from California, had brain cancer, moved up to Oregon to end her life through assisted suicide and became the poster child of Compassion and Choices. And that really seemed to be a pivotal point, giving momentum to the assisted suicide movement. And since then, we've seen a number of additional states from Colorado, Hawaii, Washington, D.C., New Jersey and Maine, and California that have legalized since that point. 

Clearly, as the church teaches, most of the people even without a particular religious view of things see it as a terrible injustice – assisted suicide – for a variety of reasons, not only the fact that it puts into our hands this power of being the ultimate arbiters of our lives rather than being stewards of our lives as God intended. But it very much creates this dichotomy, as I mentioned, discrimination against categories of people for whom we now will assist in our suicides rather than doing everything we can to prevent their suicide.

Q: It seems ironic that the disability rights community is fighting assisted suicide, and at the other end of the spectrum, we know that a lot of abortions are done on babies who are ill or disabled.

Absolutely. It's very true. There's a lot of inconsistency for sure in how these issues are approached. That is one of them. I think the other is the fact that a lot of the organizations and efforts that work to prevent suicides, tend to not want to step out into the assisted suicide debate. And that also is very ironic, because of the very fact that if you have a so-called rational suicide, for certain categories of people, it only undermines efforts to prevent suicides in other contexts. 

Q: You said earlier that you are putting together a task force on authentic hospice care. What does that involve? 

For some time there's been concern about unethical practices going on within hospice and palliative care. Some refer to it as so-called stealth euthanasia, where actions or omissions are done with the intention of hastening a person’s death: withholding, withdrawing treatment or nutrition and hydration or some such thing, giving excess pain medication, with an intention of hastening death. And there have been some examples of abuse in that regard within hospice and palliative care. 

But the church starts from the perspective of strong support for hospice and palliative care as really beautiful in its authentic form, a beautiful expression of addressing the totality of the human person, who is either very sick or terminally ill and at the end of their life. And that is an approach that treats the whole person: physical suffering, spiritual suffering, emotional suffering, relational suffering. It really is a beautiful model and expression of authentic Catholic healthcare.

But unfortunately, there have been these unethical practices in some cases and that has tarnished a bit of the practice of hospice and palliative care. And the fact that some hospice organizations on the state level, or even on the national level, have taken a neutral stance on the legalization of assisted suicide. It hasn't helped that perception. So, there are concerns with the practice that need to be addressed, and we need to work with experts and practitioners of hospice and palliative care to make sure we root out and eliminate these unethical practices.

But at the same time, we need to reassure Catholics and others that, when practiced in an authentic way, hospice and palliative care is an authentic expression, a beautiful expression, of Catholic healthcare. So this task force is intended to try to do that, to bring together a broad range of experts and institutions that can really make a difference, that can really identify and address the potential threats to authentic hospice and palliative care, the unethical practices and such, but at the same time can communicate to Catholics and others what authentic hospice and palliative care should look like – as well as the red flags to be aware of when folks are contemplating hospice and palliative care.

So, it's really important. I mean, we can't just throw the baby out with the bathwater here. Unfortunately, there are some individuals and groups that seem to be doing that, and they are creating a lot of fear about hospice and palliative care – sort of “cursing the darkness without really lighting a candle.” This effort will hopefully light that candle and address the issues that need to be addressed where there are concerns and ethical abuses.

Q: Has your vision of the pro-life movement and its goal changed at all?

No. I mean, the vision has always been twofold. The first and most important vision for me as a Catholic working in the pro-life movement is to evangelize. I don't know if that's the vision; it's as far as our objective is. My goal within the pro-life movement specifically would be a society or world where abortion is not only illegal but is unthinkable, and that continues to be the vision.

Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?

One of the bits of wisdom that I've learned in doing this pro-life work – now it's 28 years – it kind of goes back to that vision I mentioned as a Catholic, that as disciples of Christ, regardless of what field of battle he puts us on, our number one objective is the salvation of souls.

It's critically important that we keep that number one in our minds as we engage in whatever field of battle we've been placed on, whether it's the pro-life battle or whether it is fighting poverty or whether it is fighting other kinds of injustices and violence or whatever it might be – that our number one role and purpose as disciples of Christ is the salvation of souls. If we don't have that forefront in our minds, we can get a little askew and actually drive people away from Christ. So, we need to always keep that in mind, that we engage in these activities and these battles with a heart, the heart of Christ, a heart of Christ's love, a heart that is full of hope. The battle against death has already been won. If we keep that forefront in our minds, then we will engage in this battle in a different way, in a way that does draw people to the beauty of the truth that we represent and the teachings of Christ about life and love.

 

 

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