This story was written by CBSNews.com political reporter Brian Montopoli.
On the past two Sundays, parishioners at the Holy Family Church in Nutley, New Jersey, have received a stark warning: If the Obama administration and Democratic Congress have their way, Catholic hospitals around the country will be forced to close.
The reason? A piece of legislation known as the Freedom Of Choice Act, or FOCA, that opponents believe will force hospitals and doctors to perform abortions even if they have moral opposition to doing so.
Since doctors at Catholic hospitals won't perform an abortion, the logic goes, the hospitals would have no choice but to shut their doors under FOCA rules.
Abortion rights advocates dismiss the claim, saying it is an effort to distract the public from the real abortion-related issues likely to be taken up by Congress.
But Catholic groups are now making a push to drum up opposition to FOCA, with millions of postcards being distributed in English and Spanish in churches across the country, according to Deirdre McQuade, an assistant director for policy and communications at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Catholic leaders are asking parishioners to sign three copies of the postcard - one for each senator and one for their representative - and then leave them with their church, which will mail the cards to Washington.
"The Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), the most radical and divisive pro-abortion bill ever introduced in Congress, would create a 'fundamental right' to abortion that government could not limit but would have to support," the postcard reads in part. (See the full postcard here.)
Church leaders say FOCA would end requirements for parental consent, legalize partial-birth abortion and overturn so-called "conscience" protections that allow hospitals and health care providers that receive public funds to decline to perform an abortion. (The Bush administration tried to strengthen conscience protections shortly before leaving office, though President Obama ordered a halt to implementing the new guidelines until further review.)
"The [FOCA] law as it currently exists is taking that entire conscience clause away," said James Goodness, spokesman for Archdiocese of Newark. "And Catholic hospitals will not perform abortions. And if they are told they have to, hospitals are going to have to figure out what they can do."
Debate rages among legal scholars over whether FOCA, if instituted, would really overturn "conscience" protections and thus potentially mean the closures of Catholic hospitals, which make up about a third of all hospitals in the country.
According to Ted Miller, the communications director at NARAL Pro-Choice America, Maryland is among the states that have adopted FOCA-like legislation in an effort to codify abortion protections, "and you don't see Catholic hospitals closing in Maryland." But as Melinda Henneberger notes, Sen. Barbara Boxer, who introduced FOCA in the Senate, said in a statement that the legislation "supersedes any law, regulation or local ordinance that impinges on a woman's right to choose" - which could be taken as a sign that it would invalidate prior "conscience" clauses.
NARAL's Miller says FOCA isn't really the issue: It is instead "a distraction from issues around birth control and sex education for teens that could actually be considered in this Congress."
FOCA won't see passage anytime soon, he says, because according to NARAL's calculations, there are only 40 truly "pro-choice" senators in the 111th Congress and 146 "pro-choice" representatives in the 111th Congress - not nearly enough to pass the legislation.
Still, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who introduced FOCA legislation in the House in 2007, plans to reintroduce it in the new Congress, according to his office. (An aide declined to provide a timetable, but predicted the introduction would come "sooner rather than later.")
Boxer also plans to reintroduce the legislation, the 2007 version of which is here. Her office says there is not yet a timeline on when she will do so. Mr. Obama has vowed to immediately sign the legislation if it crosses his desk.
"The pro-abortion agenda is strong, and it has momentum now because of the pro-choice majority in Congress and also the pro-choice president," said McQuade of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "There's a lot of momentum now seeking to roll back incremental gains that have been made over the last 36 years."
Last Thursday, on the 36th anniversary of the Roe V. Wade decision, tens of thousands of abortion rights opponents marched on Washington. One marcher told the Associated Press she was praying that Mr. Obama would "surprise" her on abortion.
On that very day, the president released a statement reiterating his support for abortion rights. The next day he quietly signed an executive order ending the so-called global gag rule banning federal funding for international groups that promote or perform abortions.
Polls suggest that slightly more than half the country believes that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. In the presidential election, Mr. Obama won by nine points among Catholics.
"The anti-choice side lost the election, and they lost control of Congress," said NARAL's Miller. "That means they no longer control the debate."
By Brian Montopoli