During one of the more sober moments of Thursday night's otherwise contentious debate, Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan revealed that they share the belief that life begins at conception. But where the Catholic candidates diverge is on how those beliefs should influence policy.
It was near the end of the vice presidential debate at Centre College in Danville, Ky., when they were asked by moderator Martha Raddatz to talk "personally" about how their religion has informed their abortion views
Ryan, who is running on the Republican ticket with Mitt Romney, responded, "I don't see how a person can separate their public life from their private life or from their faith."
"Our faith informs us in everything we do," he added. "My faith informs me about how to take care of the vulnerable, about how to make sure that people have a chance in life."
The 42-year-old stressed that he's not pro-life "simply because of my Catholic faith," though that is a factor.
"But it's also because of reason and science," he said.
"You know I think about ten and a half years ago, my wife Jan and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville (Wis.) where I was born for our 7-week ultrasound for our firstborn child. We saw that heartbeat. Our little baby was in the shape of a bean and to this day we have nicknamed our firstborn child Liza, 'bean.'"
Expressing his belief that life begins at conception, Ryan said the policy of a Mitt Romney administration will be to oppose abortion with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
Ryan called out the Democratic Party for their extreme position on abortion, noting that the party used to want to make abortions "safe, legal and rare" but is now supporting abortion "without restriction, and with taxpayer funding."
Biden, 69, said he doesn't believe in "imposing" one's personal beliefs on the rest of the country.
Personally, he said he accepts the Catholic Church's position on abortion – "what we call de fide doctrine."
"My religion defines who I am," the current vice president, who has been a practicing Catholic his whole life, said. "Life begins at conception. That's the church's position. I accept it in my personal life."
"But," he continued, "I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians, and Muslims, and Jews. I just refuse to impose that on others unlike my friend here, the congressman."
"I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people, women, that they can't control their body. It's a decision between them and their doctor, in my view and the Supreme Court. I'm not going to interfere with that."
Biden pointed out that the next president will get to nominate one or two Supreme Court justices. If Romney is elected, he would likely appoint someone on the "far right" who would outlaw abortion (or overturn Roe v. Wade), Biden said. President Barack Obama, he added, would pick "open-minded" justices.
The vice president also spotlighted Ryan's changed position on abortion. He noted that Ryan formerly held the position of no exceptions for abortions, including in the case of rape.
"All I'm saying is if you believe that life begins at conception, that therefore doesn't change the definition of life. That's a principle," Ryan responded. He then reiterated that there would be exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother under a Romney administration.
Ryan took the opportunity during the religion and abortion segment to denounce the Obama administration's "assault" on the religious liberties of Catholic institutions.
"Look at what they're doing through Obamacare," the congressman asserted. "They're infringing upon our first freedom, the freedom of religion, by infringing on Catholic charities, Catholic churches, Catholic hospitals. Our church should not have to sue our federal government to maintain their religious liberties."
Dozens of both Catholic and evangelical institutions, including colleges and businesses, have filed lawsuits against the Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate that employer sponsored health coverage include contraception and abortifacients. While there is a religious exemption, it is written so narrowly that most religious organizations would not qualify.
The plaintiffs argue that their religious liberties are being violated as the government is forcing them to do something they believe is wrong.
Rejecting Ryan's argument that there is an assault on religious liberties, Biden asserted, "Let me make it absolutely clear: No religious institution, Catholic or otherwise, including Catholic Social Services, Georgetown Hospital, Mercy Hospital, any hospital, none has to either refer contraception, none has to pay for contraception, none has to be a vehicle to get contraception in any insurance policy they provide.
"That is a fact. That is a fact."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Biden's statement is inaccurate.
"This is not a fact. The HHS mandate contains a narrow, four-part exemption for certain 'religious employers.' That exemption was made final in February and does not extend to 'Catholic social services, Georgetown hospital, Mercy hospital, any hospital,' or any other religious charity that offers its services to all, regardless of the faith of those served," USCCB said Friday.
"HHS has proposed an additional 'accommodation' for religious organizations like these, which HHS itself describes as 'non-exempt.' That proposal does not even potentially relieve these organizations from the obligation 'to pay for contraception' and 'to be a vehicle to get contraception.' They will have to serve as a vehicle, because they will still be forced to provide their employees with health coverage, and that coverage will still have to include sterilization, contraception, and abortifacients. They will have to pay for these things, because the premiums that the organizations (and their employees) are required to pay will still be applied, along with other funds, to cover the cost of these drugs and surgeries."
The HHS mandate went into effect in August and some religious institutions were given an extra year to comply.
Over the next year, the HHS department said it will not take any enforcement action against any employer that is a nonprofit and that has not provided contraceptive coverage because of religious beliefs. It also said it plans to develop "alternative ways of providing contraceptive coverage without cost sharing with respect to non-exempted, non-profit religious organizations with religious objections to such coverage."