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CHICAGO (Reuters) - U.S. Catholic bishops told President-elect Barack Obama on Wednesday his election was not a referendum on abortion, even though a majority of Catholics helped elect him despite an abortion rights stand the bishops oppose.
In particular, the bishops said, they were alarmed that his election might provide support for federal legislation which could overturn all state-level restrictions on abortion.
"The recent election was principally decided out of concern for the economy, for the loss of jobs and homes and financial security for families, here and around the world," Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement issued on their behalf.
"If the election is misinterpreted ideologically as a referendum on abortion, the unity desired by President-elect Obama and all Americans at this moment of crisis will be impossible to achieve," he added.
"Aggressively pro-abortion policies, legislation and executive orders will permanently alienate tens of millions of Americans, and would be seen by many as an attack on the free exercise of their religion," George said.
The bishops, ending their semi-annual meeting in Baltimore, had directed George to issue the statement after discussions indicating their frustration and fears about the abortion issue.
Some bishops actively opposed Obama because he believes women have the right to choose whether to have an abortion. The bishops' group in a general pre-election statement urged Catholic voters to make their choices as a matter of conscience considering all life issues.
Obama won 52 percent of the Catholic vote to 47 percent for Sen. John McCain, according to exit polls.
George said the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 which legalized abortion was "bad law" and it might be enshrined in legislation in the Freedom of Choice Act, the latest version of which was introduced in the last session of the U.S. Congress.
That proposal, he said, would preempt the 50 states from trying to impose restraints on abortion, such as parental notification or protecting the lives of "infants born alive after a failed abortion." Under the proposal the law would come in effect if Roe v. Wade were overturned.
But Steve Krueger, national director of Catholic Democrats, a group which backed Obama, said the Democratic Party's platform, under Obama's guidance, backed for the first time a strategy for reducing abortions.
"The Democrats embraced the moral dimension of abortion in a totally new way this year," added Patrick Whelan, president of Catholic Democrats. "We thoughtfully argued throughout the campaign that President-elect Obama was the candidate who would best protect the sanctity of life by working to reduce the number of abortions, in part by working to address a broad range of social issues that are intimately connected to it."
Editing by Andrew Stern and Cynthia Osterman