U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks to Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan during the U.S. vice presidential debate in Danville, Ky., Oct. 11. It is the first time in history that both major political parties have a Catholic se eking the vice presidency. (CNS photo/John Gress, Reuters)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gestures as he speaks to Republican vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan during the U.S. vice presidential debate in Danville, Ky., Oct. 11. It is the first time in history that both major political parties have a Catholic se eking the vice presidency. (CNS photo/John Gress, Reuters)
In their Oct. 11 vice presidential debate in Danville, Ky., Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republican candidate, squared off on the issue of abortion.

Both candidates are Catholic, a first in major-party history.

Biden, who supports keeping abortion legal, said Oct. 11: "I accept my church's position on abortion" that "life begins at conception in the church's judgment. I accept it in my personal life," before adding, "But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews."

"You want to ask basically why I'm pro-life? It's not simply because of my Catholic faith," Ryan said. "That's a factor, of course. But it's also because of reason and science."

Ryan added, "The policy of a Romney administration will be to oppose abortions with the exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says Church teaching on "the moral evil of every procured abortion" remains "unchangeable."

"Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. ... The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation," the catechism says.

Biden said: "I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that -- women they can't control their body. It's a decision between them and their doctor. In my view and (that of) the Supreme Court, I'm not going to interfere with that."

Ryan, responding to a follow-up question from debate moderator Martha Raddatz of ABC News, said, "We do't think that unelected judges should make this decision; that people through their elected representatives in reaching a consensus in society through the democratic process should make this determination."

Biden replied, "The next president will get one or two Supreme Court nominees. That's how close (to being overturned) Roe v. Wade is. Just ask yourself, with Robert Bork being the chief adviser on the court for -- for Mr. (Mitt) Romney (the Republican presidential candidate), who do you think he's likely to appoint? Do you think he's likely to appoint someone like (Justice Antonin) Scalia or someone else on the court far right that would ... outlaw abortion? I suspect that would happen."

Bork, an opponent of abortion, was a Ronald Reagan nominee to the Supreme Court, and became one of the rare nominees rejected by the Senate because of his views.

Responding to a question posed directly by Ryan, Biden said there was "no litmus test" on abortion when President Barack Obama nominated Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the high court.

During the give-and-take on abortion, Biden and Ryan tangled on the federal Health and Human Services mandate that most religious employers provide free contraceptive coverage to employees.

"They're infringing upon our first freedom, the freedom of religion, by infringing on Catholic charities, Catholic churches, Catholic hospitals," Ryan said.

Biden contended that under the HHS mandate, "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."

Biden's words drew criticism from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Oct. 12.

"That is not a fact," the USCCB said in an Oct. 12 statement, quoting from Biden's debate remarks but not attributing them to the vice president.

Catholic employers "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," the USCCB statement said. "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 mandate's limited religious exemption applies only to those Catholic and other religious organizations that seek to inculcate their religious values and primarily employ and serve people of their own faith. Also there is no conscience clause for employers in the mandate.

More than a dozen lawsuits against the mandate were filed in May by more than 40 dioceses and Catholic organizations, including the Archdiocese of Washington, Catholic Charities of the archdiocese, and the Catholic University of America. Since then the other dioceses and Catholic entities have joined in those suits or filed their own. Another 10 suits have been brought by various Catholic and Protestant colleges, organizations or individual employers.

The Washington Post's Josh Hicks and N.C. Aizenman, part of the newspaper's Fact Checker team, said Biden "went a bit far" to say it was "a fact." "Biden was instrumental in brokering that accommodation in an effort to quell an outcry from Catholic leaders otherwise sympathetic to the Obama administration," they said.

The "accommodation" offers suggestions for ways religious employers could provide the mandated services without having to pay for them directly -- by using a third-party payer.

In addition to complaints from religious groups that they could still wind up paying indirectly for contraceptive coverage, Hicks and Aizenman said, "the Obama administration said in March that it will come up with an accommodation for religiously affiliated employers that self-insure, but it has not yet decided how to handle that seven months later."

Earlier in the debate, Biden and Ryan squared off on the economy. Ryan, in his role as chairman of the House Budget Committee, drafted the last two budget bills to pass the GOP-led House; they went nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Senate. He also authored a plan, "The Path to Prosperity," which he said would cure U.S. economic ills.

The Ryan plan has been criticized by a wide cross-section of Catholics, including two committee chairmen of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, theologians, social justice advocates and college faculty members, but fiscally conservative Catholic groups and individuals have voiced support for the plan.