No matter how Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is decided finally, restrictions unto bans on abortions will be courtesy of the institutional Roman Catholic Church. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, their Pro-Life Activities Committee, and colleagues will and ought to take credit for rolling back a constitutionally guaranteed right, causing immeasurable harm especially to poor people, and putting their “preeminent priority” issue over the diverse views and needs of a nation. Congratulations, or something.
These few Catholics set their sights on this goal four decades ago. They have worked relentlessly and squandered resources that belong to the whole Catholic community, including the 57% of us who believe abortion should be legal. I dissent from the bishops’ efforts, as do many pro-choice Catholics who join millions of Americans in working to stem the tide.
Many factors converge to bring about this massive, despicable assault on the rights of women and other pregnant persons. There is the very real possibility that this judicial shift may affect those using birth control, those marrying interracially and as same-sex couples. But let history record that among the prime architects, engineers, and perpetrators were conservative Catholics, especially the Supreme Court justices who were groomed for their votes.
As a Catholic theologian who is a longtime public proponent of reproductive justice, including sex education, birth control, and abortion, I join millions who are not surprised by the draft’s tone and content.
Still, it is shocking in a religiously pluralistic society that not only are seven of nine justices Catholic by tradition and/or practice, but that the solid religious grounding of many other faith traditions is simply ignored. Many Christian denominations, among them Presbyterians, Methodists, and United Church of Christ, are committed to reproductive justice. The overwhelming majority of Jews (83%) support legal abortion, and, according to the Talmud, a fetus doesn’t gain the status of personhood until birth. Yet these and the views of non-religious pro-choice people are apparently trumped by the conservative Catholic formation and allegiances of the majority of the justices.
Thorough damage assessment cannot be done until the decision is final and public. But if the leaked draft statement is any indication, as Harvard legal scholar Lawrence Tribe thinks it is, we know what’s on the minds and in the hearts of the Catholic justices, save Justice Sonya Sotomayor who is stalwartly in favor of reproductive rights. Some of them were brought up from pups in an institutional Roman Catholic Church-supported legal culture.
The Trump Trio, Justices Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, are well positioned for this and future such decisions. How coincidental is it that the two men graduated from Jesuit Georgetown Preparatory School? Then Gorsuch went to Columbia University and Harvard Law; Kavanaugh is, as they say, double Yale. They burnished their legal credentials while maintaining their Catholic bona fides. Barrett was spotted early in her career at Rhodes College and then went up the ladder at Notre Dame Law School where she joined a faculty which included John M. Finnis, who is footnoted in the draft.
These justices are surely aware of, if not part of, a subset of Catholics for whom outlawing abortion is a passion. Among the most extreme manifestations is the town of Ave Maria, Florida, with its eponymous law school dedicated to developing lawyers who will argue anti-abortion cases. The city is a planned community funded by developers and the foundation of Domino’s Pizza magnate Thomas S. Monaghan.
No pharmacy in town sells birth control. The law school—where Clarence Thomas delivered the first Ave Maria Lecture, Samuel Alito helped plan the curriculum, and Robert Bork taught—is a far cry from the Ivies on admissions criteria and bar exam passage rate. But the Catholic morality and natural laws studies it includes prepare the farm teams that try reproduction-related cases that wend their way to the high court.
‘We cannot remain silent’
There are many Catholic reactions to the leaked draft. As expected, and in line with the significant victory that the Catholic Right has seemingly achieved, the bishops are crowing. It has long been evident that most politicians and voters could care less what the bishops think about poverty, nuclear weapons or war, so they’ve instrumentalized pregnant bodies as their way to stay in the public debate.
Having created the problem, they have the temerity to offer to pay for pregnant women’s needs. The same bishops who’ve sought to eliminate women’s choices want to be seen as heroic and generous by offering pregnant women money instead of rights. It would be ludicrous if it weren’t so despicable.
Jesuit Thomas Reese offered an obtuse analysis. He passed over any mention of the damage to real people who are pregnant and simply advised the bishops to switch their political allegiance from the Republicans who oppose abortion to the Democratic Party which he thinks is more in keeping with Catholic social teaching. As he put it so indelicately, “The bishops got what they wanted out of this marriage; it is time to move on.” Where have women heard that before? Maybe he has annulment in mind. The price is surely high and it’s women who pay it.
The best Catholic response to date has come from the Midwestern-based church reform group Call to Action, launched in 1976 as part of a dialogue initiated by U.S. Catholic bishops and lay people after Vatican II. But when participants at the three-day conference joined social issues like poverty, sexism, and militarism, with ecclesial issues like birth control, homosexuality, and the ban on women priests, most of the bishops took a powder.
Annual CTA meetings kept some edge-of-the-pew Catholics in conversation with one another. The group has not, to my knowledge, been particularly public on abortion. But in a recent open letter that they admitted “may startle our members and supporters,” CTA declared that the content of the leaked draft “represents another turn toward state-sponsored violence, racism and misogyny.” They invite Catholics to dialogue again: “We cannot remain silent.”
I agree heartily.
Catholics who support reproductive rights are a majority, though many have not yet been public about it. Now is the time to clarify that the Bishops’ Conference does not speak for us, that Catholics have diverse views on this and other issues. The bishops are welcome to their views and their individual votes, but they do not speak for more than themselves.
It’s time for Catholics who’ve been on the sidelines on reproductive justice to step forward. I know from experience that this is a significant ask. Catholics who support abortion rights have paid a steep price since the New York Times ad, “A Catholics Statement on Pluralism and Diversity,” published in October, 1984 in response to Cardinal John O’Connor’s denunciation of pro-choice Vice Presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro. The virulent reaction of institutional church officials to the signers and the repercussions most of us faced instilled fear that lingers in many Catholics who support reproductive rights to this day.
Professors who are publicly in support of abortion rights risk their jobs at Catholic institutions. Nuns, whom many see as the most credible Catholic voices since the clergy are in disrepute, include women who support reproductive freedom. When nuns help pregnant people get needed medical care, they can expect negative consequences from hierarchs. Medical workers are in a bind when they work in Catholic facilities that do not permit them to practice as they see fit.
I suspect ecclesial disobedience is in many Catholics’ futures. Weigh these risks against one young girl who’s forced to give birth against her will and her parents’ better judgement and I trust Catholics who support abortion rights will step up now even if they never have before; I predict they will be emboldened, not shut down by the Supreme Court. My white skin and educational and economic privilege demand a full-throated theo-political response, not a hand-out at a baby shower as the bishops suggest.
If progressive Catholics can lobby for a just budget, against nuclear war, and in favor of immigration, then we can get serious about legislative and elective strategies that respect pregnant people’s personhood and right to decide about their own bodies. One reason for the current debacle is that many Catholics who are progressive on anti-racism, climate justice, and economic issues have chosen not to risk their touchstone with orthodoxy on abortion.
By passing over reproductive justice as if it weren’t a critical part of the common good, they fail to recognize that prohibiting abortion is racist and that the consequences fall most heavily on the poorest of the poor. Nor can groups claim an intersectional analysis that doesn’t include immigrants who get pregnant against their wishes among the many who are without the means to make choices. There’s no skimming over the hard issues, even when we disagree.
Some Catholics are responsible for this moral emergency and nightmare scenario that will be lived most intensely by poor, young, Black, and Brown people. Other Catholics need to up our efforts now for those who are pregnant and before the same forces undo more constitutional rights. It’s probably too late to sway the Court on this matter. But the deeply dangerous legal analysis leaves the judicial door wide open to overturn cases allowing birth control and marriage equality which the same anti-abortion Catholic bishops oppose.
Dorothy Day Abortion Fund and St. Vincent de Paul Vasectomy Clinics
Let me be very specific about what I think we need to do. First, Catholics for Choice, previously Catholics for a Free Choice on whose Board of Directors I served for more than a decade, is the foundation and scaffolding for a Catholic rejection of the one-dimensional Catholic teachings that have led many states to strictly curtail access to abortion. Thanks, and strength to CFC. But they cannot do it alone. To that end I propose some new Catholic feminist initiatives.
Catholics, including President Joe Biden, need to use the word ‘abortion.’ It is primarily a medical procedure, not an ethical or political dilemma. Try to say it along with ‘transplant’ and ‘tracheotomy’ to get used to the fact that, like those medical procedures, it is necessary and helpful in terms of human health, not for everyone, but for those in need. Reluctance to use the term ‘abortion’ is a signal of how successfully it has been stigmatized.
Catholic medical providers who support reproductive rights and who have structured their lives so as not to have to deal with abortion need to think again. Like the rest of us, they can expect some negative repercussions if they enhance their practices to include abortions rather than protect their reputations at the cost of some patients’ wellbeing. Of course, no one can ask another person to make a sacrifice. But a very small percentage of Ob/Gyns perform abortions, though more than 90% report seeing patients needing them. Assuming a quarter or so of Ob/Gyns are Catholic, even a small uptick in their participation would make a big difference.
The major immediate need is money to get those who want clinical abortions to places where they can procure them, as well as to get medical abortions for women who terminate their pregnancies at home. Some, especially young women, simply don’t have the money to choose.
To that end, I propose the Dorothy Day Abortion Fund. Dorothy Day, revered by so many Catholics for co-founding the Catholic Worker Movement, had an abortion when she needed it. So, it’s fitting to name a fund after her that would help others do the same. As states become more restrictive, those who choose to terminate their pregnancies need both a ride and a room as they travel for health care. Catholics who support abortion rights can donate to show our deep regard for Dorothy Day in the many dimensions of her life.
Catholics need to augment research and writing about abortion, including theological and pastoral resources. The Frances Kissling Activist Scholar Program is my suggestion. Longtime Catholics for a Free Choice president Frances Kissling took on the hard issues before some of today’s Catholics for Choice staff were born (and she’s written over 40 pieces for RD). She currently teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Her very creative recent course on “How to Talk about Abortion” included a wide variety of perspectives and religious traditions. A university-based program to train future activist scholars in solid, well-founded arguments for justice developed in the crucible of theory and praxis will be a distinctly Catholic contribution.
The Sister Donna Quinn Clinic Escorts are high on my wish list. The late Sinsinawa Dominican sister escorted pregnant women in Chicago to abortion clinics much to the consternation of the local cardinal. She recognized the need to use her “nun privilege” for the well-being of frightened patients who were heckled and threatened as they sought to live out their constitutional right to reproductive health services. If some Catholics want to take those rights away, others like Donna Quinn will be sure they are protected.
I imagine that St. Vincent de Paul Vasectomy Clinics could be set up on a diocesan basis. Men who specialize in charity might want to begin at home by educating young men on the use of condoms and providing them with a supply. They could fund vasectomy clinics to make it easy for men to take responsibility for their sexual activity rather than leaving it all to women. And the occasional sermon on vasectomies would be a welcome change from the anti-abortion diatribes that are standard fare in so many parishes.
I welcome Catholics who support reproductive freedom to join in these efforts and others we can imagine together. We have a special responsibility to counter the democracy-destroying tendencies of the current Catholic hierarchs who would pretend to speak in our names unless we make clear that they do not. We speak ‘Catholic’ too.
When Justice Sonya Sotomayor asked during oral arguments on this case in December 2021, “Will this institution survive the stench that this creates in the public perception that the Constitution and its readings are just political acts?” I suspect she was smelling some beeswax and incense.