Pope Francis, Inequality and Abortion

Women are unlikely to ask priests to forgive us for having an abortion. But we should welcome a conversation with Pope Francis about providing relief from the damage Catholics and others suffer as a result the Church's obstinately backwards position of recent decades.

Stigmatizing abortion is a significant driver of economic inequality and social exclusion, issues on which Pope Francis has been unequivocally clear. The Pope recognizes that a socioeconomic system that creates and perpetuates exclusion and inequality between peoples in society is unjust at its root, and that systemic inequities must be reversed.

Restrictions on funding and coverage for legal abortions from public and private sources have accelerated in the U.S. since 2010, with new laws intended to drive out or criminalize safe abortion services. These restrictions deny, delay and impede access to abortion services, increasing women's risk of injury or death, or may coerce women to carry unintended pregnancies to term, elevating their risk of poverty, and violating their human rights, and rights as citizens.

Substantial evidence asserts disproportionate effects of abortion restrictions on women based on race, income and gender.

International covenants recognize people's rights to decide whether and when to have children and how many children to have, and to have the information and means to do so, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Human rights bodies increasingly find that denying or obstructing a woman's access to abortion can amount to "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment ("CIDT") under multiple human rights treaties," that "the State's failure to act to prevent de facto restrictions are unjustifiable and disproportionate to lawful State aims," and that "deprivations of autonomy in reproductive rights context can lead to the kind of pain and suffering that is unacceptable in modern societies."

The overall rate of abortions is declining in the U.S.
, as contraceptives become increasingly widespread and effective. But rates of unintended pregnancy and unintended birth among women of color are more than twice the rates for white women. Black women have the highest unintended pregnancy rate. Hispanics have the highest rate of unintended births. Poor women are five times as likely as higher income women to have an unintended pregnancy, five times as likely to have an abortion, and six times as likely to have an unplanned birth.

In the U.S., women of color and low-income women continue to experience increasing numbers of unintended pregnancies. In fact, their rate is 5 times higher than the rate for white women, and for women with incomes over 200% of the federal poverty rate.

Abortion restrictions depress women's incomes, deepen and entrench poverty for women and children, and increase income inequality. One study found that women denied abortion were three times as likely to end up below the federal poverty line two years later, compared with similar women who sought and obtained an abortion.

Each year, an estimated 22 million women and girls have an unsafe abortion, almost all in the developing world. As a result, 47,000 lose their lives and millions more suffer serious injury. The economic and social costs of unsafe, delayed, or illegal abortions include maternal mortality, long-term complications from damage to reproductive organs, pelvic inflammatory disease, and secondary infertility, and potential harm to a woman's existing children. The economies suffer from diminished economic participation in countries where women experience these preventable injuries.

According to Marmot et al. "The interaction between gender inequities and other social determinants increases women's vulnerability and exposure to risk of negative sexual and reproductive health outcomes. Poor maternal health, inadequate access to contraception, and gender-based violence are indicators of these inequities."

The World Health Organization (WHO) asserts that safe abortion services should be available and accessible to the fullest extent of the law for all women--regardless of geography, ability to pay, age, gender, race, and ethnicity.

Public health and international covenants recognize that access to reproductive health services, including abortion, is a fundamental human right, enabling the right to decide whether and when to have children and how many children to have, and to have the information and means to do so, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. The reproductive justice framework calls for recognition and redress for compounded economic, cultural, and structural disparities resulting from race, gender and class.

While visiting the U.S., the Pope would make a historic gesture by encouraging the U.S. Congress to pass the EACH Woman Act, HR 2972, which eliminates the Hyde Amendment restriction on federal funding for abortions in the U.S., and the Helms amendment, which similarly restricts funding for abortions abroad.

Finally, the Pope should ask the 1 in 6 U.S. hospitals that are Catholic-affiliated to promote the conscientious provision of abortions, which affirmatively and publicly asserts the value of abortion care, recognizes the positive claims of conscience -- that is, conscience-based claims for offering care, and frames such care as an extension of health care clinicians' requirement to place patients' needs as the highest priority in providing treatment.