Pope Should Declare A Ceasefire In Abortion War

Pope Francis celebrates a Jubilee mass for homeless people in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican November 13, 2016. REUTER
Pope Francis celebrates a Jubilee mass for homeless people in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican November 13, 2016. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

"When I grow up, I want to have an abortion."

No little girl has ever wished that. Abortion generally is the "break glass" move when things go wrong. Contrary to the views of some anti-abortion advocates, nobody profits from abortion. And I doubt that anybody does a little dance of triumph when an abortion is performed.

A lot of Catholic reformers were relieved when Pope Francis seemed to be calling for a shift in focus away from speaking against abortion and contraception and towards promoting social justice and environmental stewardship. So it is disappointing when he seems driven to play to his base and single out abortion as a "very grave sin." (In fairness, the Pope also made clear that abortion is a sin that can be forgiven like any other sin, through confession.)

But even if you agree with him, there are a lot of sins the Catholic Church has never asked governments to outlaw. There are no laws banning infidelity or premarital sex or greed or pride, which some theologians believe is the most serious sin of all. Indeed, the institutional church in the U.S. has worked hard to block lawmakers from strengthening statutes that would make it easier to prosecute priests who turn out to be sexual predators.

As a Catholic woman, I don't believe I would be comfortable undergoing an abortion, but I am not sure about that. When I was pregnant, I decided not to be tested for Down syndrome, because I didn't want to have to make that choice. Blessedly, I had a healthy, beautiful baby girl.

But feeling that "other" life growing inside my body, I realized that I could never dictate how another woman decided the fate of her fetus. It was too personal, too intimate to be a decision that government made by either banning abortions, or even imposing extreme limits on them.

That said, there should be a space for people of good will to work to reduce the need for abortions -- not by banning them or imposing draconian limits on women faced with impossible choices -- but by increasing other options.

If we really want to reduce the number of abortions, we should be doing everything we can to help women -- and men -- plan their families. That means financial support for struggling households, and much greater access to birth control. It means making sure we offer young women options such as access to affordable higher education, so they have a reason to avoid getting pregnant. It means supporting a living wage and attacking income inequality.

Consider this: An estimated three-quarters of all women in the U.S. who underwent abortions in 2014 were either living in poverty or low-income, with household incomes for a family of one roughly between $11,000 and $22,000 annually. Nearly a quarter of women who had this procedure identified themselves as Catholic.

My beef with Catholic bishops is that they have rejected efforts to help avoid the need for abortions. In doing so, they have sent the message that the abortion war really is a war on women. I fear that the bishops believe pregnancy is the appropriate punishment for a woman who is sexually active.

The true motive of U.S. bishops became clear when they, and a number of Catholic institutions, opposed the Obama administration over the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act, a costly act of folly that revealed the clear misogyny that has driven their positions for years. Obamacare helped poor families gain access to healthcare. Family planning rightly should have been included in those services.

If Catholic bishops had invested a tenth of the money they've spent on their 40-year misguided push to overturn Roe v. Wade on providing women more options and resources to plan their families, we could have sharply reduced the number of abortions by now.

The other problem, of course, is that the institutional church, in going full-tilt to fight a legal battle on abortion, has stopped a nuanced discussion of the morality of abortion dead in its tracks. As Frances Kissling, the former head of Catholics for a Free Choice, now Catholics for Choice, has observed, the church's ban on even examining the ethics of abortion has put Catholic hospitals in a terrible bind.

In situations when an abortion must be performed to save a mother's life, Catholic hospitals have to find ways to argue that the procedure wasn't intended to harm the fetus, and so morally defensible. "I understand that these people (Catholic healthcare providers) are trying their best to figure out ways to stay within" what they consider to be a value or a tradition, while also aiming to "help the woman," Kissling said, but these moral gymnastics don't always work.

When that happens, the mother dies or the health care provider who opts to perform an abortion is punished. Sister Margaret McBride, a Catholic hospital administrator in Phoenix, Arizona, faced with the prospect of both a gravely ill mother of four and her fetus dying, opted for the sane choice, and permitted an abortion to save the mother.

Her bishop preferred that both the woman and her fetus die, and excommunicated the nun.

Sister Margaret's excommunication was reversed only after she went to confession, and agreed to resign from her administrator position at the hospital.

We can and should do all we can to reduce the need for abortions. But making abortion illegal won't do that. It will only drive thousands of poor women into the arms of shady and unsafe abortion providers.

All those bishops and Catholic anti-abortion activists should consider the real-life effects of their drive to criminalize abortion: not fewer deaths of fetuses but many more deaths of women seeking a way out of untenable situations.

Celia Wexler is the author of Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope (Rowman & Littlefield).