When I was pregnant with my daughter 30 years ago, I declined amniocentesis, which could have predicted developmental disabilities or other health problems. I did that partly because the test could result in a miscarriage, and partly because, as a practicing Catholic, I did not know whether I could handle the guilt I would feel from terminating a pregnancy, even if the test results were ominous.
But that was my own personal view. Knowing what it’s like to carry a child, I would not presume to dictate to any woman what she should do when faced with this choice. There are areas so private and personal that the state should intervene as minimally as possible. Abortion is one of those areas.
For that reason, I am buoyant that Irish citizens, most of them Catholic, voted overwhelmingly to change their constitution in order to permit legal abortion. But the Irish vote also makes me painfully aware that in my own country, women’s reproductive rights have never been more endangered.
My values have not changed. And that may also be true for the majority of Irish voters. This was not a vote that celebrated abortion. It was a vote that recognized that the decision to carry a child to term is a deeply personal one. I believe it also is a moral one, but one that should be left to the conscience of the woman whose fate and physical health are inextricably tied to the life growing within her.
The Catholic Church’s fight against abortion has never been about saving lives. If it had been, the institutional church would have found a way to drop or modify its opposition to artificial birth control, opposition that should have fallen away in 1968, when a papal commission composed of theologians, clerics, married couples, and physicians voted to permit married Catholics to use birth control to plan their families.
Pope Paul VI overruled the views of the experts the Vatican had convened, condemning the church to hold an untenable position that hundreds of thousands of Catholics simply ignore. Even worse, the Vatican soon made it clear that it would not brook dissent on this issue.
But having to publicly wage war against contraception meant that church leaders could not encourage the best method of reducing the number of abortions — preventing unintended pregnancies.
How much has its obsession with one issue distorted its message to the world, and made it less effective in spreading the social gospel? Only God knows for sure. But Pope Francis himself has made clear that this one-track mindset is flawed. While protecting the unborn is important, the pope wrote this spring, “[e]qually sacred … are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection.”
Unfortunately, the US bishops’ willingness to put opposition to abortion at the top of the list of their 2016 political priorities has yielded a bitter fruit: They leapt at the chance to overturn Roe v. Wade, knowing full well that they were jeopardizing the fate of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. Daily, real families are feeling the brunt of that choice: being torn apart by a heartless deportation policy implemented by a president who shows little respect for the lives of the marginalized, the poor and the powerless.
I have no doubt that thousands of folks who pray and picket outside abortion clinics believe they are doing something good and valuable. But the clergy who direct their actions and encourage their protests know better.
Here’s the dirty little secret of the “pro-life” struggle. It’s not about life at all. It’s certainly not about protecting the vulnerable. It’s about depriving women of their moral agency. It’s about control.
It’s about exacting some type of revenge on women who are sexually active. It’s about ignoring women who are victims of rape or incest.
And here’s the other part of that dirty little secret. Making abortion illegal, or doing the next best thing – making it nearly impossible for poor women to obtain – won’t save one “baby.” It will just throw poor, desperate women into the back allies where they will risk their lives to terminate a pregnancy they know they cannot sustain.