I am Catholic.
I do not consider myself a part of the pro-life movement.
Moreover, I think that the current pro-life movement is fundamentally flawed and, as a Catholic, I am embarrassed by it.
I can hear your snicker and cry of outrage, my fellow devout Catholic and pro-life advocate. I hear your cheering rally cries, my feminist comrades.
But here’s the real bitch of it, folks: I do believe that life begins at conception.
In Common Usage: Pro-Life = Anti-Abortion
“Pro-life” has merely become a synonym for anti-abortion.
The synonymous relationship between the two terms leaves the complexity of Catholic teachings in the dust. What about the death penalty? What about physician assisted suicide? What about improving mental health to prevent suicide?
When questioned, informed Catholic pro-life groups generally point out that they support the abolition of the death penalty, fighting euthanasia, and supporting improved care for depression. There are those bad seeds who would “kill all the murderers of unborn children” – yes, a fellow Catholic said this to me – but, as usual, the radical ones get the press.
In good conscience, I cannot support a pro-life movement that ignores all human life.
On Beating Hearts, All of Them
Here is what I see in Church bulletins, youth groups, and on the street corners: stop killing unborn babies, they have souls too.
Here is what I do not see: stop killing people, they have souls.
Its easier and “cleaner” for us, as Catholics and more broadly as humans, to only talk about aborted babies. Talking about felons, the mentally ill, and the terminally ill is hard – we arrive at the grey areas and wade through morally muddy water much more quickly than we do when we think about babies.
We Catholics believe life begins at conception. Therefore, abortion kills babies. Killing babies is wrong. After all, what wrong have they done to the world?
Focusing acutely and fervently on abortion excludes inmates on death row, people contemplating suicide, victims of war crimes, and others under the yoke of forced death. This exclusivity implies that one soul holds more weight than another.
In other words, we are weighing the baby’s soul in comparison to the convict’s soul. Unintentionally, we are implying that the baby’s soul is more important than the convict’s sinning soul. (And guess what? Not our department.)
Is that implication intentional? Probably (and hopefully) not, but no one seems to be doing anything to acknowledge this implication, let alone resolve the problem.
Packaging Matters: Let’s Talk About Signs
I am not telling pro-life advocates to stop. Rather, I am asking that we take a step back and look at the message we – as Catholics – are sending.
How many times have you seen, either in person or on the news, a pro-life group protesting outside a courthouse or outside a Planned Parenthood? How many times have you seen (or used) graphic signs with pictures of an unborn child/fetus?
My boss’ daughter walked up to a Catholic group, such as this, and asked simply: “Why the graphic signs?”
The pro-life sign holders said they wanted to encourage women considering abortions to choose life. Eventually they arrived at “there are services out there to help them!”
Her response? “Why don’t you put that on your sign instead?”
(Her other point was that the graphic nature of these signs forced her to have conversations with her 3 year old child about sex that he wasn’t ready for yet. This is also a valid point.)
What if instead of graphic signs and radical slogans, we – as Catholics – chose to promote and foster sign and information about the services out there to help?
Graphic signs and radical messages condemn and judge rather than encourage openness and a spirit of love. Wasn’t The (with a capital T) greatest radical message Christ’s love for human-kind as shown by His death on the cross?
What happened to treating every human with dignity? That does not go away simply because they have – or are about to – commit sin. To treat someone with dignity means that, first, we listen. Are we truly listening?
What if our message was: “We will listen, truly listen, and we will support you” instead of “you are sinning”?
How different that pro-life movement would look…
Social Justice and Abortion, Timing is Everything
How, then, could we support women contemplating abortion and use this support as encouragement not to abort?
Why doesn’t pro-life work with (or as) movements that ensure all women – single mothers, the abused woman, the impoverished woman, the immigrant woman – are adequately cared for?
(Newsflash, if you didn’t know already: on the whole, women who get abortions are suffering and marginalized in some other area of their life. While I don’t need a statistic to know this, chew on this: 85% of women seeking an abortion are unmarried women. There is a stigma and distinct disadvantage attached to being a single mother, even if its happening more often in recent years.)
If we demand that women stop getting abortions, then we need to step up to the plate.
Yes, Catholic Community Services exists and provides thousands of hours and dollars of service to people in need each year.
But the current services, both faith-based and secular, are not enough to support the world’s needs. To be clear: I am not talking about people who cheat the system, I am saying we are failing thousands upon millions of people – disproportionately women and their children – every day, including in the US of A.
If we make it easier for women not to have abortions by providing social justice and social services, we will reduce the abortion rate. However, if we successfully make all abortion illegal before we improve social justice and social services, we will spread the little resources we already have even thinner and effectively create even more social inequality.
More simply: We want social justice. We want an end to abortion. If we end abortion, we have significantly further to go to achieve social justice. Whereas, if we achieve social justice, we will significantly reduce the abortion rate.
That’s impossible, some might admonish, we can not help every single person on this Earth achieve the necessities for a dignified human life!
If we say it is possible and reasonable to end all abortion, then we must say that helping every single soul with dignity and their basic needs is reasonable and possible.
As fervently as we cry for an end to abortion, we must also cry for social justice. They are intrinsically connected because fighting for social justice is fighting against abortion.
Back to that message.
A social justice approach to ending abortion is an open arm “come sit at my table, I’m listening,” not “you should be ashamed, you sinner.”
“But… Not All Pro-Life Groups are Catholic” and Why I Don’t Care
It would be easy to point the finger at other pro-life groups that are not Catholic and say “that’s them, not us” sending that message.
Whether or not a pro-life group is Catholic or not, Catholicism is associated with pro-life and ending abortion. We are, therefore, associated with that message because its the loudest right now.
Somewhere along the way, the larger pro-life movement’s message swallowed the Catholic pro-life message. In our endeavor to find common ground with others that share similar goals, we lost Christ’s core message of radical love. I argue that it is our responsibility to offer an alternate pro-life message, a distinctly Catholic one, and that message needs to be loud and clear.
Of course, I believe that everyone needs to step back from the pro-life movement and look at – truly look at it – before proceeding. I don’t have a constituency in that group as a whole though.
The Church is a powerful force and we truly have the ability to affect change in this world. I believe that we can and are taught to do better than the current message being broadcast.
More importantly, changing how we talk to others about abortion is going to advance I believe that we will get further with open arms than with pointing fingers.
Look at the ripples of change that Pope Francis has made with a little over 6 months under his papal hat (however understated his actual hat is). My overly simplified analysis? The message hasn’t changed, just the delivery and the example.
Pope Francis doesn’t just sit with and talk with people (atheists, fellow Jesuits, prisoners, the poor); he listens first.
And the non-Catholic world is listening to him and taking note. Are we truly listening though? (That’s a post for another day.)
To My Feminist Sisters and Brothers
No, the Church did not brainwash me into this. I was born a feminist (no seriously, ask my mom), but I chose Catholicism (in my 20’s, no less).
I staunchly advocated for years, including after my confirmation, that I was pro-life for myself and pro-choice politically. In some ways, I suppose I still am: I’ll vote for a candidate who promotes social justice and is pro-choice any day over a candidate who is pro-life and gives tax cuts to the most wealthy.
That being said, I offer the following as an explanation:
All the science in the world could not and cannot sway me from this: we mourn miscarriages. I’m sure that somewhere out there, there is science that claims to pinpoint when the soul begins, but there is something miraculous about the moment of conception – a moment that can not be encapsulated completely by scientific explanation.
With respect, I understand your point of view. Really, I do, but there’s some of us out there (I’m trying to get some more of us on board) that want to meet you half way on something we probably agree on: social justice.
My other consolation for you? I will continue to vote pro-choice – even though I believe in an ideal world abortion would not exist – until society truly supports the single mother.
My Offering and A Personal Meditation
I did not intend to start out of the gates with something like this. I wanted to start small and work up to this issue.
But then it boiled down to two ideas: (1) go big or go home and (2) you can’t half-ass a bonafide opinion.
At my parish on the first Sunday of October, as probably in most Catholic parishes around the US, my priest asked us to meditate and pray on respecting the whole spectrum of human life as part of Respect Life Sunday in the Respect Life Program. He challenged us to go a step further and consider what we might offer others in respecting life. This past Sunday, the 13th, he reemphasized the need for contribution to the discussion on life.
Maybe this isn’t what he had in mind, maybe it is (he is a Jesuit after all), but this is my offering.
And maybe my Jesuit-groupie-roots are showing…
So What You’re Saying Is…
I’m not pro-life, but I’m not pro-choice either.
Submit your opinion(s), I’m sure you have them, here or in the comments below.
Related (Supporting & Opposing) Reading
A big THANK YOU to Sally of Les Femmes Folles: Women in Art for e-mailing me. She effectively got me off my laurels to start writing despite worries about formatting and the technical stuff.