Backing Abortion Rights While Keeping the Faith
WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 — Frances Kissling has been called the “philosopher of the pro-choice movement” by her friends and an “abortion queen” by her critics.
But the name Ms. Kissling wears most defiantly, to the consternation of many religious believers, is Roman Catholic. For 25 years, as president of Catholics for a Free Choice, she has angered the church hierarchy and conservative Catholics by criticizing fundamental teachings on sex.
“I’m so Catholic, I can’t get away from it,” said Ms. Kissling, who was once in a convent. “How I construct concepts of life, of justice, it all comes out of being Catholic.”
Though unknown to most lay Catholics, she has inspired and worked with politicians and activists, many Catholic, to speak out in favor of giving women access to abortions and to artificial contraception.
On Wednesday, Ms. Kissling, 63, will step down from her post, relinquishing her role as one of the most vocal of the so-called bad Catholics, those who manage to accommodate the opposing sentiments of love for the church and anger at much of its doctrine.
“The constant refrain in this office is, ‘Are we really Catholic?’ ” Ms. Kissling said here in a recent interview. “I know with every ounce of my being that you don’t have to agree with the positions of the church on issues of abortion and contraception to be Catholic.”
Many Catholics passionately disagree. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued statements challenging the right of Catholics for a Free Choice to call itself Catholic. Critics dismiss Ms. Kissling’s organization as a mouthpiece for bigger, secular abortion rights groups and a front for anti-Catholic bigotry.
“They could get special attention and get special digs at the church because of their name,” said Helen M. Alvaré, an associate professor of law at the Catholic University of America and a former planning director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the Catholic Bishops conference. “They had no grass-roots base among Catholics. There was nothing very different about them from other pro-choice groups in the arguments they made.”
Catholics for a Free Choice says it gives voice to the large percentage of Roman Catholics who disagree with the church’s position on reproductive issues. Its $3 million budget is largely financed by well-known secular foundations, including the Ford Foundation.
Ms. Kissling agrees with her detractors that her organization has not affected church doctrine. Instead, it has focused on working with lay Catholics and others to build momentum for its causes.
With other groups, it successfully lobbied against the naming of John Klink, a former representative of the Holy See at the United Nations, to lead the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration in 2001. Most recently, it worked with staff members for Representatives Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, and Tim Ryan, Democrat of Ohio, to draft legislation intended to decrease abortions, partly by increasing financing for family planning.
Sitting in her Washington office, Ms. Kissling was unequivocal in her distaste for the church hierarchy. “I think that in many ways, the church has become an unjust institution,” she said. On one wall of her office was a cherub, on another a Che Guevara calendar. In a corner stood a candle that looked like a bishop’s miter, yet to be lit.
Ms. Kissling continued: “It abuses nuns, anyone who thinks, homosexuals, women who have abortions. It sexually abuses children. It treats people badly, and something has to be done to change its abusive nature.”
Ms. Kissling was born Frances Romanski into a working-class Polish family in New York, the oldest of four children. When she was a child, her mother divorced and later married a man named Kissling, which in the eyes of the church made her an adulteress, Ms. Kissling said.
Despite her frustration with such beliefs, Ms. Kissling said, she was inspired by the nuns at her Catholic school. In the early 1960s, she joined a convent, at age 19.
Convent life demanded that she look deep inside herself, she said, and she discovered that she did not agree with the church’s teachings on divorce and birth control. She left after six months to attend the New School.
Avowedly heterosexual, she said she never had a desire to marry or have children. She became active in the women’s movement in the 1960s. Then in 1970, when abortion was legalized in New York, she was asked to direct an abortion clinic in Pelham. She had no experience, she said, but neither did anyone else, so she took the position.
In 1978, she joined the board of Catholics for a Free Choice, and in 1982, she took over as president.
Critics and supporters say Ms. Kissling has a more nuanced view of abortion than many in the abortion rights movement. She said her experience working at an abortion clinic and her upbringing in the church made her believe “there was a certain void in the pro-choice movement around the questions of morality and ethics.”
In late 2004, she published an article in her group’s magazine, Conscience, titled “How to Think About the Fetus.” She said that while the fetus might not be a person, it was part of the continuum of humanity. She wrote that the fetus “is not nothing,” and that women who consider abortion know that.
Ms. Kissling said that abortion rights leaders feared acknowledging the value of a fetus because they did not want to further stigmatize abortion. But, she contends, that reticence has cast the abortion rights movement as casual about the emotional realities of abortion.
“Women know that something is inside them, and they know that something will become a baby if they don’t act in some way,” she said. “I don’t think we could say anything to them about the value of fetal life that they haven’t thought of already.”
Many abortion rights leaders said the article was damaging, especially because it came out while politicians were considering bans on so-called partial-birth abortions. But others, including some in the anti-abortion camp, commended Ms. Kissling.
“With her approach, she has found the real-life stuff,” said Representative Ryan, a Catholic who opposes abortion. “Those of us in the debate get hooked on philosophy and theory and dogma, and what Frances brings is reality: that abortion is a difficult decision for a woman.”
Ms. Kissling said she had decided to step down because she believed that her efficacy might soon wane, that she was on the “verge of becoming boring or predictable.” Jon O’Brien, 41, executive vice president of Catholics for a Free Choice, is to take over as president.
Ms. Kissling hopes to write a book about the value of the fetus, or teach, or finish the house she is building on the coast of Uruguay, she said. She has no plans to leave the Catholic Church.
“There are days when I think I can’t be a Catholic and that I want to go join a community where I am welcomed, honored, where I can join a parish,” she said. “But in the end, I don’t want to be a Methodist. I’m a member of the greatest religion in the world.”
This article originally appeared in the February 27, 2007 edition of the New York Times.