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Reframing Social Justice, Feminism and Abortion

Isn't it time we combated the bishops' opposition to reproductive rights on our terms?

I became a feminist because of Roman Catholic social justice teachings. Born and raised Catholic, I found feminism totally compatible with what I had learned from my parents and my church. As reaffirmed in Cardinal Ratzinger’s latest “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Collaboration of Men and Women in the Church and the World,” I believe that women and men are equal and made in the image of God. Supporting equality and human dignity, for me, means supporting feminism. This is not the feminism characterized by Ratzinger, but the feminism that seeks to liberate women and men from any form of oppression. This to me is the essence of social justice—human liberation leading to the authentic advancement of all humankind.

The Roman Catholic church and the American bishops are well-known and respected for their statements on social justice issues. From papal encyclicals to bishops’ letters, the church has long proclaimed the importance of social justice. The pope and the American bishops are publicly on record opposing the war in Iraq, the death penalty, poverty and racism. They proclaim their support for civil rights and equality. The American bishops are very much part of the Roman Catholic church’s social justice tradition. In many ways, they support the American value of justice for all, but with one exception: reproductive justice.

I support reproductive justice for women and men because of Catholic teachings. I remain a Roman Catholic despite the hierarchy’s attempts to ignore or disavow these teachings when it comes to women’s lives. But I’m tired of fighting for reproductive justice using the same old arguments that the bishops have used for the past 30 years or more. I don’t want to play on their terms anymore. While I don’t want to repeat all their hoary old arguments, a brief review will illustrate a new way to frame the procreative issues.

Forgetting Women

The US bishops and their Committee for Pro-life Activities say that they work “to teach respect for all human life from conception to natural death, and organize for its protection.” But they don’t seem to do this consistently. Women consistently are forgotten and remain undefended in this church. This is particularly true for poor women and women with AIDS.

Those who do attempt to work on behalf of women in the field of reproductive justice are maligned and condemned; harsh words issue from the bishops and spokespersons on their behalf. Frances Kissling, president of CFFC, Senator Barbara Mikulski, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and, of course, John Kerry are all characterized as bad Catholics. Ad hominem arguments abound, as well as outright lies in press releases and articles.

Take, for instance, statements by Cathleen Cleaver-Ruse. She is the director of Planning and Information for the Committee for Pro-Life Activities of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. She frequently issues statements and writes articles defending the church’s antichoice stand and attacking those who work for reproductive justice. Utilizing the same tired, worn out arguments they’ve been using for over 30 years, the bishops, Cleaver and other spokespersons continue to accuse reproductive rights workers of being abortionists. The word “abortion” in this frame is imbued with negativity. It is used to impugn the motives of Catholics and anyone else who works for reproductive justice, including organizations such as Planned Parenthood and the Alan Guttmacher Institute. Both are well respected organizations that have worked tirelessly for issues of reproductive justice for women and men.

"Women consistently are forgotten and remain undefended in this church. This is particularly true for poor women and women with AIDS. "

In a press release from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Cleaver-Ruse talks about the “dirty secret of the pro-choice movement.” What is this dirty secret? She replies, “Abortion is a reflection that we have failed to meet the needs of women.” (January 22, 2004) Amazing! This is exactly what the prochoice movement has been saying for decades. Yet the bishops and their spokespersons don’t see that it is they who have failed to meet the needs of women with support for safe and effective birth control, encouraging the use of condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, and supporting the economic and educational needs of women and their children.

The bishops, Cathleen Cleaver-Ruse and Gail Quinn, the executive director of the Committee for Pro-Life Activities, continue to characterize prochoice activists as untruthful with respect to abortion. Using statements out of context, Cleaver-Ruse pounces on what she believes to be the “smoking gun,” which shows these people for who they really are: pro-abortionists? She quotes Frances Kissling of CFFC, Faye Wattleton, formerly of Planned Parenthood, and Ron Fitzsimmons of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers. Each mentions that abortion takes or ends a life. The fact that they admit this seems to please her, although in other articles and pronouncements, as above, Cleaver-Ruse accuses the very same people of hiding the “truth” about abortion. Evidently, truth-telling is only true if it concurs with the hierarchy’s version. In this case, they are telling the truth but not, it seems, when each also states that this is a complex issue; that there are no easy answers; that women and men need to follow their own consciences. Ms. Cleaver-Ruse, Ms. Quinn and the bishops don’t think Catholics should be allowed to make up their own minds on this issue. The USCCB wants to create a Catch-22 for the prochoice movement. No matter what prochoice Catholics say, they are accused of either hiding the “truth” or speaking the “truth.” Which is it, Ms. Cleaver-Ruse?

We are even told that we should not vote for Catholics who think that people should make up their own minds and not dictate moral choices for them, Catholics and non-Catholics alike. When writing about CFFC or other Catholic organizations and individuals who are prochoice, they put “Catholics” in quotation marks as if the Catholicism of those who are prochoice were suspect, as if they know the hearts and minds and can judge other Catholics. Nuance does not live in the statements of the bishops, nor is complexity in their moral purview. The official church operates from a moral theology that knows the answers a priori of the social situation and context in which we all live.

They also demean and twist the use of conscience in this issue—as if only the church and its affiliated organizations can use the conscience clause. The bishops use it to insist that Catholic hospitals are exempt from federal guidelines to provide women and men with full reproductive services. Catholic church leaders signed and sent a letter to members of the House of Representatives in September of this year urging them “to reject any effort to strike conscience protection language that would protect hospitals and other institutional and individual healthcare providers from governmental discrimination when they decline to provide, pay for, or refer for abortions.” (USCCB, September 3, 2004)

Who’s being discriminated against? No word on women struggling to hold body and soul together as they try to raise families, deal with the possibility of healthcare problems and try to pay for their own and their children’s healthcare. These religious leaders talk about the conscience rights of institutions, but are dismissive of Catholics who argue for the right of conscience when trying to make decisions about reproductive issues that affect their very lives. Again, this is especially important for poor women. If these hospitals exercise their conscience rights and are the only healthcare providers available in a given location, women may die.

Where’s the Justice?

The church states that it abhors abortion and ridicules those who support reproductive justice. According to the bishops, women “turn to abortion because they feel they have no other choice.” An interesting twist on the issue of choice; perhaps the bishops have learned something from George Orwell’s 1984? Change the meaning of words and then use them against your enemies often enough and the lies may stick.

But the church refuses to give women and men choices about their sexuality, their bodies and their desire to procreate. The recent letter on the collaboration of men and women continues to reflect that “motherhood is a key element of woman’s identity,” although fatherhood is not mentioned as key for men. They do warn against the exploitation of women for their procreative capacities à la Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but they offer only virginity as a choice. Still stuck in the old theology of “marriage is for procreation,” they won’t consider contraception as a moral, ethical or even lifesaving choice. This refusal to allow women and men contraception is hypocrisy at its worst as it brings on the very “evil” they say they abhor. Women become pregnant, can’t carry the fetus, so they end up aborting. Where’s the justice? Women and men end up with STIs and AIDS because their church and their hospitals using conscience clauses deny them adequate information and access to condoms. Where’s the justice?

"This refusal to allow women and men contraception is hyposcrisy at its worst as it brings on the very 'evil' they abhor. Women become pregnant, can't carry the fetus, so they end up aborting. Where's the justice?"

Is it justice when US policies supported by the Vatican and American bishops deny sex education and contraception to poor women and teenagers throughout the world contributing to childbirth and abortion-related deaths as well as the spread of HIV? We could be preventing those deaths and unwanted pregnancies and thus enhancing health throughout the world and here in the US, if we provided honest sex education, safe contraception and abortions. These are social justice issues. We should frame our arguments in these terms and not accept the language and arguments offered by the bishops and their staff whose worldview and Catholicism are not only not compatible with justice and the option for the poor but are without mercy.

Despite all the talk, justice for women is not yet on the church’s agenda. Even with the publication of the Vatican’s latest pronouncement on women, it still hasn’t understood what women want and need. And, of course, neither have the American bishops nor their prolife committee or spokespersons. They just do not thunder out their anti-death penalty stance in the same way, nor do they proclaim their anti-war position as a part of their prolife agenda. This is not Cardinal Bernadin’s seamless garment. It never was a seamless garment. The committee is clearly concerned only with issues pertaining to sexuality and reproduction, as the list of educational material on its website makes clear. With the exception of capital punishment and euthanasia (although this could be argued about), the list is clearly lopsided:

  • abortion
  • cloning
  • embryo research
  • “emergency” contraception
  • contraception/natural family planning
  • fetal tissue
  • in vitro fertilization
  • partial-birth abortion
  • post-abortion
  • stem cell research

(And why is “emergency” in quotes? Is there no emergency for women and men whose natural family planning” didn’t work? Is it unnatural to try to repair an accident, or are we to be left to the unplanned consequences of accidents? This is not justice, it is not compassionate and it is without mercy. Christian virtues are not in much evidence from the bishops and their prolife committee.)

Interestingly, actual born children get little mention here. There is a brief sentence saying that the committee encourages and enables “programs to meet the needs of pregnant women, children, and disabled persons….” However, the safety, health and innocence of born children seemed a very low priority to bishops who returned known pedophiles to parishes where they continued to work with children. There seems to be a lack of consistency and application of this prolife perspective.

Despite attacks and assertions in the 1984 mode that there is no theology that supports reproductive justice (keep repeating it and maybe it can become “truth”), Anthony Padovano clearly refutes this argument in his new publication Life Choices: Toward a Catholic Theology of Reproductive Options (CFFC, 2004). Others have made the argument as well (see, for example, Beverly Wildung Harrison, Our Right to Choose: Toward a New Ethic of Abortion, Beacon Press, 1983).

Let’s Talk Justice

Simply continuing to refute these tired old arguments which the bishops and their prolife committee trot out every January 22 (on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade) and their ad hominem attacks on Frances Kissling and other leaders in the reproductive justice movement is not sufficient. It is also tiring and the attacks are “energy vampires,” sucking not just energy but time from the work for reproductive justice. It’s time to reframe the issue. As stated many times by all prochoice advocates: no one is for abortion, no matter how often and how loudly the bishops and their minions say it. Saying it doesn’t make it so, but they haven’t figured out anything else to say. One of their major failings is this continued use of 30-year old arguments. Enough already. Let’s talk justice. That’s the way to reframe the argument and get out of simply reacting to the bishops and their tired old theology. Padovano’s book is a major resource in this reframing. If we continue to allow the bishops to frame the arguments and simply respond to them, we aren’t exercising our right to choose, it won’t be the frame we want to use and that works best for us.

Linguist George Lakoff describes this idea of re-framing in his new book Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (Chelsea Green, 2004). He uses the culture war over family as an example, and this serves as a good example of how reproductive justice could be a new frame for the debate over abortion and other reproductive issues.

Simply put, Lakoff says that the Christian right and other social conservatives such as the present majority of the USCCB and their spokespersons are excellent linguists. They’ve taken over the debate on family setting out a premise that the world is a dangerous place, the family needs to be protected and supported and children need to be obedient so they survive in this dangerous world. If we analyze their pronouncements, I think the bishops and the pope still perceive of Catholics in need of protection and obedience. Cathleen Cleaver-Ruse certainly operates out of this model. Before working for the bishops, Cleaver-Ruse worked for the Family Research Council, a socially conservative think tank. While chief counsel to the House of Representatives subcommittee on the Constitution, Cleaver-Ruse, a convert to Catholicism, worked on various legislative efforts curtailing women’s access to procreative services and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act. These kinds of laws are framed in the conservative model of family as needing protection.

According to Lakoff, the progressive or liberal moral system is a nurturant model rather than a disciplinarian one. It means two things: empathy and responsibility. He applies it directly to caring for a child. So, for example, using this frame, if you can’t care for a child, the most responsible thing to do may be not to have that child. Empathy allows us to imagine what that life would be without love, care and fulfillment. What is the just thing to do for oneself and the possible child?

Re-framing abortion, contraception, in vitro fertilization, cloning and all the other procreative issues in the social justice framework for which the Catholic church is so well known opens up, I think, a whole new way to understand these issues. It gets us out of reacting to the old framework of “anti” or “pro” and allows us to step out of the institutional church’s frame of the arguments. We can put our energy towards the social change and gender equity we envision. And we can own our own frame rather than continually fight on other people’s terms.

Susan A. Farrell is an associate professor of sociology and coordinator of the sociology area in the Behavioral Sciences and Human Services Department at Kingsborough Community College, CUNY and a board member of Catholics for a Free Choice.

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