When Theocracy Trumps Democracy
Jon O’Brien, President, Catholics for Choice
Photo Credit: Eric Haase. This picture is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without the express permission of Catholics for Choice.
On a recent visit to Brazil, Pope Benedict XVI re-opened the question of abortion and public policy when he said that politicians who vote in favor of abortion rights should be excommunicated. We can expect that U.S. bishops will follow his lead in the upcoming election cycle—politicians who are prochoice will again be threatened with communion bans and parishioners will hear from the pulpit that they have a special obligation to toe the hierarchy’s line and support its consuming desire to overturn Roe v. Wade when they vote. At this stage, many presidential candidates are wooing voters with assurances that they will settle for nothing less than an end to legal abortion in the United States.
Conservatives justify their draconian opposition to abortion by painting a picture of America as a materialistic society devoid of moral value that puts self-interest ahead of respect for life and value for the family. In that context, it’s no wonder that even the sturdiest prochoice politicians often qualify their support for abortion rights. But what if they really got their way? Would we find ourselves in a fairer, gentler culture where every life is truly value—or rather a dysfunctional dystopia?
I come from the Republic of Ireland, where a court was recently asked to decide if an unmarried, 17-year-old should be forced to give birth to a severely deformed fetus with no head. Authorities had prevented the young woman from traveling to Britain to get an abortion because Ireland’s Catholic church-influenced Constitution only allows abortion if the pregnancy threatens a woman’s life. The young woman said that forcing her to give birth to the baby, which could not survive, was “inhumane.” Luckily, the court decided that she did have the right to travel for an abortion, but many would have forced her to continue the pregnancy in the service of “life.”
A woman in Poland was not so lucky. Despite a major risk to her health, Alicja Tysiac was unable to secure an abortion. Three doctors told her she could go blind if she carried the pregnancy to term, but all three refused to sign the certificate that women in Poland need to get an abortion, where abortion is legal in only the strictest circumstances, because they are against the procedure. When she did find a doctor to certify the abortion, the chief gynecologist at the local public hospital invalidated it, forcing Tysiac to give birth. The European Court of Human Rights later ruled that her human rights were breached.
If these examples seem too distant, one needs only to look south of the U.S. border to experience the chilling reality of a culture that tries to suppress abortion by banning it. In Guanajuato, Mexico, a 16-year-old who had been repeatedly raped by her father was denied an abortion by authorities, despite her own pleas and those of her mother for the pregnancy to be ended. Rape is the only exception to Mexico’s draconian antiabortion laws (Mexico City recently adopted a more liberal law), but public prosecutors pressured the girl to drop the rape charge in favor of an incest charge and then refused the abortion on the grounds that she did not quality for the rape exception. She gave birth to her father’s child.
One needs to move just a bit further south to find the perfect fulfillment of religious-conservative fantasies. Last year Nicaragua banned all abortions, even those necessary to save the life of the woman. And how are prolife, pro-family values flourishing in this supposedly abortion-free haven? Already evidence is surfacing that women have been allowed to die rather than receive necessary medical care for miscarried pregnancies. In the village of Cuajachillo, doctors allowed an 18-year-old woman to die from complications of a miscarriage rather than be accused of aborting her five-month-old fetus. She left behind a young son.
Across Latin America, which has some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws and toughest abortion penalties, abortion flourishes. It has the highest abortion rates—as well as some of the highest rates of death and complications from clandestine abortion—in the world. Criminalizing abortion doesn’t reduce its incidence. It only increases the chances that women will suffer and die. But this is what happens when theocracy is allowed to trump democracy. I hope and pray that Catholics and non-Catholics alike will support policies that allow women to follow their consciences and uphold what is clearly the will of the majority as we enter an election cycle critical for the right to choose.
Read the November 2016 message from Jon O'Brien: Pope Francis’ Announcement on Abortion Is About Bridging the Deep Chasm Between the Church Hierarchy and the Reality of Everyday Catholics