Prevention, not prohibition, is the way forward
The Supreme Court’s decision to outlaw an abortion procedure used in later term pregnancies has rightly received a lot of attention. While the ruling reached in Gonzalez v. Carhart will do nothing to reduce the number of abortions, it will certainly invigorate the anti-choice lobby and we can expect to see fervent efforts at the state and federal level to overturn Roe v. Wade.
While many have been concerned about what the decision means for abortion access, the reality is not much. The small number of doctors who used this method will simply switch to another. Our concerns at Catholics for a Free Choice have been concentrated on a more pressing concern: How do we reduce the need for abortion?
Abortion has been at the eye of a terrible storm in recent years. Clinic bombings, Supreme Court decisions, shootings, violent protests and venomous rhetoric have not brought the country any closer to a resolution. Both sides in the debate have generated more heat than light.
Like many people, I often look to my faith for guidance. Sadly, the leaders of my church have been uninspiring and counterproductive, lecturing us about how to think, vote and act on the issue. But, like most Catholics, I don’t toe the bishops’ line on many issues that relate to sex and justice and have no problem finding good reasons to disagree with them.
The Catholic hierarchy’s approach to abortion is, as the Vatican most recently described it, “not negotiable.” So not negotiable, in fact, that Catholic public figures, commentators and policymakers who express pro-choice views, or even voice support for contraception, risk public admonition and denial of Communion. I am concerned when bishops threaten to use Communion as a political weapon. Thank God only a tiny minority is so extreme as to threaten such an abuse of the sacrament.
When you speak to Catholics, however, you find a different sentiment than that trotted out by the hierarchy. Catholics, just like the rest of the nation’s public, are more than ready for a new debate on abortion. In March, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found that Americans are moving toward the center on abortion. Only 12 percent of respondents now believe that abortion should be illegal, down from 20 percent in 2001 and 2004.
Increasingly, Americans do not see “pro-life” and “pro-choice” to be mutually exclusive: They would like to preserve the option of abortion, but want to see it less necessary. We know that the best way of reducing the need for abortion is to prevent unintended pregnancy. The Guttmacher Institute has shown that contraceptive use reduces the probability of having an abortion by 85 percent.
Prevention, not prohibition, is what Americans, and American Catholics, want. Most of us have little interest in unchanging religious dogma or culture wars, but we are interested in real solutions that allow people to make positive choices about their own futures and the futures of their families.
What do these real solutions look like? First, make contraception available and easily accessible. Unfortunately, as it stands, contraception is expensive, priced out of the range for many low-income women. Similarly, the staggering costs of childcare and health care present huge obstacles for women and families that are struggling financially. The availability of affordable health care and child-care would give women real choices in deciding to carry a pregnancy to term versus feeling that their hand is forced by economic necessity, making abortion the only choice. Furthermore, education for young people about healthy sexuality and responsible contraceptive use is also a key element of a long-term, forward-looking, national strategy to reduce the number of abortions.
Catholics overwhelmingly support such measures. More than 90 percent of Catholic women think community hospitals should offer contraception, and 88 percent of Catholics are in favor of public schools providing sex education.
Congress is currently considering two bills, “Prevention First” and “Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act.” While both are a step in the right direction, the U.S. bishops’ stance is manifestly not. At their last conference, they reiterated their complete opposition to contraception. Anybody who wants to reduce the need for abortion can easily see that the first step must be to provide adequate contraception to those who require it. Our bishops’ leadership is sorely lacking and will continue to be so until bishops change their wrong-headed opposition to contraception. Until that happens, lay Catholics must take the lead and keep up the pressure on our policymakers to introduce policies that will be effective in reducing the need for abortion.
This article originally appeared in the 4 May 2007 edition of the National Catholic Reporter.