Bribery or Benevolence?

Prochoice Leaders Examine the Generosity of a Scottish Cardinal

By Lisa M. Hisel and Patricia Miller
Winter 1999-2000

In October 1999, the father of a pregnant twelve-year-old girl approached the Prolife Initiative, a program founded by Cardinal Thomas Winning of the Scottish Catholic church, and asked for help for his daughter to carry her pregnancy to term. He said the family couldn’t afford basic necessities for the baby and that his daughter would be “devastated” to have an abortion. The cardinal founded the Prolife Initiative in 1997 to offer girls and women an alternative to abortion. According to news accounts, the girl had been advised to have an abortion by teachers and social workers. The Prolifie Initiative agreed to help financially, but it is not clear with how much money or what other forms the support has taken. Some news accounts say the initiative helped “pay her bills,” others, that they gave her a crib, a stroller, and some baby clothes.

Conscience interviewed Alison Hadley, national policy officer of the Brook Centres, UK, Jane Roe, coordinator of the Abortion Law Reform Association in the UK; Tony O’Brien, executive director of the Irish Family Planning Association; Valerie Stroud, a representative of We are Church UK, and Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, USA, to get their assessments of the cardinal’s actions and uncovered some surprising differences of opinion. 

Alison Hadley:
 Brook’s main aim is to prevent unplanned pregnancy in the first place. But if young women who come to us are facing unplanned pregnancies, we offer them unbiased counseling so that they can make their own choices as to what to do. Whatever choice they make, we feel they should be supported-whether it’s having the baby adopted, keeping the baby themselves, or having an abortion. We have always advocated support for teenage mothers, but from the state, not from individual groups. What is important is that there shouldn’t be the social exclusion that can arise from young motherhood because they haven’t got independent earnings-they’re often not in touch with their families, so they can be very isolated. But that support needs to be provided by the state, rather than be picked up by groups with any vested interests in what choice they make about the pregnancy.

What we would be very opposed to is the decision-making process being under any influence from groups with vested interests in what choice the woman makes. It would seem to us from the little we heard about this case that she was very young. It didn’t seem that she had gone to an impartial, proper coun-seling service to help her decide what to do and that she had been directed pretty quickly to the church to help her through this. We were worried that she hadn’t been given the opportunity to make her own choice. If we felt sure she’d been given all the options in a way that was not trying to overly alarm her about abortion and she had decided to have the baby, given that her situation is very difficult, if the church is going to offer money to help her get whatever she needs, who are we to say she shouldn’t take it? That’s really not our role at all. Our concern is that she wasn’t given free choice.

ConscienceIn the press accounts, it is the girl’s father who approached the Prolife Initiative, the father who says his daughter would be devastated to have an abortion. The girl’s own voice is never heard. What are your thoughts on that?

Alison Hadley: It was our concern that everybody else’s agenda seemed to be taking precedence. It was very unclear whether she actually did have a proper choice in this. But what we wouldn’t ever have wanted to say is that she shouldn’t have the baby. I think if somebody really went through the pros and cons with her of having a baby at twelve or thirteen, the cons outweigh the pros by a long way, but we would support her choice whatever she decided. So, we were quite careful not to enter the debate and be seen to be suggesting that she should have had an abortion. She may well have gotten a lot of antiabortion information and propaganda-perhaps through her parents, perhaps through school. She could have been prey to quite a lot of antichoice literature and that influences people and influences their decision making. And at twelve, I think it is unlikely that you will have extricated yourself enough from what was played into you when you were very young to be able to say, well, abortion is horrible, but actually it’s right for me now.

Conscience: What about new accounts that said that teachers and social workers “encouraged” her to get an abortion?

Alison Hadley: That may well be the shorthand reporting of it. Somebody could have said to her that obviously having a baby at that age is an extremely big deal, so we would really want you to consider an abortion. That could have been reported as “get an abortion.” Letting young people make their own choices is not something all professionals are happy to do. There’s a kind of paternalism which will say “of course this is the right decision-you’re far too young to have a baby.” People can take that view and deliver it in a variety of ways, but it is basically not letting her make her own choice. We deliberately stayed to the side of the debate and didn’t want to be represented as an organization that was saying she should have an abortion. For young people out there who are our potential clients, we don’t want that image. We want to be there as a prochoice, pro-young people’s choice organization, and not an abortion agency, which is how things tend to get polarized in the media today.

Jane Roe: We were really quite shocked by the situation. It showed a kind of double standard on the part of the Catholic church. The overriding thing was they gave the girl help without really thinking at all about her best interests. All they thought about-and they admitted this in TV and radio interviews afterwards-was that they wanted to prevent an abortion. So in her particular circumstances-and her circumstances, in fact, were a lot worse than appeared in the press initially because of confidentiality-it would be a disaster for this girl, let alone any twelve year old, to go ahead and have the baby and try to look after it.

The Catholic church was quite happy to dish out baby clothes and a pram, but what really surprised us was that initially they were saying, what we are doing is giving an alternative to abortion-young girls like this turn to abortion because they think they can’t afford the baby and we are going to help and present the only possible alternative.” But what it came down to is that one minute they sounded as though they were going to be financially supporting her over a long period, but when they got criticized for that, they instantly changed their tune and said, “not really, we are just dishing out baby clothes and a bit of equipment and that’s all. So it’s not a bribe. There is no money involved at all.” They wanted to have it both ways. Either they were going to support her for virtually the rest of her life or they weren’t.

Conscience: What about those who say that this assistance was giving her a choice because she didn’t have a choice without the support?

Jane Roe: We do have a state security system that should be able to provide for her if that was what she wanted. But having a baby is not just to do with money. It would have such an enormous impact on her life and on her future and on that potential child’s future that money was of a secondary consideration. I just found it so amazing that they seem to think that the only reason a twelve-year-old girl chooses to have an abortion is because she can’t afford to bring up the baby. Their religious principles had allowed them to totally override their common sense. They were absolutely unable to accept the fact that perhaps it wasn’t a very good idea for a twelve year old to have a baby, let alone to have a baby and keep it. And it was great to find that for once here the world was on our side. Everyone apart from Roman Catholics agreed with us.

Tony O’Brien: At one level, if the church or any other body wants to set up a generally available scheme of financial assistance for people experiencing hardship, either as a result of pregnancy or otherwise, then you couldn’t criticize that. But if the church or any other body is going to be selective and specifically target people-seek to entice them with funding or money to go ahead with a pregnancy that they otherwise wouldn’t have-then that raises a huge number of other questions that have to do with ethics and morality. That would leave me with considerable doubts that that is the right way for any institution to proceed.

ConscienceDoes it make it a difference if it is money or goods or support services?

Tony O’Brien: It doesn’t. I think you have to look at it in its widest context. If the state system, or any charitable body, was saying on an Open-ended basis that anyone experiencing financial or other hardship during a pregnancy would be eligible to get either support-in-kind in terms of accommodation, food, clothing, or support in cash, then you wouldn’t have a purposeful objection to that. But in this instance, it’s a result of someone expressing a view that they might be thinking of termination and the funding is only made available in order to prevent that. Then the funding looks to be part of a political agenda rather than a genuine effort to support all women through pregnancy, and that’s very questionable. If we are saying that women deserve financial and other support during pregnancy, then that’s a position that I think I would be very happy to support. We have argued that there should be increased financial support to deal with childcare and single parenthood generally. But if there is going to be a selective approach where only once a person is contemplating a particular outcome to a pregnancy would the church then use its financial power-whether it gives it in money or in other ways-to try and change that person’s mind, then that is something very different and very disturbing.

Conscience: What about longer-term support? Does that make a difference? It seems like in this case it was just short-term support.

Tony O’Brien: That is so typical of cases like this. You see groups that have a particular attitude about abortion-specifically those who characterize themselves as prolife groups-move in, do the hard sell-up to probably a day or two after the birth of the child-and then they don’t want to know anything else. It goes back to the old line that life is sacred until the moment of birth. It’s very short term. It’s manipulative and I don’t think it achieves anything in the long run. So outside the context of proper and sustained support, a genuine commitment to the well being of children, particularly born children and their parents, then this begins to look very shady. It’s only acceptable if it’s part of a properly structured, open-ended support service to which anyone who is pregnant, anyone who is a single parent, anyone who is a parent in hardship, can apply. If it only applies to women with crisis pregnancies, if it only applies during a pregnancy, and it only applies to women with whom it is thought that there would otherwise be a risk-as they would put it-of a termination of pregnancy, then it becomes a political strategy. I don’t think that thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girls, going through all they are going through as the result of an unplanned pregnancy, should be approached in that way. I think it’s unsound, unethical, and dangerous.

Valerie Stroud: There are two main aspects. The first one is that we have a twelve-year-old girl expecting a baby. What do we do in the immediate? The second aspect is how do we feel about twelve-year-old girls having babies? The fact that somebody stepped in to help this twelve year old who didn’t want an abortion is excellent and therefore I would applaud Cardinal Winning and his team’s actions. The only reservation I have is babies aren’t just for birth. Who’s going to help with the upbringing of this child until it is eighteen? So there’s that side of it.

As a society, as a culture, are we happy with twelve year olds getting pregnant? Thinking this through and discussing it with a number of friends, I found myself getting very judgmental, and they kept saying “you can’t be judgmental about this, you’ve got to be practical about it.” And so I’ve got around to thinking about the two aspects-one is biological, and the other one is the social. It’s the difference between the human being as a biological entity, an animal, and the human being as a moral entity, a person. Biologically, once animals or humans reach the stage of being able to reproduce, presumably the natural urges come into play and they all want to do it. Well, if you happen to be a twelve year old, and you’re able to reproduce, this will operate. So we have a problem there.

And of course, the other part of it is the person. Is it morally right to reproduce at that age? Is it doing justice to herself to reproduce? Then you come to the family. What’s the culture of the family? There are a number of ideologies in existence. Maybe this family belongs to a sort of residual ideology in which it was quite useful in the past for youngsters to have babies because they could contribute to the family income at a very early age. I’m talking of the preindustrial situation, and maybe we still have that residual ideology in modern society.

I come back to my favorite word, which is “dialogue.” If we really feel as a society that this ideology isn’t a good idea, then we have got to enter dialogue with those groups that have this residual ideology that all women are useful for is having babies. And then, of course, I think about the church. This is really where the hierarchy of the church-Rome-has got to come into the late twentieth, early twenty-first century and “get real.” Because they’ve got to start looking at society as it is, not as they would like it to be. We can’t really afford to have humans reproducing themselves at levels at which they might have done in the past, because we now have good health care, we have a society which isn’t as dependent on human labor as it was at one time. I hasten to add that I am not proposing population policies. I would support very much the point of view of Cairo.

Conscience: What about the idea that programs like Cardinal Winning’s-helping women to have babies-allow the church to avoid discussions of sexuality, of contraception, or responsible parenthood?

Valerie Stroud: I think it’s summed up by what I said about “getting real.” Today, contraception is a fact of life for a vast majority of people, certainly in the developed world. We, as church, have got to have the freedom to dialogue with society in general and with the medical profession on issues of sexuality-what is morally right, what is morally wrong, divorce, AIDS, homosexuality-and allow people who care for the young to bring them up to be responsible citizens. The church hierarchy can no longer sit with its head in the sand.

Conscience: The people who offered to help the young girl asked, “What is the problem? We are helping her do something she wants to do.” What is your response?

Valerie Stroud: For a start, it isn’t that unusual for twelve-year-old girls to be pregnant in the United Kingdom. My daughter said that herself. When she was at school, when she was twelve, one of them just disappeared, and they all sort of tittle-tattled that she’d had a baby. It is happening all the time; the trouble is it’s all covered up and it’s not made visible. This case, obviously, has been brought to the media for some purpose, presumably to advertise Cardinal Winning’s fund and to make a case for the prolife lobby. To that extent, his fund appears to be supporting this girl because the girl made the choice-and I would defend even a twelve year old to make that choice-but on the other hand, we’re not actually doing anything to help the girl herself. We’ve got a child giving birth to a child, so what are we actually doing to help the girl, to give her an education, to set her on her feet? Sociologists have found that in Britain, young girls will choose to have babies because it’s a mark of maturity and adulthood. It’s like a rite of passage. If they don’t have anything else, if they don’t have access to education, then they choose motherhood as an alternative. It becomes a wide subject as to what we are doing as a society.

Frances Kissling:
 There are two events to think about. One is the event in which the Catholic church in Scotland is providing support for this girl to continue her pregnancy. Then there’s the other event, which is the varied reaction of the prochoice community-or some people within the prochoice community-to this. In the first case, in these instances we’re not going to know all the facts, so we’re always going to react not so much to the specific event, but in relation to our political beliefs, our values, our preconceptions, or our knowledge of the way the church acts. In that sense, I look at it from our experience of this kind of support in the United States, which is that it is generally very marginal. From what we’ve been able to ascertain, all the bishops in the US who have said “if you want to have your baby, come to us and we will take care of you,” that kind of care has generally constituted helping the women or girls to navigate the government’s social services system. The government provides the support and the church itself provides very little money. So there’s a certain suspicion of how much the church is really making available.

By the same token, if you look at how the church should respond to abortion-given that it opposes it-I would much rather the church help women-even if that help is limited-who want to continue their pregnancies as a way of reducing the number of abortions, rather than work in the political arena to make abortion illegal. In this case the cardinal is on record as doing both; he’s one of the most virulent antiabortion bishops in the political arena and he also has this program of help. I know there are women who have abortions who would rather continue their pregnancies and who don’t have sufficient sources of support. Since my perspective is prochoice, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone who is prepared to help women continue their pregnancies. But I’d rather the church and this bishop stood with women, whichever choice they make. If the girl and her family decided on an abortion, they have as much call on the moral support of the church as does the family that decides to continue a pregnancy. In that sense, maybe we should be talking about moral support from the church, not just financial support. I think to the extent that I’m suspicious of the motivation of the church in this situation, it’s because it doesn’t give its moral support to women’s choices, so I’m less generous in my evaluation of their financial support.

On the whole, I would say I’m willing to assume from everything I’ve read that to the extent a twelve year old can make a choice-and this should be in the context of family-it sounds as if we are dealing with a loving family that supports her in this pregnancy and that is prepared to take responsibility for the child. I’m willing to say on balance I accept that this was a genuine choice. In that sense, thank goodness they could turn to the church.

On the other hand, one of the issues it raised for me is the possibility that the prochoice movement needs to do more about being “prochoice.” If we are suspicious of the worried that when the church supports women to continue pregnancies they also send messages that abortion and sexuality are wrong, then maybe we should be supporting women who wish to continue pregnancies to the same extent and with the same amount of energy that we support women who decide to have abortions. Maybe something the movement needs to think about in the future is how do we support women if they want to continue their pregnancies. We don’t do enough of that. In fact, we do very little of that.

I was unconvinced by the segment of the prochoice community that more or less absolutely condemned the support as taking away choice. One of the things we do as a prochoice movement is provide free abortions to women who can’t afford them. The other side criticizes us for this and says that we’re not really supporting women’s choices because we’re prepared to pay for their abortions but not their prams. Are we prepared to apply the same standard of what it means to be prochoice to ourselves as we apply to those who are opposed to abortion? If we understand that providing funding for a poor woman to have an abortion is not coercive, then why do we fail to understand that providing funding for a woman who wishes to continue her pregnancy is not coercive?

ConscienceWhat is your perception of why there was this extremely critical response on the part of some in the prochoice community?

Frances Kissling: I think the church to some extent has brought this kind of reaction on itself given the kind of rhetoric it has used against abortion. The way that women have been described by the church-as selfish people who have these procedures as a matter of convenience, as moral, licentious human beings-has made it very hard for many to trust this institution with women’s well-being. Even when they are well intentioned, even when they do something good, there is still a residual fear that somehow the woman or girl will not be treated with full respect. And there is good reason to think that. But I think we need to transcend our suspicion and be more generous.

On the other hand, both people who are prochoice and people who call themselves prolife have preconceived notions about what is the better course of action in any given situation of pregnancy. Prochoice people succeed better in transcending those preconceived notions, but do not totally transcend them. For example, prochoice people tend to hold on the whole that it is better for young people who get pregnant not to continue those pregnancies. Or some believe that in cases of rape, abortion is almost always the right thing to do or that poor people are better off with fewer or no children. We’re not as open to understanding that there are people who have different conceptions of things and who have the resources in circumstances we consider to be horrible or difficult to do something we would not understand. If we can reflect on this and talk about it together-I think it would be very healthy for us. This is a positive challenge to our own understanding of choice and to the further development of our own humility before the right of women to make decisions that may differ from ours.


Patricia Miller is director of research and writing for Catholics for a Free Choice and Lisa Hisel is a former associate editor ofConscience.

Catholics for Choice