How Catholics For a Free Choice Saved Civilization

Or, the story of one woman “and a fax machine”

By Jon O’Brien
Spring 2007

The police boat sidled up to our 40-foot, three-mast schooner on the East River in New York. A burly New York harbor cop, wearing the required intimidating sunglasses, approached the bow. “What,” he asked, shaking his head in disbelief, “do you think you are doing?”

Frances Kissling leaned across the stern, eyeballed the cop and explained just who we were and why we were there. Catholics for a Free Choice had chartered this magnificent ship and filled it with women’s health activists from every corner of the globe.

Saris and business suits rested comfortably side-by-side. We sailed up and down the East River—legally, we believed at the time—to circumvent restrictions on protest around the United Nations building, as part of our See Change campaign calling into question the special status of the Holy See at the U.N. Subsequently, we learned that the country delegates meeting inside the U.N. in March 2000—there to discuss the progress, or lack thereof, on women’s rights since the Beijing conference five years previous—could hear the chanting from our ship.

Catholics for a Free Choice was founded in 1973 and immediately initiated a series of demonstrations to assert a bravely unapologetic prochoice Catholic position. The small but feisty group led opposition to the Catholic bishops’ position on Roe v. Wade throughout the 1970s.

However, the group really exploded on the domestic scene when in 1984, at the height of a fractious political debate over abortion in the U.S., CFFC published a “Catholic Statement on Pluralism and
Abortion” signed by 94 leading Catholics. The statement appeared as a full-page advertisement in the New York Timesand stated that “a diversity of opinions regarding abortion exists among committed Catholics.” The statement caused major controversy in the Catholic church and beyond.

The ad, one of the first actions of Kissling as CFFC ’s new leader, made public a fact that the hierarchy had hoped would remain an unspoken secret: There does exist a diversity of opinion on abortion among committed Catholics.

The ad and its fallout garnered immense coverage, and it is regarded as a touchstone in both the history of reproductive rights and that of the U.S. Catholic church. The Vatican’s Congregation for Religious demanded that 24 nuns and four priests and religious who signed either retract or face censure. In the end, the nuns won, nobody was dismissed, and many continued to be
publicly prochoice.

Of CFFC ’s many achievements over the years, probably the greatest one is that in 2007, every dog on the street knows that while the hierarchy may rant, rave and issue condemnations about abortion,
Catholic lay people feel and act quite differently. This dismantling of what the hierarchy presents as a monolithic position on abortion, when both theology and practice show the reality is quite different, has been a cornerstone of our work.

The importance of exploding their myth and heralding the true position of the church has immense importance for everybody in the pews, from politicians and civil servants to doctors and nurses.
Of course, it made and continues to make a difference to ordinary men and women who want to stay in the church but feel all too often that the dogmatically unyielding positions of the hierarchy on sexual matters do not reflect their own sense of fairness and justice. It makes a difference on election day, when Catholics now know that you do not have to vote the way the bishops tell you to and that following your conscience is the most important aspect of being a good Catholic.

Over the years, poll data commissioned by CFFC and by other independent sources have shown time and time again what we knew to be true then and know now— Catholics think and act in good conscience for themselves. From Poland to the Philippines to Peru, from Pittsburgh to Portland,
Catholic women who have had abortions or are contemplating that difficult decision have been supported by our stance. Our work and our very existence tell them the same story every day: You are not alone.

The presumption that the Vatican spoke for Catholic people worldwide was a powerful public policy tool. It was used by conservative forces within the church to influence and intimidate policy-makers
whenever there was a collision between what the hierarchy wanted and what made sense, particularly in relation to reproductive health policy.

That message would be an important one when CFFC really arrived on the international scene in 1994, a short decade after the New York Times ad. Kissling took the message that Catholics disagreed with the Vatican’s stance on abortion to the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.

Months earlier, in an extraordinary Vatican meeting with Pope John Paul II, 114 cardinals voted unanimously to oppose the initiatives that were to be considered at the U.N. meeting. “Given the Vatican’s increasingly hostile positions on women,” Kissling said, “it should come as no surprise that what the rest of the world sees as a step in advancing women’s rights and women’s health, the Vatican sees as extremism. The U.N. plan aims to give people more options. The Vatican wants to limit people’s options.”

Public policy officials from every part of the globe were listening, as were the world’s media. CFFC was propelled into the international spotlight as the group that dared challenge the perception that the hierarchy defines what Catholics can and cannot believe.

The victories for women’s health at the U.N. conference—despite fierce lobbying by church officials—led the way to CFFC’s special role at future U.N. meetings. Now, our original research and educational materials for global policy-makers are much in demand, as are the dynamic
educational panels and workshops we host around the world.

CFFC’s influence reached a head when the Vatican went so far as to attempt to prevent CFFC from participating in the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Just as the Chinese were trying to silence Tibetan democracy activists, the Vatican sought to use similar silencing tactics against us.

The actions of the Vatican betrayed, perhaps for the first time and certainly for the first time in such a public arena, just how much CFFC was getting under the bishops’ skin. Needless to say, it provided
ample fodder for cartoonists and prompted amusing comparisons to gnats and elephants.

The attempt to silence us failed, and CFFC was again able to present to the world what Catholics really believe about reproductive health and rights. In a signal that at least some at the U.N. appreciate our contribution, CFFC was granted special consultative status at the Economic and Social Council at the U.N. in 1998. We take our membership in this important council seriously. We defend U.N. constituencies against unfair criticism, as we did when we organized a fact-finding tour to China to investigate allegations of coercion against the unfpa and found the allegations to be groundless. In addition, we continue to educate those at the U.N. about the Vatican’s special status and call for a review of that status. (The Holy See owes its participation at the U.N. to an accident of history: membership of Vatican City in the Universal Postal Union and the International Telecommunication Union. When Pope Paul VI followed Switzerland’s precedent and named a permanent observer in 1964, Secretary General U Thant accepted the designation without question.)

The See Change campaign, launched in 1999, formalized the questioning of the Vatican’s status that began in Beijing. It has irritated the soft underbelly of the institutional church in a way that is profound. The campaign quickly attracted the support of hundreds of international NGOs involved in development issues and thousands of individuals. Through this superbly successful educational exercise, millions have read and heard about the anomalous situation in media around the world.

In equal measure, supporters of the Vatican’s status have sought to shore up its position. In direct response to the questions raised by the campaign, the U.S. Congress even debated a resolution
confirming support for the Vatican’s status. It passed in the House of Representatives but got nowhere in the Senate. And, to show just how serious they were, conservative Catholics even got then-presidential candidate George W. Bush to make a statement in support of the Vatican’s U.N. status. Conversely, however, parliamentarians in Sweden, the U.K., Ireland and Germany all endorsed the CFFC campaign.

Pout and push as they might, nothing could eradicate the long-term impact of The “See Change” Campaign and that immortal image Frances conjured up when she said, “The time has come to challenge this façade of the Vatican as a state. Why should an entity that is in essence 100 square acres of office space and tourist attractions in the middle of Rome with a citizenry that excludes women and children have a place at the table where governments set policies affecting the very survival of women and children? The question of the Vatican’s status at the United Nations is not an empty political debate. Vatican positions on issues in the United Nations and in countries across the world have had the effect of increasing the suffering of the world’s poorest women.”

Catholic Health Care

It was the plight of the U.S.’s poorest women that informed another initiative that defined Frances Kissling’s tenure at CFFC. Her decision to conduct groundbreaking research into the church’s
involvement in health care in the U.S. was initially sparked by concerns about the growing number of mergers between Catholic and non-Catholic health care facilities. These mergers meant that an
ever larger number of American women were denied access to reproductive health care services. Our concern was for those women who rely on hospitals for most of their health care services. Women with financial means can always go to private doctors or distant hospitals when services disappear from local hospitals, but for lowincome women, the options are fewer.

Using our original reports and research, the media, who sadly often lack the resources to do this type of work, responded strongly, highlighting the injustice to local communities. We highlighted the backroom deals between bishops and the health care industry that often foreshadow these mergers. And when in 1999 CFFC first revealed that of the great majority of emergency rooms in Catholic hospitals—82 percent at that time—say they do not provide emergency contraception, even to women who have been raped, the results caused a furor. USA Today syndicated columnist Dwayne
Wickham seethed in anger at the thought, and his column ran in outlets throughout the country.

The fear that one could be a victim of rape and be denied emergency contraception, or not referred to a place where it was available, highlighted for many the real impact of the Catholic directives—
a set of rules governing Catholic hospitals that bans many reproductive health services. It is a feather in CFFC ’s cap that the relentless work of our research staff and Kissling’s fearlessness in highlighting the injustice forced many Catholic institutions to actually read their own rules and discover that they could be interpreted to allow emergency contraception to women who had been raped.

Today, many more Catholic hospitals do provide emergency contraception, in no small way thanks to the media heat we generated year after year with our investigative research. From a special report on 60 Minutes that featured our research to editorials in small rural newspapers, CFFC was determined that the American people find out what was going on. It was with a great degree of pride that we discovered from an internal report that the main defenders of the directives in the Catholic health care industry cited Catholics for a Free Choice as a major obstacle to their goals.

And on to Condoms

On World Aids Day 2001, CNN Headline News heralded a new initiative from CFFC, called the Condoms4Life campaign. The campaign drew attention to the devastating impact of the bishops’ ban on condoms. Using the slogan “Banning Condoms Kills,” the advertising campaign ran in the U.S., Mexico, the Philippines, South Africa, Kenya, Chile and Zimbabwe and was the first phase of an effort to change the Vatican’s policy and challenge its aggressive lobbying against the availability of and access to condoms in areas of the world most at risk. The ads pointed out that many of the 4,000 bishops lobby governments and the U.N. to restrict access to condoms, claiming that condoms cause AIDS, rather than preventing it.

Perhaps nudged by the international outcry, including support from many members of the European Parliament, more and more Catholic bishops have come out publicly and called for a change in the cruel policy that bans condoms, even for married couples.

On World AIDS Day 2002, the campaign emphasized positive progress, and Bishop Kevin Dowling of South Africa received hundreds of postcards from Condoms4Life supporters thanking him for his courage in opposing the church’s ban on condoms.

In 2003, in response to the inaccurate and irresponsible claims by a Vatican official that condoms do not prevent hiv transmission, the campaign urged Catholics, especially young people, to use condoms as part of a mature, responsible sexuality. In 2004, we awarded Good Shepherd Awards to bishops who made positive statements in support of condoms. For Catholic World Youth Day in 2005, we bought advertising in the Cologne subway and worked with a unique coalition of young reproductive rights activists and progressive Catholics, who held press conferences and performed street theater during the pope’s visit, proclaiming the message that “Good Catholics Use Condoms.”

At major world aids conferences like Barcelona and Toronto, we have been overwhelmed by support from people who work on the front lines. Time and time again, we hear that the Condoms4Life campaign voices exactly what people have been thinking: It is time the institutional church changed its position; it would be the truly pro-life thing to do.

Targeting our Opponents

CFFC’s prolific research on the opposition has greatly informed the work of hundreds of NGOs and policy-makers around the world. Exposing the harsh, ugly reality behind the often friendly
façades of groups that use religion to oppose women’s rights and reproductive health is like drawing back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz.

Our meticulous research is designed to demystify rather than terrify. Our profiles of the suspect financial dealings, ugly language and bully-boy actions of our opponents (who routinely seek to diminish our importance by claiming we are nothing but “Frances Kissling and a fax machine”) enables our colleagues to take them on and bring them down. CFFC ’s determination to see that opposition groups did not abuse their nonprofit tax status and get away with electioneering during the 2004 election led us to file a series of complaints with the Internal Revenue Service. It was a typically hardnosed CFFC response to something we thought was both wrong and unfair and
typified the perseverance Frances is renowned for. Our research led to a series of investigations into the electoral activities of a number of groups opposed to women’s rights during the election campaign, and we were justifiably pleased when the tax-exempt status of Operation Rescue West was revoked—proof positive that speaking out even when you are not sure you are being listened to is not wasted speech. Our investigations continue.

CFFC also seeks to counter the institutional church’s attempts to distinguish good candidates from bad, making a litmus test of politicians’ abortion positions and ignoring the panoply of other social justice issues. When, in 2004, conservative Catholic groups attempted to tarnish John Kerry’s campaign and those of others who stood for public office, saying that they should be refused the sacrament of communion, we were there time and time again explaining the nuances of church law. It seemed that perhaps, for once, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed with us. Despite a fierce campaign by conservatives, only a handful of U.S. bishops backed this extreme line. The majority did not want to see a sacrament turned into a political weapon.

In recent years, CFFC has, through the writings of Frances, become a prophetic voice in the debate about how to end the abortion wars. “Are we not capable of walking and chewing gum at the same
time; of valuing life and respecting women’s rights?” she asked of the prochoice movement in the groundbreaking and much commented-on 2004 article, “Is There Life after Roe?” Again in 2007, CFFC is poised to ask the hard questions through its Prevention Not Prohibition campaign.

Although abortion remains a divisive political issue, polls show that most Americans support its being legal. Many also want to see the number of abortions reduced through increased access to contraception, better sexuality education and access to child care. Prevention Not Prohibition aims to reframe the abortion debate by focusing on building a consensus, declaring that nobody wants to have an abortion. Human rights have always been at the center of CFFC ’s work, but there has always been another dimension to our work. CFFC has been about trying in whatever small ways we can to make this world a better place for people to live in, be they in the U.S. or elsewhere. We have been everywhere—at the European Parliament, on Capitol Hill and in state and national parliaments the world over—seeking to ensure that public policy does not become hostage to extreme and unrepresentative religious views.

On that June day on the East River, our hearts were heavy when it seemed our inspired protest was about to end on the word of this New York cop. However, as Frances explained what exactly we were doing, he listened, smiled and with a wave and a hearty laugh, told us that we were free to go on with our protest.

We did go on that day, sailing up and down outside the U.N. as journalists from around the world interviewed us about the injustices women still face in the poorest parts of the planet and in neighborhoods not so far from where you are sitting now. And, just as we did that day, CFFC will continue our great tradition of giving voice to those who have little chance of being heard. We will
never be afraid to make noise when we see injustice.

Catholics for Choice