In the News 2012
Washington Times Communities

Jon O’Brien on speaking up for pro-choice Catholics


The Catholic church has been planted solidly in the middle of arguments over reproductive rights this year. At the same time, attitudes in the church are starting to shift. Where are American Catholics going on reproductive rights?

In this final part of our discussion, Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, shares his thoughts on this, and discusses his life and career.


Joseph F. Cotto: What is your opinion regarding the President’s contraceptive mandate for health insurers? Is it really as bad for Catholic institutions as many claim?

Jon O’Brien: Though the bishops have worked hard to portray otherwise, contraception coverage in employee health plans is not at all about religious freedom, unless it’s the bishops’ freedom to make the rules for everyone. It is no mistake that the bishops are waging a war to force the body politic to bend the knee to their demands in this election year. The hierarchy has tried to hoodwink the American public with a position they claim to be the only Catholic one.

They say Catholics must reject any attempt by the government to require contraception coverage, but their perspective leaves out the 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women who have used a form of modern contraception, as well as the workers of other faiths or no faiths at Catholic institutions. All of these individuals deserve the chance to follow their consciences on whether or not to use birth control. No-cost coverage for contraception is especially important for lower-income workers—exactly the people our Catholic social justice commitment enjoins us to help. Polling data has shown that nearly two-thirds of Catholics believe insurance plans, both private and government-run, should cover contraception.

Equal justice under the law should be more than a slogan. Religious liberty is the freedom to believe as one chooses and the freedom from living according to others’ beliefs, though for far too long, many people have not been able to enjoy either of these freedoms. It would be a shame to throw away the very American ideal of true religious liberty just to appease a few disgruntled clerics who think the rules shouldn’t apply to them.

Cotto: An analysis of voting data from this year’s Ohio Republican presidential primary indicated that older Catholics supported Mitt Romney, while younger ones went for Rick Santorum. Why do you believe that the latter’s religious fundamentalism, which is strongly opposed to most reproductive rights, apparently had more appeal for young Catholics? Might this be a sign that the hardliners are gaining long term power?

O’Brien: Every year about this time, just as the cuckoo comes out, so do pundits who will squawk on about how this is the year that Catholic voters will suddenly go ultra-conservative on social issues. This is foolishness. I am amazed that journalists still give these pundits’ fantasies any copy.

The truth of the matter is that the Catholic vote is the jump ball in American politics.

Since 1972, the presidential candidate that won the most Catholic votes has also won the most votes nationwide.

At the end of the day, when you analyze what Catholic voters are for, you’ll find amazingly that it’s bread and butter issues. The economy, jobs and immigration trumped abortion and same-sex marriage in a 2010 Pew Research Center poll of Catholic voters. A 2008 survey found Catholics more concerned with education and healthcare than abortion.

American Catholics are the same as other Americans and that’s what elections will be won or lost on.

It’s important to note that Catholics don’t follow the hierarchy’s lead in the voting booth. It has been long recognized that the bishops’ word on elections and what we should and shouldn’t do is completely discredited.

Catholic voters don’t care about these hot-button social issues like abortion But that doesn’t stop the machinations of writers who claim that this year the sky is going to fall in. Catholics are going to vote for candidates who speak to the reality of their lives and their pocketbooks. If that’s the Republicans in the races, then they’ll vote that way; if it’s Democrats, then they’ll vote that way.

I don’t think anyone takes Rick Santorum seriously because of his extremism. And if there are Catholics who do, it’s part of such a minority of a minority that I’m not too sure who would bother trying to capture their vote.

Cotto: Regardless of one’s religious background, the legality of abortion is a tremendously controversial subject. As a Catholic, why do you support a woman’s right to decide the outcome of her pregnancy?

O’Brien: Catholics support a woman’s right to choose because fundamentally we recognize the importance of social justice. Social justice is especially relevant to those who find themselves in difficult times and facing difficult choices. Freedom of conscience tells us that you can make this difficult choice about abortion and remain a Catholic in good standing. Remember, if you have a full pocketbook, you will always be able to exercise the ability to make choices. Those hard-working folks who fall on hard times sometimes can’t. As Catholics, we believe in looking after each other and we believe in standing in solidarity with those who are oppressed, both of which powerfully inform our stance on reproductive rights.

We trust women. When we see a woman in need of an abortion, we know that she is worthy of our support and respect. There is no debate about whether a woman is a person, a moral agent. Women must be allowed and encouraged to make the decision that is right for them, whether that is to become pregnant or to remain pregnant. They are the only ones who can make the right decision for themselves. This is the very essence of what it means to be prochoice. And no government or church should make that choice for you.

Cotto: Despite what the Church hierarchy says, or what many in the next generation of American Catholics might believe, is there a silent majority still intact whose voice is not being heard? Might more Catholics support women’s reproductive rights than we know?

O’Brien: What Catholics believe may surprise you. Those of us who disagree with the hierarchy’s positions on issues related to sexuality are the majority within the church.

In the United States, 86 percent of Catholics approve of abortion when a woman’s health is seriously endangered, and 78 percent think it should be possible for a woman to obtain an abortion when a pregnancy is the result of rape.

A poll of almost 1,000 Catholics found that only 14 percent agree with the Vatican’s position that abortion should be illegal.

Catholic women have abortions at the same rate as do other women: 28 percent of women who had an abortion self-identified as Catholic, while 27 percent of all women of reproductive age identified as such.

It’s the worst-kept secret in Catholicism that the hierarchy has totally lost credibility with Catholics—not just American Catholics, but all Catholics globally.

A February 2012 survey from the Association of Catholic Priests in Ireland found that 75 percent of Irish Catholics believe the Catholic church’s teachings on sexuality are not relevant to them or their families.

In Spain, where approximately 75 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, a 2012 poll revealed a similar proportion of the women questioned (77.2 percent) had used contraception in the four weeks prior to the poll.

In 2011, Catholics for Choice commissioned a survey in Argentina, which found that Catholics are more supportive of legal abortion than non-Catholics. For instance, in cases of rape, 84 percent of Catholics believe that abortion should be legally available, compared to 69 percent of non-Catholics.

A 2009 poll from Chile, Brazil, Mexico and Nicaragua, each of which has a large Catholic population, showed that more than 60 percent of these mostly Catholic populations believes a woman should have access to abortion if her life is in danger.

Cotto: How did you come to be an advocate for reproductive choice within the Catholic community? Tell us a bit about your life and career. 

O’Brien: As a life-long Catholic born and raised in the Republic of Ireland, I got involved in reproductive rights because of the the great injustices that I saw women, especially, face as a result of the Catholic hierarchy’s influence over public policy. Before joining CFC in 1996, I worked on the front lines of reproductive health provision at the Irish Family Planning Association and as program manager at the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s European Bureau in London, overseeing the establishment of family planning clinics in Eastern Europe just after the Berlin Wall came down.

Today, I represent Catholics for Choice when decision makers, including members of the United States Congress, UK House of Parliament, state legislators in the US, members of the European Parliament and of national parliaments across the globe, contact CFC to articulate the prochoice, Catholic perspective to inform critical policy debates.

This article was originally published by Washington Times Communities.

Catholics for Choice