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Conscience Magazine

The Shared Strengths of Catholic Social Teaching and Reproductive Justice

By Emily Reimer-Barry, Ph.D. June 15, 2023

As a scholar of Catholic sexual ethics, I see shared concerns in reproductive justice (RJ) and Catholic social teaching (CST). CST speaks to the importance of carrying forward Jesus’ healing, inclusive, and justice-oriented ministries in a world that remains deeply polarized and unequal. While RJ and CST are different, they both make claims about human rights and the challenges of building just communities. By listening to scholars from the RJ movement, I have come to appreciate in a deeper way how my Catholic faith compels me to work for gender justice in our broken world.

“Reproductive injustice” describes the reality of U.S. culture today; we are far from what Pope John Paul II called a “culture of life.” Instead, at least 1 in 7 children has experienced child abuse or neglect in the past year, and 1 in every 8 children is at risk of hunger, according to the Centers for Disease Control. According to 2018 U.S. Census data, women of all races earned an average of 82 cents for every $1 men earned. Among female undergraduate students, 20% have experienced a completed or attempted rape. On a typical day, domestic violence hotlines in the U.S. receive over 19,000 calls, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence found in 2020. Catholics cannot close our eyes to these realities, which create disproportionate suffering for women and children of color. Women making decisions about their fertility do so in this climate of structural injustice.

Understanding Reproductive Justice 

Reproductive justice is a framework that teaches that coercion of pregnant people is wrong, structural barriers to healthcare equity are wrong, and social justice includes advocating for the moral agency of pregnant people and people who parent. The framework brings attention to enslaved women’s lack of bodily autonomy in U.S. history; the horrors of sterilization campaigns that targeted Black, Indigenous, and Latina women; the disproportionate rates of maternal and infant mortality communities of color face; and the difficulties of accessing affordable reproductive healthcare. By centering women of color and vulnerable pregnant people and their children, the RJ movement uplifts stories of survival, resilience, and flourishing.

SisterSong defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” Check out SisterSong, the Afiya Center, SisterReach, In Our Own Voice, and many more Black women-led organizations doing the work of reproductive justice.

From the beginning, RJ has encompassed much more than access to legal abortion. Loretta Ross and Rickie Solinger, two leading reproductive justice scholars, explain that a key aspect of the RJ movement is critiquing the “concept of choice,” which “masks the different economic, political, and environmental contexts in which women live their reproductive lives” (2017, 47). This intersectional approach seeks honesty about the realities of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism. As an example, RJ activists argue that parenthood should not be a right limited to the wealthy — many people seek abortions because they cannot afford to parent. A just society would imagine the care and support of children as a collective responsibility, but that is not the reality that many women experience today.

What Reproductive Justice and Catholic Social Teaching Share

It is not difficult to find areas of common ground between RJ and CST frameworks with regard to social welfare policies and the need to reform unjust structures. RJ and CST both understand the human person as social by nature and deserving of fair treatment. Further, RJ and CST assert that bodily integrity is a fundamental human right, as described in Pope John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris, or Peace on Earth. Both frameworks articulate that good sex requires consent and mutual respect and that gender-based violence is contrary to human flourishing. Both promote the preferential concern for the vulnerable and emphasize the government’s role in providing for the welfare of all. Leaders of these movements support universal preschool, expansion of Medicaid, paid family leave, affordable childcare, access to high-quality prenatal and postnatal care, gun control legislation, and social programs like SNAP and the child tax credit.

Catholic Social Teaching and Abortion Bans

Given the many shared strengths of RJ and CSJ, do abortion bans align with the principles of CST? When Catholic bishops support legal protections for the unborn, they unfairly undermine the moral agency of pregnant people — many of whom suffer because of the reproductive injustice endemic in our society. CST calls us to demonstrate special concern for the marginalized and poor, and abortion bans disproportionately impact poor pregnant people (Guttmacher Institute 2023). Abortion bans are not mechanisms of support but rather lead to control and incarceration, further eroding trust between pregnant people, law enforcement, and healthcare providers (Goodwin 2020).

By supporting the criminalization of abortion, Catholic bishops have created confusion because CST claims that political persuasion is the best method for securing the common good. The church is not supposed to coerce, but rather persuade (Pope Paul VI 1971). In a pluralist society, conformity to church teaching cannot be the standard for mutual respect in the public square. Regarding the appropriate role of the church with government, Gaudium et Spes declared that the church has “no proper mission in the political, economic, or social order” (1965, no. 42). Further, freedom from coercion in sexual relationships and explicit recognition of the equal rights of women are key components of CST (Pope John XXIII 1963). In Catholic teaching, women do not have instrumental value but rather intrinsic value. Such a claim should inform our approach to reproductive health and justice.

Studies by the Pew Research Center indicate that Catholic views on abortion are not monolithic (2020, 2022). Catholics understand the complexity of the issue and the importance of considering the moral agency of the pregnant person and her unique situation. A majority of Catholics in the pews support legal abortion at least in some cases, and only 1 in 10 believe that abortion should be illegal in all cases (Pew 2022). Catholics understand that coercing pregnant people does not lead to justice. Instead, our Catholic faith compels us to think creatively about how best to accompany pregnant people in difficult discernments while working on social justice initiatives that will transform the structures that undermine women’s full participation in church and society.

Avery, Byllye. 1990. “A Question of Survival/A Conspiracy of Silence: Abortion and Black Women’s Health.” In From Abortion to Reproductive Freedom: Transforming a Movement, edited by Marlene Gerber Fried. Boston: South End Press.

Bruce, Tricia. 2020. How Americans Understand Abortion: A Comprehensive Interview Study of Abortion Attitudes in the U.S. Notre Dame: McGrath Center for Church Life.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2022. “Child Abuse and Neglect.” April 6, 2022.

Coleman-Jensen, Alisha, Matthew P. Rabbit, Christian A. Gregory, and Anita Singh. 2022. “Household Food Security in the United States in 2021.” United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Report No. ERR-309.

Fisher, Bonnie S., Leah E. Daigle, and Francis T. Cullen. 2009. Unsafe in the Ivory Tower: The Sexual Victimization of College Women. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Goodwin, Michelle. 2020. Policing the Womb: Invisible Women and the Criminalization of Motherhood. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Guttmacher Institute. 2023. “Wealth Inequity Puts Abortion Out of Reach.”

Hoyert, Donna. 2022. “Maternal Mortality Rates in the United States: 2020.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

McCabe, Megan. 2018. “A Feminist Catholic Response to the Social Sin of Rape Culture.” Journal of Religious Ethics 46, no. 4: 635-657.

National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. 2020. “Domestic Violence Fact Sheet.”

Pew Research Center. 2020. “8 key findings about Catholics and abortion.”

Pew Research Center. 2022. “America’s Abortion Quandary.”

Pew Research Center. 2022. “Like Americans overall, Catholics vary in their abortion views, with regular Mass attenders most opposed.”

Pope John Paul II. 1995. Evangelium Vitae.

Pope John XXIII. 1963. Pacem in Terris.

Pope Paul VI. 1965. Gaudium et Spes.

Pope Paul VI. 1971. Octogesima Adveniens.

Roberts, Dorothy. 2016. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. New York: Vintage.

Ross, Loretta J., and Rickie Solinger. 2017. Reproductive Justice: An Introduction. Oakland: University of California Press.

Ross, Loretta. 2017. “Conceptualizing Reproductive Justice Theory.” In Radical Reproductive Justice: Foundation, Theory, Practice, Critique, edited by Loretta Ross et al. New York: The Feminist Press.

Silliman, Jael, Marlene Gerber Fried, Loretta Ross, and Elena R. Gutierrez. 2004. Undivided Rights: Women of Color Organize for Reproductive Justice. Chicago: Haymarket.

U.S. Census Bureau. 2018. “Current Population Survey: PINC-05. Work Experience-People 15 Years Old and Over, by Total Money Earnings, Age, Race, Hispanic Origin, Sex, and Disability Status: 2018.”

Washington, Harriet A. 2008. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Anchor.

Emily Reimer-Barry, Ph.D.
Emily Reimer-Barry, Ph.D.

(she/her) is a Catholic moral theologian and associate professor at the University of San Diego. She is writing a book on reproductive justice and the Catholic church.