Letters & Op-Eds 2013
Albany Times Union

Respect women’s autonomy

Gov. Andrew Cuomo designated women’s equality as one of his top legislative priorities. There should be nothing controversial about promoting equal pay, fighting domestic violence and human trafficking, or affirming that a woman should be able to make her own reproductive health decisions.
Yet the governor’s action has sparked a furious response from the New York’s Catholic bishops, who argue that access to comprehensive reproductive health services has no place in a discussion about women’s health and well-being.

Catholic values, however, say otherwise, and the bishops’ claims are not consistent with the way that most Catholics, in good faith, live their lives.
New York is home to some 7.4 million Catholics. Its lawmakers would be well-advised to pay heed if the allegation that Catholics would oppose any such legislation were true. But just because the bishops say Catholics oppose reproductive health services does not make it so. In fact, the opposite is true.

Catholics can, and do, support reproductive health access, including the right to access an abortion. The majority of New York Catholics — 72 percent according to a new Siena Research Institute poll—disagree with bishops.
The bishops’ lobbying efforts may give them better media reach than the typical Catholic, but the bishops only account for about two dozen votes. In matters of public policy, this distinction is particularly important, as Catholics do not vote as their bishops instruct them to do. For example, New Yorkers of all faiths and no faith recently rejected the hierarchy’s attempts to tell them to oppose gay marriage.

This independence in the voting booth and in the Legislature is in keeping with a national survey about Catholics’ attitudes towards the hierarchy’s political involvement. The poll, sponsored in late 2012 by Catholics for Choice and the American Civil Liberties Union, revealed that four out of five Catholic voters questioned did not feel obligated to vote according to the bishops’ recommendations. Seventy-six percent did not believe Catholic politicians must vote according to the bishops’ demands.

Abortion and same-sex marriage were the two lowest priorities for Catholic voters, despite the Catholic hierarchy’s media blitz on these two issues. In fact, the vast majority of Catholics can see situations when abortion should be legal, in fact want it to be so. This is hardly surprising, as Catholic women access abortion services at the same rate as do other Americans.

The Catholic tradition holds that the conscience is the individual’s moral compass. This inner wisdom is a great equalizing factor because each individual possesses one, and every belief system, religious or secular, recognizes the concept. The fact that each person must obey their own conscience is one of the reasons why personal autonomy cannot be measured in increments.

Gender inequality can be seen, as Governor Cuomo pointed out, in many different areas. But discounting a woman’s ability to make reproductive decisions for herself is a complete negation of her conscience and potentially her well-being.

The Catholic hierarchy’s blind spot on reproductive health is directly in conflict with the Catholic social justice tradition, which would have us understand and tend to the needs of every member of society, especially the most vulnerable.

Ultimately, the New York State Catholic Conference cannot strong-arm anyone’s conscience about reproductive health decisions or any other matter. All it can do is muddy the discourse, with the hope of convincing the public of its dubious thesis that prohibiting certain health decisions like abortion is ultimately in the best interests of women, their dignity and their well-being.

New Yorkers of all beliefs can be counted upon to see that Cuomo’s understanding of women’s equality and autonomy is the right way to go. I trust that policymakers will make the same judgment.

This piece was originally published by the Albany Times Union.

Catholics for Choice