Letters & Op-Eds 2013

Roe v. Wade’s ideals are Rhode Island’s

As we welcome the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, of Jan. 22, 1973, and begin the 2013 legislative session in Rhode Island, it appears that the more things have changed, the more things have stayed the same.

During the late 1980s, when I, a Catholic, was a Rhode Island Democratic state representative, a woman from Providence named Mary Ann Sorrentino was castigated for her work and her beliefs — at church. A lifelong and dedicated Catholic, Ms. Sorrentino was a vocal supporter of reproductive rights and a Planned Parenthood employee. She spoke for the many Catholics across the Ocean State who, like her, embraced the many Catholic women served by her organization.

Ms. Sorrentino’s parish priest denounced her as a “liberal and a pusher” and refused her Communion. He later demanded a private meeting with her daughter to grill the teenager about her political beliefs before he would let her be confirmed. Had he asked more Catholics, he would have found then, as now, that most of us are pro-choice.

A small group of Catholics — certain that they have a right to determine when, whether and with whom others may have children — now lead the charge against abortion without looking back to see how few followers they have. But the majority of Catholics do support access to reproductive health services and use these services at the same rates as do other Americans. Their convictions are deep and authentically Catholic.

Defying the Catholic teaching on primacy of conscience, clergy sometimes demand that Catholic public servants, including those in the Rhode Island House, state Senate and Congress, vote a certain way as a condition of receiving the sacraments. For instance, when Bishop Thomas Tobin disagreed with Rep. Patrick Kennedy’s stance on abortion coverage under the Affordable Care Act, Kennedy was told to stop taking Communion. So when Catholic policymakers are considering how to vote, when their primary concern should be doing what’s right for their constituents, these legislators often wonder if they will be next in the hot seat.

Still, Catholic public figures in Rhode Island uphold women’s autonomy because of their faith, not in spite of it. Catholics in the state, like Catholics throughout the U.S., continue to support safe, legal abortion access for themselves and their neighbors, and Catholic health-care professionals provide comprehensive health care, including abortion. This support for personal agency, even at the risk of condemnation by the church, is as Rhode Island as Del’s Lemonade.

Rhode Island was founded under a just doctrine: that individuals have the right to determine the course of their lives according to their personal beliefs. In this state there should be no question: Every woman has the right to decide the future of her pregnancy according to her conscience, whatever her reasons or circumstances. A just society simply does not compel women to continue an undesired pregnancy.

Rhode Islanders of every faith and no faith can appreciate the profound moral case for reproductive choice. Catholics should be able to recognize our tradition’s respect for conscience in the argument. There is no reason to let one narrow interpretation of one religious tradition run roughshod over the religious beliefs and health-care needs of everyone in Rhode Island. Roger Williams, that early proponent of religious freedom, would have it no other way.

The best way to celebrate Roe is to remember that choice isn’t a done deal. Rhode Island’s citizens need access to good care if their choice is to be meaningful.

Women stand to lose the most in the General Assembly because of the activities of politicians out of touch with citizens’ values and in too close touch with a religious lobby.

As long as there are Rhode Islanders who value women’s autonomy and true religious liberty, no matter the bullying from pulpit or politics, I remain convinced that choice will endure.

Neil A. Corkery is on the board of Catholics for Choice.

This op-ed was originally published by the Providence Journal.

Catholics for Choice