Letters & Op-Eds 2011
Religion Dispatches

Where’s the Catholic ‘Conscience’ in Opposition to Planned Parenthood?

In 1970, President Richard Nixon placed such a high priority on family planning that he approved the Title X program to make contraception available to low-income women. Another prominent Republican supporter of the policy, the future President George H.W. Bush, said at the time, “We need to take sensationalism out of this topic so that it can no longer be used by militants who have no real knowledge of the voluntary nature of the program but, rather are using it as a political steppingstone.”


Between then and now, however, a lot changed—and nothing changed. Title X funding steadily grew over the years to go some way towards meeting the comprehensive reproductive health needs of low-income women. But, as made evident by Republican efforts—with the full support of representatives from the United States Conference of Catholics Bishops—to cut off Title X funding in the 2011 budget, it appears that conservative legislators don’t seem to understand that in 2008, Title X services helped 4.7 million women access family planning services.


Millions more received HIV testing, cervical cancer screening and other health services that were, in many cases, the only healthcare they received. Did they truly believe that low-income couples should be left without any means to plan their families, or that essential services would be picked up by shrinking state Medicaid budgets? I think it is more likely that clever political maneuvering has succeeded in hanging contraception with a scarlet letter so that policymakers now fear that being associated with it will alienate part of their constituency.


The reality is that choosing how many children to have, and when to have them, is an intimate decision made by women who, as moral agents, know what is best for themselves and their families. Many have now grown up in an America where reproductive freedom and religious freedom are intimately connected and fundamentally protected. For Catholics, the injunction to respect others’ beliefs is reinforced by the Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, which tells us that “in spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion.”


The Catholic tradition also promotes the primacy of conscience, and thus that every person has the right to make choices according to that conscience. The majority of Catholics also want their lawmakers serving individual constituents, not the bishops, so with 98 percent of Catholic women having used a type of birth control forbidden by the Vatican, who is being served by the three bills limiting reproductive freedom currently before Congress? (For that reason, I was delighted to see so many Catholic state legislators sign onto an open letter to Congress that opposed cuts in funding for family planning.)


By ratcheting up the ideological heat associated with family planning, conservatives have succeeded in making it politically dangerous to support funding for family planning services that, according to the Guttmacher Institute, prevented 973,000 unintended pregnancies that would have resulted in 433,000 unplanned births and 406,000 abortions in 2008. Meanwhile, what will happen to the low-income women currently served by Title X? We need look no further than the many nations in Latin America where women’s reproductive rights vary by class.


In almost all Latin American countries, contraception is not widely available and abortion is highly restricted or illegal—officially. In reality, almost any service is available for women with the money to pay for it, which creates a society where only some women are able to act as moral agents. When women are denied reproductive rights based on income, we see poor women with high rates of unplanned pregnancy, mortality from unsafe abortions, and empty promises from conservative lawmakers that don’t translate into a real commitment to poor families. Women of means can afford to purchase safe services outside the law, but poor women don’t have the same escape valve to help them as they seek to live their lives according to their consciences.


Differential access to reproductive health services doesn’t work, and is the opposite of Catholicism’s “preferential option for the poor.” By serving the uninsured, the homeless and the vulnerable, Title X clinics are already on the public health front lines. Stripping them from the landscape will turn many communities into a reproductive health frontier where abortions, legal or illegal, become the only means a woman has for controlling her reproductive destiny, resulting in more abortions every year—not a campaign promise that conservatives were open about.


What other policy items will become “scarlet”—too ideologically loaded to talk about in practical terms? Restrictive legislation has been pushed into center stage in Congress in part thanks to the rhetoric used by people like Tom Grenchik, the executive director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Grenchik recently issued a special briefing to excoriate the services Planned Parenthood offers low-income women and attack Sen. Harry Reid for saying the Senate wouldn’t go along with the attempt to totally de-fund Planned Parenthood. Such talk has little to offer the thousands of women who rely on federally-funded reproductive health services. (Not all conservatives were on the same page—the notorious funder of a plethora of right-wing causes, Richard M. Scaife, placed an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review—which he owns—bemoaning the short-sightedness of this latter move.)


There will always be some cooler heads in Congress who are not afraid to handle a hot topic—oftentimes they are Catholic. In a letter to leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), a Catholic, said, “I believe Planned Parenthood provides vital services to those in need and disagree with their funding cuts in the bill.” Getting a birth control prescription filled, going for a yearly OB-GYN exam—these are the quiet acts that make up everyday life lived according to conscience. Title X is one of the successful federal programs in tune with the small, crucial decisions important to low-income families’ lives. Block access to these actions based on income, and you will see something sensational; exactly what Nixon, the Republican family planning advocate, deplored: dramatic health disparities that no lawmaker of any ideology should find acceptable.


This was originally published by Religion Dispatches.

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