How Many Priests Does It Take to Release An Election Statement?

Frances Kissling

Frances Kissling is President of Catholics for a Free Choice.

Priests for Life claims to be "the nation's largest Catholic pro-life organization." However, in 2000, the group claimed a mere 13% of the nation's priests as members. Today, it reports no membership income on its tax returns and has lost even more ground among priests.

After more than 15 years trying vainly to grow his Catholic antichoice group into the mass clerical movement envisioned in its rhetoric, its leader, Frank Pavone, now finds himself banished to a Texan wasteland and able to count on a mere 2.5 percent of the nation's priests (some 1,000) as supporters.

His hagiographic campaigning style, with unapologetic electoral campaigning, and unabashed cooperation with some of the most militant antichoice figures, has led him from New York to Amarillo, Texas, where he broke ground on a seminary for his new order of priests, Missionaries of the Gospel of Life. On the same day, the Religion News Service reported the new order had only one member, Pavone himself.

Frances Kissling is President of Catholics for a Free Choice.

Priests for Life claims to be "the nation's largest Catholic pro-life organization." However, in 2000, the group claimed a mere 13% of the nation's priests as members. Today, it reports no membership income on its tax returns and has lost even more ground among priests.

After more than 15 years trying vainly to grow his Catholic antichoice group into the mass clerical movement envisioned in its rhetoric, its leader, Frank Pavone, now finds himself banished to a Texan wasteland and able to count on a mere 2.5 percent of the nation's priests (some 1,000) as supporters.

His hagiographic campaigning style, with unapologetic electoral campaigning, and unabashed cooperation with some of the most militant antichoice figures, has led him from New York to Amarillo, Texas, where he broke ground on a seminary for his new order of priests, Missionaries of the Gospel of Life. On the same day, the Religion News Service reported the new order had only one member, Pavone himself.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Now, less than a week before the 2006 elections, when one would more normally expect to hear Pavone claiming imminent victory for antiabortion candidates, he is instead proudly asserting that "more than 1,000 priests" (read 1,000 plus himself, maybe) have signed onto an innocuous statement parroting past statements from the US Catholic bishops about the importance of participating in elections and "building a culture of life." With some 42,000 priests in the U.S., this means Father Frank was able to garner the support of just 2.5 percent of Catholic priests. And there I was, thinking that all priests were "prolife."

Pavone has clearly fallen on hard times, far from the lofty rhetoric with which he is more normally associated.

A new report from Catholics for a Free Choice examines how PFL's electioneering and unwavering loyalties to Republican conservative positions appear at times to outweigh its obedience to the Vatican, and certainly contravene directly Internal Revenue Service guidelines on such activity by tax-exempt nonprofits. Read the report here.

Culture & Conversation Media

It Shouldn’t Take a Superhero to Access Abortion Care in Prison, But in ‘Jessica Jones’ It Does

Renee Bracey Sherman

Critics have hailed the show for its realistic feminist-leaning plot lines and discussions of sexual consent, rape, and addiction. But while the show offers a depiction of a confident abortion decision, the reality of the situation is pure fiction.

This piece is published in collaboration with Echoing Ida, a Forward Together project.

The protagonist of Netflix’s Jessica Jones series is a former superhero with extreme strength who is trying to make it as a freelance private investigator in New York City. Played by Krysten Ritter, Jones is a cynical and whip-smart character who self-medicates with alcohol as she attempts to destroy her mind-controlling arch nemesis, Kilgrave (David Tennant).

Critics have hailed the show for its realistic feminist-leaning plot lines and discussions of sexual consent, rape, and addiction. But while the show depicts a confident abortion decision, the reality of the situation is pure fiction.

In the sixth episode, titled “AKA You’re A Winner!” Jones is called to a local jail after hearing that a young woman she rescued from Kilgrave, Hope Schlottman, was beaten by another incarcerated woman. Jones learns Schlottman paid the woman “$50 and a pack of smokes” in hopes of forcing a miscarriage because she was pregnant by Kilgrave. (Viewers learned in earlier episodes Kilgrave had taken Schlottman under his control—along with other women, including Jones—forcing her into sexual acts and to murder her parents, for which she was in jail.)

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“I’m pregnant … still,” she tells Jones. “I can feel it growing in me, like a tumor.” Schlottman says she wants an abortion but a provider cannot see her for at least two months. She tells Jones that she will pay for additional beatings until she terminates the pregnancy.

“Every second it’s there, I get raped again and again,” Schlottman says, adding, “I wanna live. I wanna have children, but I won’t give life to this thing. I won’t do it.”

Jones works with Schlottman’s lawyer to obtain an abortion pill. When presenting Schlottman with the pill, Jones tells her, “Once you take this there’s no do-overs. You’ll be sick as shit for about eight hours so I need you to be 1,000 percent sure.” Schlottman grabs and swallows the pill before Jones can finish her statement to show how sure she is, muttering, “Please work fast. Please work fast.” The show later depicts Schlottman cramping in her hospital bed as the abortion completes.

While the show does depict a young woman who is confident and determined to end her pregnancy, and who is able to access a medication abortion with the assistance of a superhero, for incarcerated people, this is not nearly the case.

One in 25 women at state prisons and one in 33 women in federal prisons are pregnant at the time they are admitted, according to the Sentencing Project. Like Schlottman, some will seek an abortion. While a set of court cases show how the constitutional right to abortion in the United States applies to people incarcerated, that hasn’t ended the barriers to accessing care. Many barriers are similar to the ones people outside prison face when seeking care, such as mandatory delays, financial hurdles, and transportation challenges, especially when multiple trips to a clinic are mandated under state law, Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, an OB-GYN who works with incarcerated women, told Rewire in an email.

But other barriers, she continued, are manufactured by local sheriffs and administrators, including requiring the cost of transportation and security to be paid up front, demanding additional administrative bureaucracy and court orders, and having incarcerated women cover the cost of the procedure due to the Hyde Amendment and the burden of Medicaid health-care costs shifting to the correctional facility. Women in prison also are more likely to experience unexpected delays and costs, as well as an overall loss of privacy during their decision.

Because courts and prison administrators view abortion as an elective medical care, it is subject to stigmatizing rules, which delay access and increase costs. Some incarcerated people call the American Civil Liberties Union to help expedite the legal process, or the National Network of Abortion Funds, where I work, for funding assistance, but only if they know that’s an option.

But back to Jessica Jones: At the end of the first season, the writers elevate one of the many false tropes about women seeking abortions in media when Schlottman dies by suicide.

More than 15 percent of women depicted in abortion story lines die after choosing to terminate, and 11 percent of those die by suicide, according to a study by the University of California, which looked at film and television from 1916 to 2013. Even when the deaths are not explicitly tied to the characters’ abortion decisions, this pattern reinforces the false narrative that people choosing the procedure experience negative mental health outcomes related to those decisions—rather than, for example, negative outcomes because of their circumstances created by unjust systems and anti-choice legislation—and deserve violence.

All of these circumstances make the depiction of abortion on Jessica Jones implausible. In reality, incarcerated people have a very difficult time accessing abortion care, particularly medication abortions.

Dr. Sufrin explained that the experience of a medication abortion in prison wouldn’t be as pleasant in real life as it is depicted in Jessica Jones.

“[I]t is highly unlikely that a prison or jail will have a provider who is certified to dispense mifepristone, which requires a special dispensing agreement with the manufacturer, and even more unlikely that the facility would stock the medications for medical abortion on site,” said Dr. Sufrin. “What’s more, medical abortion requires at least two visits to a clinic, the first to take the medications and the second for follow-up to confirm the pregnancy has passed. Each trip off-site to a clinic involves extra logistics and staff to transport the woman.”

Dr. Sufrin added that many prisons ration pads, tampons, and pain medication an incarcerated person can have, thus the pregnant person might not receive enough for the bleeding and cramping they’d experience during an abortion. Additionally, incarcerated people seeking a medication abortion are often afforded less privacy because there is no space for them to complete the abortion within the prison, unlike in a clinic for a surgical abortion, Dr. Monica McLemore, assistant professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Nursing, told Rewire.

“[M]edication abortion isn’t really offered as an option because of logistical space issues and ability for pain management, comfort care, and sanitary supplies in the jail,” she said.

“Medical abortion is practically just not a great option for incarcerated women,” said Dr. Sufrin.

The type of correctional facility in which an incarcerated person is held also makes a difference in the care they are able to receive, said Dr. McLemore. She explained that in California, access to an abortion while incarcerated is dependent on whether someone is housed in a public facility where the health services are run by the state health department, or a private facility where the services are privately contracted out.

“In our experience, getting women second-trimester abortions is very difficult at Santa Rita [a private prison] because of delays related to dealing with Corizon [the company with whom the health-care services are contracted],” said Dr. McLemore.

She recently supported a patient who wanted to terminate her pregnancy when she was around 18 weeks, Dr. McLemore said, but was forced to wait until her release over a month later to actually have her abortion.

Being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy longer than one wants, or to term, can have negative impacts on mental health for anyone, especially an incarcerated person without adequate access to health care and mental health services. Unsurprisingly, a recently released report, called Who Pays? The True Cost of Incarceration on Families, found a majority of the incarcerated people surveyed experienced negative health impacts associated with being in prison. This can be compounded by the experience of not receiving urgent medical care there. Even in cases where the incarcerated person wants to carry the pregnancy to term, they are often denied basic prenatal care to ensure a healthy pregnancy and child.

Serious changes are needed to ensure all incarcerated people receive comprehensive and compassionate health care while in prison, including abortion care. Dr. McLemore said she’d like to see more sheriffs trained on reproductive and gynecological care and the role staff plays in patients receiving it while in custody. Health care should not be dependent on whether a correctional facility’s health system is privately contracted or not, she added.

Similarly, Dr. Sufrin would like to challenge the notion of “elective” and “medically indicated” abortions within the prison system. “An elective procedure is one that can be delayed indefinitely without a significant impact on someone’s life or healthwhich is clearly not the case for pregnancy,” she said. “And when you have women who are not able to access abortions by virtue of being incarcerated, then they are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies as part of their punishment.”

Simply put: It shouldn’t take a superhero to get an abortion in prison.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up this issue. In fact, a set of lower court cases show the constitutional right to abortion in the United States applies to people incarcerated. We regret the error.

Analysis Religion

Pope Francis’ ‘Synod on the Family’ Raises Hope, But Fails to Deliver Change

Martha Kempner

The two-week meeting in the Vatican inspired optimism about the Catholic Church's future teachings, but in the end, it was "much ado about nothing."

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has been making headlines for his seemingly progressive statements on a number of social issues. He suggested, for example, that God looks at a gay person with love; he also told the United States Catholic Church to stop spending so much time talking about birth control and abortion. And just this week, for that matter, he appeared to say that the theories of the Big Bang and evolution are not inconsistent with the Bible’s story of how the world came to be.

This progressive tone, along with certain well-publicized acts of humility, such as his decision to live in the Vatican’s guest suite rather than the Papal apartments or his trips to visit the poor dressed simply as a priest, has made many people hopeful that he would usher in new, more liberal doctrines during his papacy. Unfortunately, such concrete changes have yet to emerge—and the results of a recent two-week meeting between Pope Francis and trusted advisors seem to continue the trend of inaction.

Called the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, the fortnight-long gathering last month to discuss topics such as family planning and marriage equality certainly seemed like it could be an important turning point. In 1965, Pope Paul VI set up the Synod to “make greater use of the bishops’ assistance in providing for the good of the universal Church” and to enjoy “the consolation of their presence, the help of their wisdom and experience, the support of their counsel, and the voice of their authority.”

The Pope calls an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod when there is an issue that requires immediate attention and demands a speedy solution, although participants in the synod itself do not have the power to enact any changes. At its conclusion, the Synod fathers release a paper that is meant to provide guidance to the Pope, but not to issue a decree on any doctrines. Moreover, the Synod is meant to act as the start of two years of discussions in parishes across the world, rather than the final word on any topic. Still, many progressives were optimistic that this year’s Synod would spark vital, perhaps even transformative, conversations regarding the Church’s stance on everyday realities for many Catholics.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

This Synod, nicknamed “Synod on the Family” for the topics of discussion, took place from October 5 through October 18. Its 253 participants included men, women, and married couples, in addition to cardinals, bishops, priests, and representatives from other Christian denominations. Out of the 253 attendees, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Catholics for Choice, 192 are considered Synod fathers, most of whom have the right to vote. Only 25 participants in the synod were women; none of them were voting members, though they could engage in discussions.

As expected based on previous Vatican announcements, the Synod discussed the matters of divorce and remarriage in the church, annulments, cohabitation before marriage, marriage equality, birth control, and who can receive communion. Midway through the two-week meeting, a committee picked by Pope Francis released a preliminary report that had hopes in the media and among progressive Catholics soaring even higher. The draft talked, for example, of welcoming gay people and said that they had “gifts and qualities to offer the Christian community;” it also noted that some gay people provide “precious support in the lives of their partners.” The 12-page report also said that pastors should recognize there are “positive aspects to civil unions and cohabitation.”

An article in the New York Times said the report might be “the first signal that the institutional church might follow the direction Francis has set in his first 18 months of the papacy, away from condemnation of unconventional family situation and toward understanding, openness, and mercy.”

Still, not everyone was convinced. Jon O’Brien, president of Catholics for Choice, told Rewire in a conversation after the Synod ended that the suggestion that anything major was going to change at the end of the two weeks had showed an overabundance of optimism. “I don’t like raining on people’s parade, and people are very hopey-changey, but really, it’s all much ado about nothing,” he said.

O’Brien said he had concerns about the warm take on gay parishioners that seemed so apparent in the preliminary document, primarily because such language “doesn’t mean that hierarchy are no longer equating gay with a sin.” He offered this analogy: “If your pastoral situation is ‘Hey, let me give you a hug’ and your interpretation of doctrine is that the person you’re hugging is a sinner, it’s like asking someone over for dinner and telling them they can’t eat.”

He also hadn’t expected the undertaking to get far at the Synod, because in the end, “Bishops’ conferences are more political than pastoral.”

O’Brien was correct: After attendees heavily debated the preliminary document and leadership made changes to the committee in charge of writing the report, the end result was something far less revolutionary. The welcoming tones with which the initial report discussed gay people, for instance, were replaced with phrasing right out of the catechism stating simply that they must be met with “respect and sensitivity.” In addition, the bishops voted against any changes to language around divorce and civil unions.

The final report also discussed birth control. And, not surprisingly to O’Brien, nothing changed here either. “To some degree,” he said in choosing these topics, the church “admitted what is going on in the real world—violence against women, many marriages ending in divorce but few in annulment, most Catholic women using birth control.” In fact, a preparatory document released by the Vatican before the meeting noted that “even when the Church’s teaching about marriage and the family is known, many Christians have difficulty accepting it in its entirety.”

But acknowledging the problem does not mean working on a solution. O’Brien feels that the bishops’ take on birth control in the report essentially constituted an admission that no one is listening to them on this issue. However, he notes, the bishops chose to instantly reframe the topic, focusing on their fears of shrinking birth rates in some areas. In the end, the Synod fathers reaffirmed natural family planning, the importance of married couples being always open to new life, and the restriction on modern methods of birth control from Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae.

Despite this apparent setback, O’Brien believes that the Synod’s apparent reluctance to change should be a rallying cry for those who want to see progress in the church. He reiterated that the 253 members of the Synod do not necessarily speak for everyday Catholics. “The report is the bishops’ interpretation, and what the bishops think is not what Catholics think or do, the church is not the bishops, the Church is all of the people,” he said.

With that in mind, he said, “It’s business as usual in the Vatican. The idea that we’re going to be rescued by some super Pope, or by a meeting of men who have a vested interest in the institution not changing, is unreasonable. We have to get out there and do the work,” he said. “There’s nothing in the deliberations of the Synod that suggests we don’t have to work harder and better and smarter, standing up here and internationally, for change.”