Soul-Numbing Politics: Playing the Progressive Catholic Card

Frances Kissling

Progressive Catholic electoral activity is yet another example of the dangers of mixing politics and faith.

About two weeks ago I was channel surfing and happened upon
the broadcast of the Archdiocese of New York’s Annual Alfred E. Smith Dinner.
John McCain was just beginning his remarks and the camera panned the long head
table. My jaw dropped as I saw the rather bulky red and black clad figure of
Cardinal Eagan sitting next to the pro-choice Democratic candidate for
president: Barack Obama. I thought back
almost 25 years to the 1984 presidential campaign when Geraldine Ferraro was
banned from the dinner because of her pro-choice views.  I remembered the 2004 Presidential campaign in
which John Kerry’s candidacy led a few bishops to announce that pro-choice
Catholic politicians were not "fit" to receive communion.  It was impossible, they claimed, to be a
Catholic and vote in favor of legal abortion.

The Era Before Kerry

The attempt of some
bishops to apply sanctions under church law to policy makers who vote
pro-choice and the rejection of this strategy by most bishops exposed the long time Achilles heel of church
pronouncements about abortion politics. Of course, the position of the church
on the act of abortion was relatively clear: abortion was wrong in all
circumstances, objectively sinful. If certain conditions were met, the person
who procured the abortion and those who performed the procedure automatically
excommunicated themselves.  But what
about Catholics who neither had nor performed abortions, but supported of its
legality? This included people like Supreme Court Justice Brennan, Senators
Kennedy, Leahy, Mikulski; members of Congress Pelosi, de Lauro, Kucinich, and Catholics who voted these politicians into office. Were they
subject to sanctions and if so which ones?

Almost all church lawyers said "no."  Canon law was narrow and precise and the
canon related to abortion did not apply to these people. Bishops may be
frustrated by the fact that these elected officials visibly thwart the policy
agenda of the institutional church — but how Catholics vote is not genuinely
subject to excommunication or exclusion from the sacraments. Of course, the
governing system of the church is feudal; each bishop is a little prince in his
diocese and can arbitrarily break church law with impunity.

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From Mario Cuomo to John Kerry and now Nancy Pelosi and Joe
Biden, Catholic politicians have made sometimes eloquent, sometimes awkward
cases for why support for legal abortion was consistent with church teaching.
All formally said they accepted church teaching on abortion even when they did
not understand what it was or adopted a somewhat disingenuous understanding for
convenience or casuistic purposes. But they either claimed they had to protect
the right of those in other religions that did not have the same teachings to
practice their religion, or they had to uphold the constitution. Or most
recently, they explain that they believe the best way to prevent abortion is to make it less
necessary, by supporting family planning, economic benefits for women who carry
pregnancies to term and more humane adoption. 

For the most part these tactics worked. Formal sanctions
were almost never imposed. Most Catholic institutions were careful not make
trouble: they did not give honorary degrees to pro-choice Catholic policy
makers, most parishes did not invite these politicians to make speeches on
church property and pro-choice Catholic politicians did not receive awards.
Once in a while, there was an eruption that filled the newspapers. Until 2004, academics,
priests, and influential lay people hid their heads in the sand and said
nothing to defend these policy makers when such eruptions happened in the
liberal Catholic community. They had learned from the 1984 presidential
campaign, when a number of leading Catholic scholars, 24 nuns and four priests
defended Geraldine Ferraro in a full page New York Times ad, that if the church
was going to go after anyone it would go after theologians and nuns and
priests.  The nuns who signed the ad
spent two years fighting Vatican attempts to
get them kicked out of their orders. The theologians found that offers to speak
or teach at Catholic colleges dried up.

Frankly, in that time period the only defender of pro-choice
Catholic policy makers was Catholics for a Free Choice. Of course, at Catholics
for a Free Choice we were frankly and fearlessly pro-choice. And we made no
bones about the fact that we believed it was not only legitimate for Catholics
to believe that abortion should be legal, we also believed it could be and was
moral in a wide range of circumstances. We were out there both politically and
theologically. Our primary loyalty was to the women who face unintended or
unsupportable pregnancies and to supporting their right as moral agents to
decide when abortion would be morally justifiable in their situation.  Any support we could give to politicians
needed to also protect women. There was 
no way we could throw these women to the wolves by claiming that women
did not have a moral right to choose abortion but  politicians and voters had a right to choose
to vote for legal abortion. What hypocrisy that would be!

This position was too tough for most active progressive Catholics
who were working for democratic reforms within the church or for the "big"
social justice issues like peace and economic justice. Some were pro-choice,
but just thought it would compromise their other work to speak out; others were
afraid they would lose their jobs or status, some couldn’t figure out whether
they were for or against abortion and some, a minority in my opinion, were
against legal abortion. In this sense their behavior was more circumspect than
that of Catholics whose identity and work were less connected to the
institutional church. Only a third of the Catholic Members of Congress were
adamantly anti-choice and many of the strongest supporters of
choice were Catholic legislators. Anti-abortionists, for example, were outraged
that at a time when there were only five Catholic Senators, all five voted
against the initial ban on "partial birth abortion."  Later Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan changed
his position; still later, Senator Patrick Leahy changed his.

Among all Catholics, support for the overall
right of women to decide about abortion is comparable to that of non-Catholics. These Catholics are far more progressive on
abortion than the progressive Catholics leaders who maintained silence on the
abortion issue throughout most of the political firestorms and attacks by
bishops on Catholic politicians.

Progressive Catholics Outraged at Threat of Sanctions Against Kerry

The 2004 election changed that. Progressive Catholics were
outraged at the threat of sanctions against Kerry, but more disturbed that the
sanction talk may have contributed to the reelection of Bush, whose positions on
war, poverty and other social justice issues were an affront to Catholic social
teaching and a challenge to the issues these Catholics cared about. They were
also mobilized by the Democratic Party’s newfound interest in religion and
some wanted to be part of the action. In the wake of the 2004 election they met
with Party leaders and joined with progressive evangelicals like Jim Wallis and
others in early efforts organized by the Center for American Progress to engage
center-left religious leaders in support for the Democratic Party and its
social justice agenda.

The progressive evangelicals and Catholics involved in
these efforts were skittish on the Party’s support for abortion rights, but over time independent faith groups developed and found a "middle ground" position: express moral disapproval of abortion and suggest progressive economic approaches to reducing the number of abortions. This strategy has been implemented for the past for years by two Catholic groups that emerged –
Catholics United and Catholics in Alliance
for the Common Good. These groups advertise their acceptance of the church’s
position against abortion and contraception. In the case of Catholics in Alliance, they go further
and say they are for legal protection for the unborn. At the same time, they strongly
promote the idea that Catholics can vote for candidates who are solidly pro-choice.

There is no doubt that these positions are moderately useful
in convincing the very small slice of Catholic voters who would be likely to vote for Democrats except for their position on abortion (probably less than 10% of the Catholic
population) to vote for Democrats. But do these positions serve women,
especially poor women, well, and do they advance the role of Catholics in
reforming the church?

Do Progressive Catholic Groups Advance Church Reform?

The most recent indicators that these groups are more of an
obstacle than a prod for church reform and women’s reproductive choice can be
found in their reactions to statements by Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden about
Catholicism and abortion.

Both Pelosi and Biden made strong statements
defending their stands on choice on Meet the Press, speaking not only as
legislators but as theologically well-educated Catholics.  In answer to a question about when life
begins Biden said: "As a Catholic, I am prepared to accept the teaching of my
church…I’m prepared to accept as a matter of faith that life begins at the
moment of conception." As I listened to Biden I thought I heard a slight
emphasis on the phrase "as a matter of faith." How elegant of Biden: he did not
claim that the idea that life begins at conception is a medical fact.

bishops promptly issued a statement in which they asserted Biden needed to go
further. The idea that life begins at conception is not, they said, just a
matter of faith – it is a "biological
fact:" "When there is a new human organism, embryology textbooks confirm new
life begins at conception."

About a month earlier, just before the Democratic
Convention, Pelosi noted on Meet the Press that "as an ardent practicing
Catholic this is an issue I have studied for a long time. And what I know is
over the centuries the doctors of the church have not been able to make that
definition…St. Augustine
said at three months. We don’t know. The point is that shouldn’t have an impact
on the woman’s right to choose." Pelosi was immediately criticized by the arch
conservative Cardinal of Denver, Charles Chaput, one of those who had suggested
in 2004 that pro-choice Catholic voters
should not receive communion.

One would think that progressive Catholic
leaders working for the inclusion of Catholic social justice values in
electoral discourse would have been delighted at the forthrightness and
intelligence of these pro-choice Catholic policy makers — who both asserted their
duty to serve women’s moral agency (Pelosi) and to respect science and religion
(Biden) and also explained the nuance of Catholic theology which allowed them
to be pro-choice. Instead, the worst form of clericalism emerged. How dare
these Catholics "do theology"; they should stick to politics.  Chris Korzen, the spokesperson for Catholics
United, complained that "there is a
legitimate conversation to be had about how best to translate the teachings of
the Catholic faith into public policy, but as far as the church is concerned
doctrine is off limits."

What then do Korzen and Catholics United think the
role of the faithful is: obedient sheep that blindly follow the bishops? It
would seem so — he went further, saying, "When public officials make
those comments the bishops need to correct their errors." I am left asking,
"What errors? As an educated Catholic with a degree in theology are you trying
to tell Americans that something Pelosi or Biden said was a theological error?
Surely you are too intelligent to believe that Catholics cannot believe that
there is room within the teaching on abortion to allow women to exercise their
moral adulthood and decide whether abortion can ever be a moral choice."

The slavish and inappropriate obeisance that Korzen, show to ultra-orthodox understandings
of church teaching and abortion are unfortunately not limited to that single
issue. Yes, these leaders proudly assert that they want to see abortion
criminalized (Catholics In Alliance for the Common Good website: "CIA is prolife. We support full
legal protection for unborn children as a requirement of social justice and a
matter of essential human rights.") However, they accept that that is not
likely and as an alternative they think it reasonable for policy makers to seek
to reduce the number of abortions by providing economic assistance to women who
continue pregnancies and making adoption easier. What is missing from this
prescription? In spite of the fact that about 95% of Catholics believe that
contraception is moral, these progressive Catholic  groups are so locked into the institutional
church that they cannot support the measure most likely to reduce
abortion: contraception.

This is really soul numbing politics and soul numbing
theology. It is faith in the service of the powerful – in this case good policy
makers. But it is not in service to the millions of women in the US andworld
wide who need their right to decide and to live affirmed. And it is not in
service to the people of God who need their right to do theology, to speak freely
and to dissent from damaging church teachings and policy upheld by those who
would claim moral leadership.

Progressive Catholic electoral activity is yet another
example of the dangers of mixing politics and faith.

Related Posts

News Health Systems

Complaint: Citing Catholic Rules, Doctor Turns Away Bleeding Woman With Dislodged IUD

Amy Littlefield

“It felt heartbreaking,” said Melanie Jones. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

Melanie Jones arrived for her doctor’s appointment bleeding and in pain. Jones, 28, who lives in the Chicago area, had slipped in her bathroom, and suspected the fall had dislodged her copper intrauterine device (IUD).

Her doctor confirmed the IUD was dislodged and had to be removed. But the doctor said she would be unable to remove the IUD, citing Catholic restrictions followed by Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and providers within its system.

“I think my first feeling was shock,” Jones told Rewire in an interview. “I thought that eventually they were going to recognize that my health was the top priority.”

The doctor left Jones to confer with colleagues, before returning to confirm that her “hands [were] tied,” according to two complaints filed by the ACLU of Illinois. Not only could she not help her, the doctor said, but no one in Jones’ health insurance network could remove the IUD, because all of them followed similar restrictions. Mercy, like many Catholic providers, follows directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that restrict access to an array of services, including abortion care, tubal ligations, and contraception.

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Some Catholic providers may get around the rules by purporting to prescribe hormonal contraception for acne or heavy periods, rather than for birth control, but in the case of copper IUDs, there is no such pretext available.

“She told Ms. Jones that that process [of switching networks] would take her a month, and that she should feel fortunate because sometimes switching networks takes up to six months or even a year,” the ACLU of Illinois wrote in a pair of complaints filed in late June.

Jones hadn’t even realized her health-care network was Catholic.

Mercy has about nine off-site locations in the Chicago area, including the Dearborn Station office Jones visited, said Eric Rhodes, senior vice president of administrative and professional services. It is part of Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country.

The ACLU and ACLU of Michigan sued Trinity last year for its “repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.” The lawsuit was dismissed but the ACLU has asked for reconsideration.

In a written statement to Rewire, Mercy said, “Generally, our protocol in caring for a woman with a dislodged or troublesome IUD is to offer to remove it.”

Rhodes said Mercy was reviewing its education process on Catholic directives for physicians and residents.

“That act [of removing an IUD] in itself does not violate the directives,” Marty Folan, Mercy’s director of mission integration, told Rewire.

The number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated has grown by 22 percent over the past 15 years, according to MergerWatch, with one in every six acute care hospital beds now in a Catholic owned or affiliated facility. Women in such hospitals have been turned away while miscarrying and denied tubal ligations.

“We think that people should be aware that they may face limitations on the kind of care they can receive when they go to the doctor based on religious restrictions,” said Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project of the ACLU of Illinois, in a phone interview with Rewire. “It’s really important that the public understand that this is going on and it is going on in a widespread fashion so that people can take whatever steps they need to do to protect themselves.”

Jones left her doctor’s office, still in pain and bleeding. Her options were limited. She couldn’t afford a $1,000 trip to the emergency room, and an urgent care facility was out of the question since her Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois insurance policy would only cover treatment within her network—and she had just been told that her entire network followed Catholic restrictions.

Jones, on the advice of a friend, contacted the ACLU of Illinois. Attorneys there advised Jones to call her insurance company and demand they expedite her network change. After five hours of phone calls, Jones was able to see a doctor who removed her IUD, five days after her initial appointment and almost two weeks after she fell in the bathroom.

Before the IUD was removed, Jones suffered from cramps she compared to those she felt after the IUD was first placed, severe enough that she medicated herself to cope with the pain.

She experienced another feeling after being turned away: stigma.

“It felt heartbreaking,” Jones told Rewire. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”

The ACLU of Illinois has filed two complaints in Jones’ case: one before the Illinois Department of Human Rights and another with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act. Chaiten said it’s clear Jones was discriminated against because of her gender.

“We don’t know what Mercy’s policies are, but I would find it hard to believe that if there were a man who was suffering complications from a vasectomy and came to the emergency room, that they would turn him away,” Chaiten said. “This the equivalent of that, right, this is a woman who had an IUD, and because they couldn’t pretend the purpose of the IUD was something other than pregnancy prevention, they told her, ‘We can’t help you.’”


Tell us your story. Have religious restrictions affected your ability to access health care? Email

Culture & Conversation Media

Filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos Centers Abortion Stories in New Documentary

Renee Bracey Sherman

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric.

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

A new film by producer and director Tracy Droz Tragos, Abortion: Stories Women Tell, profiles several Missouri residents who are forced to drive across the Mississippi River into Illinois for abortion care.

The 93-minute film features interviews with over 20 women who have had or are having abortions, most of whom are Missouri residents traveling to the Hope Clinic in Granite City, Illinois, which is located about 15 minutes from downtown St. Louis.

Like Mississippi, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, Missouri has only one abortion clinic in the entire state.

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The women share their experiences, painting a more nuanced picture that shows why one in three women of reproductive age often seek abortion care in the United States.

The film arrives at a time when personal stories are center stage in the national conversation about abortion, including in the most recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, and rightly so. The people who actually have and provide abortions should be driving the narrative, not misinformation and political rhetoric. But while I commend recent efforts by filmmakers like Droz Tragos and others to center abortion stories in their projects, these creators still have far to go when it comes to presenting a truly diverse cadre of storytellers if they really want to shift the conversation around abortion and break down reproductive stigma.

In the wake of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, which was at the heart of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt Supreme Court case, Droz Tragos, a Missouri native, said in a press statement she felt compelled to document how her home state has been eroding access to reproductive health care. In total, Droz Tragos interviewed 81 people with a spectrum of experiences to show viewers a fuller picture of the barriersincluding legislation and stigmathat affect people seeking abortion care.

Similar to HBO documentaries about abortion that have come before it—including 12th & Delaware and Abortion: Desperate ChoicesAbortion: Stories Women Tell involves short interviews with women who are having and have had abortions, conversations with the staff of the Hope Clinic about why they do the work they do, interviews with local anti-choice organizers, and footage of anti-choice protesters shouting at patients, along with beautiful shots of the Midwest landscape and the Mississippi River as patients make road trips to appointments. There are scenes of clinic escorts holding their ground as anti-choice protesters yell Bible passages and obscenities at them. One older clinic escort carries a copy of Living in the Crosshairs as a protester follows her to her car, shouting. The escort later shares her abortion story.

One of the main storytellers, Amie, is a white 30-year-old divorced mother of two living in Boonville, Missouri. She travels over 100 miles each way to the Hope Clinic, and the film chronicles her experience in getting an abortion and follow-up care. Almost two-thirds of people seeking abortions, like Amie, are already a parent. Amie says that the economic challenges of raising her other children make continuing the pregnancy nearly impossible. She describes being physically unable to carry a baby and work her 70 to 90 hours a week. Like many of the storytellers in the film, Amie talks about the internalized stigma she’s feeling, the lack of support she has from loved ones, and the fear of family members finding out. She’s resilient and determined; a powerful voice.

The film also follows Kathy, an anti-choice activist from Bloomfield, Missouri, who says she was “almost aborted,” and that she found her calling in the anti-choice movement when she noticed “Anne” in the middle of the name “Planned Parenthood.” Anne is Kathy’s middle name.

“OK Lord, are you telling me that I need to get in the middle of this?” she recalls thinking.

The filmmakers interview the staff of the Hope Clinic, including Dr. Erin King, a pregnant abortion provider who moved from Chicago to Granite City to provide care and who deals with the all-too-common protesting of her home and workplace. They speak to Barb, a talkative nurse who had an abortion 40 years earlier because her nursing school wouldn’t have let her finish her degree while she was pregnant. And Chi Chi, a security guard at the Hope Clinic who is shown talking back to the protesters judging patients as they walk into the clinic, also shares her abortion story later in the film. These stories remind us that people who have abortions are on the frontlines of this work, fighting to defend access to care.

To address the full spectrum of pregnancy experiences, the film also features the stories of a few who, for various reasons, placed their children for adoption or continued to parent. While the filmmakers interview Alexis, a pregnant Black high school student whose mother died when she was 8 years old, classmates can be heard in the distance tormenting her, asking if she’s on the MTV reality show 16 and Pregnant. She’s visibly distraught and crying, illustrating the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” conundrum women of color experiencing unintended pregnancy often face.

Te’Aundra, another young Black woman, shares her story of becoming pregnant just as she received a college basketball scholarship. She was forced to turn down the scholarship and sought an adoption, but the adoption agency refused to help her since the child’s father wouldn’t agree to it. She says she would have had an abortion if she could start over again.

While anti-choice rhetoric has conflated adoption as the automatic abortion alternative, research has shown that most seeking adoption are personally debating between adoption and parenting. This is illustrated in Janet’s story, a woman with a drug addiction who was raising one child with her partner, but wasn’t able to raise a second, so she sought an adoption. These stories are examples of the many societal systems failing those who choose adoption or students raising families, in addition to those fighting barriers to abortion access.

At times, the film feels repetitive and disjointed, but the stories are powerful. The range of experiences and reasons for having an abortion (or seeking adoption) bring to life the data points too often ignored by politicians and the media: everything from economic instability and fetal health, to domestic violence and desire to finish an education. The majority of abortion stories featured were shared by those who already had children. Their stories had a recurring theme of loneliness and lack of support from their loved ones and friends at a time when they needed it. Research has shown that 66 percent of people who have abortions tend to only tell 1.24 people about their experience, leaving them keeping a secret for fear of judgment and shame.

While many cite financial issues when paying for abortions or as the reason for not continuing the pregnancy, the film doesn’t go in depth about how the patients come to pay for their abortions—which is something my employer, the National Network for Abortion Funds (NNAF), directly addresses—or the systemic issues that created their financial situations.

However, it brings to light the hypocrisy of our nation, where the invisible hand of our society’s lack of respect for pregnant people and working parents can force people to make pregnancy decisions based on economic situations rather than a desire to be pregnant or parent.

“I’m not just doing this for me” is a common phrase when citing having an abortion for existing or future children.

Overall, the film is moving simply because abortion stories are moving, especially for audiences who don’t have the opportunity to have someone share their abortion story with them personally. I have been sharing my abortion story for five years and hearing someone share their story with me always feels like a gift. I heard parts of my own story in those shared; however, I felt underrepresented in this film that took place partly in my home state of Illinois. While people of color are present in the film in different capacities, a racial analysis around the issues covered in the film is non-existent.

Race is a huge factor when it comes to access to contraception and reproductive health care; over 60 percent of people who have abortions are people of color. Yet, it took 40 minutes for a person of color to share an abortion story. It seemed that five people of color’s abortion stories were shown out of the over 20 stories, but without actual demographic data, I cannot confirm how all the film’s storytellers identify racially. (HBO was not able to provide the demographic data of the storytellers featured in the film by press time.)

It’s true that racism mixed with sexism and abortion stigma make it more difficult for people of color to speak openly about their abortion stories, but continued lack of visual representation perpetuates that cycle. At a time when abortion storytellers themselves, like those of NNAF’s We Testify program, are trying to make more visible a multitude of identities based on race, sexuality, immigration status, ability, and economic status, it’s difficult to give a ringing endorsement of a film that minimizes our stories and relegates us to the second half of a film, or in the cases of some of these identities, nowhere at all. When will we become the central characters that reality and data show that we are?

In July, at the progressive conference Netroots Nation, the film was screened followed by an all-white panel discussion. I remember feeling frustrated at the time, both because of the lack of people of color on the panel and because I had planned on seeing the film before learning about a march led by activists from Hands Up United and the Organization for Black Struggle. There was a moment in which I felt like I had to choose between my Blackness and my abortion experience. I chose my Black womanhood and marched with local activists, who under the Black Lives Matter banner have centered intersectionality. My hope is that soon I won’t have to make these decisions in the fight for abortion rights; a fight where people of color are the backbone whether we’re featured prominently in films or not.

The film highlights the violent rhetoric anti-choice protesters use to demean those seeking abortions, but doesn’t dissect the deeply racist and abhorrent comments, often hurled at patients of color by older white protesters. These racist and sexist comments are what fuel much of the stigma that allows discriminatory laws, such as those banning so-called race- and sex-selective abortions, to flourish.

As I finished the documentary, I remembered a quote Chelsea, a white Christian woman who chose an abortion when her baby’s skull stopped developing above the eyes, said: “Knowing you’re not alone is the most important thing.”

In her case, her pastor supported her and her husband’s decision and prayed over them at the church. She seemed at peace with her decision to seek abortion because she had the support system she desired. Perhaps upon seeing the film, some will realize that all pregnancy decisions can be quite isolating and lonely, and we should show each other a bit more compassion when making them.

My hope is that the film reaches others who’ve had abortions and reminds them that they aren’t alone, whether they see themselves truly represented or not. That we who choose abortion are normal, loved, and supported. And that’s the main point of the film, isn’t it?

Abortion: Stories Women Tell is available in theaters in select cities and will be available on HBO in 2017.


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