News Abortion

Congratulations! You’re Forgiven!

Robin Marty

Have you had an abortion?   Better head to a priest, quickly!

Worried about being excommunicated over a prior abortion?  Never fear, priests are standing by, ready to forgive you!

But you’d better hurry to World Youth Day in Madrid, because this is a limited time offer.

Via the Detroit News:

“Most people know it is a sin but many would not know it is also an excommunicable offense,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “In order to be excommunicated, you have to know it is an excommunicable offense before the abortion takes place. If you don’t, you are not excommunicated.

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“If you know it and do it anyway, then you must go to confession to a priest who has the authority from the bishop to lift the excommunication.”

At World Youth Day, the bishop has given authority to priests hearing confessions to lift the excommunication.

Not able to make it to Spain?  It appears local priests are able to give absolution now, too, as long as the woman confesses, admits that she “took an innocent human life,” and appears truly sorry.

Commentary Religion

Shaming Women About Having Sex Doesn’t Stop Us From Having Sex

Emma Akpan

Abstinence is a spiritual practice, and it is a fine one, but all of us do not have to adopt such a practice in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

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

I ask about 100 people, either by phone or by knocking on doors, the same question each week as an organizer at a reproductive health nonprofit.

“Are you a supporter of women’s health services such as breast cancer screenings and birth control?” I say. Typically people will tell me “sure,” say they aren’t interested in taking my survey, or tell me that they are already strong supporters of the movement and will fill out whatever I have for them that day.

One particular morning while out canvassing, I knocked on a door and a woman answered. After running through my usual spiel, I was taken aback by her answer. “No, I practice abstinent sex and depend on the Lord for my health services,” she told me.

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I smirked to myself as I tried to interpret “abstinent sex,” which I assumed meant that she is celibate now to strengthen her spirituality.

But then I remembered she sounded a lot like me nearly a decade ago.

When I was 14, I decided to wait until marriage to have sex. I was so proud of this revelation that I wore it like a badge of honor, as part of my identity as a teen. Sometimes I would try to determine who the virgins in my school classes were, and the non-virgins—of course, the latter were, in my mind, the bad kids.

I held the moral high ground as a “good girl.” The premise was simple: Good girls were girls who did well in school and did not pay attention to boys. Good girls were those who waited for love and marriage, and took the time in our youth to develop other interests in academia and community service (in our churches). It was as if as soon as a young woman had sex, she would become disinterested in school, church, and volunteer activities, I was taught by faith leaders to believe.

I was playing by the rules of my Protestant upbringing. I learned in church that sex was bad, unless I was married, because the Bible said so. Preachers referred to scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 6:19 (“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit that is within you, whom you have from God?”) and Galatians 5:19 (“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality.”) to support their claims that sex outside of marriage is sinful in the eyes of God and makes one dirty.

And yet, as a minister now, I realize that these scriptures do not speak directly to sex inside modern marriage as we know it, and “sexual immorality” could mean many things. For example, many biblical scholars agree that porneia, from which the word fornication is loosely translated, does not necessarily mean premarital sex. It can refer to many sins of sexuality. As Boykin Sanders explains in True to our Native Land, in 1 Corinthians 6:9 the word porneia refers to men being sexually involved with their father’s wife, and other forms of adultery.

But for many churchgoing young people, the pressures to abstain from sex, based on inaccurate interpretations of scripture by preachers and other church leaders, are compelling. For me at least, abstinence meant that I could stay spiritually and physically pure, and able to focus on things that were important to me, such as school, deciding on a career, and loving myself outside of a relationship. These are positive teachings from church, but it is also important for young people to understand that having sex doesn’t necessarily mean that we lose those parts of ourselves just by doing it.

I’ve frequently heard in church the idea that our bodies are “temples” to discourage individuals from having sex. But, I wondered, how does having sex dishonor our temples? This question made more sense to me when I learned in divinity school about Western philosophy and the idea that our bodies and souls are separate, and that in order to be a good Christian, we have to give into the desires of our spirits by denying desires of the body.

That philosophy didn’t make sense to me, because not only is it used to encourage women to be abstinent, it encourages people to pray about illness instead of seeking treatment or taking measures to be healthy (such as healthy eating, exercise, and annual doctors’ visits), encourages Christians to ignore mental health issues, and doesn’t allow Christians to grieve in their own unique ways. Growing up, I frequently heard sermons for people who were in real pain, where they were told to pray and God would give them strength. Indeed, prayer can give us strength, but prayer as a quick fix without acknowledging pain and grief can invalidate human pain.

Over the years I also came to understand that abstinence is a spiritual practice, and while it is a fine one, all of us do not have to adopt such a practice in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment. It’s actually impracticable to seek to attain the exact spiritual practice of others since we all walk different paths in life. A starving person, for example, would not be able to fast, nor would someone with diabetes or another medical condition that affects their diet. They would need to adopt other methods to practice their religion. Many people who choose not to abstain from sex adopt other spiritual practices to fulfill their religious experience as well.

Abstinence would not help me in my advocacy work fighting back against poverty, inequality, racism, and the patriarchy. Yes, I could hold the badge of honor that I was celibate, but if that was the only thing I did to practice my religion, I knew I was doing it wrong.

Ultimately, shaming me from having sex did not improve my spiritual journey, it just made me feel guilty about my own natural urges.

The first time I had sex I thought it was going to be life-changing—and it wasn’t. We did it and held each other after, and the next morning, as I usually do as a young minister on Sunday mornings, I went to church.

I always thought I would feel differently, that it would change me, or that I would feel an incredible loss. Or worse, that I would be forever attached to the person (I’m not). It was an important milestone in my life, and I was careful about choosing the person with whom I would experience it. But it didn’t change who I was as a person.

As much as I was discouraged by faith leaders from having sex before marriage, I still did it, like many spiritual women who have come before me. In fact, a 2011 study from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy revealed that 80 percent of young people who self-identified as evangelical Christians are having sex. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of African-American regular church attendees support access to contraception and abortion. Why? Because we are having sex and understand that contraceptives and abortion are essential parts of our health care.

These fights against women’s health care—such as the recent attempts to defund Planned Parenthood or the refusal of Catholic hospitals to provide basic reproductive health care and perform tubal ligations for women who need them—come down to the fact that women are having sex, and men in leadership, whether they are faith leaders or elected officials, don’t agree with it. Instead of saying they don’t agree, they depict sex as a traumatic experience and stigmatize reproductive health care, painting abortion as a sinful and regrettable act. Most recently, the Pope instructed priests to forgive women for having an abortion, suggesting their decisions about their own bodies and families were wrong.

Many people in leadership believe women should be punished for having sex. They believe pregnancy is a consequence of acting irresponsibly, so women must endure it whether they want to or not. They believe women who have had sex should be deemed ineligible for dating and future relationships. Some faith leaders believe women should be punished by experiencing spiritual turmoil and feeling separated from God. But we don’t have to—and shouldn’t—feel shame. I don’t feel bad about living out my humanity in this way.

I’m glad women are fighting back against slut-shaming. Sexuality does not have to be a secret, and religious individuals should not have to feel guilty for having sex. There are many reasons to have sex, just as there are many reasons women may opt for contraception or choose to terminate a pregnancy. For many of us, these decisions are not shameful, they are simply a normal part of being human.

Commentary Religion

Memo to Pope Francis: Women Who Have ‘Resorted’ to Abortion Don’t Need Forgiveness

Amanda Marcotte

The Pope has made it easier for women to get forgiveness for abortions. But it's he who should be asking forgiveness, for implying that women who get abortions don't know what they are doing or why.

The “cool Pope” narrative got another boost this week when Pope Francis downgraded the level of sinfulness of abortion, which has been often regarded as if it were worse than murder in the eyes of many Catholic authorities. This shift, which allows priests to forgive women for abortions, is a big one from the previous stance that almost all women who do it are hellbound.

However, while it’s certainly nice to see the church step away from an official policy of trying to using shunning and threats of eternal damnation in an effort to thwart women’s attempts to control their own bodies, the Pope’s decision clearly leaves a lot to be desired.

It’s not that the Pope is moving in the right direction, albeit at a slower pace than pro-choicers like. His letter on this matter actually suggests that instead of softening on the issue of abortion, Pope Francis is reframing it. Indeed, he appears to be adopting the narrative concocted by American anti-choicers in recent years: that abortion needs to be banned to protect women, who are simply too stupid and childish to be trusted with important decisions such as when and if to have children.

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Reading the relevant passage, you’d think that women barely play a role in the decision to have an abortion:

One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life. A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life. The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.

“What has happened”….“The tragedy of abortion”….“not realizing”….“believe that they have no other option.” Pope Francis’ language portrays women both as children incapable of making a personal decision and as passive objects to whom abortion just happens, instead of decision-making people. His argument isn’t that women should be forgiven for abortion because it’s not that bad. (Although, as Reproaction’s Erin Matson pointed out on Twitter and for Rewire, his language still suggests that women have done something wrong by seeking abortions.) It’s that women should be forgiven because they are mental children who can’t be held responsible for their actions.

In making this argument, Pope Francis is falling in line with the stance that has become popular on the American right, which was mostly constructed to deflect completely accurate accusations that anti-choicers are motivated by misogyny. Rather than blaming women for their actions, conservatives have recently shifted to suggesting that they are “victims” of legal abortion, and that it needs to be banned to “protect” them.

There is nothing to back up this claim, of course. Pope Francis can say he meets women that were hurt by abortion all he likes, but the empirical evidence shows that nearly all women who get one feel that it was the right decision for them, even years after the fact.

Reading between the lines, though, you get the strong impression that the Pope is skeptical of the idea that women naturally want more sex than they want babies. On the contrary, he blames society for giving us ideas (“widespread and insensitive mentality”) and frames abortion as something that women only resort to under pressure.

In reality, common sense tells us that women, like men, frequently want to have a lot more sex over a lifetime than is strictly necessary for procreation, often by many, many orders of magnitude. And that means that as long as women want to have sex without having babies, many will see abortion as the best way to deal with any unintended pregnancies that result. Women know if they can have or want to have a baby. You can reduce the incidence of abortion with contraception, but you can’t eliminate this fact.

This disconnect between ideology and people’s lived realities, whether it comes from the Vatican or Congress, is what happens when fantasy instead of evidence shapes political and moral views. Where this narrative is concerned, the fantasy is that women only are having sex in an effort to please a man, and not because of any inherent pleasure they themselves derive from it. And that a woman’s reaction to an unplanned pregnancy is joy—the boyfriend is bound to produce that ring now!—but because abortion is available, caddish boyfriends, helped by money-grubbing doctors, bully women into abortion instead. And so abortion must be banned, so that women are “protected” and steered into what we all supposedly want, which apparently is shotgun marriages and not having to have all that icky sex without some babies to show for it.

It’s a narrative pushed, to varying degrees, by crisis pregnancy centers, Republican Party leaders, anti-feminist activists, anti-choicers pretending to be feminists, anti-choice doctors, and now the Pope. It’s a fantasy that ignores the fact that most women who have abortions are already mothers. It ignores the fact that married women have abortions. It ignores the fact that a lot of women have sex with—and risk unintended pregnancy with—men they have no intention of marrying or having babies with. It ignores the fact that there are couples who might eventually settle down but are currently unsure if they want to commit yet. It ignores the fact that there’s a ten-year gap between the average age of first intercourse and average age of marriage. It ignores the fact that this is a good thing, because people tend to have stronger, happier marriages if they know who they are and what they want before they pick a partner, instead of letting a stray sperm pick their spouse for them.

But above all, the line that the Pope is pushing ignores the fact that women really are the best authorities on their own lives. Women do not need to ask forgiveness for knowing what we want and making decisions within the framework of our lives. The only person here who needs forgiveness is the Pope, for daring to insult all the women around the world with his presumption that he can, without even knowing the details of our lives, make better decisions for us than we can make.


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