For the women of the world’s more privileged nations, it is tempting to view the plight of Beatriz, the gravely ill Salvadoran woman denied a therapeutic abortion of a fetus missing its brain, as something that could not happen to us. But if the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had its way, women who face similar medical challenges in the United States would be forced into the same life-threatening circumstances as the 22-year-old Central American mother.
El Salvador’s draconian abortion ban is Catholic doctrine made law, in a nation where church prelates hold great political power. While the bishops’ political power encounters greater checks in the U.S. system of government, it is nonetheless substantial—never mind that the USCCB’s positions on women’s health and rights do not represent the beliefs of most American Catholics.
Bishops’ Political Power and the War on Women
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One need only look at the way in which bishops tried to derail the Affordable Care Act (ACA), holding up the legislation for months through the resistance of several conservative Catholic congressmen, ostensibly because the law would allow women to purchase, with their own money, health-care coverage for abortion (via a convoluted formula designed to satisfy the church fathers—which, of course, it didn’t).
Today the bishops’ jihad against the health-care law rests in the requirement that employer-provided health plans, including those offered by Catholic-affiliated institutions such as universities and hospitals, provide coverage for prescription contraception without a co-pay. Hoping to avoid a conflict with the Catholic bishops, whose doctrine forbids the use of birth control, the administration convinced insurance companies to pay for contraceptive prescriptions in such plans so the Catholic institutions wouldn’t have to, but that did not satisfy church leaders.
The USCCB, working in coalition with members of the Protestant evangelical right, claims the contraception requirement to be an infringement on its religious liberty, since it prevents the bishops from imposing their religious views on the women of many faiths who work in these large institutions, some of which receive federal dollars, whose primary work is not religious in nature. (In many parts of the country, in fact, the only hospital within reach is one affiliated with the Catholic church. In 2009, according to the National Catholic Reporter, Catholic hospitals served one in six U.S. hospital patients.)
As I write, dozens of lawsuits filed by Catholic institutions and agencies against the Obama administration, challenging the ACA contraception policy, are wending their way through the courts—an effort “spearheaded,” according to Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones, by the USCCB. (Many of those institutions are represented by the right-wing Becket Fund, which is led by Catholic conservatives.) Essentially, the church is claiming a right to discriminate against women as a matter of religious liberty, much as Bob Jones University claimed a religious right to discriminate against African Americans, a claim knocked down by the Supreme Court in 1983.
A Cult of Misogyny?
Before you write off Beatriz’s predicament to moral ambiguity on later abortion, it is only fair to consider the whole of the church’s teaching on matters particular to women, exemplified by its proscription on contraception, which finds no standing in the teachings of Jesus or his disciples, or in the consciences of most Catholics, 82 percent of whom reject it, according to a 2012 Gallup poll.
Neither does one find admonitions against women preachers in the teachings of Jesus, yet the Vatican holds fast to its ban on women priests, a doctrine that can only be viewed, in the modern age, as misogynistic.
Despite the many good works of those it claims to lead, the Vatican and the institutional church has a troubled, centuries-old history in the realm of temporal power. At its essence, the hierarchy is, more than anything, a cult of power—a cult whose leaders wish to assure that any future members look and think exactly like them. And that’s what accounts for the prelates’ stunning lack of compassion in matters concerning women.
They’d have you believe, of course, that their concern is for the children of the world—a term they apply liberally, to zygotes, embryos, and fetuses.
Speaking to the website ElSalvador.com, Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador explained why Beatriz, suffering from renal failure and lupus, should be deprived of a potentially life-saving abortion of fetus that lacks the capacity to live much beyond birth:
“I have understood that the child’s mother is not in an intensive care situation,” the archbishop told reporters Rossy Tejada and Jaime Lopez. “For me, who has more danger in [this] pregnancy is the child; there’s an effort to disrupt his life,” he said.
When asked about the child’s life expectancy, he said, “Only God knows how long will this baby live, [not those] who want to kill him before he is born.”
“It Must Be Hard For You”
In 1987, while covering Pope John Paul II’s second U.S. visit for The Nation and Ms. magazine, I interviewed Cardinal Bernard Law, then archbishop of Boston, on a plane carrying the papal press corps. The pope had, the day before, reiterated his objection (actually, he said it was God’s objection) to ordaining women into the priesthood.
“There are two principles that need to be borne in mind,” Law said. “First, the fundamental equality of all persons; secondly, the specific equality of … feminine humanity … I think this is what the Holy Father meant: that the price of that equality must not come at the expense of what it means to be feminine.”
When I asked him to define that, Law replied, “I don’t know. That’s something that needs to be understood and experienced more deeply.”
At the time, I was still grappling with my Catholic heritage, and I was a bit taken aback when Law asked me what I had felt while reporting on the papal tour.
I told him I felt a lot of different things, but that I was often angry, especially about the pope’s hard line against ordaining women.
“Oh, I know. I understand,” he said. “It must be very hard for you.”
In 2002, Law resigned as archbishop of Boston when the pedophile priest scandal exploded in his archdiocese, after it was revealed that Law and his underlings dealt with complaints of priests abusing children by moving those priests to new parishes, where they could abuse more children. The pope stepped in to save him from accountability by whisking him to Rome, where, until 2011, he served as the head of a major basilica, and continues to serve in the Curia.
The most notorious case was that of Fr. John Geoghan, who appears to have molested at least 87 children before he was defrocked in 1997.
Ultimately, Law’s successor settled hundreds of suits, which named Law as a defendant, to the tune of $85 million, according to the Associated Press.
As it turned out, Law’s way of dealing with troublesome pedophile priests was widespread among U.S. Catholic prelates. Some cases claimed the outright rape of boys by priests. Settlements paid out to abuse survivors by various U.S. dioceses now total some $2.5 billion, according to USA Today, leaving some dioceses bankrupt, or nearly so.
So forgive me for my doubts that the bishops’ concern in matters of abortion is about the fetuses they claim to be children. Where the well-being of children is concerned, the church fathers have shown a predilection for protecting their own careers at children’s expense.
No, this is about women—and the hierarchy’s contempt for women. It’s a contempt they believe they should have the liberty to confer on all women, everywhere, through force of law.