Commentary Abortion

My Short-Lived Hope for a More Compassionate Catholic Church

Bridgette Dunlap

Pope Francis said he objects to “laboratories” where out-of-touch people in power develop solutions to problems they don’t understand. Yet it seems those efforts don't include a willingness to try and understand actual women’s lives.

Click here for all our coverage on Pope Francis’ recent comments on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality.

Pope Francis’ recent interview, published in a number of Jesuit journals, has made headlines for his honest statements about how the Catholic hierarchy is “obsessed” with homosexuality, abortion, and contraception. He also said church leaders don’t need to talk about these issues “all the time,” not because it might be moral to marry your partner or use contraception, but because these are not the most important teachings of the church, and everyone is quite clear on where the hierarchy stands.

However, while “Chill out with the gay-bashing” is a nice sentiment, it is not something that brings me a great deal of comfort in light of the immense power of the Roman Catholic Church over laws, governments, and societies around the world.

The Roman Catholic Church isn’t just a church; it is a world power. It has a privileged position in the United Nations, immense political influence in many countries, and vast financial resources. It is currently using that significant power all over the world to deprive women and LGBTQ individuals of equality, self-determination, and health care to an extent few U.S. “cafeteria Catholics” realize. A Catholic living comfortably in a liberal democracy is free to embrace the good things the church does and teaches while rejecting the bad—if he is unlikely to be affected by the bad. For instance, a Catholic who gets her good salary and health insurance from a secular company may not understand how a social worker at Catholic Charities could struggle to afford birth control, let alone how the church’s influence in foreign governments deprives women living in extreme poverty from being able to stop having children, or how the church undermines maternal health efforts like those to end obstetric fistula.

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This is why I find Pope Francis’ comments regarding his conception of knowledge radical. “When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighborhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside and study it,” he says in the interview. We can’t know what something like poverty is or how to solve it by talking about it in the abstract—in removed “laboratories,” as he puts it; we have to seek the experiences of those who live it. We can’t spout rules and dogma; we have to embrace uncertainty and focus on love. A member of his Jesuit order should be “a person whose thought is incomplete, in the sense of open-ended thinking.” He recognizes having been wrong in the past, describing his leadership as having been “authoritarian” when he was younger. He makes repeated references to individual conscience and the role of the people, as opposed to the hierarchy.

I was wrong, he suggests. We could be wrong. We don’t know. We have to listen to the people affected to know. These are astonishing sentiments from the leader for life of a thousand-year-old institution that invented the concept of “infallibility.” And it’s not the sort of thing I expect to hear from a U.S. bishop or political leader.

Of course, Pope Francis is no progressive or feminist hero. He is a 76-year-old man whose list of people in whom he sees holiness starts with “a woman who is raising children, a man who works to bring home the bread.” He suggests a priest counseling a mother of five who had an abortion that “weighs heavily on her conscience” should help her move on, without recognizing how much of that weight the church might have put there. (It is unclear if he is even talking about a real woman.) When he references “the sisters who work hard and live a hidden sanctity,” I don’t know if he is saying good nuns keep quiet, or acknowledging the reality that after lifetimes of service, forgotten nuns live in poverty, unable to take daily communion because there aren’t enough priests to perform the sacraments and they aren’t allowed to do it themselves.

How in touch Pope Francis is with the modern world, and the struggles of the people in it, is hard to tell. He makes vague statements about reconsidering the role of women in the church but warns against something he calls “female machismo.” Still, he endorses Vatican II bringing the gospel into the modern world. And he recognizes that older churches, and older people, try to impose their cultural models on younger ones.

What if he really means what he says about the need to “go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside”? A true commitment to this principle, led by Catholics, would completely transform our discourse on the law and the legislation that results. What if, for example, before Cardinal Timothy Dolan filed a lawsuit, he spoke to a couple who needs birth control? What if, before he used his considerable platform to call gay families an “ominous threat,” he broke bread with some? What if, before a 20-week abortion ban passed, legislators listened to the stories of women who needed abortions after that point? Or, before Rick Santorum voted to cut families off of welfare for having too many kids, he visited a new mom who’d be affected? Or, before proposing a $40 billion cut in food stamps, legislators acknowledged the struggles of those depending on them to feed themselves and their children? Likewise, instead of suggesting the detainees at Guantanamo are the worst of the worst, we might have to learn something about the individuals detained there and do even more than wash their feet.

I’ve become accustomed to seeing religion used as a bludgeon to shape the law, most recently in the dozens of lawsuits claiming there is a monolithic Catholic belief about health insurance that includes birth control. Pope Francis’ seeming return to a respect of individual conscience and acknowledgement that he may not have all the answers is shocking in this context; it is a pretty big deal. His comments inspired me to take a hard look at my own dogmas and try to discover my blind spots.

However, the Catholic leader with the most influence on our law and discourse in the United States seems to think there is nothing to see here. Cardinal Dolan does not hear the same message in Pope Francis’ interview that the church has a big problem and needs to do something about it. Instead, Cardinal Dolan hears a call for rebranding, and he has already begun work on this, cultivating an archbishop-you’d-like-to-have-a-beer-with persona while leading the charge to have the church’s most oppressive doctrine enforced by law.

In this CBS News interview, Cardinal Dolan makes it clear he does not think Pope Francis is talking to him. Cardinal Dolan does not seem to think the pope has issued a groundbreaking indictment of the church, a call for self-examination, or even a gentle suggestion that leaders ease up on talking about (and suing over) the rights of women or gay people. He seems to be saying we don’t need substantive change, just a shift in tone—less “finger wagging.” He sees no reason to halt work on getting these teachings—with which the pope says leaders are wrongly obsessed—established in U.S. law. Cardinal Dolan suggests Pope Francis is just calling for the church to revamp its marketing strategy.

I was sad to learn that Cardinal Dolan is in some ways probably right. Days after criticizing church leaders’ abortion obsession, Pope Francis told a group of Catholic gynecologists to refuse to perform abortions. He implied doctors who provide abortions perpetuate a “throwaway culture,” and are not respecting life.

These comments do not exhibit the openness to new information and uncertainty, humility, and trust in the consciences of lay people that the pope’s recent interview had led me to hope for. They dashed even my more meager hope, in the days following his election, that the new pope’s commitment to poverty eradication would leave too little time for attacks on reproductive health care. Instead, unburdened by the reality of what would happen to women if doctors listened to him and stopped performing abortions, Pope Francis gives us the status quo: Whatever the hierarchy says, and has always said, goes.

I would like to take comfort in the fact that, thus far, he is only telling Catholics not to perform abortions, rather than advocating for more laws empowering governments to arrest doctors who do. It would save thousands of women’s lives each year if the church abandoned its global campaign to make abortion a crime and just stuck to telling people it is a sin. But it isn’t only laws that prevent women from getting the health care they need. It was a court that told Beatriz she couldn’t have a life-saving abortion because of El Salvador’s Catholic-led total ban on the procedure, but Savita Halappanavar died because doctors refused her the care she needed.

In order to have compassionate laws and discourse, we have to care enough to understand and speak honestly about how our proposals are likely to work in reality. We have to learn about who they will affect. Pope Francis speaks of uncertainty. He recognizes failings in himself and the church. He sees the dangers of obsessing over “small-minded rules.” He objects to “laboratories” where out-of-touch people in power develop solutions to problems they don’t understand. And yet, Pope Francis’ instructions to doctors suggest the authoritarian is still with us, unwilling to visit the “slum neighborhood” of actual women’s lives.

Commentary Human Rights

The Democratic National Convention Was a Remarkable Victory for Disabled People

s.e. smith

This year's convention included disabled people every evening, as part of a larger inclusive policy that made 2016 a banner year for disability rights activists.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

On Thursday night, Hillary Clinton formally accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Her speech included many of the elements one expects from a nominee, but there were some standout moments—like when she mentioned disability rights, which she did repeatedly.

Clinton integrated disability into her discussion of her record, talking about her work to ensure that disabled children have the right to go to school and bringing up the health-care needs of disabled youth. Her commentary reinforced the fact that she has always cared about disability issues, particularly in the context of children’s rights.

But she did more than that. She referenced shortages of mental health beds. She explicitly called out disability rights as necessary to defend. And at one point, she did not mention disability, which in itself was radical. When she outlined her plans for gun reform and clearly stated that she wanted to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them, she referenced people with criminal histories and terrorists, but not mentally ill people, who have been fighting a surge in stigma thanks to perennial (and wildly incorrect) assertions that mental illness causes violence. That omission was clearly deliberate, given the meticulous level of crafting that goes into writing one of the most important speeches of a presidential candidate’s career.

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The nominee’s speech would have been remarkable on its own, but what made it truly outstanding is that it was far from the first appearance of disability at this year’s Democratic National Convention (DNC). The convention included disabled people every evening as part of a larger inclusive policy that made 2016 a banner year for disability rights activists, who are used to being invisible. These kinds of appearances normalized disability, presenting it as a part of some people’s lives and a source of pride, not shame or misery.

On Monday, for example, disability rights activist Anastasia Somoza rolled out to give a sharp, compelling speech that didn’t cast disability in a tragic or exceptional light. She wasn’t the only wheelchair user to appear on the DNC stage—Paralympic athlete Mallory Weggemann led the pledge of allegiance on a different evening. Dynah Haubert, an attorney for Disability Rights Pennsylvania, took the stage on Tuesday. Nor were wheelchair users the only disabled people represented. Ryan Moore, a longtime friend of Clinton’s, spoke about health care and his experiences as a man with spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia congenital syndrome, a form of dwarfism. Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy talked about his learning disabilities. Musician Demi Lovato, who has bipolar disorder, took on mental health.

Former Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, a nondisabled man who played an instrumental role in the push to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990, taught the crowd sign language during a lively speech about the fight for disability rights on Tuesday, the 26th anniversary of the landmark legislation.

On Wednesday night, former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) strode out onto the DNC stage in Philadelphia, smiling and waving at the crowd, to make a few short remarks. “Speaking is difficult for me,” she concluded, “but come January 2017 I want to say these two words: ‘Madam President.'” Her speech was about gun violence—a subject with which she’s intimately familiar after being shot in the head in 2011.

This level of representation is unprecedented. Some speakers, like Somoza, explicitly talked about disability rights, putting the subject in the spotlight in a way it’s never been at previous conventions. Others, like Giffords, came up on stage to talk about something else entirely—and happened to represent disability while they were at it. Similarly, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), a decorated combat veteran and double amputee, talked about military policy.

This is a striking contrast from the treatment of disability at previous Democratic National Conventions: When disabled people have appeared, it’s often been in the form of a lackluster performance that objectifies disability, rather than celebrating it, as in 1996 when former actor Christopher Reeve framed disability as a medical tragedy.

Disability rights activists have spent decades fighting for this kind of representation. In 1992, two years after the passage of the ADA, the platform included just three mentions of disability. This year, the subject comes up in 36 instances, woven throughout the platform for an integrated approach to disability as a part of society, rather than as something that needs to be walled off into a tiny section of the platform, tokenized, and then dismissed.

In the intervening years, disabled people in the United States have fought for the enforcement of the ADA, and taken the right to independent living to court in 1999’s Olmsted v. L.C., which was namechecked in the 2000 platform and then forgotten. Disabled people advocated to have their rights in school codified with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, pushed for inclusion in 2010’s Affordable Care Act, and are fighting to pass the Community Choice Act and Disability Integration Act (DIA). Disability rights in the United States has come a long way since 1990’s infamous Capitol Crawl, in which disability rights activists dragged themselves up the steps of the U.S. Capitol, pleading with Congress to pass the ADA.

And as activists have pushed for progress in the courts and in Congress, disability rights have slowly become more prominent in the Democratic party platform. The ADA has been a consistent theme, appearing in every platform since 1992 alongside brief references to civil rights; historically, however, the focus has been on disability as a medical issue. The 1996 platform introduced Medicare, and health care in general, as issues important to the disability community, a refrain that was reiterated in years to come. In numerous years, Democrats addressed concerns about long-term care, in some cases positioning disabled people as objects of care rather than independent people. Disabled veterans have also played a recurring role in the platform’s discussion of military issues. But beyond these topics—again, often approached from a dehumanizing angle—and the occasional lip service to concerns about discrimination and equal rights, until the 2000s, education was the only really consistent disability issue.

In 2000, however, the Democrats went big, building on eight years under President Bill Clinton, and the influence of his then-first lady. For the first time, disability wasn’t simply lumped under “civil rights.” The platform explicitly called out the need for protection from disability hate crimes, but it also began to introduce the idea that there were other issues of relevance to the disability with a discussion of the digital divide and the obstacles that held disabled people back. Almost 30 years after the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which barred disability discrimination by government agencies and contractors, the Democrats were starting to embrace issues like accessibility and independent living, which also played a prominent role in 2000.

It was a hint that the party was starting to think about disability issues in a serious way, especially when in 2008, the Democrats discussed the shameful delay on ratification of the United Nations’ Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, took on the Community Choice Act, talked about the need to enforce IDEA, and, again for the first time, explicitly addressed voting rights issues. By 2012, they were also calling out discriminatory voter ID laws and their disproportionate effect on the disabled community.

That’s tremendous, though incremental, progress.

And this week, the efforts of a generation of disability rights activists are on display everywhere in Philadelphia, where Daily News columnist Ronnie Polaneczky observed that accessibility is a top priority across the city. The DNC is providing expanded accessible seating, wheelchair charging stations, service dog relief areas, Braille materials, closed captioning, American Sign Language interpreters, medication refrigerators, and more. That’s radical inclusion at work, and the result of incredible efforts by disability rights organizers—including the 400 delegates who disclosed disabilities.

Those same organizers have been hounding the presidential candidates, holding them accountable on disability over and over again. They’ve brought up concerns about independent living, wage disparities, education, access to services, accessibility, hate crimes, reproductive rights, the “marriage penalty” and government benefits, and casual disablism in campaign rhetoric and practices. Advocates leaned on the Clinton campaign until it began captioning its content, for example. RespectAbility sent journalists out on the trail, #CriptheVote organized Twitter, and Rev Up encouraged people to register to vote and get involved. The disability community may be more explicitly politically active this year than ever before, and the DNC has been responding accordingly.

Clearly in consultation with disability rights activists, the Democrats have brought a host of new issues into this year’s platform, acknowledging that disabled people are part of U.S. society. Some of the many issues unique to this year’s platform include: abolition of the subminimum wage, concerns about economic opportunities with an explicitly intersectional discussion of the racial wealth gap, affordable housing, accessibility at the polls, the role of disability in the school-to-prison pipeline, and the need for more accurate Census data.

Notably, in a platform that has loudly called for a Hyde Amendment repeal and pushed for other abortion rights, the Democrats have also reinforced the need for access to reproductive health for disabled people, a revolutionary clause that’s gone virtually unnoticed.

This is a platform—and convention—of aggressive inclusion, and it reflects a victory for disabled people in the United States. It does still lack some components the disability community would like to see, like a shoutout to the DIA, which Clinton supports. This is, however, the start of what looks like a robust and real relationship between the Democrats and the disability rights community.

News Politics

Tim Kaine Clarifies Position on Federal Funding for Abortion, Is ‘for the Hyde Amendment’

Ally Boguhn

The Democratic Party voiced its support for rolling back the restriction on federal funding for abortion care in its platform, which was voted through this week.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), Hillary Clinton’s running mate, clarified during an interview with CNN on Friday that he still supports the Hyde Amendment’s ban on federal funding for abortion care.

During Kaine’s appearance on New Day, host Alisyn Camerota asked the Democrat’s vice presidential nominee whether he was “for or against” the ban on funding for abortion. Kaine replied that he had “been for the Hyde Amendment,” adding “I haven’t changed my position on that.”

Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager, told CNN on Sunday that Kaine had “said that he will stand with Secretary Clinton to defend a woman’s right to choose, to repeal the Hyde amendment.” Another Clinton spokesperson later clarified to the network that Kaine’s commitment had been “made privately.”

The Democratic Party voiced its support for rolling back the restriction on federal funding for abortion care in its platform, which was voted through this week.

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“We will continue to oppose—and seek to overturn—federal and state laws and policies that impede a woman’s access to abortion, including by repealing the Hyde Amendment,” reads the platform.

Kaine this month told the Weekly Standard that he was not aware that the party had put language outlining support for repealing Hyde into the platform, noting that he had “traditionally been a supporter of the Hyde amendment.”

Clinton has repeatedly said that she supports Hyde’s repeal, calling the abortion care restriction “hard to justify.”

Abortion rights advocates say that Hyde presents a major obstacle to abortion access in the United States.

“The Hyde amendment is a violent piece of legislation that keeps anyone on Medicaid from accessing healthcare and denies them full control over their lives,” Yamani Hernandez, executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds, said in a statement. “Whether or not folks believe in the broken U.S. political system, we are all impacted by the policies that it produces. … Abortion access issues go well beyond insurance and the ability to pay, but removing the Hyde Amendment will take us light years closer to where we need to be.”