Commentary Religion

Backing Off Sexual Oppression: How the Pope Can Make Us Believe Him

Erin Matson

While Pope Francis' comments last week on abortion, contraception, and homosexuality are an important (and long overdue) first step for the Vatican, it's hardly time for advocates of gender, reproductive, and sexual justice to rest on their laurels.

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

Ban abortion! Defund birth control! Stop same-sex marriage! At home and abroad, we hear the all-male and allegedly celibate hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church using sexual oppression to shame and dominate women and LGBTQ people, even employing secular law to violate civil and human rights.

The entrenchment of the Vatican bureaucracy in the social wars is what makes last week’s comments by Pope Francis so interesting, and complicated. He said the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, birth control, and homosexuality, and that “[i]t is not necessary to talk about all these issues all of the time. … We have to find a new balance.” He suggested that instead of focusing on rules in these areas, the Catholic Church should step back and focus on the bigger picture.

This is spectacular news, for the simple reason that change needs to begin somewhere. But while last week’s comments are an important (and long overdue) first step for the Vatican, it’s hardly time for advocates of gender, reproductive, and sexual justice to rest on their laurels.

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For one, there are good reasons to doubt Pope Francis means what he says. No matter how comparatively open, soft, and cuddly he may appear in interviews, especially in contrast to his hardline predecessor Pope Benedict, he has done nothing to change doctrine. According to Catholic teaching, abortion, birth control, and homosexual unions are still completely off limits, no exceptions, and the all-male hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is not just preaching against them, but working within the realm of secular law to repress women and LGBTQ people.

Further, it should be considered no accident that one day after his appearing-to-be tolerant comments were released, Pope Francis met with a group of Catholic OB-GYNs, telling them to refuse to perform abortions and calling abortion part of a “throwaway culture.” Far from representing a simple call to individual conscience, this directive puts women in grave danger—and not just Catholic patients in Catholic hospitals, but also secular patients in secular hospitals. Within the United States, patients may be unaware that a community hospital has merged with a Catholic facility, adopting harsh no-abortion rules that do not budge for acute, life-threatening situations. In Ireland last year, Savita Halappanavar died after being denied a life-saving abortion because, as doctors said, “this is a Catholic country.” When the highest official within the Catholic hierarchy tells Catholic doctors to refuse to provide abortions one day after his comments are released suggesting that the Catholic hierarchy stop focusing so narrowly on abortion, it seems Pope Francis is not interested in others practicing what he preaches.

Finally, the comments are muddied by the fact that earlier this year Pope Francis personally approved continuing the crackdown against U.S. nuns started under his predecessor, Pope Benedict. The crackdown was issued with the concern the nuns were focusing too much on social justice issues, including poverty alleviation, at the expense of time that could have been spent denouncing abortion, birth control, and euthanasia. Continuing the crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious does raise the question if the latest comments from Pope Francis have twisted the definition of window dressing to applying pressure upon women, behind closed doors, to focus more on abortion and birth control at the expense of social justice ministry.

But like any first step away from entrenched discrimination, it’s not surprising that Pope Francis appears instantly hypocritical. What is needed now is pressure upon the pope and the Catholic hierarchy beneath him to live up to his words. This will need to come from both inside and outside the Catholic Church. So it is up to all of us to hold him accountable for helping the Vatican back off its intense focus on oppressing women and LGBTQ people through the enforcement of unjust and outdated rules about abortion, birth control, and marriage.

While changes in doctrine and teachings lie at the core of any substantive change, there is still tremendous ability to reduce harm by following the stylistic approach outlined by Pope Francis last week. Here are several things Pope Francis could do to make us believe the all-male Catholic hierarchy will back off its sexual repression obsession and focus more on the common good:

1. Pope Francis should end the crackdown on the nuns immediately.

It makes no sense to continue punishing the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for not focusing enough on condemning abortion and birth control, while telling the public that the Catholic hierarchy shouldn’t focus so much on abortion and birth control at all. In fact, earlier this week Pope Francis kept Archbishop Gerhard Mueller in his leading role at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which spearheads the nun crackdown. Thus, it appears personal intervention is required by Pope Francis to end the nun crackdown.

2. Pope Francis should open a broader conversation about the ordination of women.

An unwarranted and discriminatory obsession with abortion, birth control, and same-sex marriage has everything to do with the Catholic hierarchy insisting on cloaking its power among men who are told to abstain from sex. During his interview last week, Pope Francis is quoted as saying:

The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. … We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. We have to work harder to develop a profound theology of the woman. Only by making this step will it be possible to better reflect on their function within the church. The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions.

Let’s not be delusional: He is not advocating the ordination of women. However, what Pope Francis can do under this current framework is insist that women be included in these discussions about including women. Including women in discussions is far from equality, but it is an important step toward creating conditions in which women may someday be included in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

3. Pope Francis should have the church immediately stop bankrolling anti-marriage initiatives.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, “The Church hierarchy invested nearly $2 million in the failed attempts to write discrimination into the Minnesota constitution and stem marriage equality in Maine, Maryland and Washington” during the 2012 election cycle. Herein lies an opportunity for Pope Francis to put his money where his mouth is—and take it out of people’s bedrooms.

4. Pope Francis should order the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to end its attempts to overturn the Affordable Care Act, in whole and part.

Archbishop William Lori has been leading the all-male hierarchy’s efforts to overturn and water down the Affordable Care Act’s extension of contraceptive coverage without copay to women enrolled in health insurance plans in the United States. Shortly after Pope Francis suggested that the church back off birth control, Lori said that he expected no changes in his legal and cultural efforts to undermine the health-care law. Through personal intervention, Pope Francis could lead a course correction.

5. Pope Francis should ensure the Vatican stops interfering with international progress for women and girls over concerns about abortion and birth control.

A more expansive focus on social justice, rather than doggedly pursuing restrictive rules about abortion and birth control, could help turn the Vatican from a perpetrator of global harm into a player for global good. The Vatican is known for a “my way or the highway” approach to abortion and contraception that has, for example, led it to refuse to provide referrals for abortion, and emergency contraception for sex trafficking victims. Under the new approach outlined by Pope Francis, there is room for the Vatican to either accept that its charities don’t belong in the business of “helping” sex trafficking victims with care that specifically excludes access to reproductive health care they may acutely need, or to accept that if it wishes to use government funds to provide services, it must at a minimum provide referrals to outside agencies that do offer full reproductive health care

For too long the Vatican has played a leadership role in religious right efforts to halt global progress for women and girls by either making new restrictions on reproductive rights part of the price of passage of international progress in other areas, or by insisting that anything relating to women or girls translates to “abortion” and must not move forward. Pope Francis could, for example, acknowledge that the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is silent on the topic of abortion and urge members that have not yet ratified, including the Vatican and the United States, to step up for women and girls.

In suggesting that it’s time for the Catholic Church to think bigger than abortion, birth control and sexual orientation, Pope Francis has taken an important first step toward reducing harms directly and indirectly inflicted on women and LGBTQ people around the world by the all-male Catholic hierarchy. More change will not be easy, and true doctrinal change is far from close. Yet still, there is much good he could do immediately by living up to his words, and women and LGBTQ people stand to benefit

News Politics

Sen. Tim Kaine Focuses on Reproductive Rights Amid Clinton’s Looming Decision on Vice President

Ally Boguhn

Last week, the senator and former Virginia governor argued in favor of giving Planned Parenthood access to funding in order to fight Zika. "The uniform focus for members of Congress should be, 'Let's solve the problem,'" Kaine reportedly said at a meeting in Richmond, according to Roll Call.

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) appears to be rebranding himself as a more staunch pro-choice advocate after news that the senator was one of at least three potential candidates being vetted by presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign to join her presidential ticket.

Last week, the senator and former Virginia governor argued in favor of giving Planned Parenthood access to funding in order to fight the Zika virus. “The uniform focus for members of Congress should be, ‘Let’s solve the problem,'” Kaine reportedly said at a meeting in Richmond, according to Roll Call. “That is [the] challenge right now between the Senate and House.”

Kaine went on to add that “Planned Parenthood is a primary health provider. This is really at the core of dealing with the population that has been most at risk of Zika,” he continued.

As Laura Bassett and Ryan Grim reported for the Huffington Post Tuesday, “now that Clinton … is vetting him for vice president, Kaine needs to bring his record more in line with hers” when it comes to reproductive rights. While on the campaign trail this election cycle, Clinton has repeatedly spoken out against restrictions on abortion access and funding—though she has stated that she still supports some restrictions, such as a ban on later abortions, as long as they have exceptions.

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In what is seemingly an effort to address the issue, as Bassett and Grim suggested, Kaine signed on last week as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services. As previously reported by Rewire, the measure would effectively stop “TRAP (targeted regulation of abortion provider) laws, forced ultrasounds, waiting periods, or restrictions on medication abortion.” TRAP laws have led to unprecedented barriers in access to abortion care.

Just one day before endorsing the legislation, Kaine issued a statement explicitly expressing his support for abortion rights after the Supreme Court struck down two provisions of Texas’ omnibus anti-choice law HB 2.

“I applaud the Supreme Court for seeing the Texas law for what it is—an attempt to effectively ban abortion and undermine a woman’s right to make her own health care choices,” said Kaine in the press release. “This ruling is a major win for women and families across the country, as well as the fight to expand reproductive freedom for all.”

The Virginia senator went on to use the opportunity to frame himself as a defender of those rights during his tenure as governor of his state. “The Texas law is quite similar to arbitrary and unnecessary rules that were imposed on Virginia women after I left office as Governor,” said Kaine. “I’m proud that we were able to successfully fight off such ‘TRAP’ regulations during my time in state office. I have always believed these sort of rules are an unwarranted effort to deprive women of their constitutionally protected right to terminate a pregnancy.”

Kaine also spoke out during his run for the Senate in 2012 when then-Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) signed a law requiring those who seek abortions to undergo an ultrasound prior to receiving care, calling the law “bad for Virginia’s image, bad for Virginia’s businesses and bad for Virginia’s women.”

Kaine’s record on abortion has of late been a hot topic among those speculating he could be a contender for vice president on the Clinton ticket. While Kaine’s website says that he “support[s] the right of women to make their own health and reproductive decisions” and that he opposes efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade, the senator recently spoke out about his personal opposition to abortion.

When host Chuck Todd asked Kaine during a recent interview on NBC’s Meet the Press about Kaine previously being “classified as a pro-life Democrat” while lieutenant governor of Virginia, Kaine described himself as a “traditional Catholic” who is “opposed to abortion.”

Kaine went on to affirm that he nonetheless still believed that the government should not intrude on the matter. “I deeply believe, and not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm,” Kaine continued. “They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As the Hill noted in a profile on Kaine’s abortion stance, as a senator Kaine has “a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood’s scorecard, and has consistently voted against measures like defunding Planned Parenthood and a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.”

While running for governor of Virginia in 2005, however, Kaine promised that if elected he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

After taking office, Kaine supported some existing restrictions on abortion, such as Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law, which in 2008 he claimed gave “women information about a whole series of things, the health consequences, et cetera, and information about adoption.” In truth, the information such laws mandate giving out is often “irrelevant or misleading,” according to the the Guttmacher Institute.

In 2009 he also signed a measure that allowed the state to create “Choose Life” license plates and give a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network, though such organizations routinely lie to women to persuade them not to have an abortion.

Analysis Human Rights

‘Coming Out of the Shadows’ Can Make Undocumented Immigrants Feel Safer

Tina Vasquez

The month-long Coming Out of the Shadows effort in March seeks to make the presence of undocumented people felt wherever they live.

Like many asylum seekers who find themselves with no protections from exploitation, detainment, or deportation, Rebeca Alfaro, a 28-year-old mother of two young girls, felt instinctively she couldn’t discuss her undocumented status with anyone when she arrived in the United States. It was unsafe, she thought, and would likely put her in danger of being picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“When I first got here, I was very frightened and I didn’t want to tell anyone about [my citizenship status],” Alfaro said. “I was frightened for myself, but I knew I had to earn a living to take care of my children who were still living in El Salvador. Now that my children are here, I’m frightened for them. I have decided to speak out because I want to find a solution that allows us to stay here together.”

Rather than silencing her, being “out” about her undocumented status has emboldened her to speak up and connect with other undocumented people where she lives in Boston.

Many migrants currently in the United States believe it’s best to keep their status as undocumented hidden—and for good reason. Fears around detainment and deportation are not unfounded: Every day there are stories about ICE showing up without warrants at immigrants’ homes, while they are on their way to school, or in their place of worship. But being “out” about your undocumented status and connecting with a larger community of undocumented people can actually make you feel safer, said Yessica Gonzalez, an organizer with the Immigrant Youth Coalition (IYC), an organization run by immigrant youth that fights for the rights of undocumented immigrants.

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“I think it’s also really instrumental to ‘come out of the shadows’ because for a really long time, there was a lot of people speaking on behalf of undocumented people. It’s really important to say, ‘Hey, I’m undocumented and I have my own agency to speak up,'” Gonzalez told Rewire.

Gonzalez’s organization is one of the many groups behind March’s Coming Out of the Shadows (COOTS) effort, which is designed to encourage undocumented immigrants who, like Alfaro, were afraid to make their status known. As IYC’s site says, it’s an effort to make the presence of undocumented people felt wherever they live.

Alfaro’s reasons for leaving El Salvador are the same as those of the many women and children fleeing what’s referred to as the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—a region experiencing extreme poverty and dramatic increases in gang-related violence.

El Salvador recently saw a 70 percent spike in violent deaths, and matters weren’t any better before Alfaro fled in 2009. It was actually the murder of her husband and her mother that led her to make the difficult decision to leave her daughters behind in order to build a life in the United States and send for them when she’d found some stability.

“There is generalized violence and gang violence everywhere in El Salvador, but my husband knew these [gangs] were bad people. He spoke out against them because he knew they were killing people in the neighborhood and he wanted to speak out because he wanted the killings to end,” Alfaro said. “He was targeted [by gangs] because he spoke up against them. The reason why I became targeted is because I spoke out against those who killed my husband and had them put in jail.”

Alfaro had heard all of the horror stories about what happens to women as they make the journey to the United States from Northern Triangle countries. After interviewing directors of migrant shelters, Fusion reported that 80 percent of Central American girls and women crossing Mexico en route to the United States are raped along the way. Women like Alfaro anticipate rape, so they seek out contraceptives before making the journey.

“I knew what was facing me. I heard many stories. I heard stories about women being raped, stories about if you fell asleep [other migrants] would rape you, stories about women who became pregnant as a result of rape,” she told Rewire.

Alfaro was able to obtain a birth control injection before leaving, something she later learned was a very common practice.

“In clinics, they’re helping women get birth control and everybody knows that’s what they’re doing. You go and you say, ‘I’m going to be traveling,’ and they give you the injection,” Alfaro said. There have been reports of women getting Depo-Provera shots before migrating: A 2013 study from the Organization of American States reported that among migrants, Depo-Provera “is known as the ‘anti-Mexico’ shot.”

It is details such as these that Alfaro would have never dreamed of sharing seven years ago, but when the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began prioritizing Central American asylum seekers for deportation in a series of ongoing raids criticized by advocates as unconstitutional, Alfaro feared that her daughters would be deported back to El Salvador where they faced probable death.

Alfaro now sees herself as an unlikely activist, publicly petitioning President Obama to provide temporary protected status (TPS) to those fleeing violence in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. According to U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS), DHS “may designate a foreign country for TPS due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely” and “USCIS may grant TPS to eligible nationals of certain countries (or parts of countries) who are already in the United States.”

“I didn’t think about U.S. immigration policies [before coming]; I was only thinking about how I was going to save my life getting out of El Salvador,” Alfaro told Rewire.

The mother of two is now a member of Centro Presente, which Alfaro described as an immigrant rights organization created by migrants for migrants. Being open about her status, sharing the details of her story, and connecting to an undocumented organization has made Alfaro feel the safest she’s ever felt in the United States, despite still having no institutional protections. While she continues to fear being separated from her daughters, Alfaro told Rewire that she feels safer because of the support of Centro Presente and the other undocumented people with whom she has connected.

Organizer Tania Unzueta co-created COOTS in 2010. Initially a day-long event in Chicago, COOTS expanded into a month-long, nationwide campaign with “coming out” events in cities all over the country.

Jonathan Perez, also an organizer with IYC, asserted that coming out does make you safer.

“The fear is understandable because there are consequences, but it can be powerful,” he said. “Whether you say it or not, if you are undocumented, you’re going to get treated like an undocumented person anyway. ICE can come for you or your family whenever they want, but we can’t live in constant fear of those things. If you’re undocumented and you don’t tell anyone and something happens to you, you don’t have a support network. If you’re undocumented and you’ve come out and connected to a support network, there are people who can mobilize around you if something happens.”

Despite the obvious benefits of having a support system in place that could help halt your deportation by bringing attention to your case or creating a petition on your behalf, for example, Perez takes issue with the framing of COOTS as merely a matter of stopping deportations. For him, it’s about more than that.

“It’s just liberating to not have to hide this big part of yourself—and it extends beyond being undocumented. I think a lot of people have all of these other identities, that are parallel to the closet. I always knew I was undocumented and coming out of the shadows really took the edge off coming out publicly as queer. It felt similar and really it’s about not being ashamed of your identities,” he told Rewire.

Gonzalez also spoke about the mental health component associated with coming out.

“When you’re in the shadows and you’re afraid, it’s paralyzing. It stops you from doing many things, even from seeking support,” Gonzalez said. “There is an impact on your mental health. There are very specific things we [undocumented people] go through, like family separation, fear of law enforcement, societal pressures to be model minority, et cetera. Coming out doesn’t fix all of that, but it takes away some of the secrecy and fear around those things.”

The support COOTS participants have received has been surprising, even to those undocumented folks receiving the support. From full ride scholarships for college to job offers, Perez said that there can be consequences of unexpected kindness and encouragement to coming out.

“One of the biggest benefits is that people are willing to help by providing jobs,” Perez said. “Even in the nonprofit world, if we didn’t come out of the shadows, we would never be able to find steady employment. If we didn’t apply for these jobs and push for organizations to hire qualified undocumented people who have something to contribute, we would be in a very different place.”

For those afraid or unwilling to come out, there is no judgment, Perez said, only support. The organizer told Rewire that many become involved in COOTS events because they never imagined that they could wear an “undocumented and unafraid” t-shirt publicly, while others “have spent years nonchalantly saying ‘I ain’t got papers’ and are just grateful to finally have a community to connect with.”

“Being loud isn’t for everyone,” Perez said. “In their own ways, our parents come out every day based on what kind of jobs they have to work. If they’re day laborers, standing on the corner waiting for work, that’s coming out of the shadows. These kind of campaigns just get more attention, and Coming Out of the Shadows month really just draws on a long-standing tradition in many of our cultures, which is sharing stories. At the end of the day we do this because it’s fun and can be a powerful experience for a lot of people.”