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.