Pope Francis has a limited-time offer just for women who have abortions: Confess, and you won’t be excommunicated. Hurry! Only women who confess to a priest before November 20, 2016—during the “Year of Mercy”—will remain eligible to kneel and pray at the instruction of an all-male hierarchy that insists upon the subordination of women.
“I am well aware of the pressure that has led [women who have abortions] to this decision,” the Pope said. He suggested women “believe they have no other option.” Priests will have the “discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.”
It seems the Pope Francis Sex TalkTM brand is expanding. With his latest comments, Pope Francis has built a shiny new smokescreen to distract from the grave and immoral harms caused by the Vatican’s opposition to abortion and women’s equality.
This has practically become a formula: Cool Pope says something that sounds like he cares about the huge swaths of people routinely discriminated against by the biggest patriarchy in the world for being women, gay, or unwilling to have children. But the doctrine doesn’t change, which means that nice comments don’t make for nice policy. Lobbyists representing the Catholic Church’s leadership continue to wreak great destruction around the world, whether messing with the Affordable Care Act at home or insisting on denying condoms to people in AIDS-ravaged areas abroad. And billions of public dollars are funneled into Catholic institutions that insist they have a right to discriminate on the taxpayer dole.
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His latest ploy on abortion is more of the same. Yes, people love Pope Francis and his tone is different and refreshing. Many may also find his pastoral approach comforting. But although we need to start somewhere, we also need to look at the bigger picture. The Pope’s comments are just stigma masquerading as understanding.
A woman who has had an abortion has done nothing wrong. She doesn’t need to apologize, and she certainly doesn’t need to apologize to a man representing an institution that denies her equality. (Remember when Pope Benedict compared the ordination of women to pedophilia? Pope Francis has enforced the same toxic nonsense about keeping women out of the priesthood; he just says things that make it sound nicer.) So, then, this isn’t actually about reassuring women who have had abortions. This is about continuing to single them out and shame them.
In the context of women’s lives, access to abortion is a matter of human dignity. And that dignity includes being trusted to make moral decisions—such as the one to end a pregnancy—for ourselves. Any outsider looking in who thinks he knows better is frankly sexist, drawing upon awful ideas that women are too stupid and wicked to be trusted with the management of our own lives. Preventing a woman’s access to abortion through advocating for restrictions upon reproductive care, as the Vatican does, is immoral.
A few weeks ago I helped to transport an abortion fund patient from a clinic to a hotel room. Prior to her procedure, she’d been growing frustrated with the several weeks it was taking to raise the money, find someone to watch her kids, and manage travel to another city where abortion is available after the first trimester. She’d started to wonder openly if she could “do something’” to force a miscarriage at home. This is how a great variety of piecemeal abortion restrictions—funding restrictions, TRAP laws, waiting periods, bans on specific procedures—work together to put woman in potential danger. (Or serve time in prison for trying to take matters into their own hands.)
Women who decide to have abortions will have abortions, and the question is merely if we want them to be safe. Should the woman I met have put herself at risk from an illegal abortion instead? Or found herself in handcuffs, like Kenlissia Jones? We don’t know: Unfortunately, Pope Francis hasn’t issued statements on the dire need to replace illegal abortion with safe abortion, or the criminalization of pregnancy outcomes; he just wants women to apologize to priests.
Pope Francis has it all wrong on abortion. The Catholic Church’s leaders owe women a profound apology.
It is thanks to the Vatican’s terrible rules against reproductive health care that a woman in California was nearly driven to travel 160 miles away from her family to give birth, because her local “pro-life” Catholic hospital initially refused to give her a tubal ligation after a planned cesarean section. It is in the name of “a Catholic country” that women like Savita Halappanavar have been forced to die after begging for life-saving abortions. Some advocates even argue that it is in anticipation of the Pope’s visit and in deference to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that President Obama has continued his bad legacy on reproductive rights by failing to take executive action that would extend abortion funding to rape victims in war zones.
In 2010, Sister Margaret McBride was excommunicated for authorizing a life-saving abortion at a Phoenix hospital. Is Pope Francis really telling her, and the woman whose life she helped to save, that they are the ones who committed evil and need to come back and apologize?
Maybe the better thing would be for Pope Francis to listen. That’s why my organization, Reproaction, has launched a #HeyPopeFrancis campaign that invites people to tell Pope Francis what they think he should do next. The responses so far have been varied and creative; many folks are concerned by the Vatican’s stance against abortion, contraception, and women’s ordination, and take exception to Pope’s statements about LGBTQ families. Still others are urging him to do even more on the environment and immigration. The bottom line is that this Pope is presenting himself as an agent of hope and change, and it’s now on all of us to share with him our hopes for meaningful change.
This is 2015. Women are human beings. They have dignity, and they must be respected. Women must be treated as equals, and there is no such thing as equality without easy access to abortion. If we are to have a just society that upholds its moral obligation to ensure no one is held back on the basis of gender, abortion must be accessible and funded for every person who needs it—no harassment, stigma, or “religious liberty” attached. And if you think equality for women makes sense so long as women abstain from sex or are willing to accept the “consequences” of pregnancy, then you don’t believe in equality for women. That’s wrong, and it’s that simple.
Rather than a call to confession about abortion, it would be far more redemptive for Pope Francis to call for a new dialogue within the Catholic Church about gender equality that would elevate the voices of a diverse group of women—including women who have had abortions, women who aren’t sorry about their abortions, and, oh yeah, women priests. That would represent major progress too.