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The Bishops and Abortion

The Bishops and Abortion           Gerry OShea

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the outgoing president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops(USCCB) opined recently that the climate change crisis is “not urgent,” directly contradicting Pope Francis who in his encyclical Laudato Si pleaded that saving “the common home” must be a top priority for the church and indeed for all humanity.

  DiNardo and a majority of his episcopal colleagues in the USCCB continue to identify abortion as the “preeminent” – their language - issue of our time, meaning that it supersedes all other concerns.

These church leaders have mainly pursued a legal remedy to the widespread termination of pregnancy in the United States. Reverse the Roe v Wade decision and they claim we are more than half way to solving the problem.

 Archbishop Sample of Portland, Oregon, supporting this perspective, expounded last month about our times being particularly propitious to achieve their goal because “of a unique moment with the upcoming election cycle, given the changes to the Supreme Court.”

Opponents of this approach, including about one third at the Bishops’ Conference, focus instead on a much larger agenda than the legal and political considerations of the 1973 Roe decision by the Supreme Court.

 In line with Pope Francis, they preach about the prevalence of injustice in American society. They quote Francis who without decrying in any way the church’s teaching on abortion wrote: ”Equally sacred are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned, the underprivileged.”

The pope also insists that the travails of refugees must be at the top of the Christian agenda and not in his words “a lesser issue” as if their plight doesn’t figure in the central message of the gospel.

Does it make moral sense to give exclusive “preeminence” to the abortion issue when thousands of children are forced to live in holding cages on the Mexican border?

The Oregon archbishop’s political assessment may well be right and five of the nine Supreme Court justices may vote to overturn the 1973 decision. That seems likely with the present composition of the court.

 What happens then to a woman who chooses not to continue her pregnancy? If she is living in a state where the procedure is declared illegal she will have to travel to one where it is allowed - provided she can afford the air or train fare and other attendant costs.

This brings back sad memories of the thousands of Irish women who, over many decades, had to travel to England for an abortion until the people voted convincingly in the 2018 referendum to make the service available at home, ending the hypocrisy of fobbing the problem off to clinics in Liverpool or London.

Recent Irish history is very illuminating about the failure of legal strategies in dealing with the abortion issue. In the early 1980’s when there were no abortions allowed in any clinic or hospital anywhere in Ireland, nor was any of the major political parties advocating for change in this area, a group of very religious, fiercely anti-abortion people warned that judges could allow the procedure to be introduced in Ireland as, in their view, happened in the United States.

 To block any possibility of this occurring these sincere Catholics, supported by the hierarchy, successfully launched a constitutional crusade and in a referendum in 1983 they copper fastened the existing legal prohibition by adding an amendment to the Irish constitution which was meant to settle the abortion issue beyond the power of  liberal judges or left-wing legislators. In Shakespeare’s words, they were determined “to make assurance doubly sure.”

That referendum was carried by a majority of about two to one; the same percentages that in the 2018 referendum, less than forty years later, legalized abortion in the South of Ireland.

This is a major challenge for leaders on all sides of this issue: In the event that the Roe decision is reversed how should American society deal with women who want to end their pregnancies?

Archbishop Sample’s already-mentioned political calculation clearly associates his church with the Republican Party – a dubious ecclesiastical strategy, taking sides between the two political parties, especially at a time when the country is deeply divided on so many political and moral issues.

 Emotions are running high on a number of impending decisions by the highest court, not only on Roe but on crucial judgements about privileges claimed by the current president as against the powers asserted by the co-equal branch in Congress.

 Do the Catholic bishops really want to be involved in these political entanglements at a time when their own congregations are pulled in both directions?

Of course, they should continue to make their case from the pulpit and counsel women against pregnancy termination, but this should be done in a balanced way, especially by seriously addressing the multiple causes, many of them economic, that drive women to opt for abortion.

  The Trump administration whose budgetary policies gave more than a trillion dollars in tax breaks to millionaires and big corporations also plans to cut a billion, a piddling amount by comparison, from food stamps for the poor.

 No doubt about the obvious ethical incongruence in these figures between the treatment of the rich and the poor, directly clashing with the moral norms laid down by many of the prophets in the Old Testament and by Christ as revealed throughout the four gospels.

Consider the issue of paid maternal leave from work for women after they give birth – a clear pro-life enactment that exists in most Western European countries. Recent progress on this issue in Washington giving federal employees twelve weeks paid leave is a significant step in the right direction, but what about private sector workers? Those with little or no savings, estimated to include up to 50% of American women, will have to be back at work a few days after they leave the hospital with their babies.

Abortion is a tragedy for a woman facing an unwanted pregnancy. It is important to stress again that this is not primarily a legal problem and, as was demonstrated clearly in the Irish situation, is not amenable to a legislative solution.

 The Catholic Church as a major institution in America can provide a significant platform for exploring holistic approaches to dealing with this issue of unwanted pregnancies.

The Catholic Church has a very commendable record in the vital area of economic justice going back to Pope Leo XIII’s radical encyclical supporting the need for trade unions nearly a hundred and fifty years ago. In the 1960’s John XXIII advocated in his ground-breaking encyclical Mater et Magistra for shared ownership of corporations between workers and owners, and Francis has repeatedly scoffed at the so-called Trickle-Down Theory of economics, a staple of conservative theorists.

These vital anti-poverty teachings have been subsumed and minimized in recent years, especially in America, by what the majority of the bishops in the USCCB identified again at its November meeting as the “preeminent” issue of abortion.


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