We’ve been here before. And no, it didn’t work then either.
by Jon O’Brien
Like others, I am deeply concerned about recent moves in Congress that would restrict access to reproductive healthcare services, especially for poor women. The situation reminds me of other experiments where a few people with extreme views sought to pass policy that impacted a significantly wider group of people—with devastating consequences. Below, I will recount how the hierarchy of the Catholic church hijacked a process that was on the verge of overturning the complete ban on contraception. But today, in the U.S. Congress, an antichoice cabal in the Republican Party is seeking to prevent poor women accessing federally funded family planning and other reproductive health services. There are currently three bills that would do just that: the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” (HR 3), the “Protect Life Act” (HR 358) and the “Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act” (HR 217). They, along with the budget which passed the House and did not include crucial family planning funding will severely impact the lives of millions of American families. As a Catholic, the fact that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has supported these attacks on healthcare services for poor women adds insult to injury.
In the 1960s, the Vatican began a new era that promised openness and optimism for the Catholic church with the start of Vatican II—a series of conferences and conversations involving many thousands of Catholics, lay and clerical alike. That era ended badly with the release of the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968, which rejected all modern forms of family planning because, it said, “Each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life.” In coming to that decision, the pope appointed a panel that included laypeople and clerics to examine how family planning issues affected their lives. The laypeople came into conflict with the clerics who claimed to be experts on procreation, by recommending the church change its stance on the prohibition of contraception. The clerics were concerned about what an about-face to prior church teaching would mean—or, as one of these experts, Father Marcelino Zalba, said, “the millions we have sent to hell” by a previous prohibition that “was not valid.” Patty Crowley, one of the commission participants, responded by asking: “Father Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?”
The commission decided that revising Catholic teachings on family planning did, in fact, make sense and was permissible within church teachings. The pope, however, ignored this decision and opted for a ban on the most effective methods of family planning, introducing standards that continue to be impossible for most Catholics to live with—and we don’t.
Since the fateful decision behind Humanae Vitae, Catholicism has split into two groups—conservatives, mostly but not exclusively clergy, who want to control our sexuality, and those who see their decisions about sexuality and childbearing as intrinsically connected to a life lived according to their conscience-based decisions. This dichotomy has deeply undermined the cohesion of the Catholic community as a whole.
Since the prohibition on contraception thirty-nine years ago, church attendance has plummeted alongside a rise in the percentage of Catholics who feel the hierarchy is not in tune with their lives. That the vast majority of Catholics do use birth control has become a “don’t ask, don’t tell” situation that has been difficult for both the laity and the clergy. Bishops’ conferences in Europe and North America tried initially to allow room for couples to “form their consciences in [the] light [of Humanae Vitae]” but were forced by the Vatican to “clarify” that Catholics must follow the pope’s teaching to the letter.
Just as many Catholics held the hope that Vatican II would herald a new era, many U.S. voters saw the election of Barack Obama in a similar light. That promise may also be dashed if the current administration and voters allow the conservative trend in Congress to usher in a new, restrictive age for women, men and their families.
If the most conservative minority wasn’t able to re-route the will of the Catholic majority with Humanae Vitae, then why am I so concerned about the efforts by some in Congress to de-fund Planned Parenthood and other Title X-supported programs? In the 1960’s the conservatives at the Vatican were able to drive a wedge between doctrine and practice. Those who felt the dictates of their conscience trumped the Vatican’s demands were still able to access contraception. But the current federal legislation seeks to remove the means of following one’s conscience, so that, believe in it or not, all people who currently rely on federally funded family planning services will be forced to walk in the steps of someone else’s conscience.
One of the things that has helped push conservative legislation like the Title X cuts through Congress is the rhetoric used by people like Tom Grenchik, the director of the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities for the USCCB. Grenchik recently issued a special briefing to excoriate the services Planned Parenthood provides low-income women and to attack Sen. Harry Reid for saying the Senate wouldn’t go along with the attempt to de-fund Planned Parenthood. These inflammatory statements make supporting federally funded family planning services and other reproductive rights legislation seem to contradict any spirit of reasonable compromise—indeed, not a single Republican spoke out against the Title X cuts in the first version of the budget. Nevertheless, the 2008 Republican Party platform placed a premium on “the empowerment of patients,” a value that seems incompatible with legislation that would prevent thousands of Americans from accessing family planning.
Though I recognize that people of many faiths feel called to work toward what they consider a better society, one of the essential strands keeping the United States woven together as one vibrant tapestry is the freedom of religious belief—and its extension into reproductive choices. Catholic teachings, specifically the 1965 Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis Humanae), charge the faithful to live up to a standard of pluralism that prohibits any form of “coercion” towards people of a different faith, or no faith at all. As Catholics and as citizens, we must oppose the move to de-fund Planned Parenthood and other Title X-funded clinics and stand up for our rights and freedom to follow our own consciences on these personal issues. (For that reason, I was delighted to see so many Catholic state legislators sign onto an open letter to Congress that opposed cuts in funding for family planning.) In so doing, we can counteract the misconception among policymakers that listening to Catholics means listening solely to the bishops, which is what happened during the healthcare reform debate. When Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic leaders met with representatives of the USCCB, they were drafting “compromise” proposals with the very people whose fundamentalism does not recognize the value of compromise, and whose vision of reproductive rights does not see them as a “right” at all.
My Catholic conscience tells me that my prochoice position is worth fighting for. But it also tells me that family planning shouldn’t be a point of contention at all. Lawmakers of all political hues can come together to support access to contraception and comprehensive sexuality education. Family planning services make sense for all those who want to provide more options to women seeking to decide when and whether to have a child. They make sense for those who want to keep the government’s involvement in healthcare to a minimum. And they make sense for those who think that it is the government’s role to facilitate the healthcare decisions that people want to make. Above all, they make sense for a society that believes in freedom of religion—a right one can’t claim for oneself without extending it to one’s neighbor. The bottom line is that promoting and providing contraception and comprehensive sexuality education services aren’t an experiment—they’re the right thing to do.
Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice.