By Tina Beattie in THE TABLET, 29 June 2022
After the Supreme Court’s ruling to remove the constitutional right to abortion, the US Catholic theologian Jessica Coblentz tweeted: “I know many Catholic women; I’ve been in communication with several today. Not one – not one – is ‘welcoming’ or ‘celebrating’ the overturning of Roe. And so I ask, esp of Catholic men: Please listen. Listen” (@JessicaCoblentz). Her tweet was met with a barrage of insults by those claiming to represent “real” Catholics. But Coblentz speaks for many of us.
My work with Catholic women’s networks around the world has offered me many opportunities for dialogue about abortion. Most of us occupy a nuanced position, crushed between two monolithic politico-religious absolutes. On the one side are pro-choice progressives who regard bodily autonomy and individual rights as non-negotiable; on the other are anti-abortion conservatives who regard the right to life of the unborn child as trumping all the rights of the woman or girl who carries it.
This leaves Catholics like me between the devil and the deep blue sea. We believe passionately in the sanctity and dignity of all human life, and we recognise the vulnerability and dependence of the child in the womb, but we are mindful too of the vulnerability and distress of a woman or girl facing an unwanted or medically compromised pregnancy. Add to this the factors listed in another tweet, by Berkeley professor Robert Reich: “Forced birth in a country with: No universal health care; No universal childcare; No paid family & medical leave; One of the highest rates of maternal mortality among rich nations,” and his conclusion seems obvious: “This isn’t about ‘life’. It’s about control” (@RBReich). It’s hard not to think that of Church teaching as well. To deny women access to contraception while criminalising abortion makes a mockery of any claim to respect women’s rights, especially when men’s responsibility is hardly ever mentioned and women’s voices are excluded from doctrinal debates.
The debate in the US has become dominated by polarised extremists who are not representative of women even though both sides sometimes behave as if they are entitled to speak for the rest of the world. Well-funded Catholic conservatives are promoting misogynistic and homophobic agendas wherever they can gain a foothold, while on the ultra-progressive side, Catholics for Choice has laid claim to the public square with uncompromising support for a woman’s right to choose which allows for no dissent or ethical debate.
Yet nowhere do Church authorities offer a safe space to explore these issues in a more nuanced way, for as soon as a Catholic publicly questions Church teaching on abortion she is likely to be banned by the magisterium and the bishops and abused and trolled by fellow Catholics (I speak from long experience!) The result is that women retreat to private spaces to explore these most intimate and painful questions, and the informed ethical integrity of our discussions rarely finds a way into public Catholic discourse.
I have never had an abortion, but while living in Africa I had two life-threatening obstetric emergencies, once in Nairobi and once in Harare. Had I not been a wealthy white woman able to afford private health care, I probably wouldn’t have survived and neither would my babies. Beyond the polemics of the US abortion debate, there is a silent pandemic raging among the world’s poorest women, with nearly 300,000 dying from causes relating to pregnancy and childbirth every year, and many more mutilated by birth injuries such as fistulas which leave them incontinent and traumatised. Unsafe abortion is one cause of death and infection, but poverty is the real killer. Poor women are more likely to die from obstetric complications, while maternal and infant mortality are extremely rare in countries with good health care and social support. Catholic health care providers are in the frontline of obstetric and gynaecological care in poor communities, but there is no recognition in Vatican documents of the challenge posed by maternal mortality and the impact of repeated childbearing on poor women’s physical and psychological health.
Pope Francis has set about rebuilding the Church as a field hospital, but where is the obs and gynae ward? As long as an elite group of celibate men claims divine authority to control the reproductive lives of all the world’s women, the field hospital will be built on sand, like the house in the parable (Matthew 7: 24-27).
Tina Beattie is Professor Emerita of Catholic Studies at the University of Roehampton.