An authentically Catholic approach to reproductive health care

By Jon O’Brien Abortion is a difficult issue, made even more so by several recent emotionally and politically charged debates. … Continued

By Jon O’Brien

Abortion is a difficult issue, made even more so by several recent emotionally and politically charged debates. A prime contributor to this noxious environment is antichoice legislation, such as the “No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act” (HR 3), which was introduced by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ).

Smith has repeatedly shown that he does not respect women’s ability to make their own reproductive health care decisions and believes government should be a party to the private deliberations women and their families make about health care. And, while Smith and his cosponsor, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-lll.), are both Catholics, their proposed legislation runs contrary to the beliefs of American Catholics in regard to abortion access.

Expressing support for the Smith-Lipinski bill, the chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Pro-Life Activities recently wrote to Congress. The letter clearly outlines the U.S. bishops’ opinion, but it does not represent the opinion of the majority of the 68 million American Catholics nor, in fact, the views of the majority of Americans.

Despite what the U.S. bishops would like us to believe, American Catholics support the right of women and men in good conscience to make important reproductive health care decisions for themselves.

The bishops’ position–opposing abortion in every instance, even in cases of rape, incest or when an abortion is necessary to preserve a woman’s health or life–is shared by fewer than 15 percent of American Catholic voters, and according to the bishops’ own polling, by only 11 percent of the American populace.

HR 3 is bad for women’s health. It will enact into law unreasonable obstacles to safe and legal health care for American women–including lower-income and other vulnerable women–who access health care through our nation’s safety net programs. These include women in military families, women who seek care through the Indian Health Service and women whose insurance is in any way affiliated with the government. The effect of this ban would be that women who are already facing challenges accessing health-care services will have to overcome additional delays and costs to receive the health care they need. This would be a major setback for women’s health and for the stability of the families who rely on our nation’s safety nets to bolster them in times of need.

HR 3 also expands so-called conscience clauses, more accurately called refusal clauses. The bill establishes an unbalanced preference for those who would refuse to provide services over both those who wish to provide comprehensive services to their patients and those patients who need access to safe and legal services and medications. These more stringent restrictions expand the right of refusal to include any health care entity, including HMOs and insurance plans as well as hospitals and clinics.

Expanding the right of refusal and those who could claim this right would result in Americans being denied the ordinary, legal, safe and reasonable health care they need and deserve, and it would tie the hands of doctors and nurses who want to provide that care.

On this issue as well, U.S. Catholics disagree with the bishops. A September 2009 poll by Belden
Russonello & Stewart found Catholic voters are against refusal or “conscience” clauses for institutions that take federal funding. Sixty-five percent said that hospitals and clinics that take taxpayer dollars should not be allowed to refuse certain procedures or medications based on religious beliefs.

I recognize and support the right of individual health care providers to decline to provide services to which they object on moral grounds. However, it is nonsensical to assert that institutions or health systems or even insurance providers have such a right, as indeed, they have no conscience to protect–only an individual can have a conscience. Not only does this blatantly disrespect the conscience of patients who present in health care facilities seeking care, either by design or by accident as in cases of emergencies. It also replaces the decision of doctors and patients with that of religious leaders without medical expertise. Enacting HR 3 would result in Americans being denied the ordinary, legal, safe and reasonable health care they need and deserve, and it would tie the hands of doctors and nurses who want to provide that care.

Our Catholic social justice tradition encourages us to advocate for the poor, and our intellectual tradition requires our respect for conscience-based decisions people make about their lives, including decisions about reproductive health. Catholics support policies that enable women to make decisions about whether to become pregnant or whether to continue a pregnancy. Large majorities of Catholic voters support access to and coverage for abortions–either in private- or government-run health systems.

Catholic support for family planning and abortion is grounded in the core principles of Catholicism, which respect the moral agency of all people and their right to follow their consciences on all matters. HR 3 is bad for women’s health and for the wellbeing of American families. The US bishops support legislation such as this because they have failed to convince Catholics in the pews of the value of their antichoice agenda. Legislators should not be taken in by their arguments and should listen to those who elected them, and not a small handful of religious leaders.

Jon O’Brien is the president of Catholics for Choice.

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  • FreetoThink

    Mr. O’Brien,Unfortunately, the name Catholics for Choice is an oxymoron. The Catholicism is a hierarchical religion. The clergy, led by the pope, define the religion. They lead, the sheep follow. The laity does not get to choose. They do not get to define what is moral, what is ethical, or what to believe. I predict that your article will be soundly criticized by those who accept dogma uncritically. Of course, American Catholics do actually think for themselves. I hope legislators realize this fact. Bishops should turn around occasionally; they would discover that few are following.

  • whatiscatholic

    Mr. O’Brien,

  • linguist64

    Mr O’Brien’s analysis contains the worn-out, tired canard expressed by most pro-aborts in this country, i.e. the notion of women’s reproductive choices. No one, not one man and not one woman, should have the “choice” to kill an innocent human being. No woman’s choices are closed to her, save that which would end the life of her unborn child. As to the notion of the Church being hierarchical, I refer the gentle reader to the ultimate hiearchy, that of the Trinity. Jesus is the head of the Church. Any questions?

  • Catholicforlife559

    cont. Since it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.Prenatal diagnosis is morally licit, “if it respects the life and integrity of the embryo and the human fetus and is directed toward its safe guarding or healing as an individual.It is gravely opposed to the moral law when this is done with the thought of possibly inducing an abortion, depending upon the results: a diagnosis must not be the equivalent of a death sentence.”One must hold as licit procedures carried out on the human embryo which respect the life and integrity of the embryo and do not involve disproportionate risks for it, but are directed toward its healing the improvement of its condition of health, or its individual survival.”It is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material.”Certain attempts to influence chromosomic or genetic inheritance are not therapeutic but are aimed at producing human beings selected according to sex or other predetermined qualities. Such manipulations are contrary to the personal dignity of the human being and his integrity and identity which are unique and unrepeatable. Bottom line is this: You are Catholic and agree 100% with what the Scripture and the Church (pillar and foundation of Truth) state, or you are not Catholic at all. Simple as that. God Bless

  • usapdx

    As a parent, if your daughter was RAPED, what would you do? Most USA RCs do not fully agree ( 100% ) with what RCC teachings that they know. Canon law written by men years ago on the unborn has no age limit of the mother. Is every sperm sacred?

  • davivman

    People throw around the term Anti-Choice as if somehow limiting choices is the worst thing in the world. We have all sorts of laws that limit people’s choices: laws that prohibit stealing, tax evasion, having more than one spouse at a time, etc. The argument shouldn’t be over how many choices people have, but instead be about whether any particular choice is worthy of having.People that oppose abortion aren’t devious monsters that hate women or seek to prohibit certain procedures merely for the sake of limiting choices. People that oppose abortion see a fetus as human life, as vulnerable human life that cannot speak for itself. Because the decision to terminate another person’s life is believed to be a choice that no one should have no matter how many people want it, people will continue to oppose abortion.I understand, not everybody holds the same opinion about a fetus, and that many see this as a religious issue that they would like to see people keep to themselves. However, this is more than a religious argument. It forces all of us to consider what is the boundary between human and non-human. I’ve heard people deride a fetus as a mere bundle of cells. That sounds like a good description, not just for a fetus, but for any living thing. People argue that a fetus does not have a human consciousness. What kind of a consciousness does a coma victim have? Babies do not form permanent memories until several years after birth. The human brain does not complete its development until people’s early 20s. The intelligence of an adult cow is superior to that of a new born human. People state that a fetus cannot survive outside of its mother’s womb. Do you think infants or certain disabled people can survive without the assistance of others?One thing is certain, a fetus is alive. About a million lives are deliberately terminated via abortion every year in this country. It is not comfortable to think about this, but it is reality.

  • RoundlyMocked

    Dear Mr. O’Brien:I’m a little concerned about the end of your post: “Catholic support for family planning and abortion is grounded in the core principles of Catholicism, which respect the moral agency of all people and their right to follow their consciences on all matters.”I think that perhaps the 5th Commandment – You shall not kill – might be slightly closer to the ‘core principles’ of Catholicism than individual moral agency. Individual moral agency is not an absolute right – if it were, our whole society would be in anarchy. Notice even in the documents of the founding fathers – Life, Liberty & the pursuit of happiness. I think the order is not merely a nice sounding poetic construct. There’s a reason why life comes first. Once a genuine recognition of an individual’s right to life is dissolved – there is NO limit to the range of “liberty” that a person may exercise…Only by guaranteeing a right to life can liberty be fully and truly exercised. Of course – a right to liberty also comes with responsibilities. By focusing on individual moral agency, our nation has not improved liberty, but turned liberty into chaos by taking away any modicum of individual responsibility. I pray that we as Catholics can work together to build up a society which will enhance the liberty of all, by building its foundation on the absolute right to life for each individual.

  • YEAL9

    Bottom Line #1: The failures of the widely used birth “control” methods i.e. the pill and male condom have led to the large rate of abortions ( one million/yr) and S-TDs (19 million/yr) in the USA. Men and women must either recognize their responsibilities by using the pill or condoms properly and/or use other methods in order to reduce the epidemics of abortion and S-TDs. (see the Guttmacher Institute data on failure rates)Bottom line #2-

  • Rau11

    HR3 is a death sentence for women needing emergency abortion surgeries. I’m not a Catholic, along with the overwhelming (75%) majority of the U.S. population. Legally, the term ”person” only applies to already born human beings, not zygotes,embryos or fetuses.Self-identified Catholics use artificial birth control and get abortions as often and as much as non-Catholics. If one wants to count as ”real” Catholics only those who agree with and obey the Bishops, then Catholics would be under 4% of the U.S. population. I’m also against the ”conscience/refusal clause” for individuals and institutions. If one’s conscience dictates that you must refuse medical treatment to others for anything abortion related, get work in another field. Be a podiatrist,gerontologist,lab or x-ray technician, etc. Don’t obstruct patients from getting needed medical care because of your bizarre and questionable ”ethics”. Imagine if ”conscientious” bakery cashiers refused to ring up cake sales to overweight/obese customers, or sales people refused to sell revealing clothing based on their religious ”consciences”! If you’re anti-abortion, don’t get one. Let the Catholic hospitals put their money where their ”conscience” is- let them refuse to take Medicare and Medicaid patients and payments.They’d be out of business in the time it takes to say 5 ”Our Father’s” and 5 ”Hail Mary’s”!