I have to admit that sometimes, I have a hard time writing, and speaking, about abortion. Maybe the years of passing that blue station wagon in the parking lot on the way into Mass every Sunday, the one with the bumper sticker that said “You can’t be Catholic and pro-choice,” really got to me. Or maybe it’s because I’m afraid that just claiming the titles “Catholic” and “pro-choice” in the same sentence will cause conversation to automatically shut down, and that anybody I may reach, real or hypothetical, will resort to the usual talking points about why I’m wrong, points that my own talking points are, unfortunately, not really designed to address. Perhaps I fear judgment from fellow Catholics, or perhaps I mostly just dislike the frustration that comes with unproductive rhetoric-slinging.
But today, I have to speak up.
I have to speak up because I’m really distraught by the murder of Dr. George Tiller. I’m responding, in part, to the charge given by Gloria Feldt , former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in her Salon.com commentary on Tiller’s murder.
I want to hear massive outrage on the part of the community…When it comes to decrying Tiller’s unspeakable murder, I want to hear it from Congress. I want to hear it from clergy, the medical profession, the media and civic leaders: “This kind of violation will not be tolerated. Period.” I want to see leaders and people at the grassroots joining hands together in support of those who provide women with reproductive health services, including abortion.
I’m not in congress, I’m not a doctor or a “civic leader,” and while I do hold an MDiv, I’m obviously not clergy. But I do feel called by this statement. I feel called because of the link in the public imagination between Catholicism and militant pro-life activities. Because the Planned Parenthood clinic I pass on my way to work on Saturdays has protestors outside with a crucifix, a poster of the Virgin, and rosaries, and I don’t want anybody assuming that because I am Catholic, too, these protestors represent me.
I need to say, loud and clear, that I am not pro-choice despite being Catholic, but because I am Catholic. I care deeply about the sanctity of life and think that we should be doing all that we can to reduce the need for abortion, but I adamantly believe that in addition to being rare, abortion should be safe, legal, affordable, and accessible. And I believe this because of my deeply ingrained, Catholic commitment to social justice. I believe it because, as Kierra Johnson, Executive Director, Choice USA reminds us, “the denial of reproductive and sexual health information and services disproportionately impacts the women of color, low income families, immigrants, and youth,” and as far as I’m concerned, these are the very poor that our “preferential option” is supposed to apply to. I believe, as I’m sure almost all Catholics do, that murdering an abortion provider is simply not okay, but I also believe that ignoring the injustices that women, and especially low-income women and women of color, face in our society is also not okay. Both, I believe, are cause for outrage.
Above all, I believe that if we are to truly work for justice on this issue, we need to stop with the rhetoric-slinging and start listening to the stories of women who use services like Dr. Tiller’s and those at the clinic I pass most weeks. We have to, as Judith Warner’s eloquent and, I think, spot-on editorial for the Times does, move past rhetoric and grapple with reality. Because it’s rhetoric – like referring to abortions as murders and the doctors who provide them as murderers – that fosters the conditions for tragic actions like the shooting of Dr. Tiller and many other acts of violence and vandalism targeting abortion providers. And it’s reality – like the stories Warner points to of young girls who have been raped and whose bodies are too small to support a pregnancy, of women who have found out that the baby they are carrying, desired and loved, has severe defects and will not survive beyond a few painful days out of the womb, and the countless stories of women who seek abortion because they don’t have a choice – that remind us that behind the politics this is a real, human, messy, complicated issue, one that demands a real, human, complicated, and compassionate response.
Kate Henley Averett received her MDiv in 2008 from Harvard Divinity School. She is a writer, activist, nanny, choreographer, and pro-choice Catholic. She is outraged by injustice, and hopes you are too.