Outraged (or, “This is what a pro-choice Catholic looks like”)

speak upby Kate Henley Averett

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.


8 Responses

  1. hear hear. let’s hope that our (hopefully) new sup ct justice, also a liberal catholic, feels the same and argues for it as eloquently.

  2. I have been reading this blog for a few weeks now, and this article really struck a chord with me. It is so well-written. I, too, am a pro-choice Catholic who has struggled with people who think that Catholicism = pro-life. I have my Catholic friends who are aghast at my pro-choice standing and non-Catholic friends who assume I am pro-life simply based on my religion.
    At one time, I stood as pro-life because I was told it was what I SHOULD be. But then I encountered a woman who really made me step back and reconsider, and I’m so glad that I did.
    Thank you for such a well-written perspective.

  3. Kate,

    Wow, that was awesome. A deeply thoughtful examination of, as you put it, a “real, human, messy, complicated” issue. And a clear expression of why pro-abortion Catholic is not just not an oxymoron, but actually quite sensible.

    Sadly, this issue is so completely polarized that few are likely to reflect on your essay sufficiently to question their own fanatical devotion to their stance. I hope I’m wrong, though…

    As always, a pleasure to read your writing. You have a beautiful mind, and you express it so well in your writing.

    Proud Dad

  4. Kate, I knew this piece would be very resonant as soon as I read the first line: “I have to admit that sometimes, I have a hard time writing, and speaking, about abortion.”

    If there is anything in my life I am more consistently quiet and more closeted about than abortion, this is a secret even from me. I try not to talk about abortion, and have, in the past, simply said nothing in discussions when, if there were almost any other issue on the table, I would have been vociferously taking part.

    I try to avoid getting involved. But wow, is it ever on my mind. Your piece has helped me stop blaming either my cowardice or everyone else’s dogmatism or both, and realize a little more why I have this incredible reluctance.

    It’s because my views don’t seem fit, and because I have absorbed the idea that the polemical stands of either side of this issue are, in fact, the only legitimate or possible views to have. My ambivalence amounts to a non-view, a non-argument, some sort of way of avoiding making a decision–even in my own head. Internalized ambiviphobia, or something. Because if I say I’m pro-life, people assume that I believe making abortion illegal and criminal is a just and moral act– I don’t. If I say I’m pro-choice, people assume that I do not consider fetal life fully human and worthy of protection– I do.

    I began my journey to this position from a fairly traditional pro-life stance in high school. I’d been taught this way, and it made sense to me– after all, I was born three months early. Was I worthy of life only because I was desired by my parents? Was my value as a human being connected to my wantedness? I felt such an idea was outrageous. I still do.

    But I knew someone who’d had an abortion– someone loving, and kind, and a good mother to her son later in life– and I could imagine a few of the factors that would lead to making such a difficult choice. The door was open to change on the issue.

    In college, I encountered a majority of incredible, engaged, compassionate women who supported the right to choose an abortion, most of them passionately. I also encountered incredible, engaged, compassionate women who did not. I didn’t know which I was or where I fit, so, while my position gradually shifted, I began to try to avoid any real involvement in the issue. I let my Feminists for Life membership lapse. I averted my eyes from posters of bloodied fetuses. I averted my mouth from voicing my ambivalence.

    I learned more (I am still learning) about the structures which oppress and destroy women, literally stripping us of our humanness and our value, and the ways in which those structures interact with abortion. I learned more (I am still learning) about the structures of economic violence that make, in everyday reality, a person’s life dependent on vagaries of birth, opportunity, and I began to see the recurrent violent resistance to any kind of meaningful equity between people. I came to see that how many lives are devalued– what an astonishing, terrifying, almost impossible challenge it would be to be pro-life in every respect. Yet this kind of challenge is to what I feel (terrifyingly) called.

    I want to be able to explain where I stand– to let it be understood that I think abortion is a tragic, unutterably significant loss–I think it is violent and destructive for women and babies– and that I think it must be legal and safe, because to criminalize it is only another kind of violence. Because women’s bodies and women’s lives have been as literally and truly torn as any aborted fetus, and until there is real value, sacrificial-where-necessary, system-transforming value, placed on every human life– this means an economic situation where nobody starves while others have abundance, an educational and health care situation in which sexual shame and ignorance are deliberately and fully transformed, a political situation in which no body is demeaned or destroyed because of its shape, gender, color, etc. (and these are just a few, a very few, examples)– until we make those changes, there is no way to stop abortion and still create justice.

    Believe me, I want that other world. I want a world with real justice and without abortion. I am truly disturbed by abortion, and the idea that wantedness determines human worth, or even identity (“fetus” vs. “baby”, for example), appalls me as deeply as it ever did.

    But I know that making abortion illegal will only take and cripple more lives. It will not even, for example, stop abortion.

    And now my comment to you has turned into some kind of long manifesto– but I really feel like you called me out of the abortion views closet here. Taking myself out of the debate, as I have done, is not sufficient– that’s what your post says to me. Telling the truth is important, even if it doesn’t put me neatly in one of two acceptable boxes.

    I think many of us may not fit in those boxes, we’re just trying to squeeze in, because we see how deeply this question matters. But I think the road to justice must and shall involve perspectives that just don’t really fit… Actually, this is one of those projects I want to talk to you about at some point.

    And that’s really enough from me for now. Delighted to be in the same club as you, as always.


  5. Thanks for writing this. Like Becky, who so eloquently wrote about some of the things I’ve been thinking about since this post was written, I don’t think I could put myself in either the pro-choice or pro-life camp.

  6. What a wonderful piece and dialog. You are so right! It is a messy complicated business. I work in a profession where I have to counsel people on this issue and as a Christian I have yet to figure out what is ‘morally right’. There are injustices in the views of both of the polarized sides and good points too. Thankfully I do not have to counsel people as often as I used to about this- education, birth control and condoms to prevent STDs has decreased the demand in my little section of the world. I used to be rabidly pro-choice. As I have matured and experienced more of life, I am more of a centrist. All I know is I am not anti-choice/pro-life. Every time I try and examine the issue I end up deciding this is one of those things that God, alone, knows the true answer for.

  7. “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.” As an abortion proponent do you want anyone to assume that eugenisist Margaret Sanger represents you? The code word you used “affordable” really outed you as a someone who wants poor and minority children dead.

  8. Valerie – What I hope that my piece portrayed is that I think abortion is a complex issue, and one that I don’t think any one prominent person, symbol, or group represents me on. That’s why I felt so compelled to add my voice to the mix…because I felt like my view wasn’t being represented.

    What I also hope my piece conveyed is that this is not an issue I approach lightly. I don’t think there are easy answers to it, like I don’t think there are easy answers to poverty, sexism, etc. But one thing I know for sure is that I never would have intended for my view that abortion should be affordable to imply that I want abortion to be targeted to poor and minority women. I do think that cost should not be a prohibitive factor for any form of health care, including women’s health care, and I think that abortion services – and reproductive health generally – fall into this category. I’m horrified that anyone might think that I’m “someone who wants poor and minority children dead.” Nothing could be further from the truth.

    But it is true that to talk about abortion without talking about economic and racial justice would be irresponsible. Just making abortion legal isn’t enough, in my mind. If work isn’t done simultaneously to combat poverty and to tear down racist and white supremacist structures in our society, then having legal abortion that is safe and accessible to all women (of whatever means) is like treating one symptom of a sickness instead of addressing the overall illness. There are all sorts of interlocking injustices and oppressions that need to be worked on, because it’s true that poor and minority women in our country often face extra hurdles that can affect the rates at which, or reasons for which, they seek out abortion services. One of the reasons for having an abortion that American women most frequently cite is that they don’t feel like they have any choice, and anyone who is pro-choice should be troubled by that.

    I know that this isn’t a sufficient answer to the question of what to do about the relationship between race, poverty, and abortion, but I think that it’s at least a good starting point to acknowledge this relationship and be open to dialogue about it. Like with the great project of “social justice” in general, this is definitely something that I’m constantly thinking about and always willing to be challenged on, so I thank you for the opportunity to think more about this.


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