A little over a week ago when Pope Francis announced that all Roman Catholic priests will be given the power to absolve women from “the sin of abortion” during the Holy Year of Mercy, some Catholics declared it as another win for church reform and renewal.
“I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision,” Francis said. “What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope.”
In the wake of the announcement, several critiques of the pontiff’s words have been published in major media outlets. One of the most compelling pieces comes from Karen Barbato, posted the website of Cosmopolitan magazine.
“Catholic women who've had abortions are used to being talked about, but rarely are we heard,” Barbato writes.
A young adult Catholic woman, Barbato participated in the March for Life in Washington as a teenager. She says that before she chose to have an abortion, “I weighed the moral consequences. . . . I thought about whether or not my fetus had a soul. . . . I prayed to the Blessed Mother.” In the end, she made an appointment with Planned Parenthood.
Barbato reminds readers that Francis is not the first pope to broaden the opportunities for forgiveness for abortion:
“In reality, the progressive pope is right in line with his more-conservative predecessors. For the last Jubilee Year, in 2000, Pope John Paul II offered the same forgiveness to women who had abortions. At World Youth Day in 2011, Pope Benedict XVI, who many see as the anti-Francis, let local priests hearing confessions during the event absolve the abortions of young women.”
Barbato says that she and many other Catholic women do not feel that they need forgiveness for their decision to have an abortion. She points to several studies that suggest that very often it isn’t the abortion that causes women emotional distress, but rather "perceptions of stigma, need for secrecy, and low or anticipated social support for [their] decision."
After her own abortion, Barbato says she looked for a support group to talk about the experience. She found the website for Project Rachel, a Catholic group for women who have had abortions. After reading their online materials on “Abortion’s Aftermath,” she says, “the idea that I should be ashamed and drenched in guilt threw me into depression — not the abortion itself.”
An op-ed in the New York Times this week by lawyer and journalist Jill Filipovic expands on Barbato’s point.
Filipovic concedes that some women do feel regret and guilt about their abortion.
“But,” she writes, “women primarily feel guilty when they experience stigma and a lack of support for their choice. In telling women that they can be forgiven during this one year, the pope plays on the ambivalence and embarrassment that can come from silence around abortion.”
Filipovic also analyzes how the pope’s decision plays into the larger strategy of the anti-abortion movement:
“While the pope’s announcement has been hailed as evidence of the church’s new, softer approach, it’s actually the latest example of the modern anti-abortion strategy: Portray women as victims who need to be protected from themselves with laws that restrict abortion rights.”
The strategy, Filipovic says, has been successful in many courts over the past few years. For decades, women who entered abortion clinics were called “murderers” by surrounding protestors.
“Today,” Filipovic writes, “the picketer is most likely a self-styled sidewalk ‘counselor,’ often shouting ‘you’re a mother now’ and ‘don’t kill your baby.’”
The morphing of anti-abortion demonstrators into “sidewalk counselors” convinced the Supreme Court to strike down the buffer zone law. The courts reasoned “that the individuals chasing women down the sidewalk ‘are not protesters; they seek not merely to express their opposition to abortion, but to engage in personal, caring, consensual conversations with women about various alternatives.’”
Given his previous pronouncements on sexuality, women and children, it is unimaginable that Pope Francis would alter the church’s teaching on abortion. Nevertheless, those who celebrate the pope’s action as another milestone in mercy should read his words in the broader context of the church’s highly-influential, well-funded, global agenda against the accessibility of reproductive health care.
Those who consider the pope’s decision a victory for a more progressive church should also be willing to listen to the responses of women who have had abortions, and consider the psychological and spiritual harm that may be provoked by this ostensible act of mercy:
“That's the thing about Francis's forgiveness,” Barbato writes. “It may sound nice, but there are strings attached. In order to truly repent and be let back into the Catholic Church, women must admit that they've committed a grave sin — a murder.”
[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]