When most people — or at least pro-choice people — think of the pro-life movement, I think that they think of Westboro Baptist Church-esque Christians. They think of the kind of Christians who shout obscenities at the undeserving, speak in tongues, charm snakes and a menagerie of other clearly irrational and antiquated sayings and actions. Unfortunately, whether most people in the U.S. realize it or not, the pro-life movement is predicated on the actions of “moderate Christians” such as Lutherans, Anglicans and, most importantly, Catholics. In fact, the “right-to-life movement” in the United States would not exist without the Catholic Church.
The fact of the matter is that the Church’s hardline stance against abortion and contraceptives is essentially anti-woman. Its stance has caused far more harm than good; the Church has fundamentally prevented women from exercising their right to self-determination. It is clear anywhere in the world that empowerment of women, particularly sexual and reproductive empowerment, lifts the floor of poverty.
The “progressiveness” of the Church under Pope Francis should not deceive anyone into thinking that the Catholic Church has changed its views. While Pope Francis himself may be focused on combatting poverty and injustice, it would be foolhardy to think that the bulk of the pro-life movement would just cease overnight, after its centuries-long history.
This, as expected, has grave repercussions. According to Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund, “When girls are educated, healthy and can avoid child marriage, unintended pregnancy and HIV, they can contribute fully to their societies’ battles against poverty.”
The Catholic Church formally opposed abortion and contraceptives even before Roe v. Wade. In 1968, Pope Paul VI published an encyclical title “Humanae Vitae” that expressly forbade abortion and most forms of contraception. In response, American Catholic bishops began to overwhelmingly stress pro-life views as a central aspect of Catholic identity in direct opposition to what they perceived as an overly permissive, secular American culture. Doing so only served to alienate them from segments of American society.
Strangely enough, the opinion of church officials on the matter of contraceptives was not as universal at it may appear. In 1963, Pope John XXIII commissioned a 72 member Pontifical Commission on Birth Control (composed of Bishops, theologians, physicians and five women) to study the effects of birth control on the modern Roman Catholic Church. In 1966, the commission released a report supported by 65 members which stated that artificial birth control was not intrinsically evil and that couples should be allowed to decide birth control methods for themselves. This decision came as a logical extension of the Church’s preferred “Cycle Method” of contraception as well as by the clear evidence of the beneficial effects of empowering women reproductively.
Instead of acting on evidence and taking other positions into account, Pope Paul VI held close to tradition and issued “Humanae Vitae” and the Catholic Church’s position on abortion and contraceptives has remained concrete ever since. The essential problem with church decision making is that in cases where it must choose between tradition and progression, the Church always picks tradition — to the detriment of people around the world and to the detriment of its own credibility as a charitable organization.
In patriarchal societies, contraceptives and abortion give women power they previously did not have. Women are no longer forced to have unwanted children nor are they chained to the will of the men in their lives. Instead, women are given the choice to focus on what they want and we see the translation between women’s reproductive rights to stronger societies socially, culturally and economically.
Then it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the National Right to Life Committee, created at the urging of the National Council of Catholic Bishops, would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade with a Human Life Amendment that would also prevent Congress and states from legalizing abortion, a direct attack on essential American ideals of individual freedom and democracy.
It’s not hard to imagine why the Church has so much pull today: there are over a billion Catholics worldwide and 23 percent of people in the U.S. alone are Catholics. It’s unfortunate that the Catholic Church focuses so heavily on abortion because ultimately, it helps no one. Women who are prevented from getting safe and legal abortions will be forced to get dangerous operations in secret. And so, more children will be born, only to find themselves unwanted by their biological parents and will often times be placed into the foster care system for years.
Hopefully, Pope Francis can change the Church’s stance on contraceptives and abortion in the way that most people expected it to change in the mid 1960s. Otherwise, his fight against poverty and injustice will be a fruitless crusade against symptoms rather than the problems that lie at the core of social issues. The Church’s perception of women’s rights is a critical factor in deciding whether or not it is a net good for the world. As of now, the Church’s position on contraceptives and abortion ultimately prevent it from being something that provides a net good for the world.
Roy M. Lyle is a first-year literary journalism major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.