The healthcare reform debate in Congress has brought to the fore a sharp division within the Catholic Church. The lines are drawn by gender: Catholic bishops focused on the unborn on one side; Catholic nuns advocating for the already-born on the other.
The bishops have opposed President Obama’s healthcare reform plan on the grounds that it does too little to guard against public money being used for abortion. But the nuns have taken a broader view and backed the plan.
Not since October 7, 1984 when an historic New York Times ad sponsored by Catholics for Free Choice -- with 97 nuns, priests, theologians and feminists signing on to defy Rome and defend vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro's pro-choice position -- has there been such a public battle. When the dust settled back then, all of the priests who’d signed the letter succumbed to Vatican pressure to recant. Most of the nuns, however, refused to back off. Those determined women and their orders became the underpinnings of America's pro-choice Catholic majority.
Many nuns feel they have little to lose in challenging bishops because they have been treated so shabbily by their hierarchy. Many of America's nuns supporting Obama's healthcare initiative were, until recently, among the "uninsured" that the bill addresses. Only in the past two decades have US bishops taken up an annual collection to pay for basic health insurance for nuns, and for their decades of unpaid Social Security.
Regarding the abortion-funding question, federal dollars have long been unavailable to abortion patients. Since Jimmy Carter told American women "life is unfair" when they asked why their sisters on public assistance should be denied access to legal abortions, poor women, female government employees, women in the military and all female dependents covered by federal health plans have had no abortion coverage.
But the prospect of national reform prompted anti-choice extremists to demand that no tax dollars be used for health insurance plans that cover abortion for those who wish to use it. Nuns replied that a true pro-life view focuses on the millions of uninsured men, women and children who will be saved under a national plan.
Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Michigan) has led the pack of Catholic lawmakers looking for ever-tighter abortion restrictions. After a prolonged holdout, he announced his support for the Obama plan on Sunday after the president agreed to issue an executive order clarifying that the Hyde Act (which bans federal funding of abortions) applies to the new law.
But in withholding his support for so long and endangering the bill, Stupak ignored the endorsement of the plan by nuns, Catholic hospitals (through the Catholic Health Association), and the Catholic press (through the respected National Catholic Reporter ) -- all of them "pro-life."
Stupak told the New York Times that “when I deal or am working on right-to-life issues, we don't call the nuns." I bet he doesn't. He probably doesn't ask any other women for their opinions on problem pregnancy options, either.
The new healthcare law will doubtless do nothing to impinge on contraception, male and female sterilization, and endless prescriptions for "erectile dysfunction" so that some men can have even more and better sex outside of marriage. All such activities would take Catholics into the "mortal sin" zone as quickly as any abortion would, yet on all of those points, the bishops are (thankfully) silent.
Abortion has become the "evil of drink" of this century, and legal prohibitions against it always fail as dismally as the 18th amendment banning alcohol did. Catholics have always used abortion services as often as women from other faiths or no faith, despite the ranting of bishops. Maybe the "burning in hell" message has been drowned out by the hypocrisy among priests and the hierarchy regarding their own sexual behavior and crimes.
Today, as when nuns and others first challenged Rome on abortion in ‘84, too many women are dying from breast cancer, ovarian cancer, overlooked cardiac crises, ignored psychoses that may lead to suicide, domestic abuse injuries and deaths, and a host of other illnesses, injuries and fatalities a national health plan might help identify, diagnose, treat, avoid and even cure. Women are uninsured in larger numbers than men, and their children go uninsured, and untreated, with them. The already-born need care and compassion in the purest form of "respect for human life."
Those are the only truths that will matter to most women in the pews at Mass on Sundays. Catholic women (and laymen) know how complicated life can be, and how much flexibility and compassion is needed for all of us to survive (especially in today's economy). That is why Catholics and others whose faiths may forbid abortion often ignore such prohibitions and have always done so.
Some clergy, including Catholic bishops, take the simplistic view where there is no grey area except in their personal worlds, but in doing so they damage the credibility of their church and they insult the intelligence and the moral commitment of their flocks.
The majority of American Catholics -- often led by the nuns of their childhood -- have always chosen reasonable responses to complicated and personal life challenges, even when their clergy have seemed unable to do so. Such a rational approach is the best example of the appropriate and rightful exercise of free will and conscience. (Both of these are basic to Catholic teaching, in which they are called “the sense of the faithful.”)
The bishops and men like Mr. Stupak make a grave mistake in underestimating the power of reason and compassion over dogmatic tyranny. And history shows they risk failing miserably.
Mary Ann Sorrentino was Executive Director of Planned Parenthood of Rhode Island 1977-1987. In 1985 she was formally declared "excommunicated" because of that work. She is a columnist and author of "Abortion: The A-Word" (Gadd Books). This post also appears on her Open Salon blog.