Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bishops and the Flat Earth: Denying the Poverty-Abortion Link

Do the U.S. Catholic bishops really care about abortion as the overarching moral issue of our time? I’m beginning to wonder.

To be more specific: I’m beginning to wonder if the opposition of the U.S. Catholic bishops to abortion is all about abortion. Or if it’s all about saving the lives of unborn children. I’m wondering if it’s primarily about that often-professed concern, or if it’s actually about something else.

If it’s about diminishing abortions and thus saving fetuses, why did Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), recently inform a reporter that "it's still to be proven what the connection is between poverty and abortion"? Cardinal George made the remark at a press conference during the recent USCCB meeting in Baltimore. He was responding to a question about whether the U.S. Catholic bishops support a focus on reducing abortions by combating poverty and providing better social services to women who are pregnant (

As Jill Filipovic notes on today’s Alternet blog, the evidence for the link between poverty and abortion is solid, well-researched, incontrovertible ( Filipovic cites current National Right to Life statistics showing that 23% of American women who terminate pregnancies report that they do so because they cannot afford a baby ( An additional 19% indicate that they cannot undertake responsibility for a child when they have other children and family commitments that prevent their giving birth.

Filipovic also cites a 2005 Gutmacher Institute study published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 37,3 (Sept. 2005). In this report, entitled “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Quantitative and Qualitative Perspectives,” Lawrence B. Finer and other researchers show that 73% of American women surveyed cite inability to afford a baby now as their reason for choosing abortion (

As Filipovic notes, the discrepancy in the findings of the two studies is explained by the fact that the Gutmacher questionnaire allowed respondents to choose more than one answer when responding to questions about why they had abortions. The National Right to Life study confined respondents to a single answer.

Hard empirical data that completely contradict Cardinal George’s assertion that "it's still to be proven what the connection is between poverty and abortion.” So why does the leader of the U.S. Catholic bishops make such a bold counterfactual statement about abortion and poverty—a statement it is hard to believe he does not know to be incorrect?

Filipovic suggests that he does so because the U.S. Catholic bishops are aligning themselves with far-right fringe groups within the anti-abortion movement that resist social service programs for pregnant women and attempts to reduce poverty on ideological grounds. This may well be part of the explanation for Cardinal George’s denial of the link between abortion and poverty. I think, however, there are others that should be considered as well.

Certainly, as a body, the U.S. bishops have aligned themselves with the Republican party for several decades now, and in aligning themselves with a single political party, have also been willing to toe a neoconservative political line. Neoconservative thought resists the “intrusion” of the state into the lives of citizens (except, of course, where neoconservatives claim that such intrusion is warranted for moral reasons). Neoconservatives place the onus to care for one’s needs on the individual, not the state.

There are moralizing presuppositions underneath this neoconservative ideology of no-state-intrusion when it comes to women and their reproductive lives, as well. There’s the assumption that women behaving well won’t place themselves in positions in which they will have to entertain abortion as a choice. There’s the belief that those who have fallen to the bottom of the social ladder have done so through immoral behavior and lack of self-control.

There are, in other words, all sorts of nasty, untenable assumptions (untenable from a religious standpoint) lurking inside the ideological political worldview to which the American Catholic bishops have cozied up for some years now, and those assumptions can’t be discounted when one looks at the perplexing assertion of Cardinal George that the abortion-poverty link is not yet proven. The bishops have chosen strange political bedfellows, fellows not only disinterested in but positively antithetical to Catholic teaching about solidarity and the common good.

And they’re now paying a price for that allegiance—now that many people of faith in the U.S., including a majority of American Catholics—question this ideological alliance, with all the selective blindnesses it requires of true believers.

I would argue, however, that there’s more going on with Cardinal George’s denial of the abortion-poverty link. There is the obvious fear of the U.S. bishops that dealing with poverty and the needs of poor women will become a back-door way to continued legalization of abortion. There’s the fear that, if the bishops do not attack abortion outright and call for its outlawing, attempts to reduce abortion by addressing its root cause will not ever eradicate abortion from the U.S.

Having watched the bishops react to abortion for decades now, and having watched them consolidate their fateful alliance with right-wing political and religious leaders, I suspect that there are some much larger fears driving many bishops’ resistance to abortion, however. The bishops are afraid of women and the feminine (e.g., of gay men, who are"feminized" in the minds of straight men). Flatly. Pathologically.

They belong to a club of men who fight tooth and nail against female intrusion, at all cost. They are intentionally enmeshed in clerical structures for which attending a women’s ordination is a crime more severely punished than molesting a minor.

The bishops are afraid of women, of women’s power, of women’s freedom to make their own choices and to control their own lives. The bishops are determined to check that control in every way possible, through staunch resistance to abortion and through any and all political avenues to curb women’s autonomy.

I don’t like coming to these conclusions, because the moral calculation and behavior to which they point is so indefensible. I don’t like putting the point so bluntly. But there it is, the unavoidable (and often unacknowledged) driving center from which the bitter struggle against abortion emanates. This battle is a power struggle in which a caste of celibate (or ostensibly celibate) men intend to band together, lock arms, and fight to the end, to preserve their boys’ club intact, with all of its power and privileges.

Insofar as they have determined that the system of clericalism is to be maintained at all cost, the bishops will (and must) do anything possible to combat all social (and ecclesial) forces that threaten their sense of control. The struggle against abortion may well be about saving babies, but it’s about a lot more. It’s about saving men’s control of the world, or illusion of control—the control of heterosexual-identified men. It’s about asserting male power over the feminine as the despised Other. It’s about making men feel safe and secure in a world in which they seem to have been losing power for some time now.

And until we admit and address those underlying concerns in how right-wing Christian men, including Catholic bishops, frame the abortion debate, we will never get very far in discussions of abortion. Or, perhaps better, we won’t get very far until we acknowledge these concerns, admit that the bishops and their cronies do not intend to move beyond them, and make an end-run around the concerns and around the bishops, with other people of faith who really do want to diminish abortion, and who don’t have anything at all invested in preserving clerical power and privilege.