Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Standing with Planned Parenthood: Why I Signed the Petition

A good e-friend of mine, whose insights I respect, has asked me how I can be Catholic and sign a petition stating that I stand with Planned Parenthood, as a group of federal legislators seek to remove all federal funding from that organization.  This is a valid question, and I'd like to try to answer it in this public forum, where others might benefit from this dialogue between two Catholics with a different perspective about Planned Parenthood.

Here are my reasons for signing the petition, for what they're worth:

1. I signed after another e-friend whom I also respect--and who is also a Catholic and a faithful and practicing one--signed the petition and then sent me a link to it.  Like me, this e-friend has an academic background in theology.  She has a degree in ministry from a Catholic university, in fact.  And unlike me, she's a highly engaged, practicing Catholic who hasn't let herself be shoved beyond the margins (as I find myself).  Because I respect her, and because loyalty to friends counts pretty high in my list of virtues, I was happy to stand in solidarity with her when she invited me to sign this petition.

2. Shutting Planned Parenthood down (and that is surely the goal of withdrawing federal funding from it) will harm many people who have few avenues of access to the many valuable services Planned Parenthood provides in addition to abortions.  Many of these are low-income women who need the reproductive planning services of Planned Parenthood, prenatal care, and other valuable medical services provided by the organization.

It strikes me as cruel and immoral to try to prevent the access of those who need Planned Parenthood's services to those services.  It is particularly cruel and immoral to block the access of economically deprived people to much-needed medical services, including services that help poor women carry a healthy baby to term.

3. Though those spearheading the movement to shut Planned Parenthood down keep claiming that federal funds support abortions provided by this organization, that is not the case.  In my view, many of those circulating this disinformation know they are circulating erroneous information.  They are, not to put a fine point on it, lying.

I have been told--and if I am wrong in thinking this to be the case, I would like to be corrected--that Planned Parenthood does not even provide abortions in some areas of the country.  Or when it does so in these areas, those services are strictly limited.  Meanwhile, if I am not mistaken, throughout the nation it does provide much-needed health services, including reproductive ones, which are not widely available through many other medical providers, particularly for low-income people.

I think it's important to ask, too, whether all those calling for Planned Parenthood to be shut down because it provides abortions have investigated their own health care plans to see whether their plans are hermetically sealed from all abortion services.  If not, how do they justify having some of their own withheld dollars used to support abortions?  To be consistent, to be purists, should we not examine all of our contributions and tax funding for each and every organization that may in any way support abortions--and then withhold those funds from those organizations?

4. I have long been convinced that it is absurd for Catholics to claim that they seriously oppose abortion and want to diminish abortions, while at the same time they oppose the widespread availability of contraceptives.  And the use of contraceptives by sexually active people including teens who do not wish to have a child or cannot afford to have and care for a child.  It is inconsistent to say, when it comes to abortion, that the value of preserving life trumps everything else, and then to try to put barriers between sexually active people and contraceptives when those who will likely opt for an abortion if their sexual activity results in a pregnancy are denied access to contraception.

As a corollary to this, I will repeat something I've said over and over on this blog: I am not convinced--not at all--that respect for life is the driving force behind the anti-abortion movement of the political and religious right.  I do not see anywhere near a consistent ethic of respect for life in most of the pro-life movement.  I am highly dubious about the movement that calls itself pro-life, and I find I cannot make common cause with most of the pro-life Catholics I know because much of what they stand for in every area except the abortion area is, in my view, not exemplary in its respect for life.  I find much of what many Catholics who call themselves pro-life morally repugnant--precisely because I respect life.

I also think that the U.S. Catholic bishops have made a colossal mistake in putting all of their eggs into the anti-abortion cause of the religious and political right.  Their obsessive focus on this single issue has not resulted in the creation of a credible pluralistic coalition of people around the country intent on respecting life consistently.  Their reliance on a top-down dictatorial style of leadership which forbids discussion of the nuances and complexities of moral issues including abortion does not assist either Catholics or the culture at large to make intelligent decisions and to inform their consciences about these complex issues.  The result is that the Catholic pro-life movement has marginalized itself in the public square and can exercise influence only by trying to coerce legislators behind the scenes to do the bishops' bidding--as if the bishops are little lords in the land who should have the right to cross the church-state line by pulling political strings in back-room deals.

5. Planned Parenthood first came on my own radar screen in the following way, and this is part of the story of why I am happy to support this particular petition to stand with Planned Parenthood.  At the Catholic college in North Carolina at which I received an unexplained terminal contract some years ago, ending my career as a Catholic theologian, the student newspaper published an ad for Planned Parenthood not too long before I received the terminal contract.

The editor of the newspaper at that time was a theology major.  She did not ask me about placing this ad in the paper.  She did not tell me she intended to place it in the paper.  Nonetheless, because she was a theology major and I was chair of that department, some of the monks who owned this college and some faculty members who had been intent on seeing me fired because they opposed the theology of Vatican II (and, in truth, because I was not a right-wing Republican like them) accused me of nudging this theology major to place the Planned Parenthood ad in the student paper.

The student did come and talk to me after the ad was published and the blowback--which was fierce and exceptionally mean-spirited--began.  She did so because she was personally hurt, and deeply so, by the blowback.  Though her family had been close to the monastery that owned the college, she found herself shunned and disinvited from dinners the abbot held during this tense semester to "unite" the college.  (I was not ever invited to any of these "uniting" dinners, either.)  Faculty members did not hesitate to say slanderous and ugly things about her in class.  When her dorm room had a plumbing problem causing the toilet to back up, the maintenance staff would not fix the problem after repeated requests.

She left the school at the end of the semester, and who can blame her?  This young woman's mother was a former nun.  She came from an exemplary Catholic family.  She told me that the had placed the Planned Parenthood ad in the paper because she herself knew of some five young women at this Catholic campus who had had abortions that semester, and she thought that students should know where to obtain birth control and how to do so.

When the ad appeared, hell broke loose.  There were calls from the bishop's office, screaming at the college's administrators.  The well-organized and well-funded right-wing group of Catholics who have long thought they have unilateral ownership of this school made threats about withdrawing funding.  They also demanded that I be fired--and they evidently did this with the active assistance of the bishop.

Though I had had nothing at all to do with this ad and, in truth, hardly knew who or what Planned Parenthood was at the time, the ad became a convenient excuse to mount an ugly crusade on the campus, in which a number of people were shunned, demonized, attacked, driven away.  And it struck me as interesting to see who led that crusade among the faculty.

Not too long after I received the terminal contract, the abbot held a symbolic, demon-exorcising procession to celebrate the return of the college to orthodoxy.  In this procession, as he held his crozier high, he was accompanied by folks carrying fetal remains to the abbey cemetery to bury.  Lined up behind him was a line of faculty members, all male, all politically arch-conservative, most of whom never set foot in church.  These men had been overjoyed when Anita Hill found herself smeared as a liar during the Clarence Thomas hearings, and when Thomas was confirmed.  When Clinton was elected, they acted as if the world had ended.  The mood in the faculty lounge the day after the election was like the mood at a funeral, whereas it had been like the mood at a party when Thomas was confirmed.

There was, in other words, a clear political context to the "pro-life" movement on this Catholic campus, and it did not take a great deal of insight to see that this particular Catholic pro-life movement was repulsively misogynist and extremely conservative politically.  Those promoting this crusade of respect for fetal life were also bitterly and openly homophobic.  They were, in many cases, racist.  They were crudely heterosexist and determined to maintain this Catholic college as a boys' club welcoming only to them and their kind--though the monastery had, as Benedictine institutions commonly do, a statement over one of its doors stating that every guest must be received as Christ.

This experience is part of what opened my eyes to what the pro-life is really all about, in many Catholic circles.  Since I cannot stand with men like this in their intent to attack women, gays and lesbians, and people of color, or their intent to prevent poor people from having access to medical treatment, I cannot see how I can stand with them when they claim that they are pro-life in opposing abortion.

In my view, much that Planned Parenthood does serves a pro-life ethic, and I am happy to stand with the organization in those areas--even if I do also work for a society in which the choice to have abortions will be less appealing or less necessary for many people.  I find the demonization of Planned Parenthood and the callous crusade to shut down much-needed health services including contraceptive ones by the religious and political right morally repugnant.

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