On the first day of class, each of us seated in the medium-sized lecture hall shared why we had decided to pursue a master’s in public health and what we intended to do with the degree. Most students talked about wanting to work for clinics in underserved communities or for humanitarian programs abroad. But one colleague’s response stood out: “I want to work for Planned Parenthood, and someday, I want to be the president of Planned Parenthood.”
I was stunned by the statement. But no one else was.
During my 16 years of Catholic schooling, I had never heard Planned Parenthood mentioned so casually—and so favorably—in a classroom setting. And in all my years living in the Midwest, where most people I knew were Christians of some stripe, it had never occurred to me that revealing my faith to someone might create tension. But now I found myself on the East Coast, in public health school, and I was the only Catholic that I knew of in my cohort.
In a very pro-choice environment, I represented the other side of an issue and, I feared, all the stereotypes that come with it.
I kept my Catholic identity to myself for most of the first semester. I worried how I would be perceived if I discussed my faith openly. In a very pro-choice environment, I represented the other side of an issue and, I feared, all the stereotypes that come with it. To some of my classmates, being pro-life meant protesting and shaming women outside abortion clinics—the same clinics at which they volunteered as patient escorts.
Eventually, it became difficult to hide my Catholicism. Any classmate I became friends with on Facebook knew I loved two things: babies (I am a doula, after all) and Pope Francis. But I decided that if I were to get along, make friends and not be seen as anti-woman or some sort of fanatic, I needed to avoid engaging in conversations about the morality of abortion—and I was happy to do just that.
I had long ago abandoned the pro-life movement of my high school and college years. The people I walked beside at the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., trafficked in the extreme: graphic images of abortions or displays of faith that bordered on self-righteousness. And it was these voices that seemed to have the most funding, publicity and political clout. Groups like Feminists for life or Pro-Life Democrats were also present at the march, but their witness seemed overshadowed.
If I were to get along, I needed to avoid engaging in conversations about the morality of abortion—and I was happy to do just that.
About a year into my graduate coursework, I was approached by the professor of a reproductive health advocacy course, a woman of faith I deeply admired. Her request was surprising: Could I write up a brief summary of the Catholic view on abortion for her class to read? She wanted students to be exposed to all sides of the issue, but most of all to understand “the other side” in the way they understood themselves.
I readily agreed and got to work. The most natural place to begin was St. John Paul II’s “The Gospel of Life.” I had not read the document in years, and upon revisiting it I realized: This encyclical is not just about being pro-life; it is also about social justice.
“Decisions that go against life,” the pope writes, “sometimes arise from difficult or even tragic situations of profound suffering, loneliness, a total lack of economic prospects, depression and anxiety about the future.” He later poses the question: “Should we not question the very economic models often adopted by States which...cause and aggravate situations of injustice and violence in which the life of whole peoples is degraded and trampled upon?”
Frequently, difficult situations are presented to justify abortion, and yet abortion falls woefully short as a solution to the problem.
Frequently, difficult situations are presented to justify abortion, and yet abortion falls woefully short as a solution to the problem. Take the example of a single mother living in poverty with multiple children who has an abortion because she lacks the economic means to care for another child. The fundamental issue for this family—the upstream cause, as practitioners in the public health world might say—is not pregnancy, but poverty. Should we as a society fight for the right of this woman to have an abortion? Or should we put that energy toward lifting her and her family out of poverty? According to “The Gospel of Life,” we do not need to choose between defending life and working to create the material conditions that can support that life.
Not long after the class read my summary of Catholic pro-life teaching, a friend who was the teaching assistant for the course approached me. She said that she knew I had written the piece, and I braced myself for her reaction. But instead of spewing the hatred and venom I had been told to expect from the other side, she expressed nothing but respect for my point of view. “I don’t agree with you,” she said. “You know that. But I will say, I had never heard it explained that way.”
Sadly, neither had I. Most of my life in the pro-life movement, the most prominent messages focused exclusively on the morality of abortion. Social justice—the idea that we must advocate for circumstances favorable to raising a child and allowing him or her to thrive—was never mentioned. I believe a good number of my pro-choice classmates could find common ground with that position.
In all my years in the pro-life movement, had I been told that most pro-choice advocates want to keep abortion rare.
Nor, in all my years in the pro-life movement, had I been told that most pro-choice advocates want to keep abortion rare. Many of the pro-choice friends I made in my public health program fought for abortion rights but did not celebrate actual abortions themselves—a stereotype that has only served to further polarize the issue.
Ironically, by enrolling in a largely pro-choice program I was able to articulate a pro-life vision that I could truly believe in: a movement not dominated by the legality or morality of abortion but one continually advocating laws that are conducive to bringing life into the world. Just and equal wages, paid parental leave, universal health care as a human right, subsidized quality child care, a world free of racism, violence and sexism—for me these goals are intertwined with my opposition to abortion. Those are policies that my classmates, the public health world, pro-life and pro-choice advocates alike, could get behind.
A pro-life movement built on social justice would be equipped to address one of the predominant reasons women have abortions, socioeconomic circumstances. The public health world has now gotten behind what we call the social determinants of health, the idea that the conditions in which we live affect our health and well-being. Those same social determinants influence a woman’s decision to have an abortion.
By enrolling in a largely pro-choice program I was able to articulate a pro-life vision that I could truly believe in.
Yet that rallying cry, that priceless common ground where so much progress could be made, is woefully overshadowed by charged rhetoric, alienating stereotypes, shame, blame and single-issue voting.
All of this stirs up within me a feeling, the familiar feeling I get every morning when I pass the Planned Parenthood clinic and see the same scene. There are women in bright neon vests near the door escorting women into the clinic—young volunteers who could easily be my classmates and friends. And mixed among them are protesters bent over in prayer or handing out pamphlets—older women who could easily sit beside me in the pew on Sunday.
There are thousands of young pro-life women like me who are not outside that clinic praying, passing brochures or holding graphic signs. We have found ourselves outside of a movement we once identified with. Even as we become active in today’s struggle for women’s rights, we hold on to our foundational belief in the dignity of life at all stages.
We are sitting at the stoplight, observing this scene in a sort of unsettled sadness—knowing full well there is so much work we, as pro-life women, have left to do.