Exploring the Intersections of Faith and Reproductive Rights

Recently, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona co-hosted a workshop with Catholics for Choice, where we explored the intersections of faith and reproductive rights. Marissa Valeri, a Senior Associate in CFC’s Domestic Program, gave workshop attendees an overview of Catholic beliefs as they relate to abortion and birth control, and encouraged the audience to think about how their own religious background has influenced their views on abortion.

One of the points that really resonated with me is that Catholics believe that their individual conscience should be the ultimate guide to what is right, and what is wrong. If someone’s conscience tells them that something is morally right, they should follow their intuition, even if it contradicts a teaching from the Vatican.

I grew up in the Mormon Church. Mormons share a similar belief that everyone will be judged for their own lives and not be held accountable for something someone else does. Mormons also believe in personal revelation from God. I personally believe that if a woman prays about the decision to obtain an abortion and she feels that it is the right decision, no one is in a position to call her decision into question – not even her bishop.

Another thing that stood out for me was that even the Pope doesn’t know when life begins, or when the body receives a soul. If the Pope is the right hand of God and he doesn’t even know the answer to this question, I doubt that the debate will ever be settled.

Earlier this month, Catholics for Choice released a statement from pro-choice Catholic political leaders urging Congress to keep Title X funding for family planning services. This statement is just the most recent sign there is a strong pro-choice contingent within faith communities, and that reproductive rights advocates should find ways to work together with faith communities to help protect access to women’s health.

Marissa Valeri explains that she thinks it’s important for the pro-choice community and faith communities to work together because, “Faith and spirituality are essential parts of humanity. In order to look at any community in a truly holistic way, we need to address faith. This is also true when we are discussing reproductive health care issues. If you ignore faith, you are ignoring an integral part of people’s lives.”

“This is especially true in the Catholic community,” says Valeri. “There is a feeling from some that, because the hierarchy has a well-known position on abortion and contraception, there is no reason to try and connect with the Catholic faithful. Yet the vast majority of Catholics in the United States disagree with the hierarchy on issues like abortion, contraception, emergency contraception and condoms for HIV prevention. It’s absolutely critical that we connect and work together rather than to work off of assumptions that are too often wrong.”

When asked how pro-choice advocates can do a better job of reaching out to faith communities, Valeri has a very clear answer.

“I think we can all benefit from tearing down our own assumptions about people of faith or faith traditions,” she says. “We all hold our own views about religion, so the best place is to begin within ourselves and challenge these myths that we carry. A big goal of my own work is to shatter myths people hold about Catholics and Catholic teachings. I am often surprised at the reactions I get from progressive people on the left to the work that I do. There is a feeling among some on the left that mirrors the view of people like Bill Maher – if you are religious or identify with a particular faith it is no different than believing in a fairy tale. I believe strongly that you cannot connect with people if you cannot respect their beliefs. Outreach is only effective if it starts from a place of mutual respect.”

Valeri goes onto explain that “people of faith are already engaged in advocacy and volunteering within the pro-choice movement. We need to encourage everyone to speak from a place of faith when talking about reproductive health care issues, and they should encourage others within their communities to do so as well as they are able to. It is our role to provide the resources and spaces for these conversations and for this important advocacy.”

16 thoughts on “Exploring the Intersections of Faith and Reproductive Rights

  1. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Church has always maintained the historic Christian teaching that deliberate acts of contraception (and abortion) are always gravely sinful, which means that it is mortally sinful if done with full knowledge and deliberate consent (CCC 1857). This teaching cannot be changed and has been taught by the Church infallibly.

    • David, it’s interesting that you say that, because CFC has pointed to very specific parts of Catholic dogma in order to make their arguments about Catholicism and abortion and birth control. I will ask Marissa to specifically respond to your arguments – she’s the expert on the subject.

      • Truth is truth, even when nobody agrees with it. And lies are lies, even when everyone is telling them. The Catholic Church has never been a democracy. They propose to us what is right, they do not impose, and so we’re free to disagree, but then we’re also free to be denied eternal life with God.
        John Paull II’s lengthy encyclical Evangelium Vitae dogmatically affirms that all forms of birth control are illicit, as is abortion. Section 13 speaks about contraception and 58 through 65 speak about abortion.

      • No, a new study says that 98% of Catholic women ages 15-55 who are sexually active have used birth control at some point in time in their lives. This does not include Catholic women who are not sexually active (like the 11% of Catholic women who are in religious orders), nor does it include pregnant or infertile women. The study includes women who have only used the pill for medical reasons and not contraceptive reasons, which the Church does not oppose. It also includes Natural Family Planning as a contraceptive method (it is not); NFP is also Church-approved. Because I am 28, sexually active and use NFP in my marriage, this study included me in it’s numbers, and I have never even put hormonal bc in my body our used another method of bc. When you remove the skew of the numbers, only about 25% of Catholic women in total actually use birth control primarily as birth control.

        Also, CFC in no way speaks for the Catholic Church. They have been repeatedly reprimanded for their deliberate disobedience to the Church, and as a Catholic woman, I am appalled that anyone would assume they represent anything Catholic, especially women in the Church. Seriously, take two seconds and learn what the Church had taught for the past 2000 years. It hadn’t changed much, and trust me, it won’t in the future.

        • I haven’t read the study so I can’t comment on it, but “11% of Catholic women who are in religious orders” does not sound right to me. You’re telling me that more than 1 out of 10 Catholic females are celibate due to being in religious orders? I am highly skeptical.

          I don’t think anyone here is making the claim that Catholics for Choice speaks for the Catholic Church. It seems to me that they speak for pro-choice Catholics, of which there are many. Unless you want to make the “no true Scotsman” argument, but that’s a debate for Catholics to have amongst themselves.

          If you take more than two seconds to study the history of religion … I think you’ll see that Catholicism actually has changed a lot over the years.

    • This interview focused specifically on the Catholic Church, since the workshop hosted by Catholics for Choice was about Catholic views on abortion and birth control. However, I think you’ve given some good suggestions for future articles. 🙂

  2. Last year I read a really interesting book by Bernard Asbell called The Pill: A Biography of the Drug That Changed the World. (Unfortunately out of print, but easily obtainable either used or from the library.) Initially I was only interested in how the birth control pill was developed by scientists, but the book had an extensive section covering the Vatican’s response to its invention. To my surprise I found that portion very engaging — it’s amazing how close the Pope seemed to come to sanctioning the Pill’s use rather than condemning it. It’s also interesting that the current pope seems to be saying that using condoms during non-procreative sex acts is the lesser of two “evils” when the barriers are being used to prevent the transmission of HIV. The Vatican has also recognized a heliocentric solar system, and has seemed to reconcile their teachings with the theory of evolution by natural selection. To say that the Catholic Church is the exact same organization it was hundreds of years ago is to ignore clear evidence that it is evolving, just like any other community of people will change over time.

    Some people seem to be annoyed that anyone whose interpretation of religious doctrine differs from their own continues to label themselves members of said religion. To commenters like David up there, words like “Catholic” mean something very specific, and when people with opposing views claim that word for themselves it represents a threat on the very meaningfulness of what it is to be “Catholic.” I guess I can relate in a way; I am annoyed when people who eat fish call themselves “vegetarians.” But as an outsider to religion, I look at schisms in the Catholic Church (or any church) as inevitable occurrences that are going to happen in reaction to cultural changes.

    A person like David seems not to have any moral qualms about restricting the choices a person can make about her own body, so of course he will have no problem clinging to the interpretation he claims is infallible. Likewise, someone who does have moral qualms about this interpretation is going to follow their conscience and find an interpretation that fits their own sense of morality. I don’t think this is a case of people allowing a religion to dictate their own morality, but a case of people recognizing their own morality and shaping a post-hoc religious outlook in response to it.

    • Anna, very thoughtful comment, as usual. I think your vegetarian analogy is on point, and I think the same argument could be made about the term “pro-choice.” Some people consider themselves pro-choice, although they personally oppose late-term abortion. Some people also would never obtain an abortion themselves, but they still support the right of other women to choose abortion. The “pro-choice” label can mean different things to different people, and I don’t think that we should ever exclude someone from the conversation simply because we have different views on what it means to be “pro-choice.”

    • Hello, Anna,
      Let me ask you a question. Does an adult look like it did when it was a baby? Does an oak tree look like an acorn? Is the DNA the same? The fact that the Church does not claim science in its documents showed a growth in the Church. She didn’t change her belief that the writings in Genesis are true, just that they were reconcilable with what science revealed. The current pope said no such thing. He said that a person using a condom in a certain situation was showing some sense of morality and caring for the other person.
      Close doesn’t count, Anna. While the Church may have been swayed for a time, the Holy Spirit spoke to the pope and showed what was right, and so we are. Yes, the church is evolving, but that doesn’t mean that truth can change.

      Catholic does mean a certain thing. To be Catholic means to totally embrace what God says to us through the Church. To dissent from what the Catholic Church teaches is to cease being Catholic (no matter what you call yourself). Honestly, nobody is totally Catholic, we’re all sinners. But when it comes to central truth of the faith, to dissent is to be Latæ Sententiæ excommunicated.

      You don’t need my permission to disagree, or to live your life any way you want to. But if you’re going to call yourself Catholic, it’s a good idea to be one.

      • Hi David,

        I’m not sure how what you’re saying is any different from what I was saying, that a church will evolve over time. I wasn’t making any great claims about Truth, just pointing out that an organization will change (or in your words, “grow”). I’m sure if you went back in time to the Church’s beginnings, what you saw would be unrecognizable. Christianity sprang from a completely different cultural context and in the intervening centuries has been filtered through many people’s interpretations as the texts were translated and rewritten. Yes, this can be seen as akin to an oak growing from an acorn — one is not recognizable as another, but there is an undeniable continuity.

        I also pretty clearly recognized the importance a term like “Catholic” has to you, and said that I could relate in a way. As an atheist, I don’t really care about the nuances of a label like “Catholic”; I am concerned with the effects people’s actions have on others, as I’m sure you are as well. Arguing over who is and is not “Catholic” is not my battle, and as debates go it’s not even particularly interesting to me.

        But that’s just me; I’m sure there are people reading this page for whom it is relevant.

      • Hey David, just wanted to say you are awesome! Thank you for sticking up for the feminine genius and for the Catholic Church.

  3. David is incorrect in many of his assertions. Being a Catholic does not mean you have to follow everything the Vatican and hierarchy say. The Vatican itself counts all those who are baptized as Catholics – not just those who closely agree with them on issues such as abortion and contraception.

    I would encourage anyone with any other questions to read our resources, in particular The Truth About Catholics and Abortion and Catholics and Abortion: Notes on Canon Law 1. Both of these can be found on our website at http://www.catholicsforchoice.org/topics/abortion/keypubs.asp.

  4. Even St. Teresa of Avila told the Pope, “That you DO love God more than I, I do not dispute. That you CAN love God more than I, I do not believe.” I may have paraphrased from memory, but that was the gist.

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