Pope Francis’ token gesture on abortion is insulting

Earlier this year, Pope Francis magnanimously announced that priests — instead of bishops alone — would be allowed to forgive people for the ‘sin’ of abortion, as part of the upcoming Year of Mercy, which begins on 8 December. We are evidently all supposed to be quite thrilled about this gesture, as it comes as part of an entire package of ‘merciful’ moves on the part of the church — but really, they seem calculated only to shame people, as a true ‘mercy’ would be to abolish the notion that abortion is a sin in the first place.

Over one billion people identify as Roman Catholics, and the church plays a huge role in society and culture around the world. Whilst early Christianity may have treated women as equals, the organisation of the faith almost immediately led to oppression for women, particularly in the realm of reproductive freedoms — and abortion has long been labeled sinful, no matter the circumstances. Even if a pregnancy is life-threatening, the parent should, under doctrine, be left to die. Some Catholics have debated ectopic pregnancies — they’re not directly addressed in church doctrine, which specifies ‘the womb’ — but they tend to come out on the side of frowning on intervention in these cases as well.

But overall, the messaging is quite clear: Abortion is wrong, and you will be excommunicated if you opt to have an abortion for any reason and in any circumstances. This occurs in the context of a larger controversy over birth control and condoms, with the church waffling back and forth at various stages on the subject. Generally speaking, Catholic authorities seem to agree that people should only engage in sex for procreation, and that activities like taking pleasure from sexuality are unacceptable.

Which brings us back to the year of mercy. For Catholics who have decided to go against their beliefs and the teachings of their faith, getting an abortion is agonising. Abortion even without complications of faith can be difficult for patients, for a variety of reasons — maybe it involves a wanted pregnancy, or circumstances for a pregnancy just aren’t right, or a patient genuinely believes that abortion involves the extinction of a human life, but still believes it’s the best choice. While studies repeatedly show that very few people regret abortions, they can be accompanied by depression and anxiety as people manage their own responses as well as social stigma.

Dealing with this stress is much easier when you have the support of your community. Many people opt not to discuss their abortions openly, but they do seek comfort with some friends and family to process the experience — picking someone up at the abortion clinic is iconic for a reason. It’s incredibly isolating and distressing to go through a major life experience alone, and for some people, abortion is a major life experience. To force patients to go it alone is troubling, and it reflects our social contempt for those who need abortions.

Catholic patients are by nature isolated, as extremely devout Catholics may feel like they can’t tell anyone — including their own partners — about an abortion. Though a growing number of Catholics promote freedom of reproductive choice and full access to reproductive health services, that’s not true across the entire church, especially in Latin America. Consequently, people who need or want abortions go it entirely alone (often in very dangerous conditions due to abortion stigma and outright bans or regulations that make it very challenging to get an abortion).

Catholicism, like other faiths, isn’t just about worship. It’s also about the construction of a supportive community and a larger cultural family. Catholics can turn to each other when they need help, and can rely on their church — but they can’t if they’ve undergone a stigmatised medical procedure that qualifies them for immediate excommunication. Theoretically, a patient might not even want to confide in a priest, even in the anonymity of the confessional, for fear of being shamed or profiled.

There’s one way to change this: To issue a statement reflecting more modern attitudes on abortion to remove the stigma surrounding the procedure, and to allow Catholic patients to seek assistance from friends, family, officiants, and members of their communities. Especially since the Catholic health care system is one of the biggest health care providers in places like the United States, this has big implications not just for individual Catholics, but for those seeking medical treatment, as most Catholic facilities will not perform abortions or related procedures, again preferring to allow patients to die rather than access treatment.

So and thus, though, that’s not what the pope did. Instead, he said that for one year only, he’d provide patients with a limited time offer to seek counseling and forgiveness from their priests. That’s it. Abortion is still sinful and wrong, you have still killed another human being, you should be ashamed of yourself, you aren’t entitled to the support and love of your community, but you can be forgiven for the next year if you come forward.

This just underscores the stigma against abortion, making it even more painfully obvious that for all that people like to pitch Pope Francis as the ‘cool pope’ or the ‘progressive pope,’ he’s anything but. He’s repeatedly indicated that on many social issues, he holds extremely regressive and at times hateful views — and mysteriously, discussions about his involvement with the Argentine junta have almost entirely faded. These issues matter, and while the Year of Mercy will offer some critical comfort to Catholics who are really struggling, I still maintain that the church needs to go further and do better by its adherents.

Image: ILO Chief and Pope Francis discuss the dignity of work, International Labour Organisation, Flickr