The Pope's Blind Spot: When Income Inequality and Abortion Intersect

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Pope Francis parades in the popemobile along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia, Sunday, September 27, 2015, on his way to celebrate Mass.  

Last week, Pope Francis descended on our nation’s capital in his first major visit to the United States, and anticipation was high for the man who has already set himself apart as a different kind of pope. Coming from church service in South America, Pope Francis is an academically-trained scientist who picked his papal name to honor St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the poor, and has made headlines around the world by focusing on the plight of low-income people. This commitment to economic justice has been admirable in its boldness and thoughtful in making connections between faith, economic inequality, and issues like immigration policy and even climate change.

Religious scholars call the particular Christian values that Pope Francis and those like him extol liberation theology: "an interpretation of Christian faith out of the experience of the poor ... an attempt to read the Bible and key Christian doctrines with the eyes of the poor." Placing himself firmly in this tradition, when it comes to the complexities that drive economic security around the world, the pope seems to get it. Unfortunately, that compassionate, complex, committed view of economics and wellbeing falls apart when it comes to reproductive health.

Growing up as the daughter of African immigrants, I felt the influence of the Church very strongly in our home. Most often, the Catholic Church was lifted up as a paragon of selflessness and charity. My parents’ upbringing and education was heavily influenced by missionaries who came through the African continent during the 1950s and 1960s. They inspired my mother to choose Catholicism. She was fascinated not just by Jesus’ teachings of love and kindness, but by the work of the nuns and priests in the community every day. Some were ministers, others school teachers, or still others health-care providers tending to those who would have to travel hundreds of miles to arrive at a clinic. In the Church, my mother saw a commitment to caring for others—and creating opportunity. In fact, it was a scholarship to a Catholic university in the U.S. that provided my mother with the chance to get a higher education and make a better life for herself and later for our family.

My mother’s experiences with the Catholic Church inspired her to carry out her beliefs through social justice and, as she likes to call it, “fight for the underdog.” Similarly this informed my own upbringing so strongly that I started attending Catholic services in college with an interest in converting to Catholicism. I even considered working in the Church when I was older.

But as I learned more about my own reproductive health, and saw the barriers my friends and loved ones face in accessing safe and affordable care, my views on the Church soured. It was in large part my disappointment with the Church’s position on abortion and contraception that ended my plans for conversion to Catholicism.

In South America, Pope Francis worked in much the same kinds of communities that so inspired my mother's faith, where the Church helped to provide education, spiritual healing, and health care to those in need. Those same communities in South America likely saw women struggling to complete their education but unable to do so due to unintended pregnancy, high rates of maternal death, and suffering caused by lack of safe, legal abortion services. Yet, despite this real-world experience seeing the brutal impact of economic injustice, including on women, the pope remains steadfast when it comes to the Church’s views on reproductive health, notwithstanding his recent calls for forgiveness.

So what does reproductive health have to do with economic justice?

While the right to end a pregnancy has long been framed in the U.S. as one of privacy, personal decision-making, and women’s health, it is more recently that the links between women’s economic security and abortion are becoming clear. Data show that poor women have significantly higher rates of unintended pregnancy, which in turn lead to higher rates of abortion and unintended birth. Over 60 percent of women who obtain abortions have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. What’s even more striking is data from the Turnaway Study, a landmark longitudinal study conducted by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health at the University of California at San Francisco. The study tracked across 30 abortion facilities in 21 states what happens to women who seek but are “turned away” from the abortion care they need. Its findings, summarized in a report by the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, showed that of the women in the study who made it to the clinic, 60 percent lived below 100 percent of the federal poverty line. And almost half of the women were qualified and enrolled in public safety net programs.

If more poor women are seeking abortion, what’s driving the unintended pregnancy rate for these same women? It turns out that using effective contraception consistently is an expensive proposition that goes far beyond paying for the pills or condoms themselves. To access the most effective methods, a woman must be able to get to a clinic, see a provider, get a prescription and/or make it to follow-up visits. For a woman without insurance, without a car, who can’t get time off work, or who maybe doesn’t speak the same language as her doctor, the seemingly simple act of getting and staying on birth control is anything but. Globally, these and other barriers mean that over 200 million women would like to avoid a pregnancy but lack access to contraceptive methods.

Have the Church’s leaders always opposed abortion and contraception that wasn’t the “rhythm method”? Yes. However Pope Francis’ re-centering on the poor has made the conflict between these values even more apparent. Barriers to safe and affordable contraception and abortion hurt low-income women the most and make it even harder for women to plan, space, and prevent pregnancies, which in turn can make it harder to stay in school, make ends meet, and build a better life.

How can you seek to uplift the poor while actively opposing the very health care that low-income women around the world demand? This to me is the epitome of inconsistency in the Church’s work and its teachings, especially when it’s taken to areas where women and their families are in great need.

I believe that Pope Francis is sincere in wanting to fight economic disparities. But his message is woefully incomplete. For women and girls around the world, health, justice, and economic freedom require access to affordable, safe, and effective reproductive health care. To divide these issues is to ignore the realities of our lives and daily survival.

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