Catholics Should Applaud Restoration of Reproductive Justice

On January 23, the day after the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, President Barack Obama reaffirmed his commitment to sexual and reproductive health by overturning the Global Gag Rule. At the same time, he also announced his intention to reinstate funding to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), much to the chagrin of the Catholic church hierarchy and its antichoice allies.

In his statement on this executive order, Obama said, “For too long, international family planning assistance has been used as a political wedge issue, the subject of a back and forth debate that has only served to divide us.”

Catholics will support these policy initiatives, as noted in a statement by the president of Catholics for Choice, Jon O’Brien. “Catholics in the United States and elsewhere support aid for international family planning programs and reject abstinence-only education. Catholics support access to safe and legal abortion services and back family planning and condom use to protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.” Catholics don’t see this as a wedge issue; to the majority of Catholics, international family planning assistance is simply a matter of good, common sense.

We should note that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has had its hand in fostering division on this issue. The bishops demonstrated their support for former President George W. Bush when he first decided to withhold funding to UNFPA, and they lobbied members of Congress continually during the Bush administration to keep that restriction in place. So, it is no surprise that the USCCB finds Obama’s support for UNFPA “very disappointing.”

Cardinal Justin Rigali, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities went so far as to say, “An Administration that wants to reduce abortions should not divert U.S. funds to groups that promote abortions.”

But, it is clear the bishops do not speak for Catholics, who make up about 25 percent of the U.S. electorate. We need only look to the last election, when a majority of Catholics expressed their disagreement with the bishops’ prioritization of its campaign against sexual and reproductive health; 54 percent of Catholics voted to elect Barack Obama. Too often, however, these Catholic voices supporting reproductive rights fail to be heard over the public policy pronouncements and heavy-handed lobbying efforts of the church hierarchy.

In addition, when the USCCB polled Americans on their attitude towards abortion, the results showed that almost 90 percent of the nation's adults reject the bishops’ call for a complete ban on abortion. While many seek to impose conditions on access to abortion care -- some reasonable, others less so -- the fact is that barely one-tenth of the population is completely opposed to all abortions. This figure is one of the lowest found in a large-scale poll in recent years, certain to seriously concern the anti-abortion rights lobby as they gear up for several battles with the new administration.

After eight years of unjust policies, Catholics, those of other faiths and of no faith have the opportunity to support and promote positive changes in the reproductive justice agenda. A first step is to take our support for reproductive health and the work of UNFPA to our members of Congress. While many members of the 111th Congress, on both sides of the aisle, are supporters of reproductive health, it is still important they know that their constituents share their views on access to reproductive health-care services. And for those policymakers who still cling to the flawed ethics of the old guard, it is crucial that they be fully informed of the dangers that do ensue when access to family planning services is reduced.

In addition to contacting members of Congress, we must all heed Obama’s advice to “end the politicization of this issue.” While the church hierarchy will undoubtedly continue to take extremist positions and ignore places of common ground, we can rise above this polarizing rhetoric and transform the debate from one that centers on the legality of abortion and instead moves towards positive policies that reduce the need for abortion. The positive manner in which the Prevention Not Prohibition campaign has been received is a signal that many people want to move away from the old debates and take a different direction. UNFPA does much more than provide access to abortion care. It also does significant work to reduce the need for abortion by helping to reduce poverty, provide family planning assistance and prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS.

It is unfortunate and unhelpful for the Catholic church hierarchy and its antichoice allies to take such a narrow view of UNFPA’s body of work. However, by working with the new administration and Congress to move the debate to prevention, not prohibition, we can overcome this divisiveness. Restoring U.S. funding to UNFPA is one important step to putting the U.S. back on the right path, steering away from politics of division and towards true reproductive justice.

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