Politics & Policy

The Cruel Way of Catholics for Choice

Catholics for Choice signs outside the Supreme Court (Photo via Twitter)
Graciela Olivarez and Saint Teresa of Calcutta took a different approach.

In the summer of 1969, President Richard M. Nixon established the U.S. Commission on Population Growth and the American Future (often called the Rockefeller Commission, after its chairman, John D. Rockefeller III) to study what he called “one of the most serious challenges to human destiny,” namely, human beings. One of the vice chairmen of the commission was Graciela Olivarez, a Mexican-American high-school dropout who in her early life probably would have never dreamed she would serve on such a prestigious panel. She remains one of its most oft-quoted members. Working in the civil-rights movement, Olivarez saw her life radically changed when she met Theodore Hesburgh, the president of Notre Dame University. Impressed with her commitment and her natural intelligence, Hesburgh asked her to enroll at Notre Dame’s law school. Although she was in her late thirties and had no undergraduate degree, Olivarez agreed and became Notre Dame Law School’s first Hispanic female graduate. From her humble beginnings, Olivarez went on to an impressive life of service in the public sector. She held a high-ranking post in the Carter administration.

When the Rockefeller Commission submitted its final report in March 1972 (the year before Roe v. Wade), it not only called for a national legalization of abortion. It recommended that “federal, state, and local governments make funds available to support abortion services in states with liberalized statutes.” Only two of the commission’s 24 members dissented, arguing that abortion was one of the “cheapest and most irresponsible” solutions to unintended pregnancy and that public funding of abortion would do nothing to strengthen communities, family life, or society. One of those dissenters was Olivarez. “The poor cry out for justice and equality and we respond with legalized abortion,” she said, adding, “I believe that in a society that permits the life of even one individual (born or unborn) to be dependent on whether that life is ‘wanted’ or not, all citizens stand in danger.” She later noted, “Abortion is a cruel way out.”

Olivarez’s words of caution immediately came to mind last week for many Catholics who noticed that a privately funded — not to mention oxymoronically named — Washington, D.C., lobbying group, Catholics for Choice, had launched a national public-relations campaign, taking out full-page ads in many newspapers across the nation. The ads called for taxpayer-supported abortions for those unable to pay for the elective procedure themselves.

Most Americans disagree with Catholics for Choice. After the Democratic party announced at its convention a new platform plank that called for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment (the federal law that prohibits public funding of abortion), a Marist Institute poll (July 2016) showed that a majority of Americans — even those who support legal abortion — object to the use of taxpayer funds to pay for it. What’s more, as the Washington Post reported, a “breakdown of the statistic shows that most blacks, Latinos and independent voters oppose publicly funded abortions.”

Most insulting — to Catholics, to women, to the poor, and to people of color — was that the ads featured Catholic men and women calling public funding for abortion as an imperative of “social justice.” Aside from the fact that the ads entirely avoided any discussion of the unborn child involved in the procedure (and who has no say in his or her death), they fail to explain how forcing taxpayers to pay for the private killing of unborn children might be a “social good.” Abortion leaves a poor woman no better off the day after her abortion than she was the day before. It doesn’t help a woman find a better place to live, or a better job. It doesn’t find her day care for the children she already has, or provide her with a path to self-sufficiency. Beyond paying the clinic fee, publicly funded abortion requires not one iota of investment in a poor woman’s life. It is, in the words of Olivarez, a “cruel way out.” And poor women know it. 

The experience of the thousands of pro-life pregnancy-resource centers (PRCs) confirms this sentiment. When women are pregnant and in need, PRC staffers say, they want to be presented with real choices, not the cheap fix of abortion. If they are thinking of abortion at all, it’s precisely because they feel they don’t have other choices. And it’s no small irony that the pregnancy centers, staffed largely by unpaid volunteers, rely solely on the donations of grassroots Americans citizens. In contrast, the supporters of the elitist Catholics for Choice are largely wealthy individuals and foundations; its president and executive vice president each earns salaries and benefit packages totaling more than $200,000 a year, according to the group’s most recent tax filings. Pregnancy centers provide housing, job training, parenting classes, and medical care to pregnant women who believe that, despite their financial circumstances, their babies have every much a right to live as the children of those featured in the Catholics for Choice ads.

Shortly after the ads appeared, Illinois Right to Life, whose mission is to educate people of all faiths, fairly, about abortion, sent copies of the ads to their supporters and solicited feedback. Even the executive director was shocked by the overwhelming response. IRL received more responses than they have had in years — in fact, the executive director told me, ever — to an issue. IRL isn’t connected to the Catholic Church, yet hundreds of Catholics and members of other Christian denominations contacted the organization, describing in detail why they saw a pro-life viewpoint as foundational and non-negotiable to their faith in Jesus Christ. They included a man named Peter, who noted that “my Catholic faith teaches me that every life — no matter how it was conceived — is a gift of unconditional love to this world.” 

And perhaps that’s the best way to counter what Catholics for Choice has proposed — to respond, as Saint Teresa of Calcutta did, with radical, unbiased, and non-judgmental love for the mother and her child. Will it cost more than an abortion to give the mother and her child a real future that acknowledges that both of them are “gifts of unconditional love?” Of course. But choosing life is always the true response of anyone concerned about social justice and human dignity. Because it’s a choice to take the loving “way out,” not the cruel way.