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Two Catholic Theologians – Public Funding for Abortion and Poor Women

Catholic Principles of Justice

Sheila Briggs

My argument here is that, even if you oppose abortion as morally wrong, there are still sound ethical and theological grounds for supporting its public funding. At stake are two ancient but also controversial areas of Catholic teaching. One is the autonomy of a moral order that evolves out of the physical conditions of human life and the processes of human history. The second is the autonomy of secular government.

The church has had a hard time com-ing to terms with modern secular democracy, the target of several condemnations by Pope Pius IX in the Syllabus of Errors of 1864. In the 20th century, many in the church sought to revise this view. Among them was Fr. John Courtney Murray in the United States, who argued not only for the recognition of religious liberty, but also for the historical experience of modern democratic society as a new insight into moral truth.

Sheila BriggsFinally, several documents stemming from Vatican II, including Gaudium et spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World), seemed to recognize democratic freedoms and see the church working in partnership with modern secular society to create a better world.

Nonetheless, in subsequent decades the church hierarchy has not really seen the modern state as an autonomous moral agent and the democratic state as the collective agent of its citizens. Public policy therefore becomes an arena in which the church expects Catholics to advocate for and to implement the moral teachings of the church. However, the moral teaching of the church is not seen as emerging out of its engagement in the public square. At most, particular social and historical contexts call for specific applications of what is an unalterable core of moral teaching.

At the time of Vatican II and in later decades, this static view of church teaching was challenged by many theologians and some bishops. But, subsequently, it was reaffirmed in two sets of official church documents. One was a stream of pronouncements on gender and sexuality, starting with Humanae Vitae in 1968, that said that the church’s teaching in these areas could never be changed. On the basis of these official statements, local Catholic hierarchies launched campaigns against the legalization of contraception, abortion, divorce and homosexuality and, where these were or became legal practices, pushed for restrictions upon them.

The second series of documents took aim at those who questioned the theological validity of what seemed to many a dangerous trend: treating every exercise of the magisterium—the teaching authority of the church—as if it were infallible. The disconcerting response of the church was that, although not infallible, its moral teachings were to be accepted as “definitive” and were not to be publicly challenged. Qualified experts might make their reservations known discretely and humbly to the hierarchy. This line of thought culminated in the 1993 encyclical Veritatis Splendor and severely restricted any concept of an autonomous moral order that was accessible to the conscience of any person without the guidance of the church.

Although the church denies modern secular democracies moral autonomy, it is eager to accept the public funds that these distribute for social welfare. The church has developed the principle of subsidiarity that states that government should fund those social bodies that already deliver such services instead of creating its own provision. This principle then becomes the moral justification for the extensive presence of the church in healthcare in many wealthy countries. This has a devastating effect on women’s reproductive health services because church-run hospitals are exempt from delivering services that conflict with church teaching. As a stakeholder in public health the church’s teaching gains far more traction than other antichoice ideologies.

Indeed, the only areas in which the church’s moral teaching receives wider public attention are gender and sexuality. Preventing the public funding of abortion becomes a measure of and bulwark for the enduring social influence of the church. The church never risks testing its political clout in other areas by calling for those in public office to oppose the funding of what it considers morally wrong—for instance, unjust wars. Abortion becomes the issue on which the public moral voice of the church stands or falls. Magisterial authority becomes entwined with political survival.

The church’s flawed theological claim to be the sole reliable interpreter of the moral order is thus combined with considerations of political expediency. To allow for the public funding of abortion—whether you consider abortion ethically acceptable or not—is to recognize the autonomy of the secular government. The modern secular state is not left in a moral vacuum if its public policy decisions do not conform to the rigidly ahistorical standard of official Catholic teaching. It can rely on the conscience of its citizens to seek what the shape of the moral order has become in their time and place.

Such moral discernment takes place in the public square. It is never perfect, but all the gains in justice and equality in the last 250 years have resulted from the debates and battles waged there. The church’s clinging to its supreme moral authority, particularly on gender and sexuality, not only cuts women off from the funding they need for their reproductive health, but also the church off from the moral history of humanity.

Rosemary Radford Ruether

The Hyde Amendment, passed by Congress in 1976, limited abortion funding through Medicaid except in cases of rape and incest and when the pregnancy threatens a woman’s life. This ruling disproportionally affects poor women, who are more dependent on Medicaid for healthcare coverage. In this article, I argue that Catholic principles of social justice should support public funding for abortion based on our faith’s belief in justice for the poor. I base this view on the following line of argument.

Rosemary Radford RuetherI start with the founding principle that reproductive rights are intrinsic to women’s healthcare. Women need to control their sexuality and reproduction to ensure that they can choose when and under what circumstances they become pregnant and give birth. The ideal way to do this is through adequate birth control available to all women throughout their fertile years.

However, when birth control fails—through inadequate contraception, unchosen sex or other reasons—and results in an unwanted pregnancy, all women have a right to choose abortion and have the means to obtain it. Abortion has generally been available to women of means. Poor and more uneducated and socially oppressed women are often denied the economic and social means of obtaining an abortion. They are thus more likely to be put in the position of having an unchosen birth for which they are unable to care adequately. This is a fundamental injustice to these less privileged women.

Societies have a responsibility to make abortion available to all women as intrinsic to their right to control their reproduction. To do this, societies need to modify laws such as the Hyde Amendment so that public funding is made available to fund abortions for poor and oppressed women, and to make information and education on abortion available to all women.

Thus, it is appropriate for organizations like Catholics for Choice to seek to reform American laws so that abortion is funded by publicly funded healthcare, such as Medicaid, and abortion is available to poor women dependent on public funding for their healthcare.

Sheila Briggs is an associate professor of religion and gender at the University of Southern California.

Rosemary Radford Ruether is an emerita member of the Board of Directors of Catholics for Choice. She is a pioneer in the field of feminist theology and a visiting professor of feminist theology at Claremont Graduate School and has held numerous academic appointments in her long career.

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