Catholicism, Feminism, Abortion:
navigating the broken middle
In April 2016, some Polish women in a private Facebook group shared their concerns about a letter the Polish bishops had written to be read out in Masses, urging further tightening of Poland's already strict abortion laws. The women were afraid to speak out for fear of losing their jobs or experiencing other forms of censure. I suggested we start a secret Facebook group to draft a letter to the bishops. Somebody breached the confidentiality rules of the group and took a screenshot of my post, which she distributed to Catholic anti-abortion activists and posted in a blog.
A group of us drafted the letter, which was made available in both English and Polish and circulated among Catholic networks to collect signatures, after which it was delivered to the Polish bishops and released to the press. At no time was my name publicly associated with the letter other than my being one of the signatories, but as a result of that breach of confidentiality over my original suggestion, it became known as 'the Tina Beattie abortion letter'.
I became the target of an orchestrated campaign focusing primarily on my membership of the Theological Advisory Group of Cafod (the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development) - a team of theologians who volunteered our time to offer reflection on issues relating to Cafod's work. The campaign against me included an online petition to have me dismissed from my role with Cafod, posted on the Far Right petitioning website CitizenGo. Cafod resisted these pressures, but I decided it would be better for my own sake and for the sake of Cafod's reputation to step down. Nevertheless, Far Right Catholic groups have continued to follow my activities and to put pressure on any Catholic institutions I'm associated with.
Prior to this high-profile protest, I had published some carefully argued essays on abortion and Catholicism in academic journals. I sought to express respect for the Church's teaching on abortion, which was less absolutist in the past than it is today, while appealing for a more pastorally sensitive approach to women and girls seeking abortions, including an argument for safe, legal early abortion.
I have decided to make all these resources available here, in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court's overturning of Roe vs Wade, which secured women in the US a constitutional right to abortion. A number of states had already begun restricting access to abortion prior to this, and others had in place laws which would outlaw most abortions and which could be triggered immediately the Supreme Court's decision was announced. This has resulted in the almost complete outlawing of abortion, including in cases of rape and incest, in a number of states. Several have imposed a six week limit. For many women this is before they even know they are pregnant, if they have irregular periods because they are pubescent, menopausal or suffering from a medical condition that affects menstruation. Even when abortion is permitted to save a woman's life, a number of medical practitioners and others have expressed concern that, with the onus on doctors to prove the abortion is necessary in order to avoid criminal charges, significant delays are likely to occur which threaten women's lives.
My concern is not to go into the legal and political complexities of access to abortion in the US after the recent supreme court decision. Rather, I want to offer my own writings as a resource for those seeking theological arguments that defend women's right to abortion in early pregnancy, and which acknowledge the serious ethical challenges surrounding late abortion. In seeking to reconcile respect for church teaching on the dignity and protection of human life from conception to natural death, with the harsh realities that face many women and girls experiencing unwanted pregnancies, I distance myself from both the anti-abortion and the pro-choice lobbies. While eschewing the consoling certainties of moral absolutism which would condemn all abortion, I think it is a matter that demands the utmost moral seriousness. Yet I also beleive that the foremost authorities on this issue must be women themselves, including women philosophers, ethicists and theologians as well as women who speak from personal experience.
I begin with the letter to the Polish bishops, because the controversy surrounding that offers an insight into the obstacles facing any Catholic trying to engage in public dialogue around abortion. Those employed in Catholic institutions risk losing their jobs if they speak out, and as will be seen from the following, the vehemence of Catholics opposed to abortion can result in a vicious social media campaign fuelled by sensationalist claims and half-truths.