Catholics Working to Make “Pro-Life” Less of an Oxymoron

It’s been a busy seven days in abortion-related news, even in light of the recent 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. A new abortion clinic is preparing to open in the space previously occupied by Dr. George Tiller’s clinic. Arizona state Rep. Cathrynn Brown introduced a bill that would charge pregnant rape survivors that terminated their pregnancies with “tampering with evidence.” Reliably conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat tried to make the case that focusing on pregnant women was “too simplistic” when talking about abortion. And a group of Catholic nuns, priests, and scholars spoke out about the need for Catholics that call themselves “pro-life” to support gun control.

While the Wichita news is encouraging, the Douthat op-ed unsurprising, and the Arizona news infuriating—can someone explain just why politicians in that state hate women so much?—it’s this last item that really jumped out in a crowded week. Frankly, I’m impressed that a number of high-profile Catholics are finally making it plain that if you claim to care about one aspect of life, you should logically care about all aspects.

After all, if you just care about life insofar as it exists in a woman’s uterus, that’s a pretty limited view. And that’s also not really being “pro-life”—it’s more accurately being “pro-fetus,” or “pro-birth.” Which is a very limited viewpoint, as it ignores what happens to people after they are born and able to live independently in the world.

In the aftermath of Newtown—to say nothing of Aurora and Tucson and Houston—the question of just what role random violence plays in our lives, and to what extent such violence can be controlled through better social supports and stricter gun laws, has been front-page news more often than not. And Catholicism is far from the only religion that is looking inward, to its own values and belief systems, to see if there is more that can be done on both an individual and community level to prevent such horrors from happening.

Catholicism is also synonymous with anti-choice beliefs, at least in the modern era (the Church actually didn’t oppose abortion until the 1860s). The Church’s conundrum is that, unlike many other religious sects, its leaders set the theological rules with no official role for the common laity to chime in. In many ways, this is a feature, not a bug – after all, if the Divine Word really is something you need a lifetime of training to interpret, then it doesn’t make sense to put it to a vote. And one of those rules that the all-male, all-celibate priesthood continues to insist on is that the main purpose of sexuality is to breed more Catholics. In their fervor, bishops have even ordered local priests to tell their parishioners how to vote, and to take a decidedly un-Jesus-like attitude of refusing communion to politicians who have the temerity to not want to send abortion-performing physicians to prison. Many common Catholics ignore this advice – a majority of Catholics twice voted for the pro-choice Obama – but for millions of other Catholics, from ordinary people all the way up to the infamous Rick Santorum, the word of the bishops clearly has an influence.

So by calling into question the idea that if you say you’re pro-life, you should actually be pro-all-form-of-life, not just that which exists in the womb, these Catholic theologians are taking a controversial stand. Yet this is also a stand that makes a great deal of logical sense. I’ve often thought that only anti-death penalty, pro-gun-control vegetarian pacifists can really claim to be pro-life, because that takes a holistic view of the importance of life to sentient beings. (While the Church is anti-death penalty, it’s not exactly the official religion of vegan pacifists.) Perhaps the nuns, priests, and dozens of other Catholics that called upon their fellow religious brethren to support gun control policies, and politicians, will never agree to that definition. But their statement to the Vatican is an important step.

About Sarah:
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out


  1. Okay, I love that line about anti-death, pro-gun-control vegetarian pacifists. And it’s good to hear that some Catholic theologians are urging others to do a little self-reflection. Because some hypocrisy is definitely worse than others.

  2. can someone explain just why politicians in that state hate women so much?

    Because Cathrynn Brown is from New Mexico, not Arizona. :P

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