My Problem With the Pope

Pope Francis
Pope Francis

Pope Francis the Good is one truly uplifting presence on the world stage. Millions of us welcome and rejoice over his messages about helping those less fortunate, building tolerance and seeking justice – all goals that could use reinforcing in almost every corner of this turbulent planet. Even for us Protestants, it’s a good time to share the name Frances, by whatever spelling.

But the pope and I have a small disagreement.

Should a woman have control of her own body? Not if it contains an embryo, or if she might want to prevent it from growing an embryo, according to the pope.

Abortion? Absolutely not, says the pope. Being a forgiving sort, he has empowered more priests to “forgive” women who have chosen to have abortions and would like to continue practicing their Catholic faith. But once conception occurs – no matter that it’s the result of rape, incest, abuse or a limitless range of very personal issues – the woman must be shoved aside and all focus be on bringing that unwanted fetus into a life of questionable care. And any woman who has made this very personal decision must “seek forgiveness”?

This writer does not profess to be a Biblical scholar, but I have not found, or ever had anyone point out, anywhere in the good book that it says Thou Shalt Not Abort. In all the centuries of mostly men who wrote and have subsequently interpreted the Bible, somehow they – including centuries of presumably celibate priests – have simply opted to deprive women of all reproductive freedom. And today they would still deny a woman’s right to exercise free will.

But it is on the issue of contraception that the pope’s messages ring false, and harsh. One cannot fight poverty and simultaneously demand that poor women bear more unwanted children. If one so adamantly opposes abortion, how can one ignore the fact that adequate contraception would prevent millions of unintended pregnancies – and reduce abortions exponentially?

According to a recent New York Times editorial, a “2014 poll of 12,000 Catholics in 12 countries found that 78 percent supported contraception; in Spain, France, Columbia, Brazil and the pope’s native Argentina, more than 90 percent supported its use.”

The Guttmacher Institute, quoted in the same Times editorial, reports that some 225 million women who want to avoid unintended pregnancies do not use (often cannot access) reliable contraception. “Providing them with contraception would prevent 52 million unintended pregnancies, 14 million unsafe abortions and 70,000 maternal deaths a year.” Even if you don’t care about the maternal deaths – as is clear with “Pro-Lifer’s” everywhere – how does it not make sense to prevent the 52 million unintended pregnancies and 14 million unsafe abortions?

Could someone please ask the good pope to consider these facts? He probably won’t get that request from House Speaker John Boehner, one of twelve children, but he could get it from his equally faithful follower former Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Pope Francis is reportedly a very good listener.

One can only hope.

“Personhood” by any other name

Personhood

A recent report by the Guttmacher Institute took a new look at an old game being played – anew – by anti-abortion, anti-women forces. It is called the Personhood Game. If anti-women forces win, a fertilized egg becomes accepted as a person. Which means that every fertilized egg is accorded rights above those of the woman in whose body it is housed – fine for eggs, but pretty dismal for women.

Not a lot of rational people, including rational people who vote, think it makes sense for eggs to be deemed persons. This was made clear last year by the failure of such bills in several state legislatures. Not to be dismayed, players of the Personhood Game have simply switched their energies to fighting contraception. The more contraception bans succeed, the stronger the eventual case for declaring fertilized eggs sacrosanct. Why? Because contraception bans are based on religious doctrines that hold such a view. Though keeping their distance on personhood politics for now, anti-abortion groups including Americans United for Life, the Heritage Foundation, Susan B. Anthony List and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are among those working hard and widely to ban access to contraception.

Is there a disconnect here? Since effective contraception lessens the number of unwanted pregnancies, and thus the number of abortions? Well, yes. But the people playing the Personhood Game simply have their eye on the prize: Fertilized egg wins, woman loses.

Writer/blogger Joanne Valentine Simson, who is credentialed in both science and poetry, has posted a number of thoughtful and informative essays on contraception. Simson points out three critical factors seldom considered in all the arguments for and against contraception: women’s physical wellbeing, women’s social wellbeing, and overall environmental impact. “These are larger issues about long-term human survival,” Simson writes, “(than) the false debate about whether a cell (or cluster of cells with 46 chromosomes) is a human being.” To conflate contraception with abortion simply bypasses every one of them.

But the Personhood Game players are as adept at bypassing reality as they are at steering the debate.

“The influential organizations behind this anticontraception agenda,” writes Joerg Dreweke in a recent, comprehensive Guttmacher policy review, “have compartmentalized the debate, which allows them to pick and choose when contraception should be viewed as abortion and when it should not. They are essentially able to pursue a “personhood” argument in areas where doing so is politically feasible, but at the same time feign moderation by keeping the full-fledged, politically toxic “personhood” agenda at arm’s length. This deception is part of a deliberate, long-term strategy to limit women’s access not only to safe and legal abortion, but to common methods of contraception as well.”

If this seems devious, and underhanded – well, it is. But it’s the way the game is being played.

For women – who are both pawns and victims – it is a dangerous game.

Hobby Lobby, 1 – Women, 0

(This first appeared on Huffington Post)

It is hard not to despair.

A woman entering a clinic for personal healthcare now must wade through potential hordes of obnoxious strangers getting in her face with stuff – often angry stuff, often misinformed and always unrequested. Where is the right to privacy, to lead one’s own life without the interference of obnoxious strangers?

And now, a woman working for Hobby Lobby, or for that matter any other corporation headed by a religious fanatic who believes his employees must submit to his beliefs, can be denied healthcare coverage for the most basic, most personal reasons: the need to control her own body, to make her own reproductive choices and family decisions.

Following the Supreme Court these days is hazardous to one’s health.

But let’s hear it for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ginsburg read the riot act to the five men – surprise, surprise, all of them were men – who dealt this latest blow to the women of America.

Saying that religious freedom demands “accommodation of a for-profit corporation’s religious beliefs no matter the impact that accommodation may have on third parties who do not share the corporation owners’ religious faith,” Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, is likely to wreak havoc. The havoc is only beginning. And only a small part of it will be the suffering of Hobby Lobby employees. No contraceptive coverage, no abortion coverage, no options, and – because we are not talking about rich people here – no justice.

One wonders. Are mandatory burqas next? Stranger things have happened than corporate CEOs whose religious sensibilities are offended by women’s uncovered heads. There are serious concerns that the ruling could lead to other corporations denying coverage for things that bother other religious groups – blood transfusions (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christians Scientists), psychiatric treatment (Scientologists) for example.

Freedom of religion? Bah, humbug, Ginsburg says in so many words. “(Y)our right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” She might more properly have said, “where the woman’s uterus begins;” because indeed the religion-guarding gentlemen are swinging directly at women’s guts.

Call it what you will – religious freedom, protecting the unborn, freedom of expression, social conservatism – the denial of women’s rights will always, eventually run up against the voices of women who will not be denied.

Thanks, Justice Ginsburg

On Making Abortion “A Thing of the Past”

This first appeared on Huffington Post

“One day our country will be abortion-free,” says Pro-Life Mississippi board member Tanya Britton.

Rose Mimms, Director of Arkansas Right-to-Life, wants to “make abortion unthinkable.” Read: impossible.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s stated goal is “to make abortion a thing of the past.”

We have been here before. None of the above zealots are old enough to remember exactly what it was like, but I could describe for them the time when abortion was unthinkable, impossible and illegal and the country was what Britton would describe as “abortion-free.” It was only legal-abortion-free, of course, and this is what that was like:

Women died. By the untold thousands. They died of sepsis most often, a singularly terrible way to die. They also died of things like puncture wounds, desperately trying to end what was a torment to their bodies and souls. They had found themselves with unintended pregnancies – most often caused either by uncaring and irresponsible husbands or by inexcusable acts of rape, incest or circumstances over which the women themselves had no control.

Women of means died less often; they could generally access a safe abortion, even if it meant traveling to a more enlightened country than these United States. Primarily, those who died had little money and less power; often they already had more children than they could care for. Those who denied them the right to an abortion did little or nothing to help them care for present or future children.

So here we are again.

Abortion opponents can make it impossible, unthinkable, illegal; they cannot make it a thing of the past. Because women desperate to end unwanted pregnancies will always, always, always find ways to do so. Some of them, as is already happening, will die trying.

At least Britton, Mimms and Perry are honest about their goals. Others continue to obfuscate. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties would have the Supreme Court believe that their corporate religious sensibilities are offended by employees’ having the right to terminate a pregnancy before it actually begins, since they equate contraception with abortion. In state after state laws are being passed that are medically unnecessary, scientifically inaccurate, and constitutionally illegal, all in the name of “protecting women” or “protecting the rights of the unborn.” In reality, every law is designed as another step toward making abortion “unthinkable,” impossible and again illegal.

Until they can make it illegal again, making it inaccessible is enough. Again, women of means are seldom being harmed; women without money or power are suffering and dying.

It is not possible to “end abortion.” Not even religious extremists in other countries are able to do that, even though in many countries religious extremism attempts to rule women’s lives. Every day, women in Kenya and Afghanistan die trying to end unwanted pregnancies.

As George Santayana put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Unless we remember the tragedies women faced when abortion was “a thing of the past,” we will be condemned to watch those tragedies return.

Women will die.

Ahead for women: good news & bad

The years ahead could be not good times to be a woman.

Childcare support? Abortion access? Equal pay? Contraception coverage?

How we will fare in the years ahead — those of us who are females of the species — is an open question; and some of the answers being bandied about are not pretty.

Paul Ryan’s budget would repeal benefits and protections currently enjoyed by millions of women, forcing us to pay out-of-pocket for potentially life-saving things like mammograms and cervical cancer screenings. Cuts in food stamps would hit women disproportionately, cuts in Medicaid would have a similar impact: women make up 70 percent of Medicaid’s adult beneficiaries. Prescription drug costs? Up, thanks to the re-opened Medicare drug coverage gap, the late and un-lamented donut hole. The list goes on, almost as glaringly as the list of benefits to the super-rich goes up. There are not a lot of women, especially single head-of-household wage earners, among the super-rich.

At a recent Planned Parenthood Shasta Pacific (CA) gala, former Michigan Governor and Current TV host Jennifer Granholm ticked off these and other ways GOP policies take from women and give to the super-rich. But Granholm, in a conversation with CA Attorney General Kamala Harris moderated by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Carla Marinucci, framed the opposing political policies as overall good news. With the GOP’s social and economic attacks on women in such sharp focus, she said, they can be seen for what they are — and defeated.

One can hope.

There are plenty of smart, honorable registered women Republicans. Whether they will worry about senior women having to pay more for drugs, or low-income women losing health benefits, or all women continuing to have to work three months more per year just to make what men make, that’s one of the questions still open. Reproductive justice? All women lose when reproductive rights diminish.

But at another meeting last week the focus was on distaff good news. The National Abortion Federation held its annual meeting, complete with continuing medical education for physicians, nurses and all those who will enable the progress and preservation of reproductive rights in the years ahead. This writer was fortunate to be invited to the Membership and Awards Luncheon, surrounded by extraordinary men and women including several award winners I am privileged to call friends. NAF President and CEO Vicki Saporta was among the speakers, and her report was one of optimism. My own optimism about the future for women in the US.is centered in three of the award winners whom I quite fortunately happen to know. They include:

Maggie Crosby, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, honored for her decades-long fight for reproductive justice — or, more accurately, her repeatedly successful fights for reproductive justice wherever it was about to be compromised.

Beverly Whipple, an extraordinary woman whose story — at least some small snippet of it — is included in Perilous Times. Whipple was leaving immediately after the NAF meeting for an extended motorcycle trip around Europe with her partner, but they slowed down long enough for a table-full of us to celebrate at the awards luncheon. More on Beverly Whipple in a few days.

Sarp Aksel, Past president of Medical Students for Choice and current Executive Clinic Chair of the ECHO Free Clinic at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. For those of us in despair about the future of abortion rights, Sarp Aksel is the face of hope. Bright, highly skilled and highly trained, and totally committed to women’s health and autonomy, Aksel is representative of the men and women determined to protect women’s reproductive rights.

Those who would take away women’s right to choose or ability to earn might well make gains for the super-rich in the near future. But they will have to contend with people like Saporta, Granholm, Crosby, Aksel and a host of other fighters for justice… including most of the women of America.

Wanted children, planned families… Why not?

This article first appeared on Huffington Post

The wanted child, the planned family. Can anybody argue that the wanted child and the planned family are not infinitely better off for everyone: child, family and society in general?

So why are we fighting these battles?

The Supreme Court, for example, is taking up the question of whether Hobby Lobby — which presumably prefers unwanted children and unplanned families — can refuse to provide contraceptive insurance for its employees because doing so would somehow offend (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act uses the word “burden”) the religion of its corporate soul. Assuming corporations have a soul, which may or may not be true for Hobby Lobby — this is subject to individual opinion. The RFRA is, of course, also about people, but the Court has already hopelessly blurred the line between people and corporations.

This writer is not a Supreme Court judge, which most U.S. citizens would deem a good thing. But can we think this through? Hobby Lobby goes to a church that thinks sex should occur strictly for purposes of procreation, and conception should therefore never be prohibited. Never mind any Hobby Lobbyists who may have planned their own families; Hobby Lobby still finds it offensive that he should be required to help an employee plan his or her own family. Excuse me?

In particular, Hobby Lobby does not want poor people to plan their families. People of means (and Hobby Lobby is definitely a corporate person of means) have plenty of access to contraceptives enabling them to plan their families. Poor people could use a little help. According to a report recently completed by the Guttmacher Institute (full disclosure, this writer supports the Guttmacher Institute; Hobby Lobby does not), almost nine million disadvantaged women every year get help protecting their health and planning their families through the successful U.S. family planning effort. This effort — which includes funding for contraceptives — substantially reduces the rates of unintended pregnancy. In the process it saves us taxpayers some $10 billion per year.

Some of the details of the Guttmacher report, excerpted below, are worth noting:

• Nearly nine million women receive publicly funded family planning services each year. Three-quarters of these women (6.7 million) received this care from safety-net health centers and about 2.2 million from private physicians. Of these nine million women, 4.7 million obtained care from a health center that receives some funding through Title X.

• Publicly supported contraceptive care enables women to avoid 2.2 million unintended pregnancies each year; absent these services, U.S. rates of unintended pregnancy, unplanned birth and abortion would be two-thirds higher than they are.

• Underscoring the critical role these safety-net providers play in women’s lives, six in 10 women receiving contraceptive care at a health center consider that provider their usual source of care. For four in 10 women who visit a reproductive health-focused health center despite having other options, that provider is their only source of medical care throughout the year.

• Every public dollar invested in helping women avoid pregnancies they did not want to have saves $5.68 in Medicaid expenditures that otherwise would have gone to pregnancy-related care; in 2010, that amounted to a net government savings of $10.5 billion. Safety-net providers that receive some funding from Title X accounted for $5.3 billion of those net public savings.

Dollars saved, wanted children, planned families, individual rights and everything else aside, Hobby Lobby insists that provision of contraceptive coverage infringes upon its religious rights.

It is encouraging to note, though, that 47 religious organizations, through their leaders, have weighed in on the side of wanted children and planned families. They are Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others.

This Presbyterian is proud to join them.

Three cheers for Pope Francis

Dove peace
Dove peace (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Pope with the good name is all over the news these days with his remarks about the church being too obsessed with social issues, notably including abortion and birth control. And I say hooray for Pope Francis.

Not because I have any insight into his intentions, or any links with Catholicism beyond a bunch of good friends and an MFA from that fine Jesuit institution, the University of San Francisco. But because the Pope seems to be espousing peace and justice and inclusiveness, even going so far as to put them above dogma.

In case you missed it, Pope Francis told a fellow Jesuit interviewer, “It is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time. The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently. We have to find a new balance.”

Subsequent reports and commentaries and punditries have hastened to clarify that nothing has changed. Contraception is still forbidden, abortion is still a sin, and the remarkable folks of Catholics for Choice are presumably still in limbo. But compared to his predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II, who were never noted for liberalism, this pope has a real heart.  His tone throughout the interview is conciliatory, and the message is all about mercy and compassion, love over dogma.

Dogma hasn’t been working very well. It’s an invitation to I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong conversations that end as fast as they begin: My Church Knows Best. My Religion Is The Only Religion. I’m Right And You’re Wrong. Let The Government Default.

If there are answers to the challenging issues of today, they are not being found in these sorts of exchanges. But if we were to start substituting kindness for meanness, conciliation for rigidity, collaboration for obstinacy, imagine what might happen. World peace.

You go, Pope Francis. Even if you spell it with a different vowel, I’m proud to share your good name.