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.

NYTimes Letter to the Editor

Printed in The New York Times, September 22, 2014:

(This letter was in response to an opinion piece by Merritt Tierce, which appeared in The Times on September 13)

To the Editor:

The abortion stories of Merritt Tierce and Wendy Davis have one thing in common: Both women had access to safe, legal procedures. I did not.

A victim of workplace rape in the days before Roe v. Wade, I was among the millions of women who sought out back-alley abortionists. Happily, I survived; unhappily, countless others did not.

Each of our stories, just like every woman’s story today, was complex, personal and private. We had only desperation in common.

The lesson is that you can ban or restrict abortion all you want — as is happening all over the United States — but short of chaining a woman to the bedpost for nine months, you cannot force her to continue an unwanted pregnancy. If she has the money and resources, she will find a safe procedure somewhere. If she is poor and powerless, she will do desperate and dangerous things.

In the headlong rush to restrict access and eventually ban abortion once again, guess who suffers?

FRAN MORELAND JOHNS
San Francisco, Sept. 13, 2014

The writer is the author of “Perilous Times: An Inside Look at Abortion Before — and After — Roe v. Wade.”

(It’s interesting to note that the only anti-choice letter published in this group is from a white male Catholic who sees only the fetus and not the woman. I respect his religion, but not his inability to see the woman’s part, or her need to make decisions about her body.)

Boot Camps for Talking about Abortion

Decision making 101

“Rape,” the instructors say, “is a four-letter word. Purge it from your lexicon.” And as to anything else abortion-related, “Keep it brief.”

Such is the strategy reportedly being taught Republican candidates in “Boot Camps” on how to talk about abortion. This news came in a recent New York Times article by Jeremy Peters.

But in case the reports are not clear, or should anti-abortion strategists need help, this space herewith offers an outline for surefire future political Boot Camps:

Avoidance is #1. Just don’t talk.

If you actually start talking, and talk about women, it becomes problematic to take away their rights. Say as little as possible. Candidates who do try to say more than two sentences tend to trip up on “legitimate rape” blunders or “abortion causes cancer” misstatements. Therefore, it’s best to talk only about fetuses, call them “babies,” speak only in tiny sound bites, and then shut up.

These are the recommended sound bites:

We mustn’t kill babies. Abortion hurts women.

These are the messages that get votes. Unfortunately, they are untrue, and thus difficult to defend. But if you say no more than seven or eight words, say them over and over and avoid actual dialog, enough people will believe the words to get you or your candidate elected.

But please, definitely, avoid:

Discussion of the difference between ‘fetus’ and ‘baby.’ Some voters do not believe a fetus becomes a baby until it is born. There are also too many very smart scientists who do not believe that tiny fetuses feel pleasure or pain.

You must also avoid the stories.

Stories told by 12- and 13-year-olds who were raped by a favorite uncle or family friend and might then have to endure the further brutality of continuing the pregnancy he caused – these stories make people think that abortion decisions might not be so simple. Or that banning abortion might not make it go away.

Stick to the script. Those stories cannot be told in eight words.

Stories in general just cause trouble. Avoid stories of pregnant women without jobs and with more children than they can care for already, or stories of pregnant women too poor to travel 300 miles to a clinic, or women with physical or emotional problems whose lives are being wrecked by unintended pregnancies…or stories of mothers and fathers facing the wrenching prospect of bringing a baby into the world who will suffer terribly and quickly die. Voters with a compassion gene might question your intention to force all these women to give birth.

And above all, avoid talking about women.

Women, when told what they may or may not do with their bodies, can become unruly. Enough unruly women can derail your election plans.

The Perpetual Presidential Campaign

We have HOW long until the next presidential election?

Some of us just want to say, Give it a rest… but there seems little chance. Recently I rode the bus home with a new friend who had just attended her first event at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, one of a popular series of “Week to Week” political roundtables. She was favorably impressed with the venue, the audience members she met, the moderator (Commonwealth Club Vice President for Media and Editorial John Zipperer) and the panelists: Carla Marinucci, Senior Political Writer for the San Francisco Chronicle; Bill Whalen, Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University; and Larry Gerston, political analyst, author and Professor, San Jose State University.

But she was irate about the way the discussion began: the better part of the first half hour was devoted to speculation, reports and analysis of the next presidential campaign. We’re talking about 2016.

Karl Rove gets the initial blame.

Rove’s now famous commentary on Hillary Clinton’s brain has itself been analyzed, reported and speculated upon ad nauseum: Was she injured in the 2012 fall? Did she fake it? Did it result in brain damage (“serious health issues”)? – and – bottom line: is her candidacy for the presidency in 2016 a done deal? This roundtable being a discussion of the past week’s news, it was perhaps inevitable that The Hillary Question would be the lead-off issue. So Zipperer led off with the Rove report and the panelists weighed in:

Whalen: “He (Rove) is trying to draw her into a ‘he said/ she said…’”

Gerston: “It’s a one-news-cycle thing… although health, age etc are legitimate issues.”

After these issues were legitimately raised and discussed, the panelists veered off into potential alternatives to Clinton: Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick? (“If you can manage a good campaign, saying nice things about Hillary Clinton, you’re halfway there,” Whalen commented.) Or, what about San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for Vice President?

Marinucci tossed out a couple of likely-looking Republicans, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul

Much of the balance of the program was spent on discussion of the firing of New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson. Was she badly treated? Paid less than her male predecessors? Perhaps she was never quite the right fit for the job. Or, in the end, it might have been that she just could not get along with management. But the gender issue continues to hover. And in the “Week to Week” discussion this gave Carla Marinucci an opening to mention something that certainly rings true from this writer’s history of covering events dating back to the early 1960s.

“The first city council meeting I attended,” Marinucci reported, “the mayor asked me to get him coffee.” That, at least, may be a reason to forgive way-too-early discussions about a potential president of the United States – who happens to be a woman.

 

End-of-life compassion slowly winning

If you think you might die some day, and you’d like to do it with as much dignity and as little pain as possible, things are looking up. Which is encouraging to me, a believer in end-of-life and reproductive rights both — and progress in one out of two causes is something to cheer about.

credit acpinternist.org
Credit acpinternist.org

The outlook for a compassionate end to this life in the U.S. continues to brighten. In a recent New York Times article summing up advances that are being made in multiple states,reporter Erik Eckholm quotes my good friend Barbara Coombs Lee, President of Compassion and Choices: “There is a quiet, constant demand all over the country for a right to die on one’s own terms, and that demand is likely to grow as the baby boomers age.”

Lee, a baby boomer herself, is in a position to know. She has been at the forefront of the death with dignity movement since it was in its infancy. We first met when I was researching Dying Unafraid (Synergistic Press, 1999) and she was head of Compassion In Dying, headquartered in Seattle. That group had formed, I learned during a weekend spent with leaders and volunteers in the late 1990s, “because we got tired of reading headlines about people with AIDS jumping off of highway overpasses. And we thought there had to be a better way to die.” Compassion In Dying later merged with End-of-Life Choices, which had itself grown out of the somewhat more in-your-face Hemlock Society, to become Compassion and Choices. (And I am proud to have been a part of C&C since its inception as a volunteer, former local board chair, current leadership council member and general cheerleader.)

In those early days, all was not optimism. While Oregon was proving that a physician-aid-in-dying law could work, efforts elsewhere were failing with heartbreaking irregularity. The one most painful to me culminated in the defeat, in 2006, of a bill which would have legalized compassionate dying — in other words, with the aid of one’s physician if one so chose — in California. Assembly members Patty Berg and Lloyd Levine introduced the legislation, and polls showed overwhelming support among Californians, including a majority of California physicians. Victory seemed all but certain, despite a vigorous and expensive campaign against the bill by the Catholic Church (not most Catholics, just Catholic officialdom) and the California Medical Association (of which a small percentage of CA doctors are members.) At the judiciary committee hearing chaired by then CA Senator Joe Dunn  — who had loudly proclaimed his support —  Dunn suddenly had a change of heart. Something about a conversation with his priest, he said in a rambling commentary. Dunn then cast the deciding vote against the bill and it died an unnatural death in committee. A few weeks later Dunn was termed out of the California legislature and took a job — surprise, surprise — as CEO of the California Medical Association. It was not my personal most encouraging experience with the democratic process.

Now, however, sanity is prevailing. The option of choosing a compassionate death is legal in Washington, Vermont, Montana and New Mexico and the cause is gaining in other states. As Steve Heilig, another highly esteemed friend who is co-editor of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, points out in a current letter to the New York Times, “Progress is possible if carefully and ethically pursued.”

If only there could be a careful, ethical pursuit of progress — instead of the ongoing, reckless, politically and religiously-driven backward march we’re seeing — for reproductive rights.

Tiny pieces of peace on earth

"A Peace Dove to the whole World" al...
“A Peace Dove to the whole World” al-Ma’sara village children, south of Bethlehem (Photo credit: ☪yrl)

BLESSINGS OF PEACE AND LIGHT BE WITH YOU THROUGHOUT THE YEAR. I lifted that line from the web page of the organization discussed below — but it works.

Thanks to the immortality of cyberspace, this brief essay that I posted three years ago re-surfaced this week. Someone sent a comment — “Awesome post, dude!” was the opening line — apparently after reading it for the first time. Maybe he was Googling the word Peace. In any event, it’s still valid and now resurrected:

In the olden days of the 20th century, at least until the latter third or so, there was a quaint custom for newspapers — remember newspapers? — to print nothing but good news on the front page on December 25, in recognition of the historical figure celebrated by Christians around the globe as the Prince of Peace. Even for followers of other religious traditions, or of no religion of all, there was something comforting about picking up the morning paper (another quaint but honorable old custom) or checking the corner newstand without being confronted by headlines screaming of wars and disasters, murder and mayhem.

Couldn’t find such a front page this year. The New York Times, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle… no luck. On the front page of the Sunday (December 26) Chronicle, though, is a feature article encompassing the message of peace that is the essence of all the religious celebrations of December: Chanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa and many more. It’s a profile of the man who, in 2000, launched United Religions Initiative, retired Episcopal Bishop William Swing. U.R.I. is dedicated to fostering cooperation and mutual respect among all religions, and to bringing peace and justice to people everywhere. Hard to argue with that.

From modest beginnings a decade ago U.R.I. now boasts (except U.R.I. folks tend not to be boastful) several hundred “Cooperation Circles” scattered across the U.S., Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and elsewhere. Circles (the San Francisco Interfaith Council, of which I’m pleased to be a part, is one) are made up of ordinary people with extraordinary goals: promoting peace, equality and justice in a limitless variety of ways. U.R.I. also has programs in areas such as women’s rights, youth, environment and peacebuilding. There’s that word again: Peace.

Wouldn’t it be fine to see a little of that in the New Year?

Judge Janice R. Brown on family planning

Janice Rogers Brown
Janice Rogers Brown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In her words, it is “a repugnant belief.” That would be family planning.

Excuse me?

Judge Janice Rogers Brown of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has an interesting opinion about birth control: Thou Shalt Not. It is fine with me if Judge Brown chooses not to plan her family (she had one child by her first husband) but not so fine to impose that personal belief on the rest of us.

But that’s where we are headed. Judge Brown recently ruled that the government should not require Freshway Foods to cover birth control for their employees because that would have Freshway affirming “a repugnant belief,” and force them to be “complicit in a grave moral wrong.”

Some of us do not see family planning as morally wrong. By and large we tend to believe that strong families with children who are loved, wanted and cared for make sense. By and large we also believe that adult women are competent to make decisions about their eggs. But once that egg is fertilized, Judge Brown believes, along with many others including the Freshway founders, that it becomes something sacred and that’s where our beliefs diverge.

All of this increasingly matters. New York Times writer Jeremy W. Peters explains it in a thorough and thoughtful piece about how abortion cases in courts such as Judge Brown’s served as the tipping point for recent action by Senate Democrats to call an end to the filibuster. It’s hard to blame them. Democrats joined with Republicans to put Janice Brown — who was highly distasteful to liberals and moderates — on the bench, assuming Republicans would later join Democrats to put mildly distasteful others on the bench. Wrong. Republicans simply dug in and refused to confirm any Obama nominee.

Which puts us in a situation of majority rule without much minority right… but then, we have been for some time in a situation of minority rule without much majority power.

Democracy is a mess when extremists take over. Extremists have taken over reproductive rights: no contraception, no abortion, no choice, no access, no rights for countless women across the country. Extremists leave no room for dialog, mutual respect or compromise; it’s simply My Way or the Highway.

When a federal judge holds extremist opinions there isn’t a lot of room for optimism.