Some pro-choice activists hailed it as a good gesture, but Pope Francis’s decision to allow priests to forgive women for having abortions smacks of the deepest misogyny and hypocrisy. The fact that anyone would celebrate the Pope’s decree tells you how far we are from seeing women as truly autonomous individuals who have the right to determine what happens inside our own organs.
The Catholic Church says that abortion is a grave sin and that a woman who procures one is automatically excommunicated. What are the other grave sins that carry this extreme penalty? Rape or child sexual abuse, you might think. Surely, murder. But you’d be wrong. These crimes are more easily forgiven. The other sins (besides abortion) that merit automatic excommunication are things like a total repudiation of church doctrine or “throwing away the consecrated species of Christ’s body or blood.” How interesting that women get singled out for this special attention – that an act that concerns a woman’s body on such an intimate level and that she would choose for herself, exercising agency over her destiny, brings down such a harsh penalty
In the days following the Pope’s decree, the bodies of Syrian children were shown washed ashore in Macedonia. The bodies of these children, dressed in sneakers and t-shirts, with their diapers showing just above their toddler-sized shorts raised cries of outrage worldwide. Will anyone be excommunicated for the deaths of these already born children? Will the Vatican look carefully at this refugee crisis – especially its roots in global climate change, which gave rise to a significant drought in Syria, causing massive water shortages and displacement from rural to urban centers – and figure out who is to blame?
What about the children killed in drone attacks in Pakistan or the thousands of children who died or were orphaned under U.S. bombing attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq? Who should we single out to blame for that? Someone is responsible.
What about the millions more who suffer and die because of the relentless corporate drive to extract resources, squeezing profit out of people and out of the land? Someone is responsible for these crimes, and we could find them and hold them accountable. What about the ongoing war on people of color all over the world? What about the fact that in many countries, women – especially women of color – can’t confidently bring a child into the world knowing he or she will be adequately clothed, fed, sheltered, and/or expected to live to old age and avoid prison at an early age? What about the fact that conditions in many parts of the world are just not that life-affirming for small human beings? The crime is worse because it would be relatively simple to ease up on the wars, the misuse of resources, and the exploitation of people and the planet. Who did it? Who’s in charge? Who is accountable?
The Catholic Church seems to know something about holding people accountable. For example, it doesn’t just excommunicate women for having abortions, it also excommunicates doctors who perform abortions, counselors who offer abortion as an option, parents who give permission for their minor to have an abortion, and friends or partners who help pay for the abortion.
The church seems to be quite thorough when it comes to zooming in on the particulars of what is happening in a woman’s uterus.
This kind of hyper vigilance and patrolling of women’s bodies is a form of terrorism against women. In this context, the way that forgiveness is doled out reinforces blame and elevates arbitrary authority. According to the Pope’s decree, women can only seek forgiveness for their abortion between the dates of December 8 and November 20, 2016. During this special Holy Year or “Jubilee,” priests will be allowed to forgive the sin of abortion as long as the woman who had one has a “contrite heart.” In other words, you can’t be forgiven if you stand by your decision in any way – even if you got pregnant as a result of rape or chose an abortion because doctors told you that for medical reasons you could not survive a pregnancy! Women who have already gone through this trauma now will be required to beg forgiveness for their choice. What about women who weren’t facing trauma but were “simply” making a decision about whether to be a parent? They, too, must beg forgiveness for having applied their decision-making powers at this significant life crossroads? The overwhelming majority (95%) of women who have had abortions don’t regret it. And most of us who have had abortions weren’t facing life or death decisions; we were deciding what we wanted to do with our lives. What about that, exactly, do we need to be forgiven for?
And, don’t forget, you can’t be forgiven on November 21. Nope, that will be too late. The forgiveness window closes on that day, and you are back to being banished from the church for life and condemned to hell for eternity.
It’s as arbitrary as kids on the playground playing tag and deciding where “base” will be and what it means to be “out.” Except in this case, it’s the Pope and his priests who, along the lines of this powerful male hierarchy, zero in on women to condemn them for the choices they have made with their own bodies, singling them out for the harshest penalties.
It’s not just the Catholic Church that punishes women for what we do with our bodies, the protestant fundamentalists are similar. And it’s not that Christians of all kinds don’t sometimes take a stand against wars and climate change and oppression of all sorts.
They do. The Pope himself has taken a welcomed stand against climate change, which he acknowledges is causing irreparable harm to the planet and particularly to poor people. But what does he want to do about it? He wants to “enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.”
So when it comes the planet – the giant orb that is home to not just all of humanity but all living things and all the eco-systems large and small that they inhabit – the Pope addresses the potential destruction of all of this by starting a conversation. When it comes to a woman deciding what to do about something happening in the tiny orb that is her uterus, which is indeed a private organ in her body, well then, it’s the harshest of all penalties. Let us see the Pope’s decree about abortion for what it is: a rigidifying of the idea that women’s bodies are not our own and a reminder that even in the context of global destruction, the powers-that-be will avoid holding the powerful accountable and will instead blame and terrorize and require begging from those who have exercised a modicum of control over their destinies.