Pope Francis announced plans last week, as part of his Holy Year of Mercy, for easier absolution for women who have had abortions. Five seconds later, battle lines were drawn. Supporters hailed his graces, conservatives were cheesed off, and Catholic women everywhere exhaled—or at least they should have.
This is because nobody knows guilt like a Catholic woman in an abortion clinic. As a gynecologist, I have seen it all. But nothing is quite as striking as the Catholic resolve to remain pious even in the middle of a termination procedure. And although this piety is born from a place of mercy and grace, nothing can be quite so damaging.
Consider for a moment the gravity of deep guilt. I’ve heard numerous Catholic women say they were going to hell for having an abortion and would never be able to forgive themselves. Despite this, they make informed, careful, and autonomous decisions to go through with their procedures. Where do you go after a thought like that? Certainly not to your priest. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that any woman procuring an abortion shall be excommunicated from the church. Nearly 30 percent of all women obtaining abortions are Catholic. In failing them, the church is lacing said guilt with blades. It’s the opposite of a whistleblower protection policy. It’s a “tell no one what you’ve done, and you’re going to hell anyway” policy.
A Catholic patient once asked me, right before undergoing her abortion: “Are you going to judge me for this?” After I told her no, of course not, she then confessed, “I’m worried I’m going to die during the procedure because you’re judging me.” It doesn’t get much heavier than that, except for this last experience.
I once cared for a woman whose fetus had died midpregnancy and who needed an abortion procedure. Because this was a very desired pregnancy and because of her very deep Catholic roots, she called in a priest to baptize the fetal remains. In full sterile attire, the priest performed both the rite of baptism and then the last rites in a combined baptism/funeral service. He didn’t ask any questions about what had happened or how we had all gotten there. He only offered peace and forgiveness to this suffering woman and her family.
If this is what the Pope is hoping to promote—elimination of the staunch belief that abortion should never be allowed—then I’m listening, but something tells me this is too good to be true. Like Patricia Miller writes in her book Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church, everything you need to know about the Catholic Church and women can be ascertained from the front doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. The only women worth immortalizing in bronze are Kateri Tekakwitha (the virgin), Elizabeth Ann Seton (the saint), and Mother Cabrini (the nun). This is the ideal woman: chaste, selfless, and a servant to others. Sexuality is entirely inappropriate, and therefore obviously so are contraception and abortion. That’s a difficult doctrine to break, and likely not the Pope’s intent.
So what then does absolution from abortion mean? Maybe it means acknowledgement of the fact that you’ve done something wrong but simultaneous relief that you won’t go to hell (at least if your abortion occurred before the end of the Jubilee year). Maybe it means realizing that women value their reproductive rights and therefore so too should the Church. And maybe it just means grace. That’s what I would like to believe. For the numerous Catholic women I’ve helped in this difficult and trying situation, that is what I would like to believe.