Busted Halo
feature: politics & culture
January 20th, 2010

Pro-Life or Pro-Active?

On the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a nun reflects on the abortion debate



This past January 22 was the 36th anniversary of Roe v. Wade and the legalization of abortion in the United States. There aren’t very many other days in the United States that manifest such division. I can’t think of any other anniversary that has consistently been celebrated with public demonstrations of opposing beliefs and emotions. Some, including such high profile figures as Alan Keyes, have compared the abortion debate in this country to the debate regarding slavery in the 19th century. That’s a pretty serious comparison considering that that debate was resolved by a civil war.

The latest Gallup Poll conducted between May 7 and May 10, 2009, found that for the first time since this question was first posed in a Gallup Poll in 1995 more Americans (51 percent) consider themselves to be “pro-life” than “pro-choice” (42 percent) with respect to the abortion issue. While I am heartened by the information, I don’t have the same optimism that some pro-life groups have that this will suddenly change the law. And, whether it’s rooted in my own cynicism or in my basic distrust of politics, I don’t think that simply “voting pro-life” will do the trick either.

Before I go any further, let me insert a disclaimer. I personally can never vote for a pro-choice candidate when a comparable pro-life candidate is also running. However, I have lived through the presidency of three pro-life presidents, as well as a Republican-led Congress. As far as abortion is concerned, not much has changed. With a track record like that, I can understand my peers who don’t get the logic behind voting for pro-life candidates as the answer to the abortion debate.

Changing the reality regardless of Roe v. Wade

Most women must pass a church on their way to have their abortion. I wonder what the symbol of that church building is communicating to each of those women?

While Catholics receive information from their bishops urging them to vote pro-life, I don’t ever remember hearing with as much emphasis other ways that we can help to change the reality of abortion beyond simply trying to overturn Roe v Wade. Have you?

What would happen if every one of us were involved, if every one of us made it our responsibility to change the reality of abortion, regardless of whether Roe v. Wade is overturned?

This question has been nagging me ever since my brother, Dominic, and his wife, Cynthia, took in a young woman with a brand new baby. Cynthia befriended her while volunteering at a local home for unwed mothers; but once she gave birth to her daughter, the young mother had nowhere else to go. Dominic and Cynthia were newly married — and they took her in. When they looked for a different apartment, and later for a house, they looked for one that had adequate room for themselves, their guest and her baby. For the last three years, they have provided a home for her and her daughter. It was a delight for me to hear the little 3-year-old girl ask Cynthia if she could call my nieces and nephews her cousins too. Not only have she and her mother been given a place to stay, they have a new “family” of sorts as well.

The numbers

It is estimated that 43 percent of all women have had at least one abortion by the age of 45. That means almost half of all women have had an abortion. Every year in the U.S., 1.37 million abortions occur. That translates into about 3,700 per day. A little over half of these abortions are performed on women under the age of 25. African-American women are three times, and Latina women two times, more likely than white women to have an abortion. The majority of abortions are undergone by women who are not married at the time of the abortion (80 percent), and who identify themselves as Christian (Protestant 37.4 percent, Catholic 31.3 percent, Evangelical 18 percent).

According to an article that appeared in the Medical Science Monitor in 2004, an incredible 64 percent of women report being pressured into having an abortion. The Guttmacher Institute, a division of Planned Parenthood, published the most important reasons women choose to have abortions in the September 2005 issue of Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. These reasons are:

Reason for abortion
25% Not ready to have a child; want to postpone childbearing
23% Not afford to care for a child
19% Completed childbearing; have other responsibilities
8% Relationship issues/single mom
7% Not mature enough/too young
4% Child would interfere with personal goals such as education or career
4% Problems with the mother’s physical health
3% Possible health problems of baby
.5% Rape/husband, partner, or parent wants the abortion/desire to conceal pregnancy
6% Other

“While the percentages above reflect the most important reason, most women cited more than one reason. The most common theme when several reasons were cited was the claim of not being able to afford the child. A high percentage of women (74 percent) also cited concerns about how the baby would change their lives. Relationship issues were cited as high as 48% of the time.” (Source: http://www.wrtl.org/abortion/whywomenhaveabortions.aspx.)

Behind the numbers

We are repeatedly reminded that every statistic represents millions of babies, but it is important to keep in mind that they represent millions of women as well. These women are our mothers, daughters, sisters, granddaughters, sisters-in-law, etc., and every one of them has their own unique story to tell. One trip to the section of the site afterabortion.org about research being conducted on the post-abortion effects on women is enough to dispel the myth that abortion provides women with an easy out. Besides the numerous physical issues resulting from abortion, a high percentage of women undergo multiple psychological problems including guilt, nervous disorders, sleep disturbance, regret and, in some cases, serious psychiatric conditions.

The only message I was given growing up was that if I ever came home pregnant before I was married, I would be kicked out of the house. I have no idea what I would have done had I ever found myself in that situation. But I thank God every day that I did not have to confront that nightmare.

So my question is: How can we not get directly involved in this issue? Do we have conversations with girlfriends, daughters, granddaughters, etc., regarding the possibility that, sometime in their life, they may be in a situation where they might consider having an abortion? Have we told our friends that we will support them, help them out, etc., so that they know have a friend to turn to should they be pressured from other significant people in their lives?

The only message I was given growing up was that if I ever came home pregnant before I was married, I would be kicked out of the house. I have no idea what I would have done had I ever found myself in that situation. But I thank God every day that I did not have to confront that nightmare.

With 80 percent of Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinics in minority neighborhoods, it is compelling to keep in mind that most women must also pass a church on their way to have their abortion. I wonder what the symbol of that church building is communicating to each of those women? If the message that young girls and women heard at church was that if they ever faced an unplanned pregnancy, there was someone they could turn to for help — not for moral condemnation — I have a funny feeling they would naturally remember that message when passing by a church.

Googling “The Catholic Church and abortion” yields one site after another proclaiming the Church’s doctrine: that abortion is a “grave offense” and that anyone who procures an abortion is automatically excommunicated. One priest has gone so far as to publish that a confessor — when counseling a woman who confesses the sin of abortion — must make it clear to her that she bears full moral responsibility for the abortion. How will this encourage a woman contemplating abortion to come to us for help — when all she’s heard is condemnation?

How can the Church’s teaching be presented in a balanced way?

What if every parish bulletin listed the contact person for any woman who was pregnant and scared (and if that person were visible within the church community)? What if our focus changed from a debate about the constitutionality of abortion — which requires very little personal sacrifice on our part — to directly helping the women who may potentially have an abortion?

How can the presentation of the Church’s teaching be balanced so that women would be more likely to come to us when faced with the prospect of an unplanned pregnancy?

Asserting that the woman who procures an abortion does bear moral responsibility could be balanced with the truth put so well by John Paul II in The Gospel of Life (no. 59) that there are many people responsible: the father of the child, parents, other family members, friends, legislators, doctors, nurses, etc.

What if, rather than the doctrine, the care and concern of the Church for a woman contemplating abortion were the starting point for every homily, every “Catholic” television or radio program, blog, etc.?

As long as our most concerted effort is focused on electing all the right pro-life candidates, the reality of abortion in the United States will not significantly change. But what would happen if the 51% of Americans who have now identified themselves as pro-life decide to become pro-active in the lives of the actual women they know who are pregnant and need help? What would happen if every parish bulletin listed the contact person for any woman who was pregnant and scared (and if that person were visible within the church community)? What if our focus changed from a debate about the constitutionality of abortion — which requires very little personal sacrifice on our part — to directly helping the women who may potentially have an abortion? What would happen if all of us were to recognize that we too may bear responsibility for someone who has chosen to have an abortion because all that a woman heard from us was our view about abortion itself and not about the woman caught in the middle? How will we get involved?






The Author : Sr. Bernadette Reis, fsp
Sr. Bernadette M. Reis, fsp holds a Bachelors Degree in Spanish and English Literature and has spent several years researching various women’s issues. She lives in Rome and works in the English department of Paoline Multimedia, an international bookstore near the Vatican.
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  • Cynthia Reis

    As with every problem, there are many possibilities as to why a problem is occurring.
    In the Bible it even says, “the poor will always be with you.”
    The challenge we are given by Christ himself is, “what you do for the least of my brothers and sisters you have done unto me.”
    We have all heard the call for help. So all possibilities as to why set aside, what is our roll in responding to the call for those in need? This is where prayer and God’s guidance will lead you to aid in our brother’s and sisters needs to be met. For my husband and I it was the taking in of a mother and child.
    We have too many analysts trying to justify or prove one way or another how to eliminate situations. How will you become an instrument of God’s love? Love is an action verb not an analytical one. “Here I am Lord. It is I Lord. I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me…”

  • mike

    Sr. Reiss,
    God already has answered your question via St. Paul, I mean this is a great foreshadowing of Christ and his Church…
    1. The Sacrament of Marriage
    2. Father, Mother, Children
    3. The ‘domestic church’

    The Church is made up of ‘domestic churches’.

    Sr. it is not everyone’s job to be involved in the care and nuturing of mother and child. Except when understood correctly: God instituted marriage as a Sacrament and MUST be followed or the negative consequences you keep bringing up will not stop. Yes, Sr. women and children need fathers in their every day lives.

  • Sr. Bernadette Reis

    I am encouraged by the comments posted here. It is good for us to hear each others’ points of view. I hope that just as each of us would like our points of view to be taken into consideration, that each of us will also consider other’s points of view.

    It is true there are many people who have personally gotten involved in helping women choose life for their unborn children. They have founded and funded crisis pregnancy homes where women can find shelter while awaiting the birth of a child. Some find themselves drawn toward sidewalk counseling, adopting children, volunteering, donating supplies and money, etc.

    However, what I am advocating at the parish level is a go-to person that teens/women can go to when they are contemplating abortion, not the head of the pro-life committee who coordinates the walk-a-thon, and donations to the local crisis-pregnancy center. These are two very different roles. I personally have never seen the role of the former listed in any parish bulletin. I would be very interested to know of any parishes that currently list such a contact in their parish.

    Despite the remarkable work of so many who are already providing for many women, there are thousands of others who are slipping through the cracks. My heart goes out to them and I ask myself–how can we reach them? and Why aren’t they turning to us for help? For so many of these women, the only knowledge they may know of the “Pro-life” movement is the pictures they see of “Pro-life” events in the media. Most of the signs carried in these “pro-life” events are what I call “anti-abortion” signs. Perhaps this is what Mairie was alluing to in her comment. In other words, they are signs that condemn abortion. What if the majority of signs at a pro-life rally were actually pro-life? These signs might say how we want to help, are ready to help, that we love the women who have to make a very difficult decision and that we hope she considers coming to us….

    In presenting the Church’s position on abortion, I believe that people deserve to hear the Church’s message in its entirety. That teaching does include that abortion is taking the life of a human being. But doesn’t the Church also want women to know that we are here to help them find alternatives? It is the last part that is missing from the sites that I explored on the internet.

    I also think that Winnie’s comment is worth considering: “Equal Justice for women as well as everyone being involved in the care and nurturing of mother and child from conception until whenever, would help make abortion much less of an option than it is.” The birth of a child along with all that goes with it is a large responsibility. In our society, so much of that responsibility is placed on the mother. If those women contemplating abortion knew that they had a network, a community, “everyone being involved in the care and nurturing of mother and child from conception until whenever” that might lift a huge burden off of the mother. How could this movement toward “everyone being involved” play itself out in our families, in our parishes, etc.? Any ideas?

  • mike

    The number ONE way to decrees abortion is to have an ‘intact’ family with a father and mother. ‘Open’ divorce, initiated 85% of the time by women lead to 85% of these children without fathers in their homes regularly. Girls without fathers present in the home are the biggest targets to get pregnant out of wedlock. Thus, unwed mother’s children are even more suseptible to an increase in future abortions. So, as I stated above, let us all realize that Marriage is a vocation, with all its problems, that needs to be respected. Abortion is a symptom of a greater problem…divorce. Divorce is a symptom of a greater problem…loss of God.
    Let us return to the ‘words’ of God and not keep trying to understand the ‘words’ of Secularism.

    Sr. Phyllis. I know that there are many good ‘religious’ in the world. But, I truly believe that many women have ‘rejected’ their true ‘motherly’ role in the effort to become ‘equal’ to men. Again, the above stats show that 86% of the reasons for abortions has NOTHING to do with the real health of the woman, but with a personal choice. The biggest problem with this ‘personal choice’ is that a REAL LIFE is being ‘sacrificed’ in the process. Why the ‘rhetoric’ that women are not equal to men? I have known men who are real slobs and why would women want to be equal to them? Yet, I see women making a ‘mad rush’ to become just like them! I can’t support these type of men yet alone supporting women who want to become just like them. Look at our politicians today! How many female politicians are as bad, or worse, than male politicians? MANY.

    I had a long discussion several years ago with a bishop about abortion. The conversation ended with “If women take up the banner to stop abortion, then it will happen, otherwise it will continue”. Sr Phyllis, I truly believe the ‘religious’ have a special calling in the divorce/abortion debate that needs your direct pro active energy. Women need to see that it is ok to be a woman and happy. Just like my father showed me that it is ok to be a man, married and a father.

  • jim

    “The latest Gallup Poll conducted between May 7 and May 10, 2009, found that for the first time since this question was first posed in a Gallup Poll in 1995 more Americans (51 percent) consider themselves to be ‚Äúpro-life‚Äù than ‚Äúpro-choice‚Äù (42 percent) with respect to the abortion issue.”

    That same poll found that 52% of Catholics call themselves pro-life. Why is that?

  • jim

    “I personally can never vote for a pro-choice candidate when a comparable pro-life candidate is also running”

    Could you provide an examples of an anti-war, anti-capital punishment, pro-universal health, pro-life candidate?

  • Tricia

    There are so many people who are already working at the parish level to assist women who are pregnant and in crisis (perhaps we could work on NOT saying “crisis pregnancy”? Pregnancy itself is not a crisis, but the circumstances and emotional difficulties the pregnant woman finds herself in are) through the Gabriel Project. Additionally, the Sisters of Life (founded by John Cardinal O’Connor) render assistance through the Visitation Mission. After they receive a phone call and/or visit from a pregnant woman who needs help, they turn to a database of over 8,000 lay men and women, who have “signed on” to provide all types of assistance, in order to aid a woman in a tough situation with “practical compassion.” They offer to provide whatever they can, according to their means, e.g., a place for the woman to live; or professional help to find work or write a resume; to help drive her to doctors’ appts.; to be able to help her mov; arranging for a transfer from one college to another, etc. Last year alone, the Sisters and ther Co-Workers assisted – physically and spiritually – over 800 women. People are so eager help, they only need to be asked!

  • Cibele

    I don’t think she is wrong in her prescription. I think that what she purposes is part of the way of dealing with the problem, a very significant part. Of course the other social issues behind abortion (broken families, etc) should be taken care of. But we cannot ignore that the pressure and condemnation women may face when they are in a situation like that can play a great part in their decision. It is important to prevent the pregnancies and behaviour that may result in a choice for abbortion, but it is also important to look at and think about the ways we may end up “encouraging” abortion, as Sr. Reis so well pointed out. It is, in great extend, what Jesus is doing all the time in the gospels…calling people from their sins and helping them to find a way of hope. That should also be part of our duty as his followers, should not it?

  • James

    I don’t think abortions have risen to the level they have because our views are less “compassionate” than before. In fact, you might argue the exact opposite. In my opinion, Church-folks and religious leaders have never been less condemning of behavior and choices, yet the out-of-wedlock rate remains at the outrageous rate it is — with each 5% spike or drop causing consternation or celebration.

    I think the Sister is wrong in her prescription, just like I think she mis-diagnoses the problem. I am all for merciful interventions at the point of pregnancy, but pregnancy and abortion are intimately connected to the status of the family. The family is in serious trouble, which results in all kinds of dysfunction: drugs, sex (and pregnancy), suicide, experimentation, and the like. I don’t suspect what the Sister describes would much affect the abortion rate, anymore than emphasizing adoption seems to have appreciably affected it — though it has tremendously helped, to be sure; in fact, I suspect these efforts would probably have the opposite effect of what the Sister thinks might happen: pregnancy and abortion rates would likely increase. The sister discussing abortion without mentioning sex and marriage makes about as much sense as the recent report on the Ft. Hood shooting failing to mention Islam or Jihad.

    There is a pronounced social/familial/spiritual collapse or void present right now, one that people are trying to fill by the physical intimacy of sex or the physiological rush of drugs. People aren’t doing drugs because churches aren’t offering supportive services and rehab; it is happening because people are broken, bored out of their minds, or the like. That’s the point needing address, not after the fact.

    We’ve never been more compassionate and ready to help pregnant folks and the drug addicted, yet the rates are where they are. I suspect what we construe as the compassionate act may not always be.

  • Sr. Phyllis

    I appreciate Mike’s comment that different organizations have been around for at least 40 years, open to assist women. However, as Sr. Bernadette points out very well, we cannot just leave it to “them” to do it. All of us, in some way, are called to do something. It may not be as radical as the taking a woman and baby into your home as Dominic and Cynthia did, but it may be something as simple as collecting baby clothes for organizations that do help women, by talking openly about the issue with friends, family and church groups…
    Mike, I don’t know where you live, but I have experienced many consecrated religious serving to help not only these women and children but many others dealing with various problems in their lives. Because you don’t see them does not mean they are not there.

  • mike

    Sr. Reiss,
    I know that just the word ‘abortion’ can make many people run for cover and so many people want to ‘soften’ the actual ‘political’ rehtoric. However, while I was involved, as a mentor, with a group to help post abortion women, I had a reoccuring situation with the women I was helping. They all had went to Confession, if they were Catholic, or sought forgiveness in their way, but none of them had the feeling of forgiveness within them nor did they feel that they could ever be forgiven. Thus, they asked me for my advice. I told them my understanding of Confession as I learned it from the Sisters who taught us pre Vatican II. These women were glad to hear the ‘bold’ truth of what they had done, why the Church teaches such, and what they need to do to move forward. Funny, no one had told them that they committed a mortal sin, which would surely take them from God’s grace and that they probably would need to find a way to do ‘penance’, maybe for the rest of their lives if God so asks. (I am not talking about self flagulation either) ALL of them were very happy that I told them ‘the truth’ and wasn’t trying to stop the bleeding ‘artery’ with a band-aid. We must call it was it is and not back away from being truthful. Abortion is the deliberate taking of a human life and we can’t call it anything but that.

    Also, Sr. Reiss, as I was involved with the Pro life/pro active groups within my Church, I was very surprised, and disappointed, to Not see any Nuns working within these groups, even though they were part of the Church. Can you imagine if every parish had a Sister who headed up the Pro life/Pro Active committee who directly supported these helpful ministries?!!! What a tremendous example it would be to see a habit wearing Nun who was tireless in her devotion to help women and their babies! Think of the positive example it would be for these unwed mothers to see a Sister devoted to her vocation. Maybe they would be influenced to become devoted to their vocation of being a mother, but first a wife! Sacrament leading to Sacrament? I think so.

  • mike

    Sr. Reiss,
    The suggestions you make for the Church have already been in place for 4 DECADES! Homes for the unwed, prenatal care/post natal care, job training, etc, etc. Many parish bulletins have been listing these contacts for 4 DECADES! I am very surprised that you do not/have not known about the MANY ‘Pro life/Pro Active agencies and people that have been around for 4 Decades!

    Also, Note that on the list above showing reasons for abortion that 86% of the reasons given have NOTHING to do with the real health of the mother, but have to do with personal choice. A woman is ‘blessed’ with the opportunity to carry a new life, so with this comes sacrifice. As a man, I know that it is my responsibility to provide/assist with any new life that I was involved with bringing into this world, including sacrificing my time and money. Thus, if these women don’t go inside of a Catholic Church, then I am not surprised as part of becoming Catholic is to embraced the ‘Cross’ as Jesus asked us to do. Only then, can we ‘Rise’ with Him.

    BTW: I worked for several years for these Pro Life/Pro Active agencies within the Church.

  • MT

    Thank you Sr. Bernadette for such a compassionate article. I pray we all find ways to help our families, friends and neighbors who have faced abortion, are currently facing abortion and those who may face it in the future.

  • Perla

    This is the most compassionate article I have ever read about this topic. When an abortion occurs, we are all responsible in some way, unless we actively find a way to stop condemning and start helping. It is too easy to judge, but how easy is it to help?

  • sharon legere

    God bless you, Sr. Bernadette! An excelent article. I pray for a wide,wide circulation.Thank you so much for writing this article! Sharon

  • Winnie Clark

    Thank you sister, great aricle.I think we often overlook the social justice component of abortion. Before Roe v Wade even an educated womwn, during her child bearing years could not use her wages along with her husband’s to purchase a home, a car ,etc .After Roe v Wade the situation changed. Check it out. Equal Justice for women as well as everyone being involved in the care and nurturing of mother and child from conception until whenever, would help make abortion much less of an option than it is.

  • Stef McNeill

    In the early 70’s my two roomates and I were asked by a friend who was also an IHM religious if we could make a spare room in our rented home for women needing a place to stay after their deliveries. “Do you think our place is the best environment for a new Mom and her baby?,” we chorused. Said she, “Why not? It’s full of life.” And so one of the most fulfilling life expereinces for all involved began. Sr. Bernadette, I salute you! Yes – if we want to create the culture of life – we must love more deeply and put more of our own daily lives into the mix. This is a wonderful article. Thanks be to the Jesus of Compassion.

  • Yolanda

    My dear friend! Perfectly said! I have helped save a life, she is now 24 years old. The sacrafice is so small compare to the pain of abortion that touches so many lives. People be proactive.

  • mairie

    I have real concerns about the attitudes of anti-abortionists – the extremist use of language and action that is suggestive of what would have happened to the woman caught in adultery before Jesus got in the – but Jesus did get in the way and theose people had to look back at themselves. If we are so condemning what will it matter what any of us do – we will always be judged unforgiveable for something. That’s not Christlike is it. Abortion takes in the whole community, as Sister says, upbring, media, family, expectations and ‘accidents’ – the more supportive we are the less abortions may take place, but they will never, never take place and what then? We still need to love and care for whoever needs our care and support. We need to be mature in our faith, a faith that does not see things in black and white. How can you love and condemn in the same breath?

  • Carolyn

    Thank you, Sister! I hope this is reprinted in every parish bulletin in the U.S.

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