Three decades ago, Rembert Weakland, archbishop of Milwaukee at the time, convened a series of hearings throughout southwest Wisconsin to hear from women regarding abortion. His intention was significant: As the church’s opposition to abortion was becoming more structured and pronounced, he thought it essential that bishops and others in leadership and ministry try to better know and try to understand those most affected by a Supreme Court ruling allowing abortion and Church teaching resolutely forbidding it.
Viewpoints ran the gamut of abortion-related positions that have become increasingly familiar and, regrettably, strident in the intervening years. What the archbishop hoped might generate further dialogue, particularly with women who had undergone abortions, eventually dissipated amid allegations that such conversation gave scandalous credibility to those who had committed grievous sin and were not worthy of being heard. A few years later, Archbishop Weakland resigned amid a sex and extortion scandal, and his abortion dialogue, at least within Catholic circles, went dormant.
To say that is unfortunate is an understatement, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding abortion. As I wrote in a column following the leak of this recent decision, the hard work of being pro-life has just begun; it can’t just be a matter of opposing abortion. It’s not as simple as collecting diapers and baby formula. People who advocate for life, as the Catholic Church has, must now advocate for the programs and systems that help women realize healthy pregnancies and births, and assist them in raising children in safe and financially secure circumstances.
That’s essentially what women told Archbishop Weakland at his listening sessions. As the New York Times reported on April 1, 1990, “At all the sessions many women were emphatic that the church should do more to promote private and public assistance to pregnant women in poverty or other difficult circumstances.” One woman “described her decision not to seek an abortion when she became pregnant ‘without benefit of marriage’ and the difficulties she had faced as a single mother. ‘It takes very little to pontificate,’ she said. ‘If we’re not willing to do more, it’s unconscionable.’”
Examples of the “more” would likely include affordable child care, access to essential medical care, affordable transportation and housing, and workplace challenges such as gender pay inequity and uncertain maternity leave. None of these factors justifies a woman’s choosing to have an abortion, but, regrettably, data and personal stories indicate that such burdens weigh heavily in such decisions.
Instead of a concerted effort to address these complex and, admittedly, controversial realities, the U.S. Bishops and many of us following their lead, put nearly all of our energy, money and attention into pursuing legal and political means of addressing abortion. As I said in my previous column, we got into the business of working to change laws instead of hearts and minds.
Now, bishops and other leaders in the anti-abortion movement say they are determined to do whatever is necessary to assist women who might otherwise have chosen abortion. The U.S. Bishops stated collectively that now is the time “for coming together to build a society and economy that supports marriages and families, and where every woman has the support and resources she needs to bring her child into this world in love.” In his own statement, Bishop Callahan of our diocese spoke of “a profound care for mothers and their children” and his support of legislation “that ensures that no mother or family lacks the basic resources needed to care for their children, regardless of race, age, immigration status, or any other factor.”
Initiating some of this back when those women were sharing their stories, struggles and concerns with Archbishop Weakland would seem to have been remarkably helpful in terms of reducing the number of women choosing abortion – then, now and in these many intervening years. Instead we now attempt to build this new society and economy supporting women and families in one of the most contentious eras in our country’s history. It’s hard to imagine that the moral and political urgency of this reality will prompt a constructive, united response, but as gospel people we must strive and hope.
Such is the hard work of being pro-life in this new moment. TL