Kissling examines abortion from religious and moral perspectives

Referring to the abortion debate as, “one of the most profound moral issues that we face in our time,” Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice, discussed abortion in the United States and her personal reconciliation of her pro-choice views with her Catholicism in a lecture entitled, “Bush’s War on Women: Fundamentalism and Reproductive Rights.”

Kissling’s career in the pro-choice movement began in the 1970s, when she was director of one of the first legal abortion clinics in the United States. In 1982, she became president of Catholics for Free Choice.

Kissling began her lecture by explaining that since 1973’s landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court case, only two countries protect abortion as a fundamental right: the United States and South Africa. In other countries that allow abortion, abortion is legal only by the will of the legislature and often only in certain, limited circumstances. As such, she argued, only the United States and South Africa “respect women as competent moral agents.”

After discussing why abortion is legal in the United States, she went on to explain the conservative attempts to end its legality. Noting that the Republican Party controls the Senate, House and White House, she said that in 1974 the Republicans formally decided that it would be pro-life in order to attract conservative religious groups.

“We now have a situation where the Bush administration believes it was elected by conservative Christians, and that it has to deliver to that constituency in order to grow that base for 2004,” she said.

But because Republicans are unable to overturn Roe v. Wade, they have instead pursued other conservative Christian issues. These include, she said, cutting off funding to international population development organizations that provide information about abortion and funneling money to religious charitable groups within the United States.

In addition, both the Bush administration and the Catholic Church have attempted to hide the truth to discourage women from using condoms and receiving abortions, Kissling said. Catholic bishops routinely tell the United Nations that “condoms cause AIDS,” while the Bush administration forced the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to remove information from its website testifying to the efficacy of condoms.

The Bush administration also made the National Cancer Institute remove data from its website indicating that abortions do not cause breast cancer, she said.

“I respect activists attempting to convince people on moral grounds,” she said. “What I do have a problem with are people who try to make their arguments by using false information.”

After discussing abortion in the United States, Kissling turned to the Church’s position on abortion. She began by explaining that both the Roe v. Wade decision and the Catholic Church approach abortion from the same premise: that they do not know for sure whether or not a fetus is a person.

She said that the argument that life begins at conception is not one that the Church has ever officially made, but that in 1974 it released a document indicating that “authorities in the Church are not in agreement as to when the fetus becomes a person.”

“This is still the official position of the church,” she said.

From this premise, however, the Church and the Supreme Court reasoned very differently. The Court, she said, followed the traditional Catholic teaching that “where there is doubt, there is liberty.” Because the Court could not say without doubt that a fetus is a person, it left judgments regarding abortion to the women in question.

The Church takes the opposite view. Because there is a possibility that the fetus is in fact a person, it cannot condone a policy that could potentially result in murder. “On the surface,” Kissling said, “this makes some sense.”

The problem with the Church’s argument, however, is that moral decision-making involves the weighing of goods. “Why should we weigh the potentiality of the fetus against the actuality of a woman?” she asked.

She made reference to a poor woman in the mountains of Peru, for whom the addition of another child to the family would almost certainly result in the starvation of the living.

Regardless of the correctness of her views, Kissling understands that her views are not those of the Church. Still, that does not mean that she is not a Catholic: “The Church is a family, not a club,” she said. “And I haven’t been excommunicated.”

In the end, said Kissling, the issue of abortion relates to “how we as a society deal with moral ambiguity. Fortunately, the United States respects the ability of a woman as an intelligent, moral agent to make legitimate judgments about her own body.”