Just the Facts, Sir: The False Dichotomy of Catholics vs. “Pro-choice” on Common Ground

As the anticipated release by the White House of a "common ground" proposal on abortion draws near, numerous members of the male pontificator commentariat are trying to spark anxiety by claiming that Obama will have to make a choice betwen "the Catholic vote," and "the pro-choice community."

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The facts:

  • Obama got the majority of the Catholic vote in 2008.  Fifty-four percent of Catholic voters went for Obama as opposed to 45 percent for McCain.  More conservative Catholics gave McCain a slim margin.  Among more observant Catholic voters–those who attend church weekly–McCain got 50 percent to Obama’s 49 percent.
  • A majority of Catholic voters approve of the President’s peformance to date, and a majority support a woman’s right to decide what is best for her when facing an unintended pregnancy, and the majority also support access to contraception.  As noted by the Pew Research Center:

Catholics’ overall approval of Obama is consistent with the fact that
many Catholics themselves do not share the Catholic Church’s opposition
to abortion and embryonic stem cell research. 

  • The real-life practices of Catholic women and couples when it comes to contraception and abortion is consistent with that of the general population.


There is no danger of the Administration losing the broad support of Catholics on this particular issue, as long as the Administration makes clear its values and principles and goals and objectives, and as long as it sticks to the facts.  The assertion that unless he bows to the most conservative Catholic position he will lose widespread support is a scare tactic of the right. (And in any case, this should not be the priority consideration in regard to freedom of choice, freedom of religion and the decision of whether, when and how many children to have).

While it is now clear from recent reports that any common ground proposal will not be accepted by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), this is also no surprise.  We knew that already.  The only thing that will suffice for the USCCB is if Catholic doctrine becomes the law of the land.

Here is what the White House proposal needs to do:

  • Underscore what everyone already knows: This is a pluralistic society with a variety of complicated collective views on sex and abortion, but that the vast majority of Americans understand and agree that these personal decisions must be left up to women and their families.
  • Make clear that the White House is committed to evidence-based policies in public health that will yield the greatest results in promoting both the health of women and their families, while meeting social goals of reducing unintended pregnancies and reducing demand for abortion in the long run.
  • Make clear that the number of abortions in the United States has been declining and that with the right policies in place, this trend can continue without compromising women’s reproductive choices or their family wellbeing.  The Administration is in line with the vast majority of the American public in its position that how to deal with an unintended pregnancy is a decision that needs to be made by women, their partners, their families, and their doctors, not the White House or the Congress.
  • Acknowledge that while some progress has been made, the number of unintended pregnancies in the United States remains unacceptably high.  Recent reversals in positive trends, such as the upward swing in teen pregnancies, can be traced back to years of abstinence-only programs and efforts to stigmatize basic reproductive health care.
  • Underscore that all the best public health data show that the best way to reduce unintended pregnancies, and hence the need for abortion, is to provide universal access to prevention services.  Refer to data showing that the rate of unintended pregnancies and hence abortions is highest among those populations of women with least access to family planning services.
  • Underscore that it is not the job of the government to convince women what to do when faced with an unintended pregnancy but to ensure that all options can be weighed fairly.
  • Base the policy proposal on the following:
  1. Increased funding for basic family planning services to reduce unintended pregnancies, including dramatically expanded access to emergency contraception.
  2. Increased emphasis on expanding access to early abortion for those who choose to terminate a pregnancy.
  3. Dramatically increased funding for comprehensive reproductive and sexual health education, and evidence-based approach increasingly shown by research to be highly effective in delaying sex among teens, reducing unintended pregnancy and unsafe abortion and reducing sexually transmitted infections.
  4. Ensuring women facing unintended pregnancy receive evidence-based, unbiased counseling on all their options: continuing a pregnancy to term, choosing to carry to term and give a child up for adoption, and choosing to terminate a pregnancy.  The government should support, not direct, proscribe or limit, women’s choices.

Focusing on facts will ensure that the public understands that the Administration is committed to what the President promised–evidence-based public health policies.  It will also show the majority of the public that the Administration is not accommodating ideology, but standing on fact.

By doing so, the Administration can, in the long run, actually bring profound change to this debate: evidence-based policies put into practice will achieve many of the goals we seek and take the air out of the ideological fight in which we have been engaged.

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  • invalid-0

    As a pro-choice Catholic, I don’t think this message can get enough play, but I’d like to add that many of my fellow Catholics DO agree with the Church’s position on abortion. Many more don’t agree verbatim but still think that abortion is bad. “American Catholics” aren’t one monolithic group any more than “Catholics” are.

    President Carter had an interesting view on this matter. He was personally against abortion but considered it his duty to uphold the law. One of the things he considered as a means to reduce the abortion rate was to improve the economy. Women who can afford to raise children are less likely to end their pregnancies.

    Also, there are matters of adoption law that deserve attention here.

    You guys probably don’t get this very often, but I’m thrilled that you use proper punctuation.

  • jodi-jacobson

    You make really good points.

    I don’t think anyone has to be persuaded to think abortion is good or bad. That is really beside the point.
    The point for me is that we can not dictate to others what choices they make in such a profoundly contested and personal sphere, not to mention one in which political beliefs as stated in surveys do not accord with personal actions.

    In other words, given that the majority of Catholic women use birth control and seek access to abortion services at the same rate as other women in the population, they may think abortion is "bad," but see it as acceptable in certain situations, including their own personal situations.  This kind of cognitive and "behavior" dissonance is evident in other areas as well.  We might stigmatize something because it is the social norm to do so, but personally engage in or avail ourselves of that action or behavior when we need to do so.  This is where I think the disjuncture comes in many of these surveys…people say what they think they should, or express their "idealized" self over their real self.

    Bottom line for me: None of us can live inside another persons life or their head. We each need to make our own choices in these issues, and we also can not have the government making policy based on an ideology of one or two religious groups.

    I do agree, however, that there are many critical issues, including the health and wellbeing of born children, that would be greatly improved by a focus on reducing poverty, however politically unpopular that appears to be especially within the conservative right movement.

    Finally, economic security obviously has innumerable benefits, including and increase in secure access to health care, including reproductive and sexual health care, which includes prevention. Reducing the number of unintended pregnancies will in turn reduce the number of abortions.

    With all best wishes,

  • invalid-0

    Good piece Jodi, thanks.

    It’s certainly true that there is no monolithic American Catholic view — but there is more to it than that.

    When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) did a poll on the opinion of US adults on abortion, they sought to hide the results by releasing them on December 30th when few journalists were paying attention. Why would they do such a thing?

    The results, which the bishops have failed to make available in full, show that a mere 11% of the nation’s adults support a complete ban on abortion. This figure is one of the lowest found in a large-scale poll in recent years.

    Similarly notable, a Gallup poll found that Catholic opinion is nearly identical to non-Catholic opinion on abortion. The numbers show that by and large US Catholics do not share the values of the church hierarchy on abortion.

    The Gallup poll also determined that Catholic sentiment is either equivalent or more liberal to that of non-Catholics on nine issues, ranging from abortion to stem-cell research.

    So, right, no monolithic Catholic view — but one that is remarkably similar to that of the rest of the nation.

  • crowepps

    Everybody is aware of it, but it should be emphasized that the “Church heirarchy” will never be in a position to need abortions, being all male. It’s a lot easier to insist that someone needs to ‘sacrifice’ when it’s never going to be YOU.

  • invalid-0

    This statistical data about the view of most Catholics in the US has remained consistent for 30 years. Because Catholics had already chosen to ignore the hierarchy on contraception, they understood that the official church was ill-equipped to affirm any reproductive decisions made by anyone. Pope Paul VI had already ignored the recommendations of a majority of a Commission that he himself had appointed that the use of contraception was not morally evil. Most of the laity realized that the 1968 encyclical condemning birth control was a betrayal of their own input into the church’s teaching.
    Making abortion illegal, as the religious right in all denominations wants to do, will not end abortions; it will just force most women into risky procedures.

  • invalid-0

    Hi Jodi… great article.

    I’m a practicing Catholic and a registered nurse. I voted for Obama, as did many Catholics I know, including two Catholic priests.

    The majority of Catholics understand that in the real world we do our best to live and apply our faith in a responsible way that respects the beliefs of others. I have never met anyone of any belief system who is “pro-abortion”. They do believe that abortion should remain safe and legal because it is sometimes the best choice available. That’s reality. The majority of Catholics also view contraception as a responsible means of controlling reproduction.

    Unfortunately, Catholics are often assumed to mindlessly adhere to the hard-line pronouncements of the hierarchy… especially of the more noisy ones. The men who usually become bishops are on a career path that began almost from seminary. They gain their promotion by being “yes men” to the Pope who appoints them, and often have little or no pastoral experience in a local parish where real people have real life problems. They navigate within a remote and artificial world, generally with their respective heads stuck in a book of rules and Vatican politics. The most vocal of them in the U.S. have also formed an unholy alliance with the GOP leaders (paradoxically a violation of Canon Law).

    Most of us (we laity and many priests) adopt a position of passively dissenting by simply ignoring them. Some of the bishops were nearly apoplectic after the November election, …probably embarrassed that they were unable to “deliver” the Catholic vote for the GOP. President Obama has nothing to fear from us… we recognize that we have common ground on these issues. We have a broad concern with ALL social justice issues, not just one single entrenched focus.

    As a medical professional I also believe, as do others, that we have an obligation to perform our legal duties without imposing any personal opinions upon our patients. To refuse to treat a patient in such arbitrary fashion would, at least for me, constitute medical abandonment (a violation of licensure and medical ethics). Those who are unable to separate their opinions (and perhaps revulsion) from necessary treatment, should perhaps consider whether they are in the wrong profession.

    Blessings and peace.