Religious Tyranny Shames Religion

In a comment on one of Jodi Jacobson’s posts on this site, a commenter who identifies as a “Pro-Life Catholic for Choice,” applauds Stupak’s amendment to the health care bill. Quoting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops—who stated that they would not support health care reform unless abortion were explicitly excluded from all insurance plans in the new health care system—the commenter says,

The Catholic position is that health care reform is a "national priority" and a "moral imperative". This is the kind of language that makes me proud to be a Catholic.

The Catholic Church’s longtime advocacy for universal health care also makes me proud to be a Catholic. But I’m ashamed of the way the USCCB has acted in this debate, and I’m surprised that a “Pro-Life Catholic for Choice” supports an amendment that restricts choice in a very serious way.

Catholics are free to do what they want. Catholic hospitals have the right to refuse services they find offensive. But when the federal government sets out to reform the health care system in a way that will affect nearly every single American, and only one procedure—affecting only women—is singled out as “inappropriate,” based on the objections of some religious groups, we are not on common ground.

America has honored religious freedom more consistently, perhaps, than any other country. Of course, religious freedom implies plurality. As soon as a religiously-held belief restricts the freedom of others, it’s no longer simply “religious freedom.” It’s tyranny.

This should be a reminder to us that, even with a pro-choice President and a Democratic majority, the war against reproductive health care is far from over. Hydra-like, it rears not one head, but many: sexual hypocrisy, misogyny, religious bigotry. Feministing gets it right:

This has me so incredibly infuriated because it further segregates abortion as something different, off the menu of regular health care. It is a huge backward step in the battle to convey — not just politically, but to women in their everyday lives — that reproductive health care is normal and necessary, and must be there if (or, more accurately, when) you need it.

The commenter on Jodi’s post claims that with the bill’s passage, Obama is siding with the USCCB over Planned Parenthood. Is he ashamed that, of all the things the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops could be lobbying for, it has chosen to obstruct access to health care?

In an extraordinary effort over the last 10 days, the bishops conference told priests across the country to talk about the legislation in church, mobilizing parishioners to contact Congress and to pray for the success of anti-abortion amendments.

The bishops sent out information to be “announced at all Masses” and included in parish bulletins, and urged priests and parishioners to tell House members: “Please support the Stupak Amendment that addresses essential pro-life concerns.” They added: “If these serious concerns are not addressed, the final bill should be opposed.”

Would the USCCB have been conducting a full-scale organizing effort for health care reform if abortion hadn’t been at issue? Do we ever see the USCCB wearing themselves out over social welfare legislation? What about the death penalty?

When they have the opportunity to help people, the USCCB makes little noise. But given the opportunity to take away women’s rights, the Conference debases itself by turning into a lobbying group of the most aggressive and inappropriate sort. President Obama is, without a doubt, faith-friendly. He understands the importance of religion to Americans, and he believes in the power of religion to do good. But he, like the founding fathers, does not look favorably upon a religious group that would like to create the nation in its image.

So to anyone who thinks that fortune is smiling on USCCB or the Family Research Council or Concerned Women for America, I have this to say: Obama will not let women down. He has the opportunity, and the inclination, to increase funding for health clinics and to change the way abortion providers are treated in this country. And maybe a few years from now, or at least sometime in my lifetime, abortion won’t be a dirty word.

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  • jgbeam

    Abortion is not a Catholic issue. It is not a religious issue. It is not a women’s rights issue. It is a life issue. The Bishops are not campaigning on religious grounds. They are simply trying to protect life in the womb.

    Jim Grant, Pro-lifer

  • lex

    Sorry, jgbeam, but abortion is NOT a life issue. It is an issue between a woman and her physician, period, end of story.

    And I’ll start taking Roman Catholics more seriously on moral issues when THEY start taking more seriously their obligations to assist victims of priestly sexual abuse and to cooperate with law enforcement in prosecuting the perpetrators AND those who aided and abetted them, including, apparently, the incumbent pope. Until then, the Church is just one more continuing criminal enterprise that ought to be nothing more than fodder for the RICO Act.

  • bluesun

    It is not enough to say that this is about protecting ‘life,’ a general word that refers to everything from amoebas to flatworms to broccoli to salmon to humans. I know you are using ‘life’ as a synonym for ‘human being,’ but it is a dangerous conflation to use words so imprecisely when arguing the finest of distinctions. You wouldn’t crusade to save an e. coli bacteria or a carrot.


    What makes a human being a human being? At what point in the process of egg formation, ovulation, fertilization by the sperm, combining of the genes, the first division of the blastocyte, attachment to the uterus, ‘quickening’ (the point in the second trimester when the pregnant woman is first able to feel fetal movement, birth, does the developing organism magically separate from the general kingdom of life and become specifically a human being? 


    The idea that a blastocyte or developing embryo is a full human being and not just a handful of undifferentiated cells is usually pinned to the idea that one’s god of choice has mystically and magically imparted that blastocyte with an indemonstrable and unprovable ‘soul,’ It is the believed presence of this undetectable soul, taken entirely on religious faith, that defines the blastocyte as not just ‘life,’ but ‘human life’ to the great majority of right-to-lifers.


    The irony here is that the idea of ‘ensoulment’ at conception is actually a radically new change in Christianity that dates back only to 1869. For the first 1800 years or so of Christianity, the fetus was NOT considered human and was not ‘ensouled’ with a human soul until ‘quickening,’ some time in the second trimester. Abortion before that point was NOT considered murder or a mortal sin by the Church. Though, to be sure, a number of Christian scholars argued for instant ensoulment, the Church rejected their theological arguments and stuck to the dogma of delayed ensoulment. 


    [Well, to be totally accurate, Pope Sixtus V issued a Papal Bull, Efraenatam in 1588, which made all abortions subject to excommunication and the death penalty. However, he died 3 years later, and his successor, Pope Gregory XIV, immediately rescinded the Papal Bull and reinstated ‘quickening’ as the point a fetus became human. In fact, he set the point at 116 days (about 16 1/2 weeks into the pregnancy). Any time before 116 days, abortion was not considered theologically to be the killing of a human being.]


    In 1869, Pope Pius IX was trying to gather support within the church hierarchy for the adoption of the principle of ‘Papal Infallability.’ He approached the French leader, Bonaparte III, an Bonaparte demanded a political trade. Worried about a century-long decline in the French population. Bonaparte agreed to back Papal Infallibility, but only if Pope Pius IX would ban all abortions, even those before quickening when the fetus changed from fetus inanimatus to fetus animatus and received a human soul.


    Pius IX accepted the political quid-pro-quo and, in exchange for Bonaparte’s political support, he issued a new Papal Bull declaring that conception was the point at which the pre-embryo became ensouled.


    It wasn’t until 1917 that that Church Canon was finally changed to remove the distinction between the fetus inanimatus and the fetus animatus.
    So, ironically, the very theological foundation of the right-to-life movement is based on a very recent (and cynically political) change in official Christian doctrine, and not the doctrine that was in place from the days of Jesus until the late 19th century.
    Just another example of the sort of foolishness and danger in allowing various religious beliefs or superstitious taboos to influence law and social policy in a secular democracy.

    "When Fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross."

    – Sinclair Lewis

  • jodi-jacobson

    was unable to send you a private message….


    can you contact me?

  • jgbeam

    My premise is that abortion is not a religious issue, although the question is certainly addressed by religious groups.  I appreciate your well-presented response and do not challenge any part of it but you choose to focus on the "theological foundation" of the pro-life movement.  Since you do so, I offer the premise that modern science will support the present teaching of the Church.  See "Embryo: A Defense of Human Life", by George & Tollefson.  For an argument based on reason and natural rights, see "Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice", by Beckwith. 

    Thank you for your interest.

    Jim Grant, Pro-lifer

  • bluesun

    There are, to be sure, a small handful of anti-abortion absolutists who have arrived at their position through personal reasoning or gut emotion, and not through religious dogma.  However, they would make up such an inconsequentially small lobby group they would be no more likely be noticed by the public at large than a gnat fart in a hurricane.  It is the other 99%, the religiously motivated anti-abortion fanatics that give the group its size and power.


    You might want to read an interesting review in the Journal of Clinical Investigation on "Embryo: a Defense of Human Life" at


    There is considerable criticism of the absolutism of George and Tollefson, including the fact that, in their book they quote only passages from embryology textbooks that they can use to support their position, while omitting anything that confounds or contradicts their absolutist position.  George, BTW, is also a founder and chairman of the board of the National Organization for Marriage, which lobbies for a christian fundamentalist definition of marriage. He is also involved with a host of right-wing political organizations, including the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Ethics and Public Policy Center (a right-wing interest group that is "dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy."), and numerous other neoconcservative organizations.


    Despite the figleaf he uses of presenting his book as a non-religious argument, George, a Catholic, is heavily involved in conservative religious  activities, and his book is pushed by a plethora of right-wing catholic and fundamentalist sites.  He is on the editorial boards of right-wing Catholic journals Touchstone and First Things, and was on George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics, where he opposed even the minor concessions the board made to use of already established stem cell lines for research.  He is also the founder of the American Principles Project, yet another right-wing religious group whose prime priority is to get the GOP to oppose both abortion under any circumstances and gay marriage.


    Both George and Tollefson are advocates of what’s called ‘New Natural Law,’ which is an attempt to create a philosophical argument that traditional religious and moral principles are not only religious absolutes, but natural law as well. Many evangelicals, including James Dobson,routinely cite George’s Natural Law theory to bolster their claims of religious moral absolutism.


    This is not an attempt to make an ad hominem attack or to ‘poison the well,’ but a legitimate look at a man who is using any tool he can to further his Catholic moral code – including the idea of reaching out beyond religion with a pseudo-religious "Natural Law" simply standing in for the religious "revealed truth."   All their book turned out to be when I first read it was the basic Catholic fundamentalist absolutism on abortion and related subjects dressed up in a pseudo-scientific wrapper, much as creationists have tried to dress up their belief in pseudo-scientific terms like Intelligent Design and Creation ‘Science.’


    "In a sense, the religious person must have no real views of his own and it is presumptuous of him, in fact, to have any.  In regard to sex-love affairs, to marriage and family relations, to business, to politics, and to virtually everything else that is important in his life, he must try to discover what his god and his shamans would like him to do; and he must primarily do their bidding." 

    ~Albert Ellis

  • bluesun

    Dr. Francis J. Beckwith is a Roman Catholic scholar who focuses not only on banning all abortion, but the teaching of Intelligent Design in public schools. He, like George, has been involved with a host of right-wing Catholic and evangelical organizations in the furtherance of his goals.


    He is also an avowed member of the ‘christian countercult’ movement, which is a loosely associated group of Catholic and evangelical ministries and individuals each of whom are convinced that any Christian denomination that differs from their own teachings is really nothing but a cult. Using the "wrong" version of the bible, or having minor doctrinal disagreements, or being not sufficiently condemnatory of homosexuality and abortion are enough to get your denomination labeled a "false" christian "cult."
    They claim that all non-Christian faiths are heresies and that they alone have the authority to define "true" christianity. Ironically, since many in the group come from different denominations, they are often as busy denouncing each other as the outside world. One member of the group, the lunatic Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, which routinely stages hate-ins at soldiers’ funerals to protest homosexuality, believes that they alone are the "true" christians, and everybody else is a heretic.


    When you select books that try to make a scientific and rational argument for opposing abortion, you would do better if you didn’t pick books by people who have a long history of trying to use pseudo-science to disguise their proselytizing for fundamentalist religious absolutism.


    "Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind.

    – Thomas Paine

  • jgbeam

    BlueSun, I appreciate your attention to my position that human life begins at conception can be supported independently of religious beliefs, but you argue your position only by pointing out that the two books I referenced are authored by men of strong religious beliefs.  In both books, the authors go out of their way to keep religion completely out of their presentations.  One aspect of their goals, actually, is to prove that religion has nothing to do with their findings.  If you could refute their conclusions rather than attacking their religions I might be able to better understand how you find fault with my premise.  Based on your posts, however, especially the quotes you chose to to end them with, I can only conclude that you are strongly biased against the Catholic Church, if not Christianity in general and perhaps even all religions.


    Jim Grant, Pro-lifer