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General
Pope’s unforgiving message of forgiveness on abortion
10-09-2015

Pope Francis announced this month that for a year, beginning in December, women who had terminated pregnancies could be granted forgiveness from Roman Catholic priests, instead of facing potential excommunication for their sins. It sounds like a step in the right direction: Mercy for women who have had abortions certainly seems preferable to condemnation.

But mercy may actually be worse. While the Pope’s announcement has been hailed as evidence of the church’s new, softer approach, it’s actually the latest example of the modern anti-abortion strategy: Portray women as victims who need to be protected from themselves with laws that restrict abortion rights.

Despite the concern for what the Pope calls an “agonising and painful decision,” research shows that a vast majority of women who terminate pregnancies in the United States don’t actually feel bad about it. In surveys, nearly all say it was the right thing to do, and positive feelings of relief or happiness outweigh negative feelings of regret or guilt for more than nine in 10 women, even years after the procedure.

Instead of treating women as adults who make their own decisions, the Pope condescends to “all the women who have resorted to abortion,” saying he is “well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision.” The threat of excommunication, at the very least, makes the church’s views on women’s rights clear. Offering forgiveness is a softer version of the same judgment: that the millions of women around the world who have abortions every year are sinners. Inviting women to feel shame and guilt for their abortions isn’t a mercy; it’s cruelty.

Which doesn’t mean some women don’t feel very real guilt or regret around abortion; for some women, post-abortion emotions are complex.

But women primarily feel guilty when they experience stigma and a lack of support for their choice. In telling women that they can be forgiven during this one year, the pope plays on the ambivalence and embarrassment that can come from silence around abortion. He sends the message that Catholic women, who, according to surveys have abortions at roughly the same rate as non-Catholic women, should feel ashamed.

The move toward this version of mercy seems to be less about supporting women and more about savvy politics. The church surely has seen American anti-abortion groups racking up legislative and judicial successes by moving their rhetoric away from the condemnatory and into the patronizing (and most American priests, notably, have been able to forgive and not excommunicate women who have had abortions for years).

According to the mercy narrative, entirely normal and common reproductive choices are actually tragedies in which women are ignorant dupes manipulated by doctors or unsupportive partners. In the decades immediately following Roe v. Wade, abortion clinics were besieged by protesters yelling that women were murderers; that was bad P.R. for the American anti-abortion movement. Today, the picketer is most likely a self-styled “sidewalk counselor,” often shouting “you’re a mother now” and “don’t kill your baby.” At anti-abortion rallies, women stand with placards reading “I Regret My Abortion” (and are sometimes flanked by men broadcasting the same message, who were apparently handed the wrong sign).

The anti-abortion movement’s refashioning of women seeking abortions from selfish tramps to weak-willed victims has been an effective move. In 2000, after a decade of often violent anti-abortion protests, the Supreme Court upheld a buffer zone around a Colorado clinic to keep protesters from getting too close. More than a decade later, after anti-abortion demonstrators had successfully morphed into “sidewalk counselors,” a buffer zone law again reached the Supreme Court, and the court struck it down, reasoning that the individuals chasing women down the sidewalk “are not protesters; they seek not merely to express their opposition to abortion, but to engage in personal, caring, consensual conversations with women about various alternatives.”