Reclaiming Public Debates about Abortion and Reproductive Justice

We write as Catholic women at a time when the opinions of judges and lawmakers are viewed as more valid than our own lived experiences with reproductive health. We are theologians, scholars, advocates, mothers and daughters who watch in anguish as abortion bans make pregnancies even more dangerous for women. We see how decades of disinvestment in the social safety net and more recent restrictions on women’s reproductive care disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic women. We are moved by compassion and conscience to say clearly that laws and policies celebrated as  “pro-life” by our Church leaders often hurt women and demean our dignity. 

Culture wars over abortion have divided our Church, coarsened political discourse and left a legacy of mistrust and resentment. Pregnancy, parenthood and the totality of women’s lives have been turned into simplistic slogans. We are told to “choose life” even as the policies needed to build a culture of life and dignity for women and families are rejected by the same politicians who criminalize our reproductive decisions. 

We applaud Church leaders who walk with people as pastors, but a vocal segment of clergy has created a culture of stigma and shame that shuts down conversations about women’s health. This culture contributes to retaliation in the public square as some bishops weaponize Communion against Catholic politicians. In addition, when bishops describe abortion as the “preeminent priority” in elections, the fullness of Catholic social teaching is narrowed in ways that are exploited by partisan agendas and that devalue the theological and spiritual role of discernment in making difficult decisions.  

We have three core reasons for speaking out.

  • We need better public conversations about abortion and reproductive justice that acknowledge the full complexity of women, pregnancy, parenthood and reproductive decisions. It’s time to reclaim the public narrative from a vocal minority of religious and political leaders who have monopolized these debates for too long. Catholic universities, parishes, faith-based non-profits and those of us who have a public platform as intellectuals, scholars and advocates should help foster these conversations.
  • Catholic women have moral agency and baptismal dignity. We encourage Catholic women to share their experiences and recognize the power of their stories. It’s especially important for women to be heard in a Church led by an all-male hierarchy. Because it takes courage to have these challenging conversations, women can’t be expected to speak out unless Church leaders also work to create a culture of respect and listening. 
  • We urge elected officials to support robust policies that address how economic, racial and reproductive justice are interconnected. Abortion is often viewed as a single issue, but women do not make decisions in isolation. The lack of quality health care, the high cost of raising children, poverty wages for workers, sexual violence and rape, and the racial gap in maternal mortality rates all impact how women make decisions about our reproductive lives. Reproductive justice is a holistic framework that makes these connections and rejects binary or single-issue solutions.

Our nation’s social safety nets fail to provide women with the support they need to have children and raise families in safe and healthy environments. The March of Dimes reports that more than two million women of childbearing age live in maternity care deserts where there is no hospital offering obstetric care, no birth center and no obstetric provider. Women in states with abortion bans are now nearly three times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth or soon after giving birth, according to a January 2023 report from the Gender Equity Policy Institute. 

Some states that ban abortion have chosen not to expand Medicaid, which covers about 40 percent of all births and the majority of births for low-income families. 

Even before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, states with the most restrictive abortion laws had some of the worst maternal and child health outcomes in the country. In 2021, the United States had one of the worst rates of maternal mortality in the country’s history, according to a report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. For Black women in the U.S, the maternal mortality rate is nearly three times higher than the rate for white women. In Mississippi, bipartisan legislation recently passed that extends postpartum Medicaid coverage for new mothers to one year after birth, a move that we applaud and that addresses the moral scandal that most new mothers in the state lose Medicaid coverage after sixty days. 

We call on lawmakers to expand Medicaid; implement child tax credits that have proven to significantly decrease child poverty; support full, paid parental leave after the birth of a child; do more to help families cover the high cost of childcare; and ensure that workers are paid living wages. All of these policies are rooted in principles of solidarity, the dignity of work and the common good found in Catholic social teaching. We recognize that even many of our own Catholic institutions are not doing nearly enough to support policies that help women, children and families flourish. Catholic institutions should be national models for paying just wages to our workers, offering comprehensive pre-and post-natal health insurance coverage, and guaranteeing fully paid parental leave after the birth of a child.

We end with an invitation for more Catholics and other people of faith to join us in our effort to create better public conversations about abortion and reproductive justice that reject tired labels and grapple with complexity. Each of us have deeply personal and often different views about abortion, and we respect the fact that people of goodwill have sincere disagreements on these issues. By sharing our stories, convening dialogues and building new coalitions, together we can do our part to reject divisive culture wars and focus on uniting behind a comprehensive agenda that supports women and families.

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Over thirty Catholic women scholars, theologians and advocates joined together in an open letter calling on all Catholics and people of faith to have better public conversations about abortion and reproductive justice that reject tired labels and grapple with complexity. Together we need to support women and families. 

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