Dec 24, 2010

Catholics and American reproductive politics

There's a bubbling controversy in Arizona - no, not that one, and not that one either - about a Catholic hospital whose doctors performed an abortion a year ago for a woman who was 11 weeks pregnant and had a potentially fatal condition that would only worsen if she continued the pregnancy. Doctors decided to carry out the abortion in order to save her life. The Phoenix Bishop was not happy: he excommunicated the nun who allowed the hospital staff to carry out the procedure, and yesterday he removed the designation of "Catholic" from the hospital, costing it the financial and spiritual support it had received from the Church. You can read more about this here, which also examines the repercussions of this event around the country.

The Catholic Church has a long and shameful history of exerting outsize influence in American reproductive politics. When the United States government began subsidizing voluntary family planning programs for low-income Americans in 1960s, Lyndon Johnson carefully designed those programs to minimize resistance from the Catholic Church. In 1966, when the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (the precursor to today's Departments of Education and of Health and Human Services) released its first regulations of these programs, Johnson aide Harry McPherson acknowledged that some parts of the policy were "designed to assuage the Catholics as much as possible."*

In the 1970s, the Catholic Church funded the pro-life political organizations that mounted fierce opposition to legal abortion, lobbied hard for an anti-abortion Constitutional amendment, and for the imposition of legal restrictions on abortion access, like the Hyde Amendment. In the 1980s and 1990s the spread of Catholic hospitals and health service organizations made finding an abortion provider ever harder. And the crusade continues.

I don't think this requires much comment from me on the irony of a bunch of men who have supposedly never had sex making decisions about women's reproductive lives, so I'll just close by pointing out that the Arizona Bishop's letter was all about the need for the nuns and other hospital staff - and therefore the patients that they serve - to defer to his patriarchal authority.

[*citation is available if you want it. But do you, really?]

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