A Catholic Abortion Doula on Reproductive Justice as a Religious Vocation

May 6, 2022
hot pink circle with yellow text Religiously Blonde

Phillip Picardi, Master of Religion in Public Life (MRPL) candidate, has launched a series of daily newsletters, Religiously Blond, as part of his final public project. An award-winning journalist and editor best known for rebranding Teen Vogue, Phillip also founded them., served as Editor-In-Chief of Out and is the current host of the Crooked Media podcast Unholier Than Thou. Phillip, who was raised Catholic, highlights in the internal diversity of Catholicism in this interview with Catholic abortion doula Kate Hoeting to unpack the Supreme Court draft opinion leaked earlier this week. 

Phillip will host an Instagram Live on  Wednesday, May 11, 7-8:30pm, @religiously_blonde, with the New York Times bestselling author and poet Cleo Wade to celebrate the end of the program. 

This article below, authored by Phillip Picardi, reposted with permission. View the archive and subscribe to Religiously Blonde to receive future newsletters in your inbox. 

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A Catholic Abortion Doula on Reproductive Justice as a Religious Vocation

Kate Hoeting of Catholics for Choice talks about religion's role in the road after Roe.

Phillip Picardi | May 4, 2022

 

So, obviously this newsletter project was supposed to be about my time at Harvard. But then, just as I was wrapping up a conversation on live television about Met Gala dresses, the texts came soaring in: A draft from the Supreme Court had been leaked, and it confirmed our worst fears. Roe is as good as doomed. There was nothing I had to publish yesterday—Harvard be damned—that was more important than elevating fundraisers and actions and pro-choice journalism for this moment, so you’re hearing from me a day late.

My own thoughts about abortion have evolved drastically over the course of my life. Raised under Catholicism and educated in Catholic schools, I absorbed the messaging of the church—a messaging that, I’m ashamed to say, stayed with me all the way into my college years. I believed abortion was wrong. Even after I left Catholicism, that belief stayed inside of me, a powerful example of how religion can exist within us in unchecked and unconscious ways. It wasn’t until I was challenged more wholeheartedly on my views by a dear friend, one of my college roommates who was on the pre-med track, that I changed my mind. I’m grateful she had the patience for my ignorance, and set me on a path towards greater and more compassionate understanding. Friends can be like angels in that way. (There’s that religious conscience again.)

Nonetheless, I never expected to be called to the mat on the issue of abortion, especially as someone whose views had so recently evolved. But as I joined Teen Vogue in 2015, Planned Parenthood came under assault by the religious right and right-wing activists, foreshadowing an onslaught of political and legislative attacks that were leading up to this very moment we’re living. It felt unethical for us as journalists claiming to represent the best interests of young women in America to not intervene in a proudly pro-abortion manner. So we showed our support for Planned Parenthood and published the magazine’s first articles that directly dealt with abortion access. The backlash from the right wing news media was swift, and it nearly cost me my job. Other publications hedged and “both-sidesed” the issue, or pussyfooted around saying abortion out loud. That kind of reticence only reinforced the stigma. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would have done even more, but I’m still proud of the work that the team did to normalize reproductive justice for the next generation.

Funnily enough, when it came time to apply to Harvard Divinity School, Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood, was the first person I asked for a recommendation letter. Cecile’s fearless leadership at Planned Parenthood was a striking example of what advocacy looks like. She was always under fire, but she never allowed anyone—especially not the white men in Congress—see her sweat. I knew that having her on my application would show HDS exactly who I am.

Abortion is personal to all of us. A person’s right to choose is a freedom that should not be dictated by the state. This moment is about our ability to articulate something powerful, something Monica Simpson of Sister Song once told me on my podcast: “When you take your personal belief and you then try to use that to legislate against me or to violate me and my beliefs? That’s where we have an issue.”

Simpson helped me understand that abortion access is framed as “reproductive justice” because that helps us articulate how abortion intersects with other social justice causes. For example:

Abortion is an economic justice issue because forcing childbirth on women who are already in poverty can only make their living conditions worse. This country lacks social safety nets, a respectable minimum wage, equitable education, or accessible child-care, let alone a sustainable or healthy foster care system. Forcing children into this world doesn’t ease those issues, but exacerbates them.

Abortion is a racial justice issue because middle- and upper-class white women will always have the ability to access abortion if they need to. Women of color, who face medical discrimination and compounded instances of gender pay discrimination, stand to lose the most from the criminalization of abortion.

Abortion is an LGBTQ+ rights issue because, first and foremost, people in our community can still get pregnant and deserve to make those decisions when they are ready and not when the government says so! But also, as advocates have been pointing out, the outlawing of abortion is arriving just as we are criminalizing access to healthcare for transgender youth. We are therefore facing a suite of laws that aim to tell us who we are and how we can be in this world, and that is all about the white supremacist desire to control people. Therefore, there is no LGBTQ+ liberation without reproductive freedom—and vise versa. Our fights require a coalition, not separate armies.

But abortion, I’ve learned, is also a religious justice issue—and not in the ways you might think. Religious leaders have long been a part of the fight for bodily autonomy, despite the religious right in America urging us to think otherwise. In fact, the religious right didn’t seem to care all that much about abortion until school integration started to happen (but there’s more on that below).

To help me unpack the multifaceted roles religion plays in reproductive justice, I spoke to Kate Hoeting at Catholics for Choice. Kate is a fellow HDS alum who talked to me a little about the origins of this fight, what we need to know for the road ahead, and how reproductive justice can be a religious vocation. If you are a religious person who supports abortion, I’d love to hear from you in the comments, and I know many of my readers would, too. And of course, if you’d like to uplift any causes, funds, or protests for reproductive freedom, feel free to use the comments for that work, too.

First off, can you tell me a little bit about where the Catholic people stand on abortion?
Let’s take a look at the data, which is something anti-abortion people refuse to do. When we look at polling of Catholics in the US, we see that by and large, they are extremely pro-choice. A Pew 2019 survey found that 68% of Catholics support Roe v. Wade. So we’re talking about five radical, minority, anti-choice Catholic Supreme Court justices who are planning to overturn Roe, which goes against the opinion of 68% of Catholics in the US. So there’s a disconnect here.

OK, and what does the Catholic Church officially say about abortion?
The Catholic Church (capital C, capital C) is set on stigmatizing abortion. If we look at what the hierarchy officially says—and keep in mind this is a group of ostensibly celibate, cisgender, mostly white men who don’t have women in their lives because they don’t have children or wives—have decided that abortion is a sin and that abortion is murder. 

But at Catholics For Choice, we know that the Church is a lot more than just what a small number of Bishops have to say about abortion. The Church is the people—it’s the Body of the Faithful. One in four abortion patients in this country is Catholic. So when we have the anti-abortion Catholics praying and harassing people outside of clinics, they should know that one in four of those people is a Catholic. 

 

Right. And this official Church teaching actually pre-dates the religious right’s adoption of abortion as a key issue, correct?
Essentially, Southern Baptists—who are now among the most far-right extreme religious traditions when it comes to reproductive health—used to not even care about abortion. In fact, they made a motion that said abortion should be legal. Years later, they reaffirmed that motion. 

Before Roe v Wade, it is factually correct to say that the religious right didn’t care about abortion. Once they started having losses around the tax status of their racially segregated private schools, they started to realize that promoting segregation was not a viable political strategy. Having racism as their platform was becoming less palatable. So they made a distinct decision in the late ‘70s—after an evangelical right wing conference call—where they brainstormed what issue to tackle next. Somebody suggested: How about abortion? That became a huge political move for them, because they were able to align with the radical right Catholics, galvanize support, and mobilize their voters.

So when these traditions make these claims about having always believed that life begins at conception or always having opposed abortion, any historian of religion will tell you it’s not true at all. The idea that religion and abortion are antithetical is not only false, it’s an extremely recent idea. 

So how did the Catholics beat the Evangelicals to the anti-abortion strategy?
With Catholicism, the movement towards opposing abortion at the hierarchical leadership level pre-dates the evangelicals slightly. Throughout most of Church history, the Church was not at all claiming abortion was murder. Saints Aquinas and Augustine, doctors of the church and two of the most influential theologians of all time, both believed that the ensoulment of the fetus didn’t happen at inception. They thought the fetus gained its soul later in pregnancy. So abortion before then was not considered to be actually murder. This was the norm of the church for most of church history. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that Pope [Pius] the 9th had a Papal declaration that abortion was murderThat wasn’t codified until 1917. So barely over 100 years ago is the first time that canon law says abortion was murder. When we look at the history of the Church and when the Bishops make claims like “we are a Pro-Life Church,” our question is: In what century? For almost all of Church history, since the time of the life of Christ, the Church has not believed that abortion is murder.

Why is this kind of information—specifically, the rhetorical distinction between religious institutions and religious people—important to know as we gear up for a significant reproductive justice battle here in the States?
I serve as an abortion doula. I go into the clinic with folks and I hold their hands during their abortions. I talk them through what’s happening and I grab them a Kleenex and sometimes we talk about religion. As an abortion doula, one of the main things people ask me to do is pray with them. I remember the first person who asked me to pray before their abortion procedure. I was with the physician and the nurse, and she said: Before we start, do you mind if I lead us in prayer? We all bowed our heads and I swear, there was presence in the air. The lights were dimmed and she called on Christ to come walk with her and accompany her through the procedure we were about to experience. It felt so holy. Some of the most important and sacred moments of my life have happened in the abortion clinic. That is what I want to tell everyday people when they think about abortion and religion in the public square: These people who are having abortions every day, they are bringing their faith with them into the clinic. For us religion nerds, it’s a moment of lived religion and a place where practice becomes very essential over belief because people are praying before, during, and after their abortion procedures. They see God as being with them in their decision. This idea that abortion is some abstract concept that opposing sides of a religion debates over completely strips away the people that we want to center at Catholics for Choice, which is people who have abortions and the way that Catholic discourse around abortion impacts them.

Some of the most important and sacred moments of my life have happened in the abortion clinic.


So, what happens next? What do people of faith do now?
Catholics for Choice are calling on Catholics and all people of faith to speak out. Roe is most likely going away in the near future, and for all of those folks who feel uncomfortable with the fact that they’re pro-choice even if they don’t identify with that term vocally but think abortion should be legal, now is the time to share your story, talk to friends, and talk to family. Show them the ways your support of abortion rights is rooted in your faith. At CFC, we support abortion because of, not in spite of, our faith. Our primary mission is to support people as abortion storteyllers to show the way they’re called to be pro-choice.

Folks can donate to CFC and donate to their local abortion fund. Right now with Roe off the table, things are going to get really state focused, so we need folks who are in red states where aboriton is going to become illegal in the near future, they need to be doing grassroots community organizing as well. 

Just a final question. I obviously am gay, and decided to leave the Church in protest ahead of my Confirmation at 14 years old. I understand there’s a difference between Church Institution and the people of the church, but I also want to acknowledge that the Catholic Church in particular mobilizes its vast funds and resources to support or implement anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-abortion policies around the world. I guess I’m just respectfully wondering: How are the Catholics at CFC navigating this tension? Why do they still choose Catholicism?
In Catholic teachings, the prevalence of conscience cannot be understated. The Catechism says that going against your own conscience is a sin. It’s important to pray and to speak with community so that you develop a faith-guided conscience. So that is one of the reasons in Catholicism that we can bridge this divide between the Church and its people.

On another level, the structures of the Church really encourage radical, badass action. For example, in January, you might have seen that we projected messages on the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. There were statements like ‘Pro-Choice Catholics, You Are Not Alone.’ That is the Catholic faith. It’s an example of the Church—the people—spreading the good word, showing love, and showing others they are not alone. 

The reason that folks at CFC stay Catholic is because it is the faith that’s calling us to do this work. It’s not a case of people being stuck with Catholicism. We’re moved to do this. Everyone is affected by Catholicism. Catholicism is a unique religious tradition in that way—people can have unique, beautiful, complicated, and horrible ways of relating to the faith. Frances Kissling, who was a longtime President of CFC, was also asked, Why do you stay Catholic? She responded: What do you mean? I don’t decide to be Catholic—I just am. I think that ties to the ways we feel called. It’s a vocation.