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Why the Catholic Church's Suppression of Abortion Dissent Should Concern Us All

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In recent years the U.S. Catholic bishops have been among the strongest proponents of "religious freedom," by which they mean the right of Catholics to express values, such as opposition to same-sex marriage or contraception, in their daily lives. For example, they've pushed strenuously for a broad-based exemption to the Affordable Care Act to allow any employer claiming a religious objection to contraception to refuse to provide it to employees.

But a recent incident illustrates that the institutional church doesn't extend that same freedom of religious expression to the many of its followers who dissent from its official position on abortion. The National Catholic Reporter, which is by far the most liberal of the semi-official Catholic publications, refused an ad for my book, Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church, which charts the clashes between pro-choice Catholics and the Catholic hierarchy over whether "good Catholics" can support abortion rights or vote for pro-choice politicians. A spokesperson said the publication couldn't "respect arguments that try to say that abortion can be a good thing" and likened giving space to abortion dissenters to promoting polygamy.

I'm not sure the person delivering that message grasped the irony of censoring an ad about a book that's largely about attempts to suppress abortion dissent. The episode is emblematic of how any discussion of abortion has been completely suppressed within the church -- even to the point of trying to deny history. Legitimate questions about how to comport Catholic doctrine with competing demands for women's autonomy and access to health care and the rights of others in pluralistic society have been reduced to aspersions that pro-choice Catholics think abortion is "a good thing."

Sadly, while many Catholics today would find it preposterous that anyone affiliated with the church could support abortion rights, prominent Catholics once addressed questions about the morality and legality of abortion in ways that were beneficial not just to Catholics but to society as a whole. And the stifling of these voices should concern us all.

In the summer of 1964, for instance, with support growing for the legalization of abortion in the circumstances of rape, incest and fetal deformities, the Kennedy family summoned some of the nation's most prominent Catholic theologians to Hyannis Port to deliberate how "formulate a political stance on abortion that would be compatible both with Catholic teaching." They concluded it wasn't possible to enforce the church's strict prohibition of abortion without "significant attendant social evils" and said that Catholic lawmakers could support some legalization of abortion. The principle that religiously observant policymakers could separate elements of doctrine from its application in a pluralistic society would guide generations of lawmakers.

Several years later, shortly before the Roe v. Wade decision, Father Robert Drinan, dean of Boston College Law School, argued that from the perspective of Catholic moral teaching it would be better to repeal all laws banning early abortion and leave the decision to individual conscience rather than have the government decide who should and shouldn't be born. This helped provide legitimacy to the still-contentious idea that abortion should be a woman's decision.

And in 1984, when vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro came under withering criticism from conservative bishops for her pro-choice stance, nearly 100 priests, nuns, and theologians signed an ad in the New York Times saying there was a diversity of Catholic opinion about abortion and that abortion "can sometimes be a moral choice."

The ad provided legitimacy to pro-choice Catholic politicians, but also spurred years of crackdowns by the Vatican on dissent. The theologians lost teaching positions; nuns and priests were threated with removal from their orders; liberal bishops saw their careers stalled. Official discussion of abortion was extinguished but not dissent. Today, the majority of Catholics support abortion rights and fewer than 20 percent recognize church leaders as the final moral authority on the issue.

At the end of the day, the acceptance of the church's abortion teaching is an internal matter. But the suppression of dissent should give us all pause because the church frequently asserts itself in the public square on the issue. The U.S. bishops almost got a provision in the ACA to exclude all abortions from private health plans -- even for health reasons or for nonviable pregnancies. They forced the creation of a cumbersome segregation methodology for public funding that experts fear will cause insurers to drop abortion coverage. Underlying the bishops' moral authority on the issue is the church's unified opposition to abortion. But this is the result of decades of suppression of opposing views. How should we evaluate claims made by an institution that engages in energetic censorship and then presents itself in democratic assemblies seeking concessions to that position or asserting its right to "religious freedom"? We can't demand that the church change its position on abortion. But policymakers can question the weight they accord that position if it's based on fundamentally anti-democratic practices.