On the line: Women’s Right to Choose Abortion or Not. Who Decides?

By Donald A. Collins | 5 September 2012
Church and State

(Credit: Fibonacci Blue / Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Robert P. George’s Tuesday, September 4 article, Cardinal Dolan Goes To Charlotte in the Wall Street Journal perfectly (Page A 19) describes the powerful influence the Roman Catholic hierarchy has on the politics of both major parties. The bottom line in this tight election race remains VOTES and Democrats seek to keep the voting record of members of that faith from becoming a bloc vote for Republicans.

He begins, “If, as the Obama-Biden campaign alleges, there is a “war on women,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, is its field marshal. If opposition to same-sex marriage is “bigotry,” as many on the left insist, then Cardinal Dolan—as the most prominent defender of marriage as the union of husband and wife—is the country’s leading bigot.”

But as George then notes, “Yet Timothy Dolan will be appearing at the Democratic National Convention Thursday night in Charlotte, N.C., to invoke divine blessing on the proceedings. So what’s going on?”

Pretty obvious why, as George explains,

“It has been several decades since Catholics voted as a ‘bloc.’ Still, the successful candidate for president time after time turns out to be the one with more Catholic votes. Republicans and Democrats alike know that to prevail on Nov. 6, they need a majority of Catholics.

Many Obama administration policies have alienated faithful Catholics and their bishops. The decision to require that employer health plans cover contraceptives and drugs to induce abortions, for example, has taken Catholics—even some liberal Catholics—aback. The move has also drawn the formal condemnation and strong resistance of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Encouraged by the church hierarchy, Catholic educational and other institutions around the country have sued the Department of Health and Human Services in an effort to prevent the imposition of this mandate.

The Romney-Ryan campaign and the Republican Party have been outspoken and uniform in supporting the church on this. In response, the Obama administration and other Democrats (from party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to “reproductive rights” activist Sandra Fluke) have sought to spin opposition to the mandate as a “war on women.” That’s red meat to the party’s socially liberal base. But it comes at the cost of further alienating Catholics who don’t appreciate being accused of hating their mothers, sisters, wives, daughters, friends and (in the case of millions of faithful Catholic women) themselves.”

Yes, the problem for both parties is how to keep their red meat constituents happy while luring others who might find their sharply differing views on gay marriage and abortion as reasons to reject Democrats or favor Republicans or vice versa!

The real disagreement comes with the disparity between conservative Catholic demands that life begins at conception versus the legal, obviously humanitarian belief that persons are those who are born, not embryos. When born, these persons deserve the full faith and protection of our magnificent Constitution, but not as fertilized eggs. This view is embraced by the majority of Americans of all faiths and as we know, the contraception practices of all women of all faiths are not surprisingly very much alike.

It seems an abortion decision very much depends on the woman’s circumstances. Her extremely personal dilemma, her private, personal reasons points mean that this decision can be hard or easier, but must be made when pregnancy occurs whether for those who used failed contraception or for those who had sex without.

It often seems to devolve on which social tribe you are a part of. A woman’s views, like everyone’s can vary widely. Perhaps the most perfect example of such a dramatic transition was offered by a March 3, 2012 NY Times article about the departure of Karen Garver from her Catholic faith to her reconversion as the present wife of former Senator Rick Santorum and the mother of their 7 children.

As the article explains,

“Fair-skinned and auburn-haired, she was from a Pittsburgh family of 11 children, some of whom followed their father’s path into medicine. Dr. Garver was well known in Pittsburgh for a practice that included prenatal testing.

But Ms. Garver, those who knew her say, had broken with her family and her Catholic faith over her relationship with Dr. Tom Allen, who founded Pittsburgh’s first abortion clinic. The two became a couple in 1982, when Ms. Garver was a nursing student in her 20s and Dr. Allen was in his 60s. An obstetrician-gynecologist, he had delivered her and knew her father professionally.

In an interview, Dr. Allen, now 92, said that Ms. Garver rented the basement apartment in the building where he lived and worked, and that they soon became romantically involved. (The Philadelphia City Paper reported on the relationship in 2005.)

“He was a pillar of the liberal community in Pittsburgh, well known for his charitable work, for the arts, and also very well known for his wine collection,” said John M. Burkoff, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who knew the couple. While Dr. Allen was a strong personality, Mr. Burkoff said, Ms. Garver “was not in his shadow.”

She joined Dr. Allen in hosting fund-raisers for liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and for his clinic and expressed strong support for abortion rights, said Herbert Greenberg, a concert violinist and friend of Dr. Allen.

Mr. Greenberg’s wife, Mary, a mother of three, sought counseling from Dr. Allen on whether to terminate her fourth pregnancy for health reasons. Mrs. Greenberg said Ms. Garver offered to accompany her for an abortion.

“She said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s nothing,’” Mrs. Greenberg recalled, adding that she went alone for the procedure.

Ms. Garver and Dr. Allen spent six years together, but she left him when she met Mr. Santorum. Her relationship with the politically conservative, aspiring politician brought the young woman back into the family fold — and seemed to change her political orientation.

“It’s a total 180,” Mr. Greenberg said. “Her change could not be more extreme.””

As a member of the original board which set up this Pittsburgh clinic, known as Women’s Health Services (WHS), I was very proud to observe first hand Dr. Allen’s willingness to go on the line for safe early abortions, which when conducted with competence in the safe, welcoming surrounding this clinic offered with proper hospital backup which Allen’s hospital, Magee Women’s did, as well as two others local hospitals, Garver was right, this early menstrual regulation procedure is not a major event. While no woman wants to have to endure it, which makes all the more urgent the case for universal, free contraceptive care, at WHS in its first year of operation nearly 10,000 women in Western Pennsylvania were treated.

The late Dr. Leonard Laufe, then head of OB/GYN at West Penn, one of the other hospitals offering backup in case of a medical emergency, told me that the incidence of septic abortions had virtually disappeared from his observance as the result of WHS’ presence.

So we are talking real health issues, real people’s lives. No one would ever deny any woman the right to be against abortion for themselves. Karen Santorum’s change of heart is fine for her. But not as the proper public policy for a nation.

Keeping church and state issues separate remains difficult, but the Catholic institutions which have taken government money in the form of bonds or cash grants for construction of facilities have said in effect they are governed by the law of the land and that is what Roe versus Wade decided in 1973.

I had the great pleasure at a meeting a couple of years ago to meet Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer. As we shook hands, I said, “Mr. Breyer, I have for many years since you were confirmed wanted to compliment you on the comment you made at your confirmation to the Court when asked you views on abortion. You said, “That’s settled law”. He smiled with pleasure.

We have gone far too long with this contentious issue, but as I have written various non surgical means of effecting early terminations will continue to provide women early relief from unwanted pregnancies. Meantime, we must remind our Catholic friends that these options in no way present them from taking the path of Karen Santorum. Just don’t try to dictate to anyone else.

While I profoundly disagree with the mandatory pregnancy views of Cardinal Dolan, I take the famous French philosopher Voltaire’s view that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” A vigorous defender of the separation of Church and State, Wikipedia tells us

“In a letter to Frederick II, King of Prussia, dated 5 January 1767 Voltaire wrote about Christianity:

La nôtre [religion] est sans contredit la plus ridicule, la plus absurde, et la plus sanguinaire qui ait jamais infecté le monde.
(Ours [religion] is without a doubt the most ridiculous, the most absurd, and the most blood-thirsty ever to infect the world.)

Former US Navy officer, banker and venture capitalist, Donald A. Collins, a free lance writer living in Washington, DC., has spent over 40 years working for women’s reproductive health as a board member and/or officer of numerous family planning organizations including Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Guttmacher Institute, Family Health International and Ipas. Yale under graduate, NYU MBA. He is the author of From the Dissident Left: A Collection of Essays 2004-2013.

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