Every January, thousands head to the nation's capitol to attend the March for Life. Catholics make up a substantial percentage of those attendees. This is unsurprising, given that the Catholic Church teaches that life begins at conception, and the overwhelming assumption that most Catholics consider themselves pro-life. However, according to Pew Research, seven in ten Catholics say that abortion should be legal if the pregnant woman's life or health is threatened, while just one in ten believe that abortion should be illegal in all cases. Furthermore, the leading abortion research institute, Guttmacher, cites in a 2014 study that 24% of women who obtained abortion care identified as Catholic. With all of this in mind, we wanted to understand why some Catholic women who grew up pro-life no longer identify as such – so, we asked them. Here’s what they said.
Author’s Note: Given the subject's sensitive nature, FemCatholic has decided to reference only the first name of our respondents, out of respect for their privacy.
FemCatholic: What did growing up pro-life look like for you?
Sarah, 35; Health Education Professional
I grew up a cradle Catholic and both of my parents are from large Catholic families, and Catholicism was just kind of part of everything. There wasn't really an active conversation about being pro-life like, “You're pro-life and this is what this means,” or “This is what abortion means” – other than “You're killing a baby,” which is how I guess it was usually presented. And so, growing up, “pro-life” was just an identifier and not necessarily part of who I was.
Andrea, 31; Mom of Two and Former Youth Minister
Being pro-life was always part of our culture growing up in a culturally Mexican Catholic family. I would say that my involvement in pro-life stuff started out with going to marches once a year, and then in college I got a lot more involved. I was trained to be a sidewalk counselor and I did that work almost every weekend. I even had an internship in college with a diocesan pro-life office and I did sidewalk counseling everyday that summer. So, I would say I was pretty involved.
Grace, 28; Non-Profit Professional and Catholic Convert
Being pro-life wasn't something that I thought about a lot until I was a teenager because it was just “the right thing.” I was taught that abortion is a massive evil and a moral issue and just wrong – that was kind of the end of discussion. Every year, my church celebrated something called Life Saturday, when they held a collection that went to a local pro-life women's clinic and decorated the altar with red and white roses. So abortion was definitely talked about, just not in a nuanced way. The conversation was mostly about how you convince women to not get abortions.
FC: Was there a particular experience or moment when you went from “pro-life” to “pro-choice?”
The year between college and grad school, I volunteered at a crisis pregnancy center in the Dallas Fort Worth area and was counseling women who had come in thinking they would have options. Then I went to grad school for public health, so that introduced me to some differing worldviews and conversations, such as discussions about determinants of health and the way that systems and societies are set up to either make it possible or more difficult for someone to choose life.
During grad school, I spent a lot of time during volunteer hours having conversations with women who were in the most heartbreaking situations, and not always because of their own doing. I didn't realize until fairly recently that my experience volunteering at the pregnancy center is one of the things that helped me understand that abortion is not a black and white issue. I heard people's stories and saw the bigger picture of what's happening in their lives, and I realized that nobody is coming to this decision point without it being a really, really difficult thing.
And so my viewpoint eventually morphed into being “pro-life” in the sense that I would always want someone to choose life, but I want them to be able to make that choice. I distinctly remember talking about this with a new friend who had a differing opinion and she said, “I think that really means that you're pro-choice,” and I was like, “Well... don't tell anybody.”
I really have to say the way that the MAGA movement kind of radicalized the right wing of the church was a wake up call for me, especially since Donald Trump. If you look at his history, he wasn't pro-life until he realized that would get him votes. I thought that was really inauthentic, especially given the comments that he made about women that were disgusting – and it bothered me that those comments really didn't faze any of the alt right voters. It became clear to me that the pro-life movement was not actually pro-life – or pro-family or pro-woman or pro-child, even. It was just anti abortion.
I am not a supporter of abortion. I don't consider myself pro-life and I don’t think abortion needs to be outlawed. I think what needs to happen is that we make choosing life the obvious and easiest choice for a woman. I think our church and our faith call us to make a world where it's easy to be a mother, it's easy to have a family, and it's easy to choose life for your child.
I didn't think a whole lot about it, but I was in high school when it started to change for me. I came across a non-profit called Brave Love, their mission is to make adoption a real option for women. They do great work and I admire the organization a lot. They very consciously identify as neither pro-life nor pro-choice, just pro-adoption. That was the first suggestion for me that, for some women who choose abortion, it’s not a purely moral choice – there might be other dynamics going that influence their decision.
FC: How do you reconcile what you believe with the beliefs of the Catholic Church and/or our Church leaders?
Some days, I don't reconcile it. And other days, it's a matter of me remembering that we believe that God gives us free will.
I read somewhere once that abortion is a symptom of greater ills in society. That really resonates with me because, as a Catholic, I continue to fight for social justice issues. So in that way, I believe that I still align with Catholic teachings. I feel like I can still be Christ for someone who wants to make that choice and still see Christ in someone who has to make that choice.
I think a lot of it is just semantics, and that unfortunately really divides us as a Church. If I said that I don't identify as pro-life, I know that would get some people up in arms – but if you would listen to me talk, you would learn that I do not support abortion, that I do not believe it is in any way right or moral to end the life of another human being. What I care about is consistency, a consistent life ethic.
It doesn't matter to me what you label me as, it doesn't matter to me what we're calling ourselves if you aren’t voting for better health care for women and children. Are you pro-life? Well, are you voting for people who support better maternity leave in our country? Are you anti-abortion? Well, do you support the death penalty?
I don't care how you label yourself or how Church leaders label things – what I care about is the consistency of your actions, your opinions, and your values.
I believe that fetuses are unborn people, and that they're important and precious
and have value. I also believe that abortion is always the result of circumstances that shouldn't exist – it's always the result of evil in the world. I don't believe that that is always the result of a moral choice made by the mother.
I've had friends who are in abusive relationships or, you know, had other kids and could not find a footing to feed another child. I think that the policies implemented by people who just politically identify as pro-life do not actually help women or prevent the circumstances that might lead a woman to consider abortion. And so while I believe that abortion is something that people only consider in horrible circumstances, I don't identify as pro-life politically.
Abortion is a Nuanced Subject and Must Be Treated as Such
What Sarah, Andrea, and Grace share is a belief that abortion is a highly nuanced subject, and that we must treat it as such. The decision to pursue an abortion is not a simple one, and the real women facing that decision are also facing a unique set of circumstances. Regardless of whether someone identifies as “pro-life” or “pro-choice” (or adopts no label at all), there is much work to be done to support women who are considering abortion or facing difficult circumstances surrounding their pregnancy.
Editor’s Note: These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.