For 95 years, my mother, Shirley Clark, was a devout Catholic, a volunteer teacher in a parochial school on Long Island where all three of her sons were educated. Mom was also a one-issue voter: abortion. Raised in a family of moderate New York Republicans, mom attached herself to the right-to-life party and cast her vote for those who worked to overturn Roe vs. Wade.
That said, mom was no bleating sheep. She had true sympathy for vulnerable stakeholders — and understood the Catholic Church in its many dimensions, good and bad. On questions of sexual morality, she questioned the authority of a hierarchy that for many years had concealed the sins of child abusers.
My brothers and I now just call her Shirley or “Our Mother who art in heaven.”
Separated by a thousand miles, we could talk on the telephone for hours, including on difficult issues, such as abortion. “I get the Church’s opposition,” I once told her, “but I worry a lot about the tough cases.” We talked about young teenage girls who were victims of rape, incest, human trafficking. I told her I was opposed to any legal strictures that would require them to carry their babies to term.
I was surprised when she admitted to me that she could imagine a mother rushing a daughter in terrible trouble to a doctor, even if treatment resulted in the abortion of a fertilized egg. “I thank God,” she said, “that I didn’t have any daughters.”
But I wound up with three.
“Mom,” I said, “If the Church really wanted to prevent abortions, wouldn’t they encourage people to use contraceptives? Isn’t the best way to make an abortion unnecessary to prevent an unwanted pregnancy in the first place?”
“Son,” she said in her most thoughtful voice, “I could not agree with you more.”
In July of 1968 Pope Paul VI published a papal letter titled “Humanae Vitae” or “Of Human Life.” Against the advice and encouragement of an advisory council of priests, medical professionals and moral scholars, the pope banned Roman Catholics from the use of artificial forms of birth control, such as condoms and the pill.
Since sex outside of marriage was already prohibited by the Church, the ban was directed at married couples, including those with many children. In a moral argument that bends logic to its breaking point, the pope said you could indeed choose to prevent conceptions, if you had a good reason, but you could do it only through “natural means.” This meant abstaining from intercourse during periods when the woman is fertile. “We’ve got rhythm,” sang a generation of frustrated Catholic couples. “Who could ask for anything more?”
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Nearly five years after the papal edict, the Supreme Court of the United States issued the ruling of Roe vs. Wade, protecting the legal right to abortion, under certain limits.
I take seriously any person’s moral objection to abortion, and I continue to attach myself to the Catholic Church and inform my conscience according to its moral teachings. But I live in a cherished, fragile democracy, where I will not impose my own religious beliefs upon the commonwealth.
I won’t stereotype Catholics. When it comes to moral issues like the “right-to-life,” we fall at least into two different camps. One is totally focused on “abortion as murder” in all cases. (Don’t be surprised if one of the most zealous argues that abortion providers deserve capital punishment.)
There is another kind of right-to-lifer who embraces what has been called the “full fabric of life” or, in shorthand, “from womb to tomb.” Those Catholics endorse all the services necessary to support the most vulnerable in the society, from pregnant girls, to young mothers, to the homeless and outcast, to refugees and immigrants, to all those who suffer from economic and environmental injustice.
For decades now, our family has supported such efforts. My wife, Karen, even when chemotherapy caused neuropathy in her fingers, crocheted beautiful baby blankets and donated them to the ALPHA House, which provides support for pregnant women with no place else to go. She has donated more than 200 of them.
That’s why I was dismayed to learn that our governor has vetoed a bill that would have provided birth control services to women in need? According to a report in the Tampa Bay Times, Gov. Ron DeSantis slashed $2 million “meant to help low-income people access long-acting birth control.”
This funding was proposed by none other than Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Republican from Pasco County. Moreover, it was passed by a Legislature that had recently prohibited nearly all abortions after 15 weeks in anticipation of the Supreme Court ruling.
Simpson made his case for the funding in a comment to Florida Politics: “When you consider we are pro-life, how many lives that may be saved (by long-acting reversible contraception), and remember it’s the people that cannot afford it is what this money’s for. And about half of our population may not be able to afford these devices, and so I think that is certainly a tool that should be in the toolbox.”
Wow. The Republican-led Legislature supported it. Democrats supported it. Public health officials supported it. Not our governor.
I think I know why. It comes back to the most scrupulous moral strictures imposed by the Catholic Church, and other religions, on its followers. Those most orthodox of believers now count themselves as members of the Republican base. I wonder what St. Thomas Aquinas would have to say about the moral teachings of Donald Trump.
The strict moral constructionists will say the use of birth control that prevents a fertilized egg from being implanted in the uterus is the taking of a human life, equal to murder. I ask them this question which was posed to me: If you were in a clinic, and in one room there was a newborn baby, and in the other room there were five frozen embryos (fertilized eggs) and there was a fire, and you could only rescue the one or the five, which would you choose? The one? The five?
I know what my choice would be. And Shirley’s too.
Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer to the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.