On Pope Francis’ Statement on Abortion

Yesterday, Pope Francis addressed abortion through an open letter issued from the Vatican. Specifically, the pope authorized priests to grant “forgiveness” to a woman for having had an abortion if she seeks such absolution.

From the letter:

I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it.

This decree is neither a change in doctrine nor permanent; it is effective through the Holy Year, which ends in November, 2016.

As expected, the letter was met with mixed reaction. Some public health advocates and professionals, all too aware of the disastrous effect of abortion stigma on women’s health and economic security, criticized the letter for promoting said stigma. “I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal,” wrote Pope Francis. “I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.” The organization A is For called the statement “classic” abortion stigma.

It is important to respect the experience of all women. However, we know that abortion is not always, or even often, an agonizing and painful decision. According to a recent study, more than 99 percent of women who have abortions reported not regretting their choice. Higher perceived community abortion stigma and lower social support were associated with more negative emotions.

Understanding this reality is important because the misunderstanding that abortion emotionally harms women has often been used to justify denying women the right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. It is also used to adopt policies designed to economically coerce women into either keeping unwanted pregnancies or choosing unregulated methods of pregnancy termination by making safe and legal abortion unaffordable and out of reach.

Women have always had abortions, and will always have abortions. The question is whether women will have access to safe abortions or not. The results are disastrous when women do not have access to safe abortion.

The organization Catholics for Choice embraced Pope Francis’ expression of a pastoral, rather than political, take on abortion.

They also pointed to the gulf between the Catholic Church’s hierarchy and the practice of what “ordinary Catholics do in their everyday lives.” Catholic women have abortions at roughly the same rate as women of other faiths and women who don’t identify with formal religion. Ninety-nine percent of Catholic women have used birth control.

Read the statement issued from Catholics for Choice here.

Writing from our home office in Philadelphia, where we are preparing to welcome Pope Francis for the World Meeting of Families, we hope that the pope extends this refreshing message of pastoral compassion to women here. Despite a Legislature that in recent years has spent a significant amount of time crafting policies that they disingenuously tell us will improve women’s health, Philadelphia has the highest rate of maternal mortality in the United States.

Our city shares this great shame with our country, which has the highest maternal and infant mortality rate of any industrialized nation. Perhaps the Pennsylvania Legislature will take a cue from Pope Francis by de-politicizing abortion, and passing evidence-based policies to improve health and economic security.




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The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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