The Battle of the Pro-Choice Catholics

Edd Doerr

Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church, by Patricia Miller (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-520-27600-0) 332 pp. Hardcover, $34.95.

In America, the biggest stumbling blocks for women’s rights of conscience on reproductive matters are the Catholic bishops and the leaders of the various Protestant fundamentalist camps. Patricia Miller’s excellent new book, Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church, deals primarily with the top-down leadership of the Vatican and the bishops, who, it should be very clear, do not represent the views of most Catholics but are able to spook many politicians into thinking otherwise. The fact is, well over 90 percent of Catholic women have used contraception of one sort or another; most Catholics are pro-choice to one degree or another; and Catholic women have abortions at about the same rate as non-Catholic women. Separately, it might be noted that most Catholics disagree with the Vatican, referred to by some wags as the Old Boys Club on the Tiber, on divorce and remarriage, the ordination of women, clerical marriage, and the need to send their children to church schools, especially since the last traces of Protestant hegemony in U.S. public schools vanished half a century ago.

Miller carefully and meticulously (with forty-three pages of endnotes and bibliography) traces how the American bishops created and poured resources into the antichoice movement for nearly a half-century, how this movement tried unsuccessfully to amend the Constitution to reverse Roe v. Wade, how it acquired the aid of Protestant fundamentalists, and how it then turned to a strategy of piecemeal chipping away at reproductive choice and access, mainly at the state level. She ends with a discussion of the bishops’ efforts to thwart the contraceptive insurance mandate in the Affordable Care Act. Miller names names and provides abundant documentation.

Importantly, Miller highlights the courageous Catholic theologians, clergy, and activists who from the start have worked publicly and with limited resources to counterract the bishops’ all-out efforts to impose their patriarchalist misogynist theology on all women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike: Rosemary Radford Ruether, Robert Drinan, Daniel Maguire, Frances Kissling, and Jon O’Brien, to name but a few. Much of the book is dedicated to the work of Catholics for Choice, originally Catholics for a Free Choice (CFC), founded in 1973. (Disclosure: I have been privileged to work with CFC staff for many years.) CFC publishes the quarterly journal Conscience, which I highly recommend for its wide-ranging coverage of reproductive choice and related matters. Miller is a past editor of the journal.

Miller’s book Good Catholics rates five stars. Although it is concerned primarily with politics, it could be supplemented, I think, by an addition: discussion of the climate change problem and how it has been worsened by the Vatican’s international efforts to impede access to contraception, which, ironically, has contributed to the forty-million-plus abortions per year worldwide that have cost the lives of countless women in developing countries.

Finally, as I wrote this review, the latest issue of Conscience arrived on my desk. Two news stories caught my eye. The Supreme Court in the 80+ percent Catholic Philippines has recently ruled that most of the Reproductive Health Law, signed by President Aquino last December, is constitutional. The law, long opposed by the bishops, will make condoms and birth-control pills available at government health centers. Second, in Spain, which is over 90 percent nominally Catholic (though only a third of Spanish taxpayers opt to have a tiny portion of their taxes go to the church), there are efforts by the center-Right government to render illegal 90 percent of the first trimester abortions allowed under the country’s 2010 abortion rights law.

Edd Doerr is a columnist for Free Inquiry and the president of Americans for Religious Liberty.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.

A review of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church, by Patricia Miller.

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