The news that the Pope Francis will pardon women who have had abortions during the forthcoming ‘Holy Year’ is symbolic of a positive move on his behalf. The Catholic Church is not known for seeking to advance women’s rights. In this context, the Pope’s comments should be welcomed. They are part of an attempt to address previously taboo subjects, to appear more modern, open and more compassionate.
In forgiving women for having abortions, the Pope is also distancing himself from the worst kind of abortion protesters: the ones that shout at women from across the street that they will go to hell, that they will be dammed forever.
But let’s be clear – the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church on abortion have not changed. The Vatican still holds that abortion is wrong and that it is a sin. Giving power to priest to forgive women is far removed from supporting women to make positive choices about their own bodies, a long way from acceptance and progress. The most important message we should send to women is that abortion is safe, legal and should be available to all. Women shouldn’t apologise for making decisions about their body.
Furthermore, the stricter attitudes of the Catholic Church are known to contribute to human rights abuses and deaths from unsafe abortion in many countries – take the recent case in Paraguay, where the Roman Catholic Church called for an 11 year-old to give birth after being raped and made pregnant by her step-father. Staff told Savita Hallappanavar that she could not have an abortion because she was ‘in a catholic country’ even though her life was in danger. In some countries religion is still a genuine oppressor of women.
For most people without strong religious views it is difficult to understand why women have to ask for forgiveness for having an abortion anyway. Many Catholics believe abortion should be allowed. In the UK a YouGov poll in 2013 found only 14% of UK Catholics support a ban on abortion. We must make sure that the Pope’s comments do not draw attention away from the good work done by Abortion Rights and other organisations towards the decriminalisation of abortion.
Any move towards a more modern, open Catholic Church should be applauded; however a cool head would look at the actual situation, which hasn’t changed yet. While the media has picked up on this news and reported it extensively, it is all too easy for the stories of women and girls forced to give birth in less progressive countries to get lost in the media hubbub.
The consequences of following dogma and not dealing with lived realities mean that laws are influenced by a powerful Vatican and not by what is best for women’s healthcare. We want to see an end to dangerous backstreet abortions and for more trust put in women to make their own choices, legally, safely and for free.
Abortion Rights Chair, Kerry Abel
This article was originally published on The Huffington Post