I never thought I’d say this, but I’m here to stick up for the Pope’s views on abortion. Trust me, you can’t be more surprised than I am, so please hear me out.
A few weeks ago, I came across an article by Jezebel writer Lindy West titled ‘Cool’ Pope Decries Abortion, Reminds Us Why Popes Are Not So Cool. It basically says that we all thought Pope Francis was doing super well at being cool and caring about oppressed groups in society, but since he came out and said that abortion is a symptom of a “throwaway culture”, he’s obviously not such a cool dude after all. Now I’m not personally a fan of Lindy West; I think she sometimes confuses gender equality with self-entitlement, and I usually find the subjects of her articles pretty boring and the style of her writing kind of irritating. So I didn’t pay this piece very much attention.
But yesterday, I came across another article on the exact same subject written by British feminist blogger Laurie Penny. She is, in my opinion, an excellent writer and her understanding of feminism is one that I mostly agree with. Her article pretty much says the same thing as West’s; that for a while we were able to cherish the belief that the new Pope was progressive, but since he pointed out in one speech that he doesn’t support abortion, that dream has come crashing down.
Now, I support abortion. I don’t like it – I don’t think anyone likes abortion – but I believe all women should have access to safe abortions if they so desire. It’s not a decision I believe any woman would take lightly, and so I don’t think that making access to termination procedures easier will make the decision itself any easier. I’m not a Catholic, and I believe the right of a living, breathing, conscious woman to decide what happens to her body is, yes, more important than the right of a fetus to be born because some people in the world believe that its life has already begun. We apparently live in a secular society, and our laws should not be made on the basis of religious beliefs. Laws should be made in the interest of public health and safety, and it’s a well-documented fact that unsafe and botched abortions have serious health repercussions for the women who suffer them. Penny states in her article that unsafe abortions result in the deaths of around 47,000 women each year; even if it’s a tenth of that number, it’s too much. I have no desire to tell others what to think about abortion, but my personal view is that laws inhibiting access to safe termination procedures unnecessarily endanger the health of an unacceptably large section of society. Whether you think abortion is morally right or wrong, this is primarily a public health issue; women who cannot access safe abortions are at risk, and the job of any government is to make life as safe and high-quality as possible for its citizens.
Having got that out of the way, I disagree with the articles written by West and Penny for several reasons.
First off, he’s the Pope. What the hell did anyone expect him to say? Even though both West and Penny point out that supposedly no-one should be surprised by his stance on abortion, they’re apparently surprised enough to write articles about it. If it’s not news to them, why are they making it news to others? The Pope is not just a figurehead, he’s also a human being who has presumably believed in the Catholic faith all his life. Is he supposed to publicly contradict one of the most fundamental tenets of his faith, that life begins at conception? I’m not saying that he’s right – I’m saying that it’s silly to act like him having that viewpoint at all is some kind of disappointment, or somehow newsworthy.
Secondly, what he said wasn’t even particularly anti-abortion. The exact quote is as follows:
“Unfortunately, what is thrown away is not only food and dispensable objects, but often human beings themselves, who are discarded as ‘unnecessary.’ For example, it is frightful even to think there are children, victims of abortion, who will never see the light of day…”
That’s it. That’s all. Now I realise that some people could easily find it offensive that a woman making the difficult decision to have an abortion could be likened to throwing away food or plastic cutlery. But to be perfectly honest, I don’t think the comment was designed to trivialise abortion, or to imply that the women who bear children should be dispensable but their unborn babies should not. As far as I can tell, all he’s saying is that our culture as a whole does not place the value that it should on human life, and that abortion can be interpreted as one example of that. I don’t agree with that interpretation, but as far as comments about abortion go I also don’t think it’s particularly offensive. He’s didn’t say that abortion is a sin, or that women who have them will go to hell, or that Catholics around the globe should renew their efforts to combat abortion wherever they can. He didn’t even say that abortion is bad; rather, he’s saying that it’s sad. And y’know what? I agree. Abortion is sad. It’s not a happy thing, even if it is sometimes a necessary one. I understand why people would find the Pope’s view offensive, but I also think it’s a bit of an overreaction to start talking about what a dick the guy must be. He’s the leader of the Catholic world, and he made one passing mention of being anti-abortion, in one sentence, in one speech. He’s also specifically stated that the Catholic church focuses too much on homosexuality and abortion, so I don’t think we all need to flap ourselves into outraged disappointment because of this one rather fleeting anti-abortion statement.
But the biggest problem for me is in the overall message of both articles: that because the Pope expressed an anti-abortion viewpoint, he can no longer be considered “cool” or “progressive”. In fact, Penny goes even further, and suggests that all the apparently nice stuff he’s done is really just a calculated attempt at “re-branding” the papacy and the Catholic faith to give it a wider appeal. I’m sorry, but what the shit? Since when is whether or not someone supports abortion the deciding factor in whether or not they can be considered progressive? Since when are all the other good things a person has done negated, just because they don’t believe a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body trumps the right of a child to be born? Penny claims that abortion is a simple issue – either you believe a woman has a right to abortion or she doesn’t – but I don’t agree. Even as someone who is not religious, I still sometimes struggle with the idea that a fetus, however lacking in consciousness, will never get to experience the world I see. While I firmly believe in a woman’s right to a medically safe abortion, I completely understand why for many people this is not a simple question of a woman’s right to choose.
And I completely and utterly reject the idea that a person’s goodness or progressiveness is intrinsically linked to their opinion on this one issue. It goes to the heart of one of the things I like least about feminism; those feminists who believe that unless someone agrees with feminism as they understand it, they basically can’t be a good person. There are many groups in the world who are oppressed and disenfranchised for a variety of reasons; feminism and women’s rights is not the be-all-and-end-all of equality. Gender politics are complex and overlap with many other issues, religion being one of them – if a person cannot easily choose between feminist ideology and a religious ideology, does that make them a bad human being? Not in my world. And as for Pope Francis, I have a lot of respect for most of the opinions he’s voiced and the actions he’s taken since he came to office. While I’m not religious, I think he’s doing a pretty good job of representing the humility, compassion and kindness that I consider to be the best parts of any religion. He may not support abortion, but he has shown an impressive level of compassion and tolerance for other marginalised groups; the poor, the disabled, LGBTQ people. I don’t agree with his stance on abortion, but I also don’t for one second believe that it undoes his better acts or makes his more tolerant statements a pack of lies.
While I’m firmly ensconced on my Ranting Podium, I might as well bring up the thing that most frustrates me about the attitude of many feminists to the abortion debate. It can be summed up in the title of Penny’s article: ‘The Pope’s beliefs about abortion will become relevant the day the Pope becomes pregnant‘. I am so sick and bloody tired of people who identify as feminists saying that men have no right to an opinion about abortion. Look, on the one hand, I get it: the battle for women’s reproductive rights is a hard-fought and ongoing campaign, and I understand that for some feminists, the idea that men have a relevant say in this issue is too close to the bad old days when men had the only say in this issue. Getting abortion legalised at all has been incredibly difficult, and I too have no desire to live in a society where women have to resort to dangerous back-alley procedures to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.
That said, the idea that someone having a penis removes their right to an opinion on this or any issue is horse shit. Since when do you have to be personally affected by an issue in order to be ‘permitted’ a relevant opinion? Are white people not allowed to have a view on discrimination against minorities? Should straight people not express opinions about LGBTQ rights? What about infertile women – they can’t get pregnant either, should their opinions about abortion also be irrelevant? Somehow this gets even more annoying and hypocritical when it reaches a personal level. If a woman gets pregnant, she has the only deciding opinion in whether or not she terminates that pregnancy – fair enough, it’s her body. But if she decides to keep it, then the father of that child is expected to provide at least financial support for that child, even if he had no desire whatsoever for the mother to go through with the pregnancy. To be quite honest I can’t think of a reasonable way to change this system to make it fairer, but the point is that men as well as women are affected by pregnancy and abortion. While I strongly believe that a woman – a person – is the only individual who can ultimately decide what happens to their own bodies, I don’t think it’s fair to insist that abortion has nothing to do with men and that they have no right to an opinion about it. And you know what? I’ve never seen a feminist tell a man that his opinion about abortion is irrelevant when he’s expressed support for legalised abortion. Never.
But the biggest problem, for me, is that denying men the right to an opinion simply because they’re men is absolutely sexist – no less sexist than the men on RoK who insist that women have no right to talk about masculinity because they are not men. Stuff like this is part of what makes it so hard to convince others of what I have always believed, that feminism is about liberating both genders and making them equal, not just increasing the rights and freedoms of women. You cannot claim to support gender equality one minute, and in the next turn around and tell half the world’s population that their opinion on an issue is irrelevant specifically because they are men and cannot get pregnant. I’ve always believed that the whole point of feminism, of gender equality, is that the way we live our lives should not be defined by our gender. Our opinions, our jobs, our relationships, our appearances, our behaviour – we get to decide these things based on who we are as people, not based on what the rest of society says is acceptable for people with the same genitals as us. But crap like this makes me seriously question that belief. I will always support the rights of women, but I will always show equal support for the rights of men, and I will never support a system that makes someone’s gender the determining factor in how they live their lives.