Catholic Church and abortion in the United States

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A Knights of Columbus sign at a pro-life rally.

The Catholic Church and abortion in the United States deals with the views and activities of the Catholic Church in the United States in relation to the abortion debate. The Catholic Church opposes abortion and has campaigned against abortion in the United States, both saying that it is immoral and making statements and taking actions in opposition to its classification as legal.

Many Catholics in the United States disagree with the official position promulgated by the Church; the views of these people range from allowing exceptions in a generally pro-life position, to complete acceptance of abortion.[1][2][3][4][5] There is a distinction between practicing Catholics and non-practicing Catholics on the issue; practicing Catholics, along with Latino Catholics, are far more likely to be pro-life, while non-practicing Catholics are more likely to be pro-choice.[3][4][5][6]

In recent decades, the church's opposition to abortion, and specifically the actions it has taken against pro-choice Catholics, has often been the subject of controversy.


19th century[edit]

In the latter half of the 19th century, the Catholic Church in the United States took the lead in denouncing what it termed "criminal abortion". The Michigan State Medical Society journal reported in 1870 that, while most churches were "neglecting" the subject of abortion, Catholic priests were teaching that "destruction of the embryo at any period from the first instant of conception is a crime equal in guilt to that of murder," and "that to admit its practice is to open the way for the most unbridled licentiousness, and to take away the responsibility of maternity is to destroy one of the strongest bulwarks of female virtue."[7] In 1881 the same journal reported that Catholic anti-abortion efforts had been much more successful than Protestant ones.[8]

Role in the abortion debate[edit]

Following the 1968 publication of Humanae Vitae, an encyclical by Pope Paul VI that expressly forbade abortion and most methods of birth control[9] and that sowed controversy within the church over its restatement of the prohibition on birth control,[10] Catholic bishops in the United States started to stress anti-abortion views as a central facet of Catholic identity and preached against proposed liberalization of state-level abortion laws.[10]

Before the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which resulted in the legalization of abortion in the United States, the United States right-to-life movement consisted of lawyers, politicians, and doctors, almost all of whom were Catholic.[citation needed] The only coordinated opposition to abortion during the early 1970s came from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Family Life Bureau, also a Catholic organization. According to Charles Curran, prior to Roe v. Wade abortion was not a high priority for Catholic bishops in the United States.[11]

According to Curran, the level of involvement of the Catholic hierarchy changed dramatically after Roe v. Wade. A short time after the decision, the Catholic-sponsored National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) was created to mobilize a wide-scale pro-life movement. The NRLC also organized non-Catholics, and eventually become the largest pro-life organization in the United States. Curran asserts that, since Roe v. Wade, the Catholic hierarchy in the United States has devoted more time, energy and money to the issue of abortion than any other single issue.[11]

The American media has followed and reported on the substantial role of the Catholic Church in the abortion debate.[11] Connie Paige has been quoted as having said that:

"[t]he Roman Catholic Church created the right-to-life movement. Without the church, the movement would not exist as such today."[12]

Dissenting Catholics[edit]

An independent organization called Catholics for Choice was founded in 1973 to support the availability of abortion, stating that this position is compatible with Catholic teachings, particularly the primacy of conscience and the importance of the laity in shaping church law.[13] This organization was founded "to serve as a voice for Catholics" who believe that contraception and abortion are moral.[14] Catholics for Choice believe:

Church teachings, tradition and core Catholic tenets—including the primacy of conscience, the role of the faithful in defining legitimate laws and norms, and support for the separation of church and state—leave room for supporting a more liberal position on abortion. ... Catholics can, in good conscience, support access to abortion and affirm that abortion can be a moral choice. Indeed, many of us do.[13]

In October 1984, Catholics for Choice (then Catholics for a Free Choice) placed an advertisement, called "A Catholic Statement on Pluralism and Abortion" and signed by over one hundred prominent Catholics, including nuns, in the New York Times. The advertisement stated that "direct abortion...can sometimes be a moral choice" and that "responsible moral decisions can only be made in an atmosphere of freedom from fear of coercion." The Vatican initiated disciplinary measures against some of the nuns who signed the statement, sparking controversy among American Catholics, and intra-Catholic conflict on the abortion issue remained news for at least two years in the United States.[15]

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has stated that "[CFC] is not a Catholic organization, does not speak for the Catholic Church, and in fact promotes positions contrary to the teaching of the Church as articulated by the Holy See and the USCCB."[16] Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz excommunicated all members of this organization in his jurisdiction in 1996.[17]

Margaret McBride[edit]

In November 2009, when Sister Margaret McBride, as a member of the ethics board of a Catholic hospital, allowed doctors to perform an abortion to save the life of a mother of four suffering from pulmonary hypertension, Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted excommunicated her on the grounds that, while efforts should be made to save a pregnant woman's life, abortion cannot be used as a means to that end.[18][19]


Pro-choice Catholic politicians[edit]

Since the Catholic Church views abortion as gravely wrong, it considers it a duty to reduce its acceptance by the public and in civil legislation. While it considers that Catholics should not favour direct abortion in any field, it recognizes that Catholics may accept compromises that, while permitting direct abortions, lessen their incidence by, for instance, restricting some forms or enacting remedies against the conditions that give rise to them. It is accepted that support may be given to a political platform that contains a clause in favour of abortion but also elements that will actually reduce the number of abortions, rather than to an anti-abortion platform that will lead to their increase.[20]

In 1990, John Cardinal O'Connor of New York suggested that, by supporting abortion rights, Catholic politicians who were pro-choice risked excommunication. The response of Catholic pro-choice politicians to O'Connor's comment was generally defiant. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi asserted that, "There is no desire to fight with the cardinals or archbishops. But it has to be clear that we are elected officials and we uphold the law and we support public positions separate and apart from our Catholic faith."[21]

There has been controversy in the United States over whether Catholic politicians who promote legalization of abortion should be denied communion. Most instances of such controversy have involved a bishop threatening to deny a politician communion, although other cases have involved a bishop telling a politician not to seek communion or considering excommunicating the politician. Those bishops who support denying communion, including Raymond Leo Burke, base their position on Canon 915.[22]

Because few American bishops are in favor of withholding communion from politicians and the majority are opposed, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops decided in 2004 that such matters should left to the discretion of each bishop on a case-by-case basis.[23]

These statements of intent from church authorities have sometimes led American Catholic voters to vote for candidates who wish to ban abortion, rather than pro-choice candidates who support other Catholic Church positions, such as war, health care, immigration, or lowering the abortion rate.[24] Penalties of this kind from bishops have targeted Democrats, although a number of prominent Republican politicians are also pro-choice.[25]

Politicians who have been targeted in such controversies include Lucy Killea,[26] Mario Cuomo,[27] John Kerry,[28] Rudy Giuliani,[29] and Joe Biden.[24] Killea's case was the first recorded;[26] Kerry's led to comparisons between his presidential campaign and that of John F. Kennedy in 1960. While Kennedy had to demonstrate his independence from the Roman Catholic Church due to public fear that a Catholic president would make decisions based on Vatican commands, it seemed that Kerry, in contrast, had to show obedience to Catholic authorities in order to win votes.[25][30][31][32][33]

Proposals to deny communion to pro-choice politicians are unique to the United States. Suggested reasons for this uniqueness are a politicization of pastoral practice and abortion's constitutional status as a right.[23][34]

Attitudes of Catholic laity[edit]

Many or most U.S. Catholics disagree with official Church teaching on abortion in some or all particulars. The distribution of views among U.S. Catholics regarding abortion is substantially the same as the distribution of views among non-Catholics.

Moral acceptability[edit]

Analysis of the 2006-2008 Gallup Values and Beliefs surveys indicates that 40% of Catholics consider abortion "morally acceptable", a result that is roughly equivalent to the 41% of non-Catholics holding the same view.[35] 64% of U.S. Catholics say they disapprove of the statement that "abortion is morally wrong in every case".[36] A 2008 survey found that 65% of American Catholics identified themselves as "pro-choice" but also found that 76% of these "pro-choice" Catholics believed that abortion should be significantly restricted.[37] Some 58% of American Catholic women feel that they do not have to follow the abortion teaching of their bishop.[38]


Between 16% and 22% of American Catholic voters share the view that abortion should never be permitted by law.[1][2][3][39] The percentage of American Catholics that believe abortion should be legal in "all or most cases" is approximately half, with 47-54% giving this as their position.[5][6] When posed a binary question of whether abortion was acceptable or unacceptable, rather than a question of whether it should be allowed or not allowed in all or most cases, 40% of American Catholics said it was acceptable, approximately the same percentage as non-Catholics;[4] 58% of American Catholics said it was morally wrong.[6]

Latino Catholics in the United States are also more likely to oppose abortion.[6]

Some reasons for dissenting from the church's position on the legality of abortion, other than finding abortion morally acceptable, include "I am personally opposed to abortion, but I think the Church is concentrating its energies too much on abortion rather than on social action"[40] or "I do not wish to impose my views on others."[41][42][43][44]

Prevalence of abortion[edit]

A 1994-1995 survey conducted of abortion patients found that "Catholic women have an abortion rate 29% higher than Protestant women."[45]

Attitudes of committed Catholics[edit]

Attitudes of U.S. Catholics regarding abortion were found to differ significantly when the polls distinguished between practicing and/or churchgoing Catholics and non-practicing Catholics. Those who attend church weekly are more likely to oppose abortion.[3][4][5][6] A 2008 poll of American Catholics found that 59% of practicing Catholics, defined as those who attend church at least twice a month, consider themselves pro-life, while 36% of practicing Catholics consider themselves pro-choice.[46] A 2009 poll found that 24% of practicing Catholics, defined in this poll as those who attend church at least weekly, believe abortion is morally acceptable.[4]

Compatibility of dissent with Catholic belief[edit]

68% of American Catholics believe that one can be a "good Catholic" while disagreeing with the church's position on abortion, approximately as many as members of other religious groups.[6] On this long-standing phenomenon of Catholics disagreeing with the Church's official position on abortion, Pope John Paul II commented: "It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the Magisterium is totally compatible with being a "good Catholic" and poses no obstacle to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error." In what the Los Angeles Times called a key admonition, he added: "It has never been easy to accept the Gospel teaching in its entirety, and it never will be."[47][48]


In a United States poll, 29% of Catholic voters stated that they choose their candidate based solely on the candidate's position on abortion; most of these vote for pro-life candidates. 44% believe a "good Catholic" cannot vote for a pro-choice politician, while 53% believe one can.[1]

Dissenting individuals and groups[edit]

Philosopher Daniel Dombrowski wrote, with Richard Deltete, A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion, which analyzed Church theological history to argue that Catholic values supported a pro-choice position.[49]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Karkabi, Barbara (October 31, 2008). "Abortion not main issue for Catholics: Survey results contradict bishops' stance". Houston Chronicle. 
  2. ^ a b "Notre Dame Should Not Disinvite Obama, U.S. Catholics Tell Quinnipiac University National Poll; Attitudes On Abortion Similar Among All U.S. Voters". Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. May 14, 2009. 
  3. ^ a b c d Smith, Gregory; Pond, Allison (September 16, 2008). "Slight but Steady Majority Favors Keeping Abortion Legal". Pew Research Center. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Newport, Frank (March 30, 2009). "Catholics Similar to Mainstream on Abortion, Stem Cells". Gallup.  The same poll reported American Catholics as more permissive than American non-Catholics on sex between an unmarried man and woman, divorce, medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos, having a baby outside of marriage, gambling and homosexual relations.
  5. ^ a b c d "Obama, Catholics and the Notre Dame Commencement". Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. April 30, 2009. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Jones, Robert P.; Cox, Daniel; Laser, Rachel (June 9, 2011). "Committed to Availability, Conflicted about Morality: What the Millennial Generation Tells Us about the Future of the Abortion Debate and the Culture Wars". Public Religion Research Institute. 
  7. ^ of the Special Committee on Criminal Abortion p. 378.
  8. ^ of the Washington Obstetrical and Gynecological Society
  9. ^ "Humanae Vitae". The Vatican. July 25, 1968. 
  10. ^ a b Greenhouse, Linda; Stiegal, Reva (2012). Before Roe v. Wade. 
  11. ^ a b c Curran, Charles E. (15 February 2011). The social mission of the U.S. Catholic Church: a theological perspective. Georgetown University Press. pp. 153–154. ISBN 978-1-58901-743-6. Retrieved 17 January 2012. 
  12. ^ Munson, Ziad W. (2008). The making of pro-life activists: how social movement mobilization works. University of Chicago Press. p. 85. ISBN 978-0-226-55120-3. Retrieved 31 December 2011. 
  13. ^ a b "The Truth About Catholics and Abortion". Catholics for Choice. 
  14. ^ "About Us". Catholics for Choice. 
  15. ^ Dillon, Michele (1999). Catholic identity: balancing reason, faith, and power. Cambridge University Press. p. 106. 
  16. ^ NCCB/USCC President Issues Statement on Catholics for a Free Choice
  17. ^ Vatican affirms excommunication of Call to Action members in Lincoln
  18. ^ Gibson, David (May 21, 2010). "Nun Excommunicated For Abortion Decision To Save Mother's Life". Politics Daily. 
  19. ^ Garrison, Becky (December 30, 2010). "Playing Catholic politics with US healthcare". The Guardian (London). 
  20. ^ Frank K. Flinn, J. Gordon Melton (editors), Encyclopedia of Catholicism (Facts on File 2007 ISBN 978-0-8160-5455-8), p. 5
  21. ^ Marcovitz, Hal (1 February 2009). Nancy Pelosi: Politician. Infobase Publishing. p. 40. ISBN 978-1-60413-075-1. Retrieved 17 January 2012. 
  22. ^ "America's 'Most Complete' Catholic Newsweekly"
  23. ^ a b Sandro Magister, "Obama's Pick for Vice President Is Catholic. But the Bishops Deny Him Communion"
  24. ^ a b Kirkpatrick, David (2008-09-16). "Abortion Issue Again Dividing Catholic Votes". The New York Times. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  25. ^ a b Ainsworth, Bill (2004-06-09). "Catholics giving governor a pass on abortion" (pdf). The San-Diego Union-Tribune. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  26. ^ a b "A Bishop Says No". Time. November 27, 1989. 
  27. ^ West, John G.; MacLean, Iain S. (1999). Encyclopedia of religion in American politics, Volume 2. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 98. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  28. ^ Hancock, David (2004-04-06). "Kerry's Communion Controversy". CBS News. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  29. ^ "Outspoken Catholic Archbishop Raymond Burke Says He'd Deny Rudy Giuliani Communion". Fox News. AP. 2007-10-03. Retrieved 2011-12-26. 
  30. ^ McAteer, Michael (June 26, 2004). "Questioning Catholic hierarchy's priorities". Toronto Star. 
  31. ^ Jacoby, Susan (May 3, 2004). "The Catholic Church and the Presidential Election: Vatican makes common cause with fundamentalist Protestants". San Francisco Chronicle. 
  32. ^ Balz, Dan; Cooperman, Alan (June 4, 2004). "Bush, Pope to Meet Today at the Vatican". Washington Post. 
  33. ^ Gibson, David (2007). The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World. HarperCollins. p. 42. 
  34. ^ "The Word from Rome", John L. Allen, Jr. in National Catholic Reporter, 28 May 2004]
  35. ^ "Catholics Similar to Mainstream on Abortion, Stem Cells". Retrieved 2012-01-05. 
  36. ^ "BBC - Religions - Abortion". Retrieved 2012-01-05. 
  37. ^ Gipson, Ashley (2008-10-14). "Survey: Catholic voters split on abortion, gay marriage". USA Today. Retrieved 2011-01-05. 
  38. ^ "Many US Catholics Out of Step with Church on Contraception, Abortion". Voice of America. April 14, 2008. Retrieved April 19, 2011. 
  39. ^ O'Brien, Jon; Morello, Sara (Spring 2008). "Catholics for Choice and Abortion: Pro-choice Catholicism 101". Perspectives: Catholic. Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. Retrieved April 19, 2011. 
  40. ^ Mary T. Hanna, Catholics and American Politics (Harvard University Press 1979 ISBN 978-0-674-10325-2), p. 154
  41. ^ John Finnis, Religion and Public Reasons(Oxford University Press 2011 ISBN 978-0-19-958009-5), vol. 5, p. 122
  42. ^ Susan Elizabeth Davis, Women under Attack (South End Press 1999 ISBN 978-0-89608-356-1), p. 61
  43. ^ Patrick W. Carey, Catholics in America (Greenwood 2004 ISBN 978-0-275-98255-3), p. 135
  44. ^ Christopher Robert Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion (Taylor & Francis 2010 ISBN 978-0-415-88468-6), p. 202
  46. ^ split on abortion, gay marriage
  47. ^ "Pope Counsels Bishops to Hold to Christ's Teachings in the Face of Dissent". New York Times. 17 September 1987. 
  48. ^ Chandler, Russell (20 September 1987). "Pope Builds Bridges With U.S. Church : Unbending in Policies but Shows Willingness to Listen to Dissent". Los Angeles Times. 
  49. ^ Keller, Rosemary Skinner; Ruether, Rosemary Radford; Cantlon, Marie (2006). Encyclopedia of women and religion in North America, Volume 3. Indiana University Press. p. 1109.