Catholic Identity, Planned Parenthood and the Gospel of Life
This past week, I was contacted by numerous people who expressed serious concern about a recent public display by some students and faculty at Saint Mary’s College that positively portrayed the services of Planned Parenthood. I was very saddened to learn that this show of support for an organization that is the largest abortion provider in our country occurred at a Catholic college in our diocese. At the same time, I have been heartened by those students, faculty and alumnae of St. Mary’s College who are committed to the cause of life and the authentic good of women and have expressed their opposition to Planned Parenthood and any positive portrayal of this organization.
The actions taken by the students and faculty in support of Planned Parenthood illustrate that even at a Catholic college, there are those who cling to the conviction that Planned Parenthood is an organization dedicated to the well-being of women. While I do not doubt the sincerity of those who hold this view, I do challenge them to seriously re-examine for what this organization stands in light of our common humanity and our Catholic faith.
From its very beginning, Planned Parenthood came into existence as a means to promote the eugenicist vision of its founder, Margaret Sanger. Consider the astonishing words with which she expounded this worldview in her book, The Pivot of Civilization, published in 1922:
“The lack of balance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit,’ admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. The example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken, should not be held up for emulation to the mentally and physically fit, and therefore less fertile, parents of the educated and well-to-do classes. On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective. Possibly drastic and Spartan methods may be forced upon American society if it continues complacently to encourage the chance and chaotic breeding that has resulted from our stupid, cruel sentimentalism.”
The fact that Planned Parenthood continues to operate clinics primarily in poor, minority neighborhoods raises the question whether this original vision still largely informs its strategy and its mission today. Planned Parenthood’s own website states that 80 percent of its clients receive “services” to prevent unintended pregnancy, and that the provision of contraception constitutes over a third of all the organization’s activity. From a Catholic point of view, contraception does not constitute true health care because it neither preserves nor restores the proper functioning of the body, but rather, damages one of its natural functions. In fact, there is increasing evidence that when a woman’s fertility is suppressed through the use of synthetic hormones, she is exposed to serious health risks. Especially in light of Pope Francis’ call in Laudato Si for a greater respect for human nature and an integral ecology, can’t this be seen as a lack of stewardship and care for the ecology of our human bodies? Even more problematic is the fact that the most effective contraceptives available today can also function as abortifacients. Is it any wonder that the first feminists condemned both abortion and contraception as offensive and injurious to women? Instead, they called both men and women to mutual respect and self-restraint in marriage as a way to live responsible parenthood. To the extent that Planned Parenthood does provide any legitimate health services for women — such as cancer screenings or testing for sexually transmitted diseases — those services are already widely provided by others. Community health centers, for example, provide free or low-cost services to 22 million patients in urban and rural areas and outnumber Planned Parenthood clinics 13 to 1.
Many people have come to believe that contraception is part of the solution to the problem of abortion. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is just how closely abortion and contraception are connected. Contraception is not part of the solution to the culture of death — it is part of the problem. This is because contraception attempts to sever the link between sex and procreation, which, if unsuccessful, can be definitively accomplished through an abortion. In his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II emphasized this connection:
“Despite their differences of nature and moral gravity, contraception and abortion are often closely connected, as fruits of the same tree. It is true that in many cases contraception and even abortion are practiced under the pressure of real-life difficulties, which nonetheless can never exonerate from striving to observe God’s law fully. Still, in very many other instances such practices are rooted in a hedonistic mentality unwilling to accept responsibility in matters of sexuality, and they imply a self-centered concept of freedom, which regards procreation as an obstacle to personal fulfillment. The life which could result from a sexual encounter thus becomes an enemy to be avoided at all costs, and abortion becomes the only possible decisive response to failed contraception.”
One in three abortions in our nation is currently performed at a facility operated by Planned Parenthood, up from one in five abortions in 2005. In a strategy designed to increase their market share, Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) in 2010 stipulated that, by 2013, every affiliate must have one or more clinics that perform abortions on site. A few affiliates left PPFA rather than comply with this requirement, but most did not. That this strategy was successful is evidenced by the fact that as in 2013 alone — the last year for which complete data is available — Planned Parenthood affiliates performed 327,653 abortions. In fact, 94% of the “services” that Planned Parenthood provides for pregnant women are abortions, either surgical or medical, (by means of the abortion drug RU-486), outnumbering other options 16 to 1. In fact, since 1970, Planned Parenthood facilities have aborted over 5 million unborn children, and abortions currently account for over one-third of the organization’s income.
Pope Francis has called abortion the product of a “widespread mentality of profit, the throwaway culture, which has today enslaved the hearts and minds of so many.” When he addressed the bishops of the United States during his historic visit to our country in September, Pope Francis urged us not to look the other way or remain silent in the face of such evils:
“The innocent victims of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature — at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters. It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent.”
The Gospel of Life is a seamless garment covering many issues involving human life and dignity. Respect for human life from the moment of conception is an integral part of the message of salvation and the mission of the Church, and the first principle of its social teaching upon which every other human right is founded. Catholic institutions, including Catholic colleges and universities, must not look the other way or remain silent in the face of attacks against the most vulnerable human beings among us, those as yet unborn. According to the apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, “Catholic ideals, attitudes and principles penetrate and inform university activities” in all aspects of campus life at a Catholic college or university.
Catholic identity is not only about what we stand for; it is also about what we will not stand for. Just as we would be rightly scandalized to see a public display portraying a racist organization like the Ku Klux Klan in a positive light, so too, we expect Catholic colleges to refuse to lend any kind of respectability to organizations like Planned Parenthood that play such a significant role in the culture of death. Authentic freedom, academic or otherwise, is always linked to the service of truth and love. It is also ordered to the formation of the human person in truth and love, formation in which Catholic colleges and universities play a critical role.
Saint John Paul II summoned us to do better by the young adults with whose formation we have been entrusted in this beautiful but difficult area of life: “It is an illusion to think that we can build a true culture of human life if we do not help the young to accept and experience sexuality and love and the whole of life according to their true meaning and in their close interconnection. … Only a true love is able to protect life.”
— Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades