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Stansell in the New Republic on Catholics and abortion

So I'm breezing through recent issues of The New Republic and I'm jolted out of my chair by the following: Opposition to abortion in the late 1960s and early 1970s was "drummed up, exacerbated, and orchestrated by elites at the highest levels of the Catholic Church and the right wing of the Republican party."Thus concludes the third paragraph of a lengthy review of three recent books on abortion by University of Chicago historian Christine Stansell. Stansell is in fact a distinguished historian, and I've frequently assigned her excellent American Moderns a study of Greenwich village bohemians in the early twentieth century. But this essay -- and not just that sentence -- gets a great deal wrong. Small factual errors -- Pius XII permitted the rhythm method in 1952, well before Paul VI endorsed it in 1968 -- are less important than the tone, which implies that Catholic opposition to abortion was somehow cajoled out of an unwilling Catholic populace by a conniving hierarchy. Note the language: opposition to abortion was "drummed up, exacerbated and orchestrated." Or later: the bishops finessed a "rhetorical sleight of hand" by shifting attention away from birth control to abortion. Or later still: a "Catholic vendetta" (really?) made abortion a constant issue in national politics. Or one more time: "the deep resources and coffers" of Catholicism fed the campaign to make the fetus "an icon to rally believers."All of this is unfortunate. Stansell is right to see significant connections between the intense, decades long and agonized Catholic discussion of contraception and the emergence of abortion as a national issue in the mid-1960s. I tried to make these connections in my Catholicism and American Freedom.But Stansell's conspiratorial tone is disappointing. Her dubious assumption that absent the Catholic bishops abortion would "have ended up as legal, available, something seldom discussed as a personal matter" is actually the mirror image of arguments made by Catholic conservatives such as George Weigel: that Catholic dissent over birth control might have been quashed if only bishops had resolutely defrocked clergy willingly to publicly venture their disagreement with Humanae Vitae. Both Stansell and Weigel overestimate episcopal influence. By the mid-1960s, the overwhelming majority of Catholic couples, priests (as evidenced in Leslie Tentler's fine study) and, perhaps, even bishops, were either ignoring Church teaching on contraception or fervently hoping that this teaching would change. When it did not, Catholic couples resolved to simply ignore church teaching, as they do today, over forty years and innumerable episcopal statements later. Many of today's more conservative priests and seminarians claim to fully endorse church teaching on contraception. But theirs is an easy orthodoxy unavailable to priests fifty years ago, forced to grapple with the issue on a less abstract plane, as they listened to endless anguished couples discussing dilemmas of contraception, sex and family in the confessional. Abortion was different. The rapid change in laws on abortion -- illegal almost everywhere in 1962, legal at any point in the pregnancy and for any reason after Roe -- produced a major popular reaction. This reaction came primarily from within the Catholic community but not because bishops ordered it. Instead bishops, Catholic intellectuals seasoned (and traumatized) by the contraception debate and a wide swath of Catholic opinion found the radical quality of Roe and some of the state laws that preceded Roe startling. Catholic public opinion in its broadest sense on abortion is not significantly different than the general public. But the most mobilized Catholics in the late 1960s and early 1970s -- many of them liberals and not, as Stansell assumes, all Republican conservatives -- were appalled by the Supreme Court's unwillingness to permit any restrictions on abortion. (That the Justices, like the bishops, are an unelected "elite" does not trouble Stansell.) Stansell cannot bear to use the term pro-life without revealing scare quotes, and she cannot credit opposition to legal abortion as a genuinely popular movement. She is uninterested, for example, in polling data suggesting young people are more opposed to abortion than than their parents. She concludes her essay dwelling, a bit wishfully in my estimation, on the "adamantine" fact that most Americans are pro-choice in that they still favor legal abortion. They are and they do. But not in the last months of a pregnancy. Not to select fetuses based on gender. Not with government funds. The more interesting and accurate historical story is exactly this complexity. Stansell might have turned her talents toward helping us understand this complexity. But she hasn't, and the soundbite quality of the essay is both a pity and a missed opportunity.

About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.



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Do I remember accurately the laments of the nascent pro-life movment in the early 70s about the foot-dragging of the Catholic bishops on the abortion issue? I think James Kelly of the Fordham Sociology Department has written extensively on this.

"But the most mobilized Catholics in the late 1960s and early 1970s many of them liberals and not, as Stansell assumes, all Republican conservatives were appalled by the Supreme Courts unwillingness to permit any restrictions on abortion."Right! And as a liberal and a Catholic I see the accusations from conservative Catholics that liberal Catholics are all pro-abortion as contributing to the misapprehensions of people like Stansell. Such accusations are not uncommon even here on dotCommonweal, and they are neither accurate nor fair.

@BrendanWhat?? I suppose you don't see that one going up on your classroom walls... :)

Oh my!

We and our friends were liberal CFM families in the 50s. We all had huge families, 5-6-9-up to 12 children. Any healthy couple not using birth control and married 25 years could easily have 10-15 pregnacies in that time, some being mis-carriages. Where are these families with that number of children today? .. not in any parish we go to now..And we were all CFM liberal pro-life thru the 70s and the ones still alive are still that today. Stansell a historian??? can she name one pro-choice pol in the 50s 60s?? I can... Reagan...

Mary -- Actually, I'm shocked -- SHOCKED! -- that that post got removed! Why, when I first saw it, I thought it was actually part of Julia Flyte's breakdown from Brideshead Revisited that Waugh had decided not to go with, or perhaps a passage from Karl Rahner when his supernatural existential was malfunctioning, or maybe just St. Hildegard of Bingen on a bad day, or an in-breaking kingdom announcement. I can't imagine why it was removed! Did the USCCB's doctrinal committee complain that it was causing error and confusion? (For anyone who didn't see it, right before mine there was a post by someone that got deleted, it was... well, it was.)

More evidence of the CW editors' conspiracy, only now they're revealed to be a gang of whale-tail wearin' zionist mafiosos.

Republicans in the 60's and 70's? Really? What was Professor Stansell smoking?

It is interesting that this issue often brings out the worst in people. Apparently it's had that effect on Ms. Stansell's scholarship. Is there any issue that's more revelatory?

I hate it when comments get deleted, particularly if they're not legally actionable. It always makes the post about deleting things instead of the original post. Plus it makes me feel cheated out of seeing the train wreck.I don't know if Ed is bemoaning or musing about the demise of the cheaper-by-the-dozen families. Five kids per family was about average for our Catholic neighborhood (I was born in '54).A lot of girls from our old neighborhood got together last spring. I noticed the pattern seemed to be two years of voc/tech training or biz school, early marriage, three kids in quick succession, a tubal ligation, then back to work when the kids were in school full-time. No idea if this is typical of other working class Catholic Boomers.All of them are still practicing Catholics.

Hey Jean, I also was in one of those 5 kid (plus 5 "miscarriages") families. Similar pattern you describe among the kids, though among the group I knew, the women made their husbands be the one to get the tube job.

Should also mention that all of them are pro-life, but they disagree somewhat on how the problem should be addressed and intensity of feeling about the topic seems to vary.Mary, would be interesting to see an attitudinal survey of Boomer and GenX women who stayed in the church but had smaller families.Some Catholic women my mother's age (late 70s/early 80s) seemed quite willing to complain that they had too many kids once we were all grown up--and they were fairly specific about which kids ones they could have done without. Mother love was a pretty unsentimental thing in my neighborhood. Again, would be interesting to see larger survey ...

Totally agree with your observation about moms. (Mine surprises me constantly with how more "liberal" she's gotten with age--or perhaps just finally admitted. "There was a war on!" is mine's go-to to avoid difficult comparisons :)I've found data from the National Survey of Family Growth very useful. I'll look for surveys specific to what you mentioned, but I had this link handy--it's not completely on point, but interesting nonetheless."survey+data+Catholic+women+age"

Mary, thanks for the link. Fascinating report, especially the bit below: One reason that faithful RC women--those who frequent church and believe that their religion is very important--had more frequent use of sterilization (than less-faithful Catholics) is that sterilization is a one-time event. Couples can have the sterilization surgery, confess to a priest, and then be back in the grace of God and the Church. The constant use of the pill and/or condoms, on the other hand, requires either frequent confession or a guilty conscience.

Here's an article (in French) and comments that I think capture the opinions of a large part of the population. describes the coming and going of women across the border between Germany and Poland: crossing into Poland to get IVFs, crossing into Germany to get abortions. One side theme: the swipes against Catholics, primarily accused of hypocrisy. Legal abortions in Poland: 400 per year. Other abortions, either illegal or abroad: of the order of 100000, that is, very roughly one for every four (maybe three, maybe five) births. That, in a country where almost everyone is Catholic and where abortion carries a heavy social stigma. The Catholic church has managed to silence other voices within our ranks and pretend as though there was only voice, a united view that abortion is a great evil akin to murder and must be illegal. Poland shows a vastly different reality in which a large fraction of Catholics, when push comes to shove, are perfectly willing to have abortions. They exist, they are at least a large minority or maybe a majority, but they keep silent. How can one contend that the church is not hypocritical, when a diverse reality is hidden under the blanket of uniform official statements?Of course Catholic bishops do not represent Catholic opinion. They present the Catholic leadership's views on ethical matters, but that can be completely disconnected from the judgement of regular Catholics. Their role is not to speak for Catholics (they're not elected), but for the truth or what they think is the truth.It is true that when I speak to non-Catholics, they have the annoying tendency to say: "You are Catholic, the bishops say x, therefore you think x". Isn't that mistaken view implicitly encouraged by the bishops themselves?

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