The Catholic Abortion Paradox

Why are Catholic women in the U.S. more likely to have an abortion than their Protestant counterparts?

With her blond hair and blue eyes, Wendy looks the part of the all-American daughter of the Midwest and appears to have the sunny straightforward manner one would expect of the cheerleader she once was. But today, the 23-year-old native of a small farm town in Nebraska is having an abortion, a step she feels deeply conflicted about--in no small part because of her Catholic background. Although she describes her family as just going to church on Sunday, she also says they are strong German Catholics.

"I was anti-abortion until I got pregnant," said Wendy, fingering the rosary she wore to the abortion clinic. "Look what I got for my 15 minutes of fun," she adds, gesturing to her belly.

Her decision to have an abortion, like the decisions of most women who end up terminating their pregnancies, involves many factors. But the way Wendy and other Catholic women talk about how they got pregnant, and their sense of shame about the pregnancy itself, suggest a possible explanation for a statistic that remains puzzling to researchers: Overall, Catholic women have higher abortion rates than their Protestant counterparts.

According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, which tracks reproductive health data, non-Hispanic Catholic women of childbearing age are 29% more likely than their Protestant counterparts to have abortions (full study*). The rate is even higher--33%--if Hispanics are factored in. Another way of looking at it: while Protestant women make up about 54% of the population, they account for only 37% of the abortions. Catholic women make up 31% of the population and account for 31% of the abortions.


Given the Catholic Church's longstanding position against abortion, one would think the abortion rate would be far lower than the population as a whole -- and yet, if anything, it seems to be higher.

This paradox puzzles Catholic leaders on both sides of the issue--like Helen Alvare, the former chief pro-life strategist and spokeswoman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice. The one explanation for which there is at least some anecdotal evidence is that Catholic women appear to experience more feelings of guilt around sex, and more shame about pregnancy outside of marriage.

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