2016-06-30

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.

* 1994-1995 national survey of 9,985 abortion patients.

Women who have guilty feelings about sex often convince themselves that they would not have sex spontaneously. One theory is that as a result, they often do not have contraception on hand when they find themselves on the verge of intercourse. The fact that the Catholic Church condemns most forms of contraception would also support this argument.

However, data on birth control use collected by the National Center for Health Statistics shows that generally, Catholics and Protestants use contraception at the same rates. That was not always true---up until about mid-1960s, there was a significant difference, but it long ago vanished. The most recent survey, taken in 1991, found that among non-Hispanic Catholics and non-Hispanic Protestants, contraceptive use was 63%. Hispanic Catholics, however, are much less likely to use contraceptives: Just 49% said they were contraceptive users.

Since nearly half of unintended pregnancies occur in women who report they were using contraception, another theory is that they are either using less-effective methods, or not using the methods properly.

"For a lot of Catholic women, pregnancy is the punishment you get for being sexual, and it's a just penalty."

Nancy Adler, a professor at the medical school at the University of California at San Francisco, notes that in a number of studies it has been clearly established that women who have higher levels of guilt about sex are also less effective users of contraception. Adler, a psychologist who studies women's abortion decisions and the aftermath of abortion, says that "for those who are raised to believe that premarital sex is a sin or contraceptives are a sin, it's really difficult to plan [to have sex] and to acknowledge to themselves that they are likely to have sex and therefore need to have contraception." Catholic women are more likely to have been raised in families where both sex outside of marriage and unwed pregnancy carried a stigma.

"For a lot of Catholic women, pregnancy is the punishment you get for being sexual, and it's a just penalty," said the Rev. David Selzer, an Episcopal priest in Buffalo, N.Y., who counsels women dealing with unplanned pregnancies. That analysis fits with Wendy's fatalistic comment, "Look what I got for my 15 minutes of fun."

Wendy got pregnant after having a brief extramarital affair. At the time, her husband was in prison, and she was lonely and exhausted raising her two small children by herself. When a man she had known since high school asked her out for a drink, she went without thinking she would end up in bed. As a result, she had no birth control with her.

When she found out she was pregnant, she was stunned and, at first, immobilized. "Every day that went by, there wasn't a day that I didn't think about having an abortion and committing suicide just because I felt so low, so embarrassed. I felt I had disgraced my community. We have a name, our family. I don't want to disgrace my parents."

"I wore my rosary today so God is with me. I want God to know," she said. But the church and her priest was another matter. "My husband is Catholic, too, but I don't want anybody to preach to me...they'll say you're killing your baby."

An obvious question for Wendy, and others in a similar predicament, is why they decided against carrying the pregnancy to term and giving the child up for adoption. There are crisis pregnancy centers in almost every sizeable town, where women can get help throughout the pregnancy and in the adoption process. But relatively few women make that choice. Perhaps it is because they are not aware of the services. Perhaps it's because when they first find out about an unplanned pregnancy, their initial impulse is to erase it entirely with an abortion.

Wendy turned down the chance to have her child adopted. A close friend, who has been unable to have a child, offered to pay her medical expenses and adopt the baby when it was born. "I said, 'You think it would be easy, seeing you walking around town with my child. I couldn't stand that,'" she said.

The situation for Jill, a 17-year-old at a public school in Connecticut, was sharply different. Despite having learned about birth control in a required sex education class, she believed she couldn't get pregnant because she had just started having sex with her boyfriend. "I thought the Pill, that was something you took if you were doing it all the time," said Jill. Her mother, a devout Catholic who occasionally marched in protests at local abortion clinics, had told Jill when she first got her period that sex was something that should wait for marriage and that she would regret it all her life if she had sex before that. But one night, she and her boyfriend ended up having intercourse after a late-night party. "I never thought we would do it, we were just messing around," said Jill.

"I wore my rosary today so God is with me. I want God to know."

Worried about disappointing her mother and making her father angry, she turned to her boyfriend's mother, who in turn helped her find the abortion clinic. "I feel bad about it because it is a life, and the one thing I was scared of coming here today was that my mother would be outside carrying one of those signs, you know--'Abortion kills babies.'"

She says she wants children, but not until she is older. "I want children, four of them," she said. "But I want to go to college, maybe be an architect, and I can't do that if I have this. One girl in school has a baby, and she's always taking care of it."


Regardless of Catholic women's ethnic background, their feelings about sex and out-of-wedlock pregnancy are the same. At the same Nebraska abortion clinic where Wendy was having her abortion, Elena, a 24-year-old Catholic whose parents emigrated from Mexico before she was born, was also having an abortion. Hispanic abortion rates have been rising steadily and have now outstripped the non-Hispanic white rate.

"My mom is like, 'If you want to talk about contraception, it's because something is happening that shouldn't be happening.'"

Elena found herself pregnant in large part, she thinks, because she didn't use contraception properly. Listening to her, it is easy to hear that she feels guilty about sex--and, by extension, about birth control.

"In our culture, sex is taboo; contraception is taboo," said Elena, adding that from the time she started getting her period her mother made clear to her that sex outside of marriage was off limits. "My mom is like, 'If you want to talk about contraception, it's because something is happening that shouldn't be happening.'"

As a low-paid aide in a medical clinic, Elena lives at home and keeps her birth control pills hidden so that her mother will not the find them. In the couple of weeks before she got pregnant, she came in late several nights and forgot to take her pills. Typically, doctors tell patients that if they have missed more than two days of birth control pills, they must use another method because they are not protected.

When Elena found she was pregnant, it loomed large in her mind that her father had threatened to throw his daughters out of the house if they ever became pregnant out of wedlock. "He told us it would bring eternal shame on our family," she said. She had an abortion and developed a theology of her own to reassure herself that she had not betrayed her faith and been responsible for the death of a living child. "A baby's life begins when they take their first breath, that's God entering them," she said.

"You've heard of the 'breath of life,' that's the Holy Spirit, and that's when life enters them."

At a general level, experts, activists, and women seeking abortions all agree that Catholic women, in most cases, have abortions for the same reasons as other women. "In terms of why women have abortions, there's a lot in common across religious backgrounds and age groups," says Kathleen George Kearney, a Presbyterian counselor who works with abortion clinics in Minnesota, where there is an even mix of Protestant and Catholic patients.

Alvare of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops agrees. "The likelihood of Catholic women having the same matrix of factors where they feel abortion is the only way is pretty high. I don't see any reason why they would be less likely [than other women] to have the complicated situations that lead to abortion."

However, the hard-to-measure guilt factor and the way it interplays with attitudes around both sex and contraception, and feelings about unplanned pregnancy, seems impossible to ignore.

She had an abortion and developed a theology of her own to reassure herself that she had not betrayed her faith.

Kearney recalls counseling a 17-year-old who was pregnant for a second time. The young woman told her that in her first pregnancy, she went to a priest who told her abortion was an unacceptable sin and that she should carry the child to term. She did, but a few months later during Mass the priest "went off on a tirade about teen pregnancy," Kearney says. The young woman "felt this deep sense of betrayal," she adds, and decided to terminate her second pregnancy.

Catholics and non-Catholics agree that because the Catholic Church's position on abortion is so clearly negative, it is rare that a pregnant woman who is considering an abortion would go to her priest. Maria, a 22-year-old Catholic woman who had one child out of wedlock, says she could not imagine going to a priest to discuss her dilemma over whether to abort a second unplanned pregnancy. "They will say 'It's alive, it's wrong, keep it and give it up for adoption.'"

Most priests probably would say that, but they might also give her a sense of whether she would find community support for her decision. However, it is hard for women to trust priests, says Father Blair Raum, a priest in the archdiocese of Baltimore who trains other priests to counsel Catholic women who have had abortions. "What Catholic women are most afraid of is being judged, and even though a priest may never consider addressing her in that way, the fear is there," said Raum.

Also, he points out, priests are celibate men, and most women facing an unexpected pregnancy are not comfortable talking about such intimate subjects with them.

In recent years, the church has begun a concerted effort to reach out to women who have terminated their pregnancies and are experiencing sadness or regret. The program, Project Rachel, is the church's most active effort to date to speak sympathetically to Catholic women who have faced abortion, and it may also turn out to be the church's most effective way of deterring future abortions--or at least persuading women that there are real alternatives.

Diane, 35, speaks softly as she tells a group of women who are attending a Project Rachel meeting in a church basement in Connecticut that she felt few qualms about her abortion when she had it. "I was separating from my husband at the time, and I thought I couldn't raise a child by myself," she says, then adds, "But at the time I was coming to the Lord, and I was reading about how God formed the baby in my womb."

Now she seems beset with guilt. When a newcomer asks when she had the abortion, it turns out to have been 10 years ago. Yet the feelings are such that she cannot let them go. "I feel bad that I feel worse about my divorce than about the abortion, but then again, I'm here," she says, looking to the group leader--as if in search of benediction.