In the U.K. and U.S., COVID-19 has provided an excuse for even more accessible abortion. In America at least, it seems the Catholic Church might fight back.
The reshaping of society by COVID-19 has generated plenty of discussion, but not much of that chatter has included the ushering in of mail-order abortion.
In April last year, the Biden administration waived, on the basis of the unfolding pandemic, the requirement for women wanting an abortion to visit a doctor’s office or clinic, thereby facilitating abortion pills via telemedicine and mail delivery.
In the U.K., a similar thing had already happened in March through the most significant change to abortion legislation since the 1967 Abortion Act. The U.K. Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) published legislation that would allow a woman to have an abortion at home without medical supervision.
With media attention in both countries focused on the start of lockdown measures—not that most mainstream media are particularly keen to engage with abortion beyond fixed narratives of its inalienable rightness and necessity—both changes slipped through under the radar, going largely unnoticed and uncommented on.
In April, the Biden administration also lifted restrictions on federal funding for research involving human fetal tissue and rescinded a Trump administration policy barring organizations such as Planned Parenthood from receiving federal family planning grants if they refer women for abortions.
Biden’s abortion advocacy is striking given he is the first Catholic president in office since John F. Kennedy 60 years ago, and he is not shy about wielding his Catholic credentials, despite being very much at odds with the Catholic Church’s strict anti-abortion stance.
From the very start of his presidency, Biden hasn’t held back, as indicated shortly after his inauguration by one of his first tweets as president on 22 January: “As we mark the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, now is the time to rededicate ourselves to the work ahead. From codifying Roe to eliminating maternal and infant health disparities, our Administration is committed to ensuring everyone has access to the health care they need.”
That urge to codify has not gone unnoticed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Last November, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, the USCCB’s president, decided to form a working group to address the “complex and difficult situation” posed by Biden’s stances on abortion and other issues—such as marriage, gender and sexual ethics—that clash with official Church teaching.
The group proposed drafting a document—assigning the task to the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine—to clarify the Church’s stance on whether you can receive Holy Communion if you persist in publicly advocating for abortion. It’s been a conundrum for Church authorities for decades in the face of modern society’s strident pro-abortion stance—there have been an estimated 60 million abortions in the U.S. since Roe v. Wade in 1973—and now has been brought to a head through Biden’s ascension to the land’s highest political office.
“Because President Biden is Catholic, it presents a unique problem for us,” Archbishop Joseph Naumann, chair of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, recently told the Associated Press. A permissive stance on abortion from any public figure constitutes “a grave moral evil,” Naumann explained, hence it is necessary to publicly rebuke Biden on the issue. “It can create confusion,” Naumann added. “How can he say he’s a devout Catholic and he’s doing these things that are contrary to the Church’s teaching?”
Nancy Pelosi, the first woman in U.S. history to serve as speaker of the United States House of Representatives, could also be affected by any injunction on receiving Communion. She is vocal about the importance of her Catholic faith while roundly criticized by many American Catholics for not speaking out against abortion.
While Church teaching clearly maintains that Catholic politicians should not “check their faith at the door,” says David Cloutier, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., there isn’t a corresponding expectation that they somehow impose Catholic doctrine or teaching in an absolute manner.
Saint Thomas Aquinas accepted that civil laws cannot perfectly be framed to reject all evils, but only the most damaging evils, Cloutier points out. This tradition, he explains, has developed an understanding of acceptable forms of “cooperation with evil” that can be tolerated for proportionately good reasons.
“What the Catholic politician must avoid is what is termed ‘formal cooperation with evil,’ wherein one’s action shares the sinful intent of others, or does not make sufficiently clear that one is tolerating an evil rather than endorsing a good,” Cloutier says. “Moreover, even apart from formal cooperation, one must consider how socially damaging a particular permissive law might be.”
To take on the American president is a bold move by the bishops, to say the least, especially with U.S. Catholic Church authorities being up to their necks in the scandal of historical sex abuse. But it appears U.S. bishops have every intention of doing just that. It’s in stark contrast to religious leaders in the U.K.—both those of the Catholic and Anglican churches—who rolled over during COVID-19 and lockdowns, capitulating to every whim of draconian governmental policy. They didn’t say much about the U.K.’s new abortion policy either.
“It seems to me that many of the church leaders believe that if we, as a Church, be nice and avoid all these areas that go against the cultural or political orthodoxies of the day…somehow people will flock to us and the churches will be full,” Paul Coleman, executive director of free-speech legal advocates ADF International, said in a recent episode of the Spectator magazine’s “Holy Smoke” podcast, which focuses on important and controversial topics in world religion.
This “prevailing view we are getting from the church leadership” that doesn’t appear at all dissuaded by all the evidence that it isn’t working, in turn “makes it harder for the people sitting in the pews,” Coleman explains. “Because if they are not seeing an example, it’s so much harder for them to have the courage to speak out in whatever context they are in, whether it’s business or the school they teach at, or what have you.”
The move to mail-order abortion in the British context feels like something from the mind of Aldous Huxley. In the British writer’s famous 1932 dystopian novel Brave New World, Huxley offered a genetically engineered future in which life is pain-free but meaningless. It was a warning of the dangers of giving the state control over new and powerful technologies. One illustration of this theme is the rigid control of reproduction through technological and medical intervention, including the surgical removal of ovaries and use of cloning. But it was all fiction, so what was the worry?
By 1957, Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited, in which he compares the modernizing world of the time with his prophetic fantasy and also with that offered in 1949 by George Orwell through his more brutal dystopian depiction in 1984, which can be seen as a reply and an update, as Orwell saw it, to Huxley’s earlier warnings. Coming after the slaughter of World War II, it wasn’t surprising that Orwell saw totalitarianism having a much more violent face. But in Brave New World Revisited, Huxley argues convincingly based on the accompanying evidence that it appears the world is moving more toward his type of soporific scientific dictatorship in which a passive population is subdued through scientific and psychological engineering.
“Pressure had been mounting on the [U.K.] government on this issue for years until March 2020 when the abortion lobby saw the opportunity it had long been waiting for,” Andrea Williams, director of Christian Concern and the Christian Legal Centre, wrote in a recent article for the Critic magazine titled “One year on from home abortions.” She notes how, following the move by the DHSC, her organization immediately began to pursue a judicial review of the U.K. government’s decision and that evidence soon emerged that the new service was “unchecked and women were being put at risk.”
“Disclosed documents in our legal case have revealed the direct access key players in the abortion industry have to senior civil servants at the heart of the DHSC,” Williams says. “They wield significant influence, do not take no for an answer, and have repeatedly applied pressure on the government to allow DIY home abortion telemedicine service.”
The USCCB hold their next national meeting in June, during which bishops will vote on whether the Committee on Doctrine should continue working on the Communion-related document, with a two-thirds majority needed, to facilitate an eventual public release. That looks more than likely, according to the Associated Press, as even bishops critical of the initiative—worried the USCCB’s emphasis on abortion undermines its ability to find common ground with Biden on issues Pope Francis has highlighted such as climate change, immigration, and inequality—are predicted to give overwhelming approval for the move. Whether that then leads to public debate and any form of reckoning over such a dramatic shift in the U.S. abortion landscape remains to be seen. It doesn’t seem to be happening in the U.K. yet.
“From the beginning this has been about exploiting the biggest crisis this country has faced since the Second World War,” Williams says. “It was an opportunity to achieve the abortion industry’s long-term goal of abortion-on-demand.”