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Notes on Kansas
The bishops don’t have a real plan. You don’t have to treat them like they do.
"The church's actions, and the actions of the people they vocally support, are not the actions of a body trying to actually end abortion. People trying to end abortion try to convince their audience with actual accurate information, not bullshit that idiots found on a message board and passed along to some angry dude in Ontario. People trying to end abortion assess what results they're getting and change their tactics if they don't work; they certainly don't keep doubling down on a policy designed by a bleach salesman, that every person with any level of medical expertise will say doesn't work. And people trying to end abortion acknowledge the other related issues and try to navigate the best ways to address all of them, as opposed to actively urging people to die in a pandemic or submit to fascist secret police…If the bishops don't want to win the fight, why the hell are they telling me it's the only thing I should care about, even to the point of ignoring everything else? Why are they telling me this is the problem they have to solve first, and then spending all of their time making that problem worse and more polarized? That the bishops are sacrificing everything and everyone else in the church to try to end abortion is disheartening enough, but what if they're not trying to end abortion? What if they're doing all of this because they just like telling people what to do?"
The bishops don’t have a real plan. You don’t have to treat them like they do.
This is less a piece about abortion policy (which is not really my area of expertise) and more a piece about stupid people doing stupid things (which is). That said, if you’re looking for good writing on Catholicism and abortion policy, you should definitely read Mollie O’Reilly’s essay in Commonweal from March of this year, titled “When Abortion Isn’t Abortion”, and detailing what abortion bans could do and who they could affect:
“The awful irony of restrictions on abortion is the way they put up barriers to basic health care, barriers that can be dangerous for women whose experience of pregnancy is not a smooth path to motherhood...Morally, my situation was straightforward. Medically, it was a crisis requiring immediate intervention. And legally, in New York, nothing prevented me from getting the care that saved my life. But when I woke up in the maternity ward, thinking over the traumatic events of that night, I wondered whether a woman in my situation in a state with restrictive abortion laws would have been so fortunate. My survival depended on the availability of a doctor who was able and willing to perform an abortion procedure. It is not hard to imagine the situation turning out differently in a state with more “pro-life” laws regulating care. What if that doctor hadn’t been trained? What if she was afraid to get involved? What if someone else needed to approve the procedure before the hospital could carry it out? What if I ran out of time?”
Nobody wants to hear me explain what abortion is or why it's important, and I’m not going to. However, nobody wants to hear the bishops try to explain it either, and we have to do that all the time for some reason, and when we do hear them explain it, we learn that they don't have any plan at all for “when abortion isn't abortion” - when abortion is, as in O’Reilly’s case, life-saving health care. The bishops don't have any plan to address why people might want to have life-saving health care in a country where being pregnant is more likely to kill you than it is in any other developed nation, and why a non-barbaric health care system would have to have that care available free, on demand, and without apology. The bishops don’t have any plan for the suffering and death that happens when states make laws putting violently enforced barriers in front of life-saving health care - things like doctors not being able to act in an emergency out of concern for criminal consequences, or police interrogating women who just miscarried, or a woman getting shot in the stomach, losing her pregnancy five months in, and ending up indicted for manslaughter. The bishops have not somehow “missed this” when putting together their plan on abortion. They are not waiting for someone to explain it to them so that they can thoughtfully incorporate it into their plan. The bishops don’t have a real plan. You don’t have to treat them like they do.
When the Dobbs decision came down from the Supreme Court, the USCCB put out a statement saying that:
"Now is the time to begin the work of building a post-Roe America. It is a time for healing wounds and repairing social divisions; it is a time for reasoned reflection and civil dialogue, and for coming together to build a society and economy that supports marriages and families, and where every woman has the support and resources she needs to bring her child into this world in love."
A large part of the laity, especially from groups that the bishops have treated poorly in the past, aren't buying this shit; personally, when I read the above, I can hear Gerard Way’s extremely insincere-sounding “trust me!” before the final chorus of “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)”. The reason is kind of obvious: the leadership of the church has had decades to “begin the work” and never bothered. In the fifty years since Roe, any effort that any bishop made to "build a society and economy that supports marriages and families, and where every woman has the support and resources she needs to bring her child into this world to love" was dwarfed, at an almost comedic level, by the collective efforts of the bishops to overturn Roe, efforts that always stymied and reversed the work of doing anything that could conceivably support families and children. Some Catholics - including me, for a while - were disappointed that the bishops made some very bad "trade offs" or "sacrifices" to get here, that they decided to put some things aside to get Roe overturned as a top priority. But using that language would suggest that the bishops ever cared about any of the other things they ended up abandoning. The bishops didn’t “sacrifice” their witness on racial justice to elect Republicans and overturn Roe, because the bishops never really cared about racial justice. They didn’t “trade off” on slowing climate change, because none of them really thought it was important. They didn’t “have to make some tough decisions” on “having accused sexual predators on the Supreme Court”, because they knew those guys on the court would vote the way they wanted, and we know how they feel about sexual predators in positions of power generally. All of this moves the bishops’ actions far past the point of “gee that's not very pro-life of you” and well into “gee you’re causing serious material suffering to large groups of people” territory. Which is not a great place for bishops to be, but it's where you end up when all you wanted to do was ban something, more than protecting or saving anything. The bishops did not put together a complex multi-step plan that required them to trade off or delay, some parts of a comprehensive strategy aimed at supporting families and children. The entire plan is “we need a ban”, with a supporting strategy of “anyone who disagrees with the idea that we need a ban isn’t welcome here”, and then a backup strategy of “nothing else”. The bishops don’t have a real plan. You don’t have to treat them like they do.
So now that Roe has been overturned, now that they got this win, now that there are bans in place in several states, how is the plan going to change? Are the bishops going to pick up those issues that they abandoned and revisit them? Are the bishops going to actually put together some sort of answer on this “support and resources” front? Will they assess and weigh their different options based on what is most likely to reduce the number of abortions in America in this new age?
I don’t think I’m going to surprise you when I say that the plan hasn’t changed at all. Because the bishops don’t have a real plan. You don’t have to treat them like they do.
There's another easy way to learn that the bishops don’t have a real plan for the post-Dobbs era: you can just look at the states where abortion care was, if not outright banned, still extremely difficult to obtain pre-Dobbs. For example, it’s difficult to get abortion care in Wisconsin, thanks to an entrenched Republican majority in the state legislature that passed all sorts of post-Roe restrictions on reproductive health care and a weird never-repealed law from 1849 that bans abortion outright and nobody knows if it’s currently in effect. All of this was in place before the Dobbs decision. Faced with a landscape where abortion is already difficult to get in their state, the bishops in Wisconsin did not pursue “support and resources”-type policies to balance those restrictions and help parents raise families and “bring a child into the world in love”; rather, the priorities of Wisconsin's bishops have been to fight against the insidious threats of children getting vaccinated and teens introducing themselves with their preferred pronouns. They have not exactly been leading a groundswell of Catholic witness to advocate for better healthcare and leave policies - which could, of course, reduce the need for abortions in their state - but that’s not too surprising, since they can’t even be bothered to have any paid parental leave for their own employees.
Texas, of course, would be another state with limited access to and heavy restrictions on abortion care, even pre-Dobbs; again, the state legislature does not appear to be in a hurry to pursue any policy to ensure that “every woman has the support and resources she needs to bring her child into this world in love”, and the bishops do not appear to be pressuring them to do so. The bishops in Texas, specifically, seem to have put a higher priority on fighting a Catholic Charities “women’s empowerment summit” or just generally being an insane person.
If you wanted to know what the bishops’ plan was going to be once Roe was overturned, these would be good states to look at, because Roe has been crumbling in these places for years, and it’s easy to see how the bishops act in a state that had already stripped away many rights to reproductive health care. There is, very obviously, not a grand plan in any of these places that required the bishops to agitate for bans first and then downshift to a kinder, gentler, more pastoral strategy to make sure that mothers and children and families were supported. The bishops don’t have a real plan, and you don’t have to treat them like they do.
Another state that could work as an example here is Kansas.
Kansas is also a state where it was very difficult to obtain an abortion even pre-Dobbs. But it wasn’t impossible, thanks to a recent state supreme court ruling, so last week Kansas voters had to decide whether to amend their state constitution to allow their legislators to impose stricter anti-abortion laws. You already know how the vote turned out: not only was the amendment wildly unpopular, but voting against it was apparently wildly popular, and in a state where an anti-abortion constitutional amendment would enjoy every possible political advantage as a ballot question - party registration, financial support, makeup of the state legislature, even the wording of the question itself - Kansas’ voters rejected it by about twenty percentage points, with an unimaginable level of voter turnout for a midterm-year primary election.
Joseph Naumann is the Archbishop of Kansas City KS, and used to chair the USCCB’s Pro-Life Activities committee. He helped lead the charge to try and excommunicate Joe Biden, and has recently stated publicly that he doesn’t think the Pope’s approach to talking about abortion really works for the US. He happens to live in a state where abortion was already very nearly banned. His strategy for the post-Dobbs world was to spend $2.5M of his archdiocese’s money to support a massively unpopular ballot question for additional abortion bans (other dioceses in the state kicked in on top of the $2.5M as well). As the Washington Post noted last week:
“...activists and experts say [the vote] also amounts to a rejection of the Catholic Church hierarchy, which had shelled out massive sums of money in support of the amendment’s passage. The vote may hint, too, at a mounting backlash against the church’s involvement in the nation’s abortion debate — not least among Catholics themselves…The Kansas vote suggests that the bishops, having won a long-awaited victory at the Supreme Court in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, may now be fighting uphill battles in many states, with uneven support from a rank-and-file who would rather see them invest church money in other places.”
The bishops’ entire playbook is this and nothing else. It’s trying to pass a legislative all-encompassing abortion ban state by state, and spending the church’s money to do it. There are no strategies that the bishops are planning to employ alongside, or after, that one. Naumann could have donated $2.5M worth of diapers to a daycare, or lit the $2.5M on fire and used it to heat a women's shelter; both would have been uses of the money that would have had a better material impact on the lives of children in his state and probably not resulted in the deaths of any pregnant people (unless that shelter fire somehow got out of control). Hell, he could have used the $2.5M to bump up his own employees’ maternity leave policy, since his employees, when they go on leave, are paid a maximum salary of $500 per week. But Naumann’s priority - and this was the first glimpse at what the bishops would do when faced with a post-Dobbs opportunity at the state level, from a former chair of the Pro-Life Activities committee who set the national strategy on this for years, who just gave an interview where he literally said he understood this issue better than the Pope - is “what if we did…bans, but more”. Passing these bans will not end abortion, and they will certainly cause needless suffering and death. But the bishops only care about “bans, but more”. The bishops don’t have a real plan. You don’t have to treat them like they do.
The singular strategy of “bans, but more” is, unsurprisingly, the current strategy of the well-moneyed conservative wing of the church. As for the bishops that have styled themselves as pastoral voices that don’t engage in the culture wars…this is also their current strategy. Here’s Cardinal Cupich of Chicago:
“Make no mistake, because this ruling regrettably will have little impact on abortion in Illinois, as there are virtually no restrictions here, we will continue to advocate strongly for legal protections for unborn children.”
And here’s the new Cardinal McElroy of San Diego:
“Many states will see tremendous progress legislatively rather soon…This is a moment not to cease or downsize our efforts but to redouble them here in California. It’s going to be a very hard road [in California], but at the same time for our country this is a really wonderful moment.”
You will not protect your rights and care and life, or the rights and care and lives of those you love, by trying to better understand the bishops’ plan. You will not protect your rights by trying to reason with the bishops and their allies, or trying to help them understand something that they don’t seem to be considering, or appealing to some sense of common ground like “valuing life at every stage” or even “reducing the number of abortions” or any things you value that you think might overlap with their plan. The bishops don’t have a real plan. You don’t have to treat them like they do. Treat them like nothing but old men, fumbling in the dark, only interested in punishing the masses. Treat them like this because they will treat you like nothing but the masses who deserve punishment.
You will protect your rights and care and life, and the rights and care and lives of those you love, by having more power than the bishops and their allies do. The people of Kansas did that by voting. People in other states will also have to vote, and protest, and strike, and organize to build their power. The bishops have shown us the entirety of their vision and the entirety of their strategy, the entirety of their not-real plan “for healing wounds and repairing social divisions…for reasoned reflection and civil dialogue, and for coming together to build a society and economy that supports marriages and families, and where every woman has the support and resources she needs to bring her child into this world in love”. It's obvious by now that your plan, whatever it is, is better.