By Jessica González-Rojas
“This papacy begins with a name,” wrote Howard Chua-Eoan and Elizabeth Dias in their 2013 “Person of the Year” profile of Pope Francis for Time Magazine. Indeed, when the man formerly known as Jorge Bergoglio first stepped onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica as Pope Francis, his newly chosen name was a clear statement of his future papal priorities. You see, our current pontiff is the first to choose his name after St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the poor.
Anyone who has been following his papacy knows that Pope Francis has been making meaningful strides to live up to his namesake, including in his address to Congress last week. From his encyclical linking climate change and poverty to his recent address to Congress, Pope Francis has put economic equality (or lack thereof) front and center. His focus on poverty has been lauded by politicians, journalists, and Catholics worldwide, even earning him the affectionate nickname “the People’s Pope.” As a Latina and a Catholic, I’m heartened to see that Francis is putting the Church’s weight behind economic issues, but I’m not exactly cheering. That’s because his approach excludes women and families in a critical way.
Simply put, any economic justice or anti-poverty strategy is bound to fall short if it fails to recognize the impact that access to affordable reproductive healthcare can have for women and our families.
Unfortunately, Pope Francis’ agenda does just that. It’s common sense that a woman’s ability to decide if and when to have children impacts her financial security and economic future, but it’s also backed by research. As my colleagues at the Reproductive Health Technologies Project (RHTP) explain in their new report on ANSIRH’s Turnaway Study, access to affordable, safe, and comprehensive reproductive health services, including abortion, is strongly linked to a woman’s present, continued, and future economic well-being. Most women seeking abortion care are already struggling to make ends meet, with two-thirds living below the federal poverty line. Financial concerns are the number one reason why women seek abortion to begin with—as well a primary factor in whether or not they can actually get the care they need.
More than any other policy, the Hyde Amendment, the 39-year old policy rider that prohibits federal Medicaid funds from covering abortion care, disproportionately (and often insurmountably) burdens low-income women in need of comprehensive reproductive health services. When insurance covers pregnancy care but denies abortion coverage, politicians are interfering with a low-income woman’s ability to make important, personal decisions about if and when to have children or to grow her family. In fact, restricting Medicaid coverage of abortion forces one in four poor women seeking abortion services to carry her pregnancy to term. And denying abortion actually increases poverty: a woman who wants to get an abortion but is denied is more likely to fall into poverty than a woman who can get an abortion. The harmful repercussions of coverage bans ripple through our families and communities, across geography and generations.
Safe and affordable abortion care matters to women, including Catholic Latinas like me, and our families. It matters because on average, Latinas earn around 56 cents for every dollar made by our white male counterparts. It matters because low-income Latinas are nearly twice as likely to experience unintended pregnancy as low-income white women. It matters because the poverty rate for families headed by Black, Latina, and Indigenous women is nearly 50%. It matters because no woman should have to sacrifice food or rent or kids’ school books to pay for the abortion she needs. It matters because our ability to make important, personal decisions about our health is important to our financial stability and our family’s economic future.
Yet the Pope’s public explorations of economic injustice have failed to recognize even the most basic connection between these issues, and his stance on abortion hasn’t softened in any meaningful way. This includes his announcement allowing priests to pardon some women who have had abortions, which reinforced abortion stigma.
When addressing Congress, Pope Francis spoke directly to the “many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and –one step at a time – to build a better life for their families.” Earlier this year, he spoke of being able to support one’s family as “essential for human dignity.” I wholeheartedly agree with that. However, what the Pope is leaving out is that for many women, the ability to meet those basic human needs for oneself and one’s family, are themselves deeply related to the ability to make our own decisions about pregnancy and parenting. For many of those putting that bread on that table, questions of whether a pregnancy is intended, whether a child can be cared for, and whether an abortion is affordable, may be as essential for human dignity as knowing where the next meal is coming from.
Jessica González-Rojas is the Executive Director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.