Be Not Afraid
An interview with CFFC president Frances Kissling.
In her 25 years at the helm of Catholics for a Free Choice, Frances Kissling has challenged all participants in the reproductive health debate—allies as well as adversaries— to ask the most difficult questions, face the most difficult truths and undertake the most difficult missions. In a conversation
with Slate’s William Saletan, she reflects on what we have accomplished, what she has learned and what lies ahead.
William Saletan: What is the most misunderstood thing about the prochoice movement?
Frances Kissling: One of the big misunderstandings is the idea that we don’t care about moral questions. I don’t think that’s true. We all have those areas about abortion, in particular, that make us a little squeamish. And for political reasons, we don’t think it’s wise to expose that. And, possibly for personal reasons, some of us don’t want to explore them, either. Because we fear that they might make us change our minds.
WS: Do you fear that?
FK: I’ve always said that I would be open to change. I think that you have to maintain, on critical questions, a posture that ultimately says something could change your mind. I have a much stronger understanding of the value of government regulation of abortion—but not totally, not irrationally—than I had 15 years ago. Fifteen years ago, I would have said under absolutely no circumstances should the government have anything to say about abortion. I don’t like this government making rules, because they aren’t making them out of particularly good motives. But on a principled basis, I can’t ignore that society might have something to say about when, where and how.
WS: A couple of years ago, in your essay “Is There Life after Roe?” you wrote, “In the world in which I move…people are waiting for some sign that prochoice advocates are not pro-abortion.” That’s
an interesting formulation. It implies that the world in which you move is not the world of prochoice advocates. What is this world? Which one is your world?
FK: Well, I live in more than one world. There’s the world of the prochoice movement. Then there’s a community of progressive Catholics who are working on peace and justice and the economy and
women’s rights and changing the church. In that world, what I see are people who really don’t want to prevent women from getting abortions. This is not what they mean, even when they call themselves pro-life. But they are hungry for some sign from prochoice figures that we are as concerned as they are about abortion— that we don’t see it as simple. The prochoice movement is pretty absolutist in its frame. And one thing that distinguishes Catholics for a Free Choice from most organizations is that, being Catholic, we tend to talk to people who fall in the middle on these issues. We’re much less focused on preaching to the choir.
My ultimate loyalty is to ideas. I’m a loyal advocate for a woman’s right to choose. But Catholics for a Free Choice is quintessentially defined by resistance and dissent. This is who we are.
WS: In 1990, you wrote, “The goal of caring people, eliminating all abortions, will require a radical transformation of society.” Eliminating all abortions? Do you really take that as a goal?
FK: There’s an element of hyperbole in saying “all” abortions. But eliminating most abortions is a possibility. It is possible to be sexually active, to use contraception very effectively and for a significant number of women to get through their reproductive lives without becoming pregnant
when they don’t want to become pregnant. And the reasons why that doesn’t happen, in my opinion, are not primarily related to the medical technology. They’re related to human failures. Right there, I just said something that would drive people crazy. There’s this notion that women are perfect or near-perfect. “How dare you say that they fail?” Well, they do. We fail all the time. There are very few women you can talk to who will not acknowledge that there has been some moment when they have engaged in sex without thinking about the consequences. So it will take a big social transformation to get women—never mind men—to the point where it is possible to have a rewarding, spontaneous, emotional, affective sexual life, in or out of marriage, and attend to contraception all the time. But I don’t think that’s impossible.
WS: What role should this movement play in addressing those human failures?
FK: A lot. We don’t want to be preachers. But getting the message out, about what it means to be a responsible, moral human being in the world, is something that our movement should embrace. I say to almost every college audience that I talk to, “I want you, as a woman, to love yourself so much
that you will do everything you can to avoid being in the position where you need to make the decision to have an abortion when you are not ready to have a child.”
I am a Catholic. I may be a terrible Catholic, but I believe my body is the temple of God. My body is sacred. That doesn’t mean to me that I can’t have sex. But it does mean that I have to treat myself
with respect. That’s the kind of social transformation I’m talking about.
WS: According to the latest government data, 48 percent of abortions in this country are repeats. What should this movement do about that?
FK: I don’t want to be coercive or punitive. But often women who come to the clinic to have an abortion don’t want to talk about contraception. They just want to go home. They just had an abortion. I worked in an abortion clinic for four years, and I know what happens. So, first of all, the providers of abortion services have a responsibility to work with women who come in for an abortion around the question of contraception and sexuality. If 48 percent of the abortions are repeat abortions, all of us, as a movement, should be having conferences and strategy sessions about what
could happen in the clinics that could really help women who are having an abortion avoid having an abortion again.
One can say something is wrong. Doctors tell patients all the time that their behavior is destructive to their health. My doctor tells me that if I don’t lose weight, I am not doing well by myself. Same with
people who smoke, people who have risks for disease. Children in schools are now told we have this obesity problem in America and it’s not good to eat these foods. We are a health movement as well
as a rights movement. We have some responsibility to say to women, “Look, you’re coming here and telling me that you’re never having sex again and therefore you don’t need contraception. That’s
not realistic.” Or, “Look, this is the third time you’ve been to our clinic for an abortion, and this is not responsible behavior.”
WS: Are we patronizing women? Have we failed to recognize that the position of women has changed in most of the world in terms of law, status and power, and that more should be expected of them?
FK: I am not convinced that women’s situation, in terms of the respect they receive, has improved that much in the last 10 years. But my feeling is that the less respect you get from others, the more you should treat yourself with respect. The less you have, the more you must try to take control of what you have. In the movement, we have a double discourse. We talk about women as powerful and as moral agents in charge of their lives, and then we treat them like they’re going to fall apart if somebody says, “You know, a responsible person does not become pregnant three times not using contraception.” I don’t fall apart when people tell me they disagree with me or that I did something wrong. I don’t think other women are going to fall apart, either.
WS: What attitude should the prochoice movement take toward sex?
FK: We should be in favor of sex as a good, healthy, human activity that has rules. And our rules are not the same as the Catholic Church’s rules. The movement has generally repeated the right wing’s claim that the best thing for adolescents is abstinence. We go on to justify their access to contraception on the grounds that they will not abstain and therefore need the tools that enable them not to get pregnant. This is not terribly satisfying to parents.
I don’t believe that the best thing for every young person or every unmarried person is not to have sex. Bright lines are hard to come by, but certainly in the later years of adolescence, one finds some of remarkable maturity. The best thing is to have sex when you have a degree of maturity that permits you to see the other as a worthy person that you can respect and relate to. Under those conditions, if you act responsibly in terms of pregnancy prevention, disease prevention, and treating the other person respectfully, sex is a good thing. And it’s good for people to learn a little bit. I’m not opposed to virginity. But sex is not given to us solely for marriage or procreation.
WS: Is that a Catholic position?
FK: It can be a Catholic position. The early Christians thought sex was a bad thing even in marriage. So this inquiry about what is sex, why is it given to us, how do you exercise it responsibly, how does it fit with our emotions is eternal, and the rules are not carved in stone. Monogamy, lifelong marriage—all of these things are quite open for interpretation. The view that we have within Catholics for a Free Choice is that the ethical standard by which sexual relations are evaluated is justice, the same relational standard that you use for other important relationships. That’s a much higher standard than marriage. I mean, marriage is about the lowest possible standard you could use for ethical behavior. Let’s be serious. Marriage is a contract. Marriage is a structure that evolved for convenience and social order and children. Not that these are bad things, but that’s what it’s about. Justice is much, much harder. You can have sex in marriage that doesn’t meet the standard
of justice. Women around the world suffer from sex that would technically be considered holy, or not sinful, but by the standards of justice, you would have to say these are bad relationships.
WS: Is justice too high a standard for some liberals?
FK: Yes, it is. Some of the first problems I have had with people around talking about sexuality have been with liberals who get kind of funky because a justice standard doesn’t include things like extramarital sexuality when you have made a vow to be faithful. You don’t meet the standard of justice if you lie to your partner. I’ve sat in Democratic circles and had people freak out because I’m implying that a lot of what is going on is not just. And the Republican sex scandals are just as depressing.
WS: One of the defining differences between prochoice and pro-life people historically is that pro-lifers expressly believe in legislating morality. Should the prochoice movement reconsider its intolerance for legislating morality?
FK: We all believe in legislating morality. What the hell else is law but putting into a legal code that which we think is right or wrong? Ultimately, you decide it is wrong to kill, to steal, to avoid going into military service, to charge usurious interest. I’ve had this conversation with providers in which they say, “In our clinic, we are nonjudgmental. We do not try to impose our values on our patients.” But you do impose your values. You want to empower women and tell them that they have a right to control their sexual lives. You want to tell them that they should consider contraception. Doctors are not just machines. Why is it OK that your doctor can tell you to stop smoking or lose weight, but you think the doctor shouldn’t be telling you that you should use contraception?
When we talk about conscience clauses, we want to insist that there are some things that are so important to the well-being of others that people or institutions should be forced to do them, whether they want to or not. We applaud when Wal-Mart fires a pharmacist because the pharmacist won’t provide EC. Is there nothing coercive about that? It may be OK, but it shouldn’t make us happy.
I was once on this panel at Planned Parenthood, and they asked me, “Ms. Kissling, [pretend] you run an abortion clinic for Planned Parenthood, and a patient comes in and wants an abortion for sex selection. Are you going to do it?” I said no. Half the people freaked out. Freaked out: “How are you going to say you’re not going to do it? It’s the woman’s choice.” Look, I am an autonomous moral agent myself. I am not simply an instrument of the woman’s will. I am not denying the woman’s will, but if a woman comes to me and says, “I’m afraid I’m going to get breast cancer, please lop off both my breasts,” am I, as a doctor, going to say, “It’s her wish, it will make her happy, let’s go right into
the operating room and I’ll cut her breast off without reference to medical need or efficacy”? That’s not how it operates.
WS: Suppose a young person comes to you today and says, “I believe in the same things you believe in. I want to make a difference.” Where would you send that person?
FK: Go work in a clinic. Go work in Zimbabwe. I am glad that I started in this field as a provider of services. I learned an enormous amount by spending the first four years in abortion clinics, in rooms with women while they were having an abortion.
WS: How has that changed you?
FK: You see the varieties of human experience around abortion. You see everything. You see teenagers come in with their boyfriend and both sets of families. The whole family gets in the car and drives from Kentucky to New York to be together. You see somebody with bipolar disease who’s pregnant and scared of what effect her medication is going to have if she has a child and is totally unprepared and unable to be a parent. You see women who are completely closed and, in that moment, are unable to relate. They say, “I’m fine, just fine, thank you. Leave me alone. Just give me my abortion, and let me go home.” And you see women who are totally together and for whom abortion is a considered, non-problematic decision.
You’re standing in the room, and the woman is on the table, and the vacuum aspirator is turned on.
The doctor goes in her body, and then there is that point where they turn the aspirator on, and you see the look on the face of that woman. The absolute awareness of every person in the room at that instant of what is happening lasts for maybe 60 seconds. It’s a profound moment, no matter how tiny that fetal life is. There is that consciousness in an instant of something being sucked out, destroyed. How can you not be affected? You see an instant of enlightenment or of recognition of the profound event that is happening. That just makes it impossible to look at the issue in totally abstract ways or as simply good or bad.
The first experience I had of abortion was when I was being interviewed to run an abortion clinic. These doctors did late-term abortions as well as first trimester procedures. The method in 1970 for doing a lateterm abortion was by saline induction. And I went to the hospital where we did these
procedures, and I sat with the counselor who was counseling women before they had the procedure. And she is going through the description of the procedure. This always comes to me when people say, “All you people just tell the woman it’s a blob of tissue.” I never heard anyone say that to a
woman. You could tell women that until you’re blue in the face. They know.
So she is describing the procedure, and she said, “You will go into contractions.” And then, here is the hard part. How do you say this? “You will deliver … a form.” A form. And then there is a dead silence among the group of five or six women that are going to have this procedure, and then the reality sinks in that what is going to happen is that they are going to go into something like labor, and a formed fetus is going to come out of their body. One woman said, “Well, what do you mean, ‘a form’? What is it going to look like?” The counselor said, “It is going to resemble a baby.” This counselor was very kind, very compassionate. She struggled with how to tell the truth but how not to hurt.
Having had those kinds of experiences, you look at it a little differently. It hasn’t made me not prochoice, but you have to take it seriously.
WS: Somebody like Rick Santorum hears a story like that and asks, “How can you tolerate that?”
FK: There may come a point in history 200 years from now when people look back at the early 21st century, and they read about abortion, and they say, “This was barbaric, tragic that people needed to do such things.” It could happen in the same way we look at points earlier in history when people were taken up in the mountains and left to die, old people or babies—all sorts of things that were deemed necessary. You got sick, and they had to get rid of you, because you would have infected everybody, and the whole community would have died. So an ill person with certain kinds of
diseases was ostracized or killed. There is always that possibility that the future will look at the past as inexplicable.
At the same time, when I look at it now, I say to myself, what are the alternatives? I just think that the alternatives are more unbearable. I cannot imagine what it would mean to me to be forced to be pregnant. You sit in that circle, and you look at those women, and you see such suffering, and I can’t say that the right thing to do is tell them they must continue their pregnancy. A delivery might be just as horrifying for them. To have a baby come out of your body when you didn’t want the baby in your body in the first place and then to have to cope with either keeping it and not caring for it well or giving it up and worrying. If you can bear a baby and then give it to someone else, super. But it’s got to be a willing gift. But you can’t fool yourself that abortion is a pretty thing. It’s not a pretty thing.
WS: You often go around quoting statistics about what percentage of Catholics disagree with the Vatican about birth control or abortion. You’ve even done your own poll of Catholics. Why do you keep going on about polls? Why should this matter in a church?
FK: Does public opinion create truth? No, it doesn’t. But there are many, many, many women around the world who think they are the only Catholics who believe that abortion is morally defensible or that contraception is legitimate. There is comfort in discovering that you are not alone—that this thing you’re hearing from the priest every Sunday, nobody else believes it: “Nobody else believes it, honey.” You are not alone. So it has a healing quality, to let people know that they are not alone.
WS: Do you think the church has been mostly a force for good or a force for ill?
FK: There are certainly days when I believe that the institution is so deeply corrupted that it should be destroyed. I think of all the ways in which people who have been part of this church have been
abused: priests who want to get married, women who want to be priests, women who use contraception, gay people. At the same time, some of the very same people who can be so abusive to their family have done great social good: Catholic education, Catholic health care. There are parts
of the world where the only place you will be medically treated is by a Catholic. It does enormous good and enormous evil.
WS: What should this movement aim for in the future? What would you put on the agenda?
FK: We have been concentrating on the 60,000 women a year who die from unsafe abortions. We have not been talking about the 500,000 a year who die in childbirth. Not that getting abortion isn’t a real problem, but we need to be a movement for all of these things—not just once in a while signing a letter on a better budget or speaking out against welfare reform or being for an increase in the funding for Title X, but really moving up into the mainstream of health, thinking about the entire question of human reproduction, of maternal mortality, of low birth weight.
WS: Does abortion have a place in that agenda?
FK: I never want to live in a society where we are not talking about abortion. I don’t agree when people say, “Why are we still dealing with this issue? This should be over, settled, and done with.” None of these issues should ever be over and done with, because they all deal with the most
profound aspects of who we are as human beings. To bring people into the world or not bring people into the world is one of the central tasks of being human.
Perhaps the conversation can be somewhat different with a less hostile government. Perhaps instead of defending against punitive restrictions on access, we can turn our attention to really helping poor women who are pregnant. In 1977, a decision had to be made whether the movement was going to concentrate its energy on the restoration of Medicaid funding for the poor or on the supposed threat of a constitutional amendment banning abortion. The decision was made by the direct-mail people that to [emphasize] the right of poor women to funding would alienate supporters. That was where the movement, in my opinion, went wrong. Now I think there is a new opportunity. We as a movement can return to the social responsibility to pay for abortions for poor women. Maybe this is God giving us the opportunity to correct our errors. Maybe this is our opportunity to recreate this movement as a movement for social justice.
William Saletan is Slate’s national correspondent and the author of Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War (University of California Press, 2004).