President Joe Biden, like his Democratic predecessors, will reportedly mark the early days of his tenure by overturning the "global gag rule," a policy dating to the presidency of Ronald Reagan that prevents all international organizations that receive U.S. foreign aid from advocating for abortion access in their own countries or providing clients with abortion services, referrals to other organizations that provide abortions or even information about the existence of legal abortion programs.
But while it could be seen as the typical action of a Democratic president — the rule is lifted every time a Democrat replaces a Republican in the White House, only to be reinstated when a Republican wins the presidency — it's particularly notable to some commentators this time because Biden is a practicing Roman Catholic, and only the second to win the presidency after John F. Kennedy.
Commentators from both within and outside the Catholic faith typically express (often feigned) surprise that a practicing Catholic might advance pro-choice policies, but Biden’s positions — like those of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and the Senate president pro tempore, Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., for instance — point to a simple truth that’s often overlooked: Most American Catholics support reproductive choice.
A survey of U.S. Catholics during the 2020 election demonstrated what so many of us in the faith already knew: Abortion is simply not the top-line concern for Catholics that the church hierarchy and the media believe it to be, and a broad majority of us do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned. Furthermore, Catholics are almost twice as likely to vote for candidates who support policies providing safe and legal abortion than for those who fail to do so.
And, in fact, many practicing Catholics who support reproductive rights often do so not despite their faith, but because of it.
The obligation to not just care for the vulnerable but to actively privilege them over everyone else lies at the heart of the Catholic faith; it’s the guiding principle of the church’s work with the poor and the marginalized. Policies like the global gag rule inflict disproportionate suffering on the poorest of the poor, those afflicted by illness related to reproductive health, those in rural areas with limited resources and those who find themselves in states of profound powerlessness.
Many Catholics are increasingly aware that the absolute prohibition on abortion in various countries in Latin America, as well as previous prohibitions in countries like Ireland and increasing restrictions in red states in the U.S. are not only hurting vulnerable women and girls but, in repeated and shocking cases, killing them. May we never forget that abortion is legal in the Republic of Ireland today because of the agonizing death of Savita Halappanavar, who was denied an abortion at a Galway hospital while she was having a miscarriage in 2012.
What’s shocking is not that Catholics are increasingly expressing their support for reproductive rights, but that the bishops who claim to speak for us have so little understanding of the people in their pews.
That is why Biden must go further than an executive order to roll back the global gag rule. He must commit to ending it permanently, and then work with the new congressional majority to push back on and reverse the many additional steps taken by the Trump administration to further entrench policies that restrict reproductive rights around the world.
To do this, the U.S. government can draw on examples from across the international Catholic community —and, in particular, the women who have been leading the charge. Biden can look to last year’s legislative efforts in Malawi to loosen abortion restrictions; Polish women marching regularly in the streets for abortion access; or the recent victory in Argentina to legalize abortion. These all point to the fact that, when the struggle for fully realized human rights protections for all people — regardless of gender or reproductive status — has been taken up around the globe, Catholics play a vital role in making progress happen.
Advocates for increased access to the full range of reproductive health care, in the United States and around the world, must see these cases of Catholics for reproductive choice for what they are: the building blocks of global change, not just a curiosity to appreciate.
Listening only (or even mostly) to the church hierarchy on issues of abortion or reproductive choice is simply no way to know what Catholics think, and no way to guide health care policy, either domestic or international. All over the world, people of all faith traditions are championing with increased urgency the sexual and reproductive health of all people. The Biden administration must listen to their voices, and commit to securing these most basic human rights.
When our government refuses to support these efforts — or worse, uses the language of religion to undermine them — we are not honoring the supposed faith of millions (let alone the millions of that faith who disagree), but rather condemning millions to unsafe abortions, increased maternal death and the poverty and squandered opportunities that come from insisting that more than half the population does not have the right to make their own health care decisions.
As Catholics, we find this morally indefensible; as Americans, we know our country can do better.