How a Sunday School Movie Led Me to Support Abortion

In the spring of 1997, my sister and I attended catechism classes at our parish, St. Boniface Catholic Church in Anaheim.

Once a week, we joined about 20 other teenagers in the basement of the huge church to hear lectures on morality, Catholic principles, and how to mold our future adult life in the ways of Jesus Christ.

I learned about the evils of the Armenian Genocide, the importance of telling the truth at all times. And one afternoon the subject was abortion.

Our instructors emphasized that the procedure was an unacceptable moral sin under any circumstances – even rape, incest or to protect the health of the mother. The sanctity of life, they preached, was something we Catholics must uphold at all times.

Then the lights went out. We were going to see a movie.

The documentary began with a close-up of a woman’s vagina, her legs tied in stirrups. You couldn’t see her face or the face of the doctor whose hands went into the frame holding pliers and a cutting tool as he inserted them into the woman’s stomach.

The blood gushes out like a river. The doctor scratched, pulled and stabbed. Eventually, a dead fetus fell. The opening credits rolled. The church basement was silent.

This was my introduction to the abortion debate.

The documentary lasted at least half an hour. There was no narration, no context – just clip after clip of graphic footage that eventually ended with a dismembered fetus, the camera moving closer and closer until everyone was staring at his face without life. At that time, most of my classmates were in tears.

I was angry.

I had grown up thinking that abortion was immoral, that anyone who had one would burn in hell. But I immediately saw the film for what it was: propaganda.

Our elders had taught us other moral issues, but abortion was what they put the most effort into, the only subject that required a full course and a film.

There was no debate, no nuance. The teachers just wanted to shock us into complacency so that we would forever hate abortion and its practitioners. But it didn’t work on me.

The short film and my anger that followed have stayed with me all these decades later. This is what I think of particularly in the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade and the constitutional protection of abortion.

Four of the majority justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Amy Coney Barrett and Brett M. Kavanaugh — are Catholic, while Neil M. Gorsuch was raised in the faith. Sonia Sotomayor, a Catholic, voted with the other two court liberals to keep Roe against Wade.

The court’s remaining Catholic, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., wrote a concurring opinion affirming the Mississippi abortion ban in question, but lamenting Roe’s reversal as “a grave jolt to the system legal”.

It is the majority justices that religious abortion rights activists will blame and anti-abortion believers will hail as their moral compass.

For a faithful Catholic, there is no way around what our church teaches about abortion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is official Vatican doctrine, calls for the excommunication of anyone who has one, as it holds that life begins at conception. Pope Francis, whom many conservative Catholics hate for his supposed leftist leanings, allows priests to pardon anyone who has had an abortion, but still calls it ‘murder’ and denounces it as part of a ‘throwaway culture’ which is rampant in the modern world.

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, in his role as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, co-wrote a statement praising Roe’s downfall against Wade and applauding abortion opponents for “their work for the cause of life”. [that] reflects all that is good about our democracy.

And yet much of what has happened to Catholicism in the United States since the days of my catechism reflects the very throwaway culture that Pope Francis denounces.

Hundreds of people rally for abortion rights in downtown Los Angeles on May 3.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

As a rookie journalist in the 2000s, whose first big scoops concerned the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, I sighed at how quickly bishops dismissed accounts of people sexually assaulted by priests, even though secret church records proved the abuse knowingly occurred. church leaders. I winced when lay Catholics called these victims money-hungry liars.

I vomited as professed Catholic politicians rail against abortion while fully supporting the death penalty, which Catholic teaching maintains as “inadmissible” in any case. I rolled my eyes as bishops across the United States, including Gomez, lambasted “woke” culture and threatened to deny communion to Catholic politicians like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Biden who support abortion rights, even as bishops do next to nothing to combat other life-destroying social ills like racism and poverty.

And I wondered how things might have been different if conservative Catholics and other Christians hadn’t been so obsessed with Roe vs. Wade for the past 49 years.

I still consider myself Catholic, although today I only attend mass for the funeral. Abortion is a tragedy on many levels, but too many people focus only on the procedure and not on the human undergoing it. This is why I support anyone who has an abortion, because it is not my choice to impose on them, and it is a personal decision that they must take without fear for their freedom.

Moreover, when it comes to decrying evil, Jesus Christ speaks more against the rich, the hypocrites and the xenophobes than against abortion (hint: never).

I wonder how much better American society would be if my Sunday school teachers had devoted that gruesome afternoon so long ago to other subjects. If anti-abortion activists screened films and distributed literature about the lynchings, about the tragedy of migrants who die trying to cross the US-Mexico border. About children picking crops in the San Joaquin Valley or stuck in violent homes, about mothers left alone to raise their children.

This will never happen, however, because it is much easier to fight for the unborn child than to defend the living.

About Herbert L. Leonard

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