The decision by the US Supreme Court to rule there is no constitutional right to abortion, turning the decision over to the country’s 50 states instead, will send shockwaves throughout the US and wider Catholic world – both of which appear divided on the issue. Six of the nine Supreme Court Justices are declared Catholics, but not all agreed with the decision, which will be closely watched in the Western Hemisphere, where a majority of the world’s Catholics now live. Only last year, Mexico (the country with the second largest number of Catholics worldwide) decriminalised abortion in a landmark court ruling. By contrast, the world’s most Catholic country in terms of population – Brazil – allows abortion only in cases of risk to the mother’s life, if pregnancy was the result of a crime, or if the baby is anencephalic.
Within the US, given that polling suggests 55 per cent of Americans identify as “pro-choice”, while 26 states are likely to restrict abortion access, an already febrile cultural climate is liable to turn red hot. Already at odds over guns, racial issues and LGBT rights – with arguments amplified by mainstream and social media – the Supreme Court decision highlighted the sectarianism which has sadly come to define America. The fact the power to rule on abortion will now be the hands of states could rip the country’s already weakened cohesion to shreds. Indicative of the divide, while less than a third of the 26 states likely to restrict abortion will allow exemptions for rape of incest, at least 20 states will guarantee abortion as a protected right.
Within hours of the ruling, abortion was already being restricted in several states. In heavily Mormon Utah, most abortions were banned by Friday evening. The southern state of Alabama followed suit, with abortion banned except for risk to the mother’s life. Ditto Arkansas. But in many coastal states, especially in the country’s north, politicians moved in the opposite direction. Democratic Governors of California, Oregon and Washington vowed to protect abortion rights, while in Massachusetts, the Republican Governor signed an executive order to protect abortion.
The Holy See was also quick to react, with the Vatican’s Academy for Life saying the ruling challenged the world to reflect on life issues, and called for social change to help women keep their children. By contrast, US President Joe Biden – only the second Catholic President in the country’s history – denounced the conservative Supreme Court Justices as “extreme”. For its part, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) – in a statement issued by Archbishops José H. Gomez and William E. Lori – said: “We thank God today that the Court has now overturned” Roe v. Wade.
This mixed thinking among Catholics was even reflected in the Supreme Court. Of the nine Justices in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization which overruled Roe v. Wade, the majority were Samuel Alito (Catholic), Clarence Thomas (Catholic), Neil Gorsuch (raised Catholic, joined Episcopal church, and position now unclear), Brett Kavanaugh (Catholic), and Amy Coney Barrett (Catholic). Chief Justice John Roberts (also Catholic) concurred in the judgement on the Mississippi law only but not on overturning Roe. Of the judges who dissented – Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – Justice Sotomayor is also Catholic, and the only Hispanic Justice, pointing again to divisions within Catholic thinking.
While the Church has long opposed abortion, the views of US Catholics are more nuanced, reflected by the judges in the case. According to data from the Pew Research Center in 2022, although 76 per cent of US Catholics believe abortion should be illegal in some cases but legal in others, just 10 per cent want abortion to be illegal in all cases, while 13 per cent think abortion should be legal in all cases. In total, 69 per cent of US Catholics believe abortion should be legal if the mother’s life or health is threatened, while two-thirds say it should be legal if the pregnancy is the result of rape.
One could contrast the US with Poland, which has about the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, with termination only allowed in the case of rape or risk to the woman’s life. Despite some pushback, data suggests most Poles do reject abortion on demand. Just last week a bill to reform said restrictions was decisively rejected by the Polish Parliament. But Poland is a homogeneous country in terms of culture, religion and outlook. It is also about the most Catholic nation in Europe right now. The contrast with the US is difficult to overstate – the latter is now polarised in almost every conceivable sense.
The path of polarisation in the US could also get worse. On Friday, Justice Thomas said “we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents.” This could open up the overturning of precedents on the right to contraception, the right to same-sex intercourse, and guaranteed access to same-sex marriage. But while a country like Poland can pursue a staunchly conservative path given its strong national cohesion, the US increasingly lacks the cohesion to move decidedly to the left or right without fracturing even more. America’s liberal and conservative strongholds are also all over the place, with big inter-state and intra-state divisions.
The divide among US Catholics then is part of a wider division. That said, according to Pew, religiosity among US Catholics also plays a role in their view of abortion. Among those who attend Mass weekly or more, 68 per cent say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases, while about half or fewer support exceptions which would make abortion legal in the case of rape or threats to the life or health of the mother. By contrast, 65 per cent of US Catholics who do not attend Mass weekly believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, including three-quarters who say it should be legal in cases of rape or threats to the well-being of the mother.
Politics also plays a role, with 60 per cent of Catholic Republicans and Republican-leaning independents believing abortion should be illegal in most or all cases, while 73 per cent of Catholic Democrats and Democratic-leaners believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases. That said, majorities of Catholics on both sides believe abortion should be legal in the cases of rape, or danger to the mother’s life or health. The views of Catholic Republicans more closely align with other Republicans whereas Catholic Democrats tend to oppose abortion more than other Democrats. For example, the share of Catholic Democrats who say abortion should be against the law at 24 weeks is 38 per cent against 27 per cent for non-Catholic Democrats.
Friday’s Court ruling then did not so much spark division among Americans as highlight what is already evident. The possibility of revisiting other precedents – as Justice Thomas alluded to – will appeal to mainstream conservatives and religious Catholics alike. But given how divided the US – and even many American Catholics – have become, how can the country navigate its enormous cultural cleavages? Virtually all western European and Anglosphere countries are mired in polarisation of course, but the scale of sectarianism in the US seems impossible to reconcile with any kind of national consensus. Many Catholics and the bulk of the clergy will cheer last Friday’s ruling, but where will the US as a society go from here?
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