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Pro-Choice Groups React to Pope's 'One-Time Only Offer' to Forgive Abortion

Papa Francis has announced that priests will be allowed to offer absolution to women who have had terminations—but with one time-related caveat.
Photo by Tomáš Mikula via Stocksy

Pope Francis announced on Tuesday that he would relax the rules on forgiveness for abortions. For one year only, all Catholic priests will have the power to absolve women with a "contrite heart" who have had the procedure done. But many pro-choice organisations—including religious groups—say that the Pope's offer of clemency does not go far enough.

But the Pope's change of heart comes with an expiry date. The change in law will only last for the duration of the incoming Jubilee Year, which begins on December 8, 2015 and lasts until November 26, 2016. The year-long religious jubilee allows for special mercies to be doled out to sinners.


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In a letter published by the Vatican, Francis described abortion as an "existential and moral ordeal" for women, saying that he had "met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision."

Prior to the announcement, women in many countries could only seek forgiveness from a bishop. According to Catholic teachings, abortion is viewed as such a grave sin that it can lead to automatic excommunication from the church.

So just how revolutionary is Papa Francis's latest move? Not very, according to several people that Broadly spoke to.

Jon O'Brien, the president of Catholics for Choice, points out that Catholics have abortions at the same rate as non-Catholics, and said that the pardon was more symbolically important than genuinely radical. "Here's a pope who is trying to be more pastoral," he said. "He's trying to bridge that great gulf between what people are doing and what the bishops say."

O'Brien downplayed the significance of the act, adding, "He's from Argentina, but Pope Francis is no Che Guevara. This isn't a revolution."

Catholic have abortions at the same rate as non-Catholics, according to Catholics for Choice. Julia Forsman via Stocksy

Alliance for Choice, a pro-choice group based in Northern Ireland, added that the news was unlikely to affect the lives of many younger Catholic women. "Catholic women in [north and south] Ireland, like their American sisters, have long since made decisions about their sexual and reproductive lives based on their own consciences, rather than anything the Pope says," spokesperson Goretti Horgan said.


"We don't expect any queues of women to confession either—indeed, confession has pretty much died out as a practice among under 40 year olds."

In a statement, the US-based organization Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice took a harsher view, blasting Francis' "occasional absolution" for women who have had abortions.

"Pope Francis's decision to refocus the church's energy towards mercy starts as a nice thought grounded in compassion, but quickly turns to more shame for women," said Reverend Harry Knox, the president and CEO of the organization.

"What a woman really needs from her clergy is someone ready and able to have deep pastoral conversations about her decision. The Pope should equip his priests with the tools to listen to a woman's story instead of offering occasional absolution."

The news has not been welcomed by some women who were brought up in the Church, either. Cathleen lives in Ireland, where abortion is illegal in all but the most extreme circumstances. The self-described 'former Catholic' has travelled to England to access abortion services. "Many women in Ireland—myself included—aren't looking for forgiveness from Pope Francis, we just want him to mind his own business," she said.

"That said, for many women—especially perhaps those who've had to terminate a wanted pregnancy (and who still have faith in God and the Catholic church), this is good thing, a compassionate gesture."

"But it's a one time-only offer, 'roll-up, roll-up, for one year only YOU can save your soul from eternal damnation.' What about the year after this one, when inevitably more women will make the decision to end a pregnancy? […] I know that in any society where women can become pregnant there will always be a need for abortion. Whether the Pope grants absolution or not."