Aborting the Church: Frances Kissling and Catholics for a Free Choice

The media love Frances Kissling. It’s hard to blame them, really, given their general political agenda: Kissling wants abortion to remain legal, with no restrictions. She wants to boot the Vatican from the United Nations (UN). She wants bishops to tell Catholics it’s okay to use condoms—even to distribute them. She wants RU-486, the abortion pill, to be cheaper. She wants Catholic hospitals to perform the whole gamut of “reproductive services,” including abortion and sterilization. She wants “gender equity,” even in the Roman Catholic priesthood.

And she’s Catholic. Perfect.

Frances Kissling is president of the 29-year-old Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC), an independent “Catholic” group with a solid funding base and perhaps all you really need to make an impact—a major media presence. CFFC’s purpose is to promote abortion, “reproductive health,” and gender equality, in line with what the CFFC calls a “social justice tradition.”

The problem with this scheme should be obvious. In fact, the U.S. Catholic bishops have thought it important enough to point out. In a statement issued in May 2000 by the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Galveston-Houston Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza, the bishops weighed in on the status of CFFC.

“For a number of years,” Bishop Fiorenza’s statement reads, “a group calling itself Catholics for a Free Choice (CFFC) has been publicly supporting abortion while claiming it speaks as an authentic Catholic voice. That claim is false. In fact, the group’s activity is directed to rejection and distortion of Catholic teaching about the respect and protection due to defenseless unborn human life.”

CFFC, the statement continues, is “an arm of the abortion lobby in the United States and throughout the world,” funded by wealthy private foundations seeking to “promote abortion as a method of population control.” The bishops made a similar statement in 1993.

But Frances Kissling thinks differently. She has insisted time and again that she’s a Catholic in good standing. She’s even gone so far as to publicly challenge any cleric to excommunicate her. “Since no bishop or pope—and I am reasonably sure that these authorities know who I am and what I believe—has chosen either to pronounce me excommunicated or declare that I have automatically excommunicated myself, I am confident that I remain in good standing with the Church,” she wrote in 1999.

See Change

The 2000 bishops’ statement was released at the height of CFFC’s most successful campaign ever in terms of media attention. Operation See Change is a project aimed at getting the UN to revoke the Vatican’s current status as a Non-Member State Permanent Observer. (The Vatican voluntarily chose not to be a full member so it wouldn’t have to contribute money or take sides in times of war.) “We believe that the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic Church, should participate in the UN in the same way as the world’s other religions do—as a non-governmental organization,” declares the mission statement of Operation See Change.

“Call it the Holy See, the Vatican, or the Roman Catholic Church, it’s a religion, not a country,” CFFC says on its See Change Web site at www.seechange.org. The site features slogans like “Keep the UN Safe for Women. End Vatican Statehood” and “Warning: Vatican Statehood is dangerous to women’s health.” A favorite line of Kissling’s is that if the Vatican deserves a say at the UN, so does Euro-Disney.

CFFC and its See Change supporters argue that because the Vatican is not a state, it should not be treated as one in the UN. Consider, however, this odd remark from Kissling in a 1989 interview with Mother Jones magazine: “I spent twenty years looking for a government that I could overthrow without being thrown in jail. I finally found one in the Catholic Church.”

The Vatican, of course, is a state in its own right. To downgrade its status would be to give it the same status as, say, the Girl Scouts. The UN never responded to the CFFC campaign, although every abortion group you can think of jumped on the bandwagon, staging protests and other events tailor-made for TV news cameras. But in the end, no member state would support the campaign, which is necessary for the Vatican’s status to be reviewed by the UN. On the other hand, a pro-life counter campaign garnered more support in less time.

The See Change campaign should have been a huge embarrassment for CFFC. But for the media and the abortion industry, CFFC is a great asset. There’s no cutting it off just yet.

The Real CFFC

In 1980, Frances Kissling left her post as founder and head of the National Abortion Federation (the trade association for abortion clinics) to take the helm of CFFC, which was founded in 1973—the year Roe v. Wade was decided.

“It is amazing what money can buy,” Gail Quinn, executive director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the USCCB, wrote recently in an editorial on CFFC. “Kissling takes out ads in major newspapers, puts out lots of press releases, calls reporters, hangs out with like-minded folks who get in the news, publishes lots of stuff, and travels around so that she can seem to be everywhere.” (Well, almost everywhere. Kissling declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.)

Among the most obvious problems with CFFC—other than its advocacy of abortion and other aspects of the culture of death—is the group’s donor list. As Thomas Woods points out in a recently released monograph on CFFC for the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), CFFC’s pro-life nemesis at the UN, “CFFC, which portrays itself as a champion of the dignity of women, has twice accepted grants from Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Foundation.” (Kissling has insisted, however, that she’d never accept money from Larry Flynt and Hustler magazine, noting that “there are boundaries of good taste.”)

But this only scratches the surface. Brian Cowles details the organization’s funding base in his new book, Catholics for a Free Choice Exposed, from Human Life International. Some of the names are familiar: The Turner Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Philanthropy magazine noted that CFFC’s donors give very little support to any other Catholic organizations: “One looks in vain at these organizations’ program areas for evidence of meaningful support of parochial schools, retired nuns, Catholic missions, religious vocations work, or parish ministry—the areas that are the meat and potatoes of Catholic philanthropy today.”

You don’t have to rely on the testimony of pro-lifers to make the point. The former president of CFFC, Joseph O’Rourke, an ex-Jesuit, admitted in a 1984 interview with the National Catholic Register that “CFFC really was just kept alive for years because the mainline pro-choice movement wanted a Catholic vote.”

On its Web site (www.cath4choice.org), CFFC offers several fawning media quotes about Frances Kissling. One is from columnist Ellen Goodman, who called Kissling the “philosopher of the pro-choice movement.” This seems to have charmed the big names—the Planned Parenthoods and NARALs—into making the pro-choice “ex-nun” (as she is often erroneously labeled) their spokesman. Because of her background, she can get away with saying things they can’t.

As for its member base, there is none. Critics routinely refer to Kissling and CFFC as “Frances Kissling and her fax machine.” Or, as others have dubbed CFFC, “a well-funded letterhead.”

Although her organization has no actual membership, Kissling claims to represent American Catholics, arguing that Catholics are overwhelmingly “pro-choice” (she says about 70 percent). What she doesn’t tell you is that most Catholics do not support CFFC’s position—any abortion, anytime, no restrictions. Catholics, admittedly, are little better than the rest of the nation when it comes to the issue of abortion—split 50-50 according to most polls. But, again like most Americans, they are increasingly supportive of restrictions. And polls suggest that the majority of practicing Catholics are firmly against abortion. In any case, most Catholics, like most Americans, do not support the CFFC line.

Why Catholic?

The obvious question for Kissling and CFFC is, Why do they remain Catholic?

Their answer is simple: Why not? Kissling insists she wants to reform the Church. She contends that there’s no Catholic position on abortion—and she insists she can use the Bible to prove it. Such claims have won her a wide following in the abortion lobby. Ron Fitzsimmons, executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers, says, “Frances Kissling is a refreshing, untiring, articulate advocate. She and her organization have a unique niche in that a large percentage of the women in the country who obtain abortions are Catholic. She has always been an inspiration to me.”

But Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver has a different view. “[CFFC] gets far more public attention than its numbers deserve. That’s not a surprise, though, because Catholics for a Free Choice serves a very useful purpose in the larger information war over abortion. The Catholic Church has always been the single most consistent proponent of life and opponent of abortion in American culture. So if you’re ‘pro-choice’, breaking its credibility becomes a serious priority. That’s the value of Catholics for a Free Choice. It’s a tool to use against the Catholic Church. Nothing more.”

When it comes to sexual ethics, Kissling told the sex magazine Nerve, “People already do what they feel is right, so in a sense there would be little change in behavior. We are Catholics, and we use contraception, we have abortions, we get AIDS and we need help. The Church is not listening, and it’s not even a case of benign neglect. This is a case where we need a Church that speaks out to prevent these tragedies, and currently the Church contributes to them.”

CFFC peddles its own take on Catholic teachings. Besides its claim that the Church has no single voice when it comes to abortion, it rests most of its erroneous arguments on a false concept of “conscience,” (Conscience is even the name of its flagship quarterly magazine.) CFFC claims “Catholic theology tells individuals to follow their own consciences on moral matters, even when one’s conscience is in conflict with church teachings.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church, of course, has a far different take on conscience, warning that a “mistaken notion of autonomy of conscience could lead to erroneous conscience-guided judgments.”

As much as she lobbies and agitates, though, Kissling doesn’t really think the Church will change soon. “We have no expectations that we will be welcomed with open arms. We are not looking for an invitation to sit at the bishops’ dinner table.”

Aborting the Church

Dorothy A. Petke, who is a supporter of CFFC and a member of the “progressive Catholic” group Call to Action, explains how a Catholic can be pro-choice (do not dare say “pro-abortion” around these folks): “I planned a bumper sticker for the last election campaign to say ‘Vote for Free Choice, Then Choose Life,’ which is how I think many free-choice types feel about it. We don’t like abortion any more than anyone else, but we also don’t like anybody not in our shoes telling us what we have to do with our bodies.”

Rosemary Stanek, president of California Catholics for Free Choice, says of the national organization to which she isn’t in any formal way attached, “CFFC is not ‘pro-abortion.’ We are dedicated to preserving women’s ability to make the decision that is the most moral for them—abortion, raising the child, or adoption. Abortion must be legal, however, for women to be able to freely make the decision that their conscience leads them to.”

In a letter to Newsday last year, Kissling herself wrote:

Pro-choice is not pro-abortion. Pro-choice people have many different beliefs about the morality of abortion. For some it is almost never morally justified; for others it is often justified. What they agree on is that each woman must weigh her beliefs and circumstances without interference by the state and make her own decision.

Majorie Reiley Maguire, who wrote some of CFFC’s founding propaganda material with her then-husband, ex-Jesuit Daniel McGuire, says today that CFFC is anti-Catholic and anti-woman—and pro-abortion, regardless of the CFFC spin. In a letter to the National Catholic Reporter in 1995, she wrote:

Various personal experiences with CFFC have led me to believe that its agenda is no longer simply to defend the legality of a woman’s abortion choice against efforts to recriminalize that choice. Instead, I now see CFFC’s agenda as the promotion of abortion, the defense of every abortion decision as a good, moral choice, and the related agenda of persuading society to cast off any moral constraints about sexual behavior. I don’t think this is a Catholic or pro-woman agenda whether you are liberal or conservative, pro-life or pro-choice.

Understanding Kissling

Frances Kissling is no lightweight. She’s a sharp, media-savvy woman whose insider knowledge of the Catholic Church makes her indispensable to abortion-advocacy groups and the media. In an interview with Merge magazine, an Internet publication, Kissling said, “For most of my adult life, I felt the church wasn’t particularly relevant to me.” Talking about her return to the Church in CFFC’s magazine, Kissling admitted, “I never came back on the old terms.” It is as “a social change agent” that she is today a “Catholic”—a Catholic, she has said, who doesn’t pray.

In the Nerve article discussing sex and religion, Kissling gave readers a brief glimpse of her life:

I grew up a working class Catholic with an intellectual and spiritual life from childhood. My mother was divorced and remarried so early on I separated church teachings which considered my mother an adulteress from reality—I knew my mother was not going to hell for having sex with her second husband. I never thought much about church teachings on sexuality. I entered the convent at the age of nineteen and left at the age of twenty and had little sexual experience—no intercourse for sure—prior to that. My sexual life has been shaped far more by my sexual desires, needs and partners than by religion. It has a spiritual dimension, but not a religious one. I really think God cares very little about the sexual rules, about who is sleeping with whom, other than to wish that we treat each other well and with respect.

Some time after leaving the convent, she had herself sterilized. “For me to be pregnant would be an enormous violation of my personal integrity.”In 1970, Kissling operated an abortion clinic in New York, one of two states that at the time allowed abortion. She told the Washington Post Magazine in a 1986 interview that the center performed about 30 to 40 abortions on any weekday, 70 to 80 on a Saturday. Today, Kissling serves on the board of the militantly pro-abortion Alan Guttmacher Institute.

For someone who exerts so much time and energy trying to change the Church, Kissling doesn’t seem to like it very much. Whatever she has said in response to official Church reprimands, she speaks quite differently to others. At a roundtable discussion at the UN sponsored by CFFC in March 1999, she said:

Sometimes what I say to myself is that those of us who are Roman Catholic feminists, who work to change this institution, are actually providing it with the safety valve to continue to be an oppressive, patriarchal, evil institution. As for the people who come and tell me, “I’m so glad you’re doing this, because you make it possible for me to be a Catholic,” I say to myself, “Maybe I shouldn’t be making it possible for anyone.” Because this institution is fatally flawed, and I might have more success in the Episcopalian church, where it’s not quite so bad, but there are so few Episcopalians, it’s not worth it.

This from the woman who claims to be “motivated by a love of the church and a commitment to a vision of church that respects the conscience of every individual.”

Kissling wants to be part of the Catholic Church, she says, no matter how much it “embarrasses” her. It’s partly a power thing, she explained to Merge:

My experience with Catholics, myself included, is that people have a lot of love and pride in the Roman Catholic Church and that people want to make it a better church. They don’t want to leave it. There’s also a power dynamic—it’s a powerful church. And we want to be a part of it. Even though the church embarrasses you, there is still a way in which you like being associated with it. For some, it’s the intellectual tradition, the liberation theology movement, the way the church works with the poor—there’s a lot going against dissident Catholics forming another church. In a certain sense the church, in many ways, is powerless to prevent Catholics from staying in the church and doing what they think is right. The church has not gone out of its way to excommunicate women who have abortions, doctors who perform abortions, politicians who have a pro-choice stance—are they going to excommunicate Daniel Moynihan, Ted Kennedy, etc.? So it’s quite possible to stay within the church and hold different views.

Kissling has a vision of what the Church will be like 40 or 50 years from now. In her interview with Merge, she explained that women’s ordinations would likely take that long:

I do think that it will be much longer in coming; perhaps forty or fifty years. First we need the married guys; then we need to get the sex stuff taken care of—then maybe there will be women priests. I hope that by the time the church is ready to ordain women priests, that we would have overturned the priesthood—that we would have a more egalitarian church. A church in which we were not talking about who is the priest, not talking about a permanent, elitist priesthood—but a more democratic model of church leadership.

Blaming the Bishops

Some point to CFFC’s most recent ad campaign and wonder where the organization is headed. On last year’s World AIDS Day (December 1), CFFC unveiled ads at 50 bus shelters and in 134 Metrorail cars in Washington, D.C. The ads read, “Because the bishops ban condoms, innocent people die,” and “Catholic people care. Do our bishops? Banning Condoms Kills.” At the start of the new year, CFFC debuted similar ads in Belgium, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Bolivia, Chile, Mexico, and other countries.

In a press release, Kissling explained her campaign: “The Vatican and the world’s bishops bear significant responsibility for the death of thousands of people who have died from AIDS. For individuals who follow the Vatican policy and Catholic health care providers who are forced to deny condoms, the bishops’ ban is a disaster. We can no longer stand by and allow the ban to go unchallenged.”

Since then, she has been making the television rounds—including a lively debate with Catholic League president William Donahue on CNN’s Crossfire. Kissling won’t give credit to the Church for providing health care in Africa and other parts of the world hit especially hard by the AIDS epidemic. And yet, according to the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., Catholic organizations provide 25 percent of all HIV/AIDS care worldwide, making the Church the largest provider of this type of care. Kissling blames the Church for not amending its teachings to conform to the behavior of promiscuous people. But, as Donahue said on Crossfire, “There’s not a single person in the history of the world…who has ever died as a result of a sexually transmitted disease because they followed Catholic teaching.”

Austin Ruse, president of C-FAM, a longtime observer of CFFC and Kissling, notes that this “new assault on the Church will have absolutely no impact on Church teaching related to contraception. Most Catholics have never heard of her or her group or her campaign. She is known and supported by a very small number of pro-abortion zealots and a few fellow travelers in the media. Her impact and the impact of her group are miniscule.”

While most of CFFC’s projects involve short-lived media buzz, like passing out condoms at World Youth Day, Kissling can—and has—done significant damage in very focused ways. For instance, she managed to wage an ultimately successful scare campaign against pro-life Catholic John Klink, rumored to have been the president’s choice for the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration last summer.

Kissling’s most important work—particularly in the eyes of her real backers, the abortion lobby—may be yet to come. Morley Safer described that work on 60 Minutes as a “crusade to keep Catholic doctrine out of medicine.” Bills are pending in several states to force some and eventually all of the United States’s 620 Catholic hospitals to provide services forbidden by the Church. It’s an area where the “women’s groups” and abortion advocates may need her the most.

The bishops’ recently updated “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services” requires that Catholic health-care organizations not “engage in immediate material cooperation in actions that are intrinsically evil, such as abortion, euthanasia, and direct sterilization.”

Pro-choice groups would like to see an end to mergers involving Catholic hospitals until those hospitals can be forced to undertake procedures that violate Church teaching. The National Women’s Law Center, a pro-abortion legal group, recently released a briefing paper on hospital mergers and “the threat to women’s reproductive health services.” Among the groups responsible for funding the booklet were the Ford Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the Turner Foundation, and the Open Society Institute—all backers of CFFC. The paper is a how-to guide for enlisting state attorneys general in the effort to thwart Catholic health care.

It’s possible, and probably likely, that CFFC will be around for a while, popping up now and again with media blitzes and in New York Times articles, where it is regularly featured as the voice of dissident American Catholics. Archbishop Chaput concludes, “For me, CFFC has always been a poster child for the wrong kind of assimilation. It’s much more ‘American’ than it is Catholic. Scripture tells us to be a leaven in society and a light to the nations. CFFC is what you get when you’re not.”

Kathryn Jean Lopez

By

Kathryn Jean Lopez is the former editor and current editor-at-large of the daily webzine, National Review Online, where she has written and edited for more than a decade. Lopez is a graduate of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., where she studied philosophy and politics. She has been a fellow at the Claremont Institute and serves on the Archdiocese of New York’s Pro-Life Commission.

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