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6 out of 10 Catholics support abortion rights despite church's stance, study shows


One of the big battleground states over reproductive rights is Missouri, where abortion is almost entirely illegal. One group that has recently given a significant amount of money to keep it illegal there is Catholic bishops. A recent study shows many parishioners don't agree with their church's leadership on the issue. Six out of 10 Catholics support abortion rights. Reporter Katia Riddle went to Missouri to talk to some of them about how they reconcile their politics with their faith.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: Missouri is a place forged in Catholicism. Hundreds of years ago, French Canadian settlers took the land from the Native people living there, like the Osage tribe. The settlers then claimed the land for the French crown and named the town of St. Louis after a Roman Catholic king. Today, Missouri is replete with Catholic churches, iconography and people like Sister Barbara.

SISTER BARBARA: I certainly did not intend to, you know, become a sister or a nun.

RIDDLE: She's standing outside her modest apartment, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. She grew up Catholic but wasn't all that religious. In her 20s, she describes a kind of love affair she fell into with Catholicism.

SISTER BARBARA: An emphasis on serving the poor and getting involved in just, you know, the social justice issues of the day. And that was a whole new idea for me about what religious life was really about.

RIDDLE: That was 50 years ago. She says she's still happy with her choice to dedicate her life to the church, though she does think about how things could have been.

SISTER BARBARA: I can see myself living other kinds of lives. I probably would have had - be right now having had five kids and a bunch of grandkids, and I wouldn't mind that. I really wouldn't.

RIDDLE: NPR is not using Sister Barbara's last name. She fears retribution from her local archdiocese for publicly expressing her beliefs on reproductive rights. She doesn't agree with the church's position that abortion is a sin and should be illegal.

SISTER BARBARA: I just don't see it in just real absolute terms.

RIDDLE: She says she wouldn't personally choose to end a pregnancy.

SISTER BARBARA: However, I have not been in the situation of a person who has - had suffered from incest or rape or all of those things.

RIDDLE: The Bible, she points out, does not say anything explicit about abortion. She fell in love with Catholicism for its practice around compassion and service, not politics.

SISTER BARBARA: I want to put a sticker on the car that says, don't like abortion? Don't have one.

RIDDLE: That's why she's supporting an effort in Missouri to enshrine abortion rights in the state's Constitution. Several other nuns interviewed for this story said they feel the same. One was even collecting signatures to put the measure on the November ballot, though she didn't want to talk about it on the record. And then there's 81-year-old Alice Kitchen. She used to be a nun.

ALICE KITCHEN: I think the turning point for me was recognizing that the church I belonged to doesn't recognize women.

RIDDLE: Kitchen no longer considers herself Catholic, but she's still friends with a lot of them, including many nuns. She's also an activist. On this day, Kitchen's gathering signatures in a Costco parking lot in Kansas City, Mo. She wears a sandwich board that says, end the abortion ban.

KITCHEN: Hi. Have you had a chance to sign the petition that allows women to have decisions about their own reproductive lives?


RIDDLE: One of the people in the Costco parking lot is Marilyn Richardson. She's a retired reproductive endocrinologist. She's also Catholic. She says the institutional church leadership is in territory where it doesn't belong.

RICHARDSON: The church hasn't really studied these issues. They have no idea what they're doing.

RIDDLE: Why stay with the Catholic Church, then, given their opposition?

RICHARDSON: Well, I'm with the Catholic Church because I've been there all my life, and the church has been opposed to a lot of things that I've gone for. They're also opposed to contraception.

RIDDLE: Just 8% of Catholics see contraception as morally wrong, according to a Pew research study. Richardson says she doesn't talk to church leaders about their stance on reproductive rights, even though she disagrees. Some Catholics who have spoken out say they have been ostracized for it.

INGRID BURNETT: I loved my church.

RIDDLE: Like Ingrid Burnett.

BURNETT: I would like to go back. Iwould - I miss that. I really - I miss the ritual.

RIDDLE: Burnett is an elected official, a Democratic state representative. On this day, she's sitting in her office at Missouri's Capitol in Jefferson City - or, as the locals call it, Jeff City. For years, Burnett attended church, but she says when she made public her support for progressive issues like reproductive rights, she was publicly chastised at her congregation during Mass.

BURNETT: When the prayers became about praying that politicians would do certain things, it was pretty clear to me that it was aimed at me. I thought it was very alienating, and I felt hurt.

RIDDLE: One floor up from Burnett's office, Sam Lee is making the rounds. He's a deacon with the Catholic Church and head of an anti-abortion group called Missouri Stands With Women. They oppose the ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state's Constitution. Lee's here urging lawmakers to defund Planned Parenthood. A bill to do just that passed a few weeks after.

SAM LEE: Catholics aren't that much different than anybody else, and they're subject to all the influences that are in the culture.

RIDDLE: Lee says he's not surprised that many Catholics support abortion access. Some reproductive rights advocates say church leadership is scared of this diversity of opinion among its followers, but Lee disagrees.

LEE: Could you say the Catholic Church is under attack or the church's beliefs are under attack or their institutions are? Sure, but that doesn't mean that the Catholic Church is scared. I mean, scared people tend to run away. The Catholic Church is not running away from this fight.

RIDDLE: Another group that's not running away from this fight - today's youngest generation of adults. Polls show they support abortion rights more than their parents do, like Mary Helen Schaefer. She's a student at Saint Louis University. It's a Jesuit school. She's standing on campus while others rush to class. Like many here, she describes a pluralistic vision of Catholicism.

MARY HELEN SCHAEFER: And I think that my generation in general is a little bit more exploratory, I think, when it comes to religion and faith, and they're more open.

RIDDLE: Schaefer has a brother who's a seminarian. Her father is becoming a deacon. Her own feelings on abortion changed after someone close to her needed one.

SCHAEFER: And that is personally, like, what changed my belief, kind of, is that, you know, it happened to someone personal in my life and that I, like - you know, that I love so much.

RIDDLE: But it hasn't rocked her faith or her commitment to the church. Schaefer says, for her and her peers, Catholicism is much bigger than the fight over abortion.

SCHAEFER: I think right now, younger people tend to feel alone, and, like, sometimes faith or, like, communities like that can help when feeling, like, less alone or feeling like there's a purpose to something.

RIDDLE: Giving purpose to future generations of Catholics - Sister Barbara believes the church will keep doing that.

SISTER BARBARA: I think that the Catholic Church would not be here today if they didn't have a remarkable ability to turn corners when it's necessary - when things are about to collapse for it.

RIDDLE: After all, she points out, Catholicism has been around for centuries. She's hoping this abortion debate is a relatively brief distraction from what she sees as the faith's fundamental aspirations.

SISTER BARBARA: Reaching for some kind of ideals in the way we love and live with each other, with one another.

RIDDLE: For Sister Barbara, one of those ideals would be for church leadership to value what a majority of Catholics believe.

For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Missouri.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLYING LOTUS' "FF4" ) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Katia Riddle
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