A matter of faith?
By Howard Lisnoff
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Nov 30, 2009, 00:16

Few religious issues have engendered such controversy or national attention as Representative Patrick Kennedy�s (D-RI) stand in defending abortion rights within the debate over national health care. Thus far, however, federal funding of abortion under any health care �compromise� between the House and Senate is a nonissue, as inclusion of any federal funds for abortion was effectively halted when health care legislation was passed by the House. So, though significant, Representative Kennedy�s position, while noble, is academic.

The issue of Kennedy�s stand on abortion began when he received a letter from Rhode Island�s Catholic Bishop, Thomas J. Tobin, in 2007 that requested Kennedy not receive Communion when attending Mass (Karen Lee Ziner, �Providence Bishop Tobin says Kennedy �erratic��but he�s not referring to mental-health issues,� The Providence Journal, November 24, 2009). The issue surfaced again during the health care debate in Congress when Kennedy publically stated, �How the Catholic Church could be against the biggest social justice issue of our time.� (Ian Urbina, �Kennedy Discouraged From Communion by Bishop,� The New York Times, November 22, 2009). Kennedy added that his stance was fanning the �flames of dissent and discord.� (The New York Times, November 22, 2009).

The issue of Kennedy�s personal and political beliefs about abortion took a bizarre twist when Rhode Island�s governor, Donald Carcieri, entered the fray. Carcieri, an ultraconservative Republican, stated that Kennedy was making �outrageous statements about the Catholic Church� according to The Providence Journal (Katherine Gregg, �R.I. governor sides with bishop, says Kennedy�s remarks �outrageous,�� November 26, 2009). Prior to the governor�s condemnation of Kennedy, Bishop Tobin accused Kennedy of exhibiting �increasingly erratic and unpredictable behavior� (The Providence Journal, November 24, 2009).

The public attacks against Representative Kennedy have all the earmarks of how ultraconservative religious and public figures in the U.S. viciously attack someone with whom they disagree over issues that challenge their faith. These attacks by the far right are always cast within extreme ideological positions. In Kennedy�s case, the attacks surpass vitriol as the congressman has sought professional help for both mental health and substance abuse issues in the past and has publically acknowledged these personal problems. Particularly disingenuous and hurtful to Kennedy is the fact that the Catholic Bishop of Rhode Island has sought to attack Kennedy�s public stance on abortion by making reference to these personal problems that any religion must consider as being solely within the purview of private interaction between a religious figure and a member of his faith.

From my understanding of Roman Catholicism, a relationship between a parishioner and any official of the church is sacrosanct and deserving of the most jealously guarded constraints of privacy. Indeed, Catholic priests have been forced by courts in the U.S. to provide information about a suspected wrongdoer only under duress. It seems, however, that the bishop of Rhode Island follows none of these dictates and has been more than ready to make political grist out of the statements and position of one of the church�s followers.

I know something about the Catholic Church�s reactions and actions regarding the right to reproductive freedom that women in the U.S. won by way of the U.S. Supreme Court�s decision in Roe v. Wade (1973). In particular, I am well aware of how the church treats those who seek to have abortions in Rhode Island, as I was an escort at women�s reproductive clinics in Rhode Island for over a decade.

One women�s clinic where I volunteered was located a block away from a Catholic church in Providence. As I gained experience dealing with anti-abortionists while I escorted women (and those who accompanied them) seeking treatment at this facility, I witnessed the extreme animosity that these �protesters� met people with at this clinic. Hollering and accosting women as they walked to the clinic doors was only part of the treatment that anti-abortionists exhibited. Shrieking prayers and huge, poster-size pictures of supposedly aborted fetuses lined the fence that separated the sidewalk from the property of the clinic. Priests were a regular part of a larger demonstration that took place monthly at the clinic when the numbers of protesters swelled to well over a hundred.

At another clinic, across the city, where I had escorted less frequently years earlier, escorts were attacked during the frenzy that marked the anti-abortion movement in the early 1990s. In one case, escorts were able to keep the clinic from being breached by anti-abortionists, including a priest, until police arrived. I wonder how the Bishop Tobin would characterize those actions by anti-abortionists? Perhaps classifying them as both �erratic and unpredictable� would be an understatement?

Attacks against the rights of women to reproductive health, including the right to abortion, are particularly prevalent among the right wing and especially by the legions of members of organized religion. Historically, it has been the objective of most major religions to force women into subservience. In their right-wing denominations, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all seek to maintain this subservient role of women. Also, within that role, women�s sexuality is a target of that same control. Elaborate myths are constructed that place women in the role of serving men in each of these branches of the world�s major religions (Eastern religions are also no exception to these �traditions�). The rights of the fetus are held above the right of the living to a full and secure life.

Conveniently, long ago forgotten, among the religious on the right, is the separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment. So when religious leaders such as Bishop Tobin issue vicious responses to challenges to the church�s anti-abortion stand, it should come as no surprise that these attacks violate the most sacred trust that is at the heart of any religious tradition: the sanctity of an individual�s beliefs. On a most personal level, it seems that Representative Kennedy�s recent loss of his father, Ted, the late senator from Massachusetts, is of no importance as a religious �leader� and politician attempt to demonize his valiant stand.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be reached through his website

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