Column: How a grisly film in catechism class led me to support abortion rights

In the spring of 1997, my sister and I attended catechism classes at our home church, St. Boniface Catholic Church in Anaheim.

Once a week we would meet with about 20 other teenagers in the basement of the huge church to hear lectures on morality, Catholic principles, and how to shape our coming adulthood in the ways of Jesus Christ.

I learned the evils of the Armenian Genocide, the importance of always telling the truth. And one afternoon the subject was abortion.

Our instructors emphasized that the procedure is a moral sin that is unacceptable under any circumstances – even in the case of rape, incest or to protect the mother’s health. They preached that the sanctity of life is something we Catholics must uphold at all times.

Then the light dimmed. We wanted to see a movie.

The documentary began with a close-up of a woman’s vagina with her legs strapped into stirrups. Her face could not be seen, nor the face of the doctor, whose hands came into the frame with a pair of tweezers and a cutting tool as he inserted them into the woman’s uterus.

Blood poured out like a river. The doctor scratched and pulled and stabbed. Eventually a dead fetus tumbled out. Rolled intro. The church cellar was silent.

This was my introduction to the abortion debate.

The documentation lasted at least half an hour. There was no narration, no context – just clip after clip of graphic footage eventually ending with a dismembered fetus, the camera cutting closer and closer until everyone was staring at his lifeless face. By this point, most of my classmates were in tears.

I was mad.

I grew up thinking abortion was immoral, that anyone who had one would burn in hell. But I immediately saw the film for what it was: propaganda.

Our elders had taught us other moral subjects, but abortion was what they struggled most for, the only subject that required a full class and film.

There was no debate, no nuance. The teachers just wanted to shock us into being complacent so that we would hate abortion and its practitioners forever. But it didn’t work for me.

I still remember the short film and my ensuing anger all these decades later. I think of this especially after the US Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade and constitutional protections for abortion.

Four of the majority justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Amy Coney Barrett, and Brett M. Kavanaugh — are Catholic, while Neil Gorsuch was raised in the faith. Sonia Sotomayor, a Catholic, voted with the court’s other two Liberals to keep Roe vs. Wade.

The court’s remaining Catholic, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., wrote a unanimous opinion, upholding Mississippi’s abortion ban in question but lamenting Roe’s ouster as “a serious shock to the legal system.”

It is the Majority Judges whose pro-abortion religious activists will blame and hailed anti-abortionists as their moral compass.

For a devout Catholic, there is no escaping what our Church teaches about abortion. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Vatican’s official doctrine, calls for the excommunication of all who have one, as it asserts that life begins at conception. Pope Francis, whom many conservative Catholics loathe for his alleged left-leaning leanings, allows priests to forgive anyone who has received an abortion but still calls it “murder” and condemns it as part of a “throwaway culture” plaguing the modern world .

Archbishop of Los Angeles Jose H. Gomez, in his role as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, co-authored a statement praising the downfall of Roe vs. Wade and anti-abortion advocates for “their work for the cause of life.” applauded [that] reflects all that is good in our democracy.”

And yet so much of what has passed as Catholicism in the United States since the days of my catechism reflects the very throwaway culture that Pope Francis deplores.

The protester holds a sign that reads "Thank god for the abortion"

Hundreds demonstrate for abortion rights in downtown Los Angeles on May 3.

(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

As a novice reporter in the 2000s whose first big news item was the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, I sighed at how quickly bishops dismissed reports of people being molested by priests, despite secret church records proving that the abuse was linked to full knowledge happened church leaders. I winced when lay Catholics dismissed these victims as greedy liars.

I gagged as professing Catholic politicians protested against abortion but fully supported the death penalty, which Catholic teaching says is “inadmissible” in all cases. I rolled my eyes as bishops in the United States, including Gomez, blasted the “wake” culture and threatened to pro-choice Catholic politicians like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and President Biden who support abortion rights refusing communion, even though bishops are doing next to nothing to combat other life-destroying societal ills like racism and poverty.

And I’ve wondered how things would have been different if conservative Catholics and other Christians hadn’t been so obsessed with Roe vs. Wade for the last 49 years.

I still consider myself Catholic, even though I only go to mass at funerals these days. Abortion is a tragedy on many levels, yet too many people focus only on the procedure and not on the person undergoing it. That is why I support anyone who is having an abortion because it is not my choice to force it on them and it is a personal choice that they should make without fear for their freedom.

Also, when it comes to condemning evil, Jesus Christ spoke out more against rich people, hypocrites, and xenophobia than he did against abortion (hint: never).

I wonder how much better American society would be if my catechism teachers had devoted that gruesome afternoon to other subjects so long ago. When anti-abortion activists showed films and distributed literature about lynchings, about the tragedy of migrants dying trying to cross the US-Mexico border. About children picking grain in the San Joaquin Valley or stuck in abusive homes, about mothers raising their children alone.

However, that will never happen, as it is much easier to fight for the unborn than to defend the living. Column: How a grisly film in catechism class led me to support abortion rights

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