Chaplain Posits Religion’s Role in Abortion Debate

Treating abortion as an “us versus them” debate ignores social problems and prevents progress, University Ministry Chaplain Jacqueline L. Landry told a group of undergraduates last night.

Students from the Radcliffe Union of Students (RUS) and women from the Catholic Students Association (CSA) gathered to hear Landry’s ideas about the role of religion, and particularly her own Catholic faith, in debates over abortion and other women’s issues.

Landry, who advises both groups, emphasized what she called “the grey areas” in discussions about abortion and said that groups need to work to change a society that is oppressive to women, focusing on decisions men and women make before the issue of an abortion even arises.

“The debate today has become too definied in terms of polarity,” Landry said. “No dialogue happens between either side; both are often made to look like idiots.”

In a discussion that lasted an hour and a half, she described the knowledge and perspective she gained working as a chaplain in maternity wards and prisons, counseling sexual violence victims and working with prostitutes.

RUS advertised the meeting as a discussion of the meaning of “being religious and pro-choice,” but Landry also said she wanted to “leave room for being a feminist and pro-life.”

For the most part, the event participants stayed away from making vocal judgments about the morality of abortion.

However, RUS officers circulated a sheet asking for volunteers to escort at abortion clinics.

The event was advertised on e-mail lists for both the Harvard Students for Choice group and the Church Ladies group, a subset of the CSA that deals with women’s interests.

Landry stressed that it is important for religious groups to address society’s treatment of women when they weigh in on abortion.

“You have to critique the cultural oppression of women before you can really debate abortion,” she said.

In responding to a question about how the Catholic Church could better support its female adherents, she said that “being outspoken in issues that oppress women would buy the Christian community a lot of viability in other issues.”

Landry lamented the Religious Right’s politicizing of the abortion issue, without disputing the Catechism that says life begins at conception.

“Catholics believe that the sanctity of life is from womb to tomb,” Landry said. “But you rarely hear that philosophy on issues other than abortion, such as the death penalty.”

She urged students not to assume that most Christians align themselves with the American Religious Right, saying that to do so was unfair to Christian feminists.

Landry passed around a list of Jewish and Christian groups in the country that support varying degrees of legal abortion, from groups that support it only in cases of rape or danger to a mother’s life, to groups that support it regardless of circumstances.