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What Kate Michelman and Pope St. John Paul II Taught Me


AP Photo/Okello Dunkley

Susan E. Wills - published on 08/30/14 - updated on 06/07/17

The "only proper response to another human person is love." (John Paul II)

Kate Michelman retired in 2004 from a 19-year career as head of NARAL (formerly the National Abortion Rights Action League). Before that she was Executive Director of Planned Parenthood in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She devoted her very capable brain and very high energy to abortion advocacy for most of her adult life.

And I owe her an apology. I’m making it publicly because I’m guilty of having done the same stupid and uncharitable thing that used to drive me nuts when other pro-life people were doing it. I’ll get to that in a moment. 

Ms. Michelman has been very public about what motivated her to dedicate most of her working life to abortion advocacy. In 1969, she explains, her first husband walked out on her and their three daughters (all under age five). She suddenly had no income, no support, no car, and baby #4 on the way. She had to rely on food stamps to feed her children until she was able to get on her feet, and this embarrassed her greatly. Certainly, her situation was dire, one that could make any mother feel desperate.

For the record, I do not believe that the trauma of being abandoned and plunged into poverty justifies killing one’s unborn child any more than it could justify killing one of her already-born daughters.

And I wasn’t judgmental about her abortion—I’ve never judged women who’ve had abortions, for several reasons.

(1) There, but for the grace of God, go I.

(2) In an emotional crisis, high levels of stress-induced cortisol can overwhelm the ability to reason and make good decisions. A wonderful Project Rachel priest once told me that in his decades of counseling women, he’d met only one or two who chose abortion with a rational intent. (The rationalizations come later when the woman needs to justify the abortion to herself, to try to assuage her feelings of guilt and remorse.)

(3) The people on whom pregnant women ought to be able to rely for support through the pregnancy and beyond (husband, boyfriend, parents, aunts/uncles, older siblings) either decline to help—or the young woman is afraid to tell them—hoping to shield them from heartache, sometimes under pressure to be a role model for younger siblings, and sometimes to avoid parental anger and condemnation.

(4) Probably in a majority of cases, the father of the baby signals—through words, silence or a lack of enthusiasm—that he doesn’t want to take responsibility for the child, which is another way of telling her, “You are good enough for casual sex, but you are not worth spending my life with.” And, to be fair, many dads strongly oppose aborting their child and suffer immensely from abortion loss.   

However, the trauma of being abandoned and impoverished with three little girls to support wasn’t the reason Ms. Michelman identified for making abortion advocacy her career. Instead, she cites her humiliation in not being able to rid herself of the unwanted baby privately, as women got the “right” to do just 4 years later under Roe v. Wade. What galled her was being required—in order to qualify for a “therapeutic” abortion—to seek the approval of a hospital board (consisting of four male MDs) who asked intrusive questions, and then having to obtain her estranged husband’s written consent for the procedure.

Some have questioned the veracity of this story because there was no such thing as a “therapeutic” abortion under Pennsylvania law in 1969. In the 1960s and right up until the Roe decision in 1973, doctors were criminally prosecuted in Pennsylvania for performing abortions.

But her critics overlook the proximity of Pennsylvania to New York where women were able to obtain “therapeutic” abortions before that state liberalized its abortion law in 1970. For a time some NY doctors were interpreting “therapeutic” fairly loosely (as in, does she have enough money to make it worthwhile). By the 1960s, hospitals were wary of criminal prosecution and lawsuits, so they instituted review boards to determine if the abortion-minded woman was suicidal. Only if they could establish that, would she have been allowed to undergo a “legal” abortion and they avoid criminal prosecution. They may likely have sought her husband’s written consent to protect themselves from a civil lawsuit. So much for the the Hippocratic oath.  

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AbortionPlanned Parenthood
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