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For many Missouri Catholics, abortion rights means choosing between faith, politics

Anti-abortion activists hold rosaries and pray outside a clinic that provides abortion services.
/ Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images
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Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images
Anti-abortion activists hold rosaries and pray outside a clinic that provides abortion services.

"Nun" was pretty low on the list of Sister Barbara's early career options.

"I certainly did not intend to become a sister," she says recently, standing outside her modest Missouri apartment in jeans and a sweatshirt. She grew up Catholic but didn't think much about it.

Then in her early 20s, she fell into a kind of love affair with Catholicism. With its emphasis on serving the poor and the social justice issues of the day, Sister Barbara says, the faith broadened her mind "and was a whole new idea for me about what religious life was really about."

But those ideals that drew her in, she says, are no longer in line with the directives she sees from today's Catholic leadership around abortion and reproductive rights. She doesn't agree with the church's position that abortion is a sin and should be illegal.

"I just don't see it in those absolute terms," says Sister Barbara, who asked that her last name not be used because she fears retribution from her local Archdiocese for speaking out.

"I want to put a sticker on the car that says, 'Don't like abortion? Don't have one,' " she says.

Despite Catholic leadership's firm anti-abortion position in recent decades, research shows that across the U.S., a majority of Catholics supports abortion rights. A recent report from the Pew Research Center put the number at 6 in 10. Even in this solidly Republican state of Missouri, many Catholics say they support a ballot measure to enshrine abortion rights in the state's constitution. An effort to collect enough signatures and put the question to voters is positioning the state as one of the big battlegrounds over abortion rights in November.

That's despite an effort from Catholic Church leadership to preserve current abortion laws in Missouri, where the procedure is almost entirely illegal. All four Missouri Catholic bishops have given monetary donations to prevent the signature campaign from succeeding. Advocates need to get 172,000 signatures by May 5 to put their measure on the ballot — they won't say how close they are, but they're optimistic they'll have enough names in the coming weeks.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the Catholic vote is essential to getting the Missouri ballot over the finish line," says Jamie Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, a national abortion advocacy group.

A recent surveyfound 44% of Missouri voters support the proposed ballot measure, while 37% oppose it and 19% were undecided. Many Catholics interviewed for this story also describe a silent support, as did several other nuns. In fact, one nun said she recently went out to help collect signatures but didn't want to speak about it on the record.

Some people who still identify as Catholics or former Catholics say they felt a need to make a choice between their faith and their politics. "I think the turning point for me was recognizing that the church I belong to doesn't recognize women," says 81-year-old Alice Kitchen, a former nun.

Kitchen left the church years ago. Now she's an activist. "Have you had a chance to sign the petition that allows women to have decisions about their own reproductive lives?" she asks people streaming out of a Costco in Kansas City, Mo. She wears a placard that declares "End the abortion ban." She says she's often asked to leave places of business when asking patrons for signatures.

One of the people she meets on this day is Marilyn Richardson, a retired reproductive endocrinologist who is Catholic. Richardson says the institutional church leadership is in territory where it doesn't belong. "The church hasn't really studied these issues. They have no idea what they're doing," she says. At her church, Richardson says, she's developed a kind of don't-ask-don't-tell policy with church leadership. "Catholics just go to mass and go home," she laughs. "We don't talk about these things."

Kitchen, a former nun, says she left the Catholic Church because it "doesn't recognize women."
/ Dominick Williams for NPR
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Dominick Williams for NPR
Kitchen, a former nun, says she left the Catholic Church because it "doesn't recognize women."
Kitchen says that when she's out trying to collect signatures for the proposed ballot measure on aborton rights, businesses often ask her to leave.
/ Dominick Williams for NPR
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Dominick Williams for NPR
Kitchen says that when she's out trying to collect signatures for the proposed ballot measure on aborton rights, businesses often ask her to leave.

Some congregants who've spoken out within the church say they've been ostracized. Ingrid Burnett is a Democratic state representative who for years went to a Catholic church in Kansas City. She converted to Catholicism as an adult and found it spiritually fulfilling.

When she spoke out in support of issues such as reproductive rights, Burnett says she was publicly chastised during Mass. "When the prayers became about praying that politicians would do certain things, it was pretty clear to me that it was aimed at me," she says. "I thought it was very alienating, and I felt hurt."

"I loved my church," Burnett says, "I would like to go back. I really miss the ritual."

Democratic state Rep. Ingrid Burnett, converted to Catholicism as an adult and says she found it spiritually fulfilling. For years, she went to a Catholic Church in Kansas City, Mo. Then she says she was publicly chastized during Mass.
/ Courtesy of Ingrid Burnett
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Courtesy of Ingrid Burnett
Democratic state Rep. Ingrid Burnett, converted to Catholicism as an adult and says she found it spiritually fulfilling. For years, she went to a Catholic Church in Kansas City, Mo. Then she says she was publicly chastized during Mass.

A long history of Catholicism

Missouri is a state forged in Catholicism. Hundreds of years ago, French Canadian settlers took the land from the native people living there, the Osage tribe among them. Settlers then claimed the land for the French and named the town of Saint Louis after a Roman Catholic King. Today, Missouri is replete with Catholic churches, iconography and people.

Because of this deeply intertwined history, the question of breaking with years of Catholic tradition and belief over abortion can be deeply emotional and personal for people here. "It's just been all I've known," says Elizabeth Ivanovich, who grew up in St. Louis and went to Catholic school. She describes memories of being an altar girl and adopting an anti-abortion position as a teenager. But she started to question those beliefs as a young adult.

In 2022, Ivanovich's experience with IVF cemented her support for abortion rights. "Suddenly it became very nuanced for me," she recalls. "I made the decision to proceed with IVF, and two days later Roe v. Wade was overturned."

Jamie Manson speaks onstage during the Bans Off Our Bodies Rally on May 14, 2022 in Washington, DC.
Paul Morigi / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Jamie Manson speaks onstage during the Bans Off Our Bodies Rally on May 14, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Manson, the president of Catholics for Choice, points out that abortion is not referenced explicitly in the bible and argues for a theological support for abortion rights. "I always chuckle a bit at Catholics that say you can't be Catholic and support abortion," says Manson. "It's a very reductive approach to this great and complex and nuanced tradition."

The fight over abortion rights has been one of the most bitter in recent memory within the Catholic Church, Manson says, noting the church has moved significantly quicker on other social issues such as same-sex marriage.

"People, especially Catholics, we have been inculcated in a very male-centered church, where only men can be leaders. And so there is a de facto concern for men and men's rights, I think, kind of engraved in our brains," says Manson.

Striving for justice from within the church is one of the most powerful ways to protest, says Manson: "It really is actually is very threatening due to the powers in the church when you do that."

Catholic Church leaders acknowledge feeling threatened but insist they aren't afraid of the current fight.

"Could you say the Catholic Church is under attack? Or the church's beliefs are under attack? Or their institutions are? Sure," says Sam Lee, a deacon with the church and also head of the anti-abortion group Missouri Stands with Women. "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."

Lee says he's not surprised that Catholics support abortion. "Catholics aren't that much different than anybody else," he says.

Hopes for a resilient Catholic Church

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. Mary Helen Schaefer is a student at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit school. She's standing on campus while others rush to class. Like many here, she describes a pluralistic vision of Catholicism.

"I think that my generation in general is a little bit more exploratory," says Schaefer, who grew up Catholic and still identifies as such. "I think when it comes to religion and faith, they're more open."

Her own feelings on abortion changed after someone close to her needed one. 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.

"I think right now, younger people tend to feel alone," she says. "Sometimes faith or community can help with feeling like there's a purpose to something."

Purpose is something on Sister Barbara's mind as well. She hopes the church will find its way through this acrimony. "I think that the Catholic Church would not be here today if they didn't have a remarkable ability to turn corners when things are about to collapse for it," she says.

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 – "reaching for some kind of ideals in the way we love and live with each other, with one another."

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

Copyright 2024 NPR

Katia Riddle