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Pro-Choice and Catholic: ‘They’re Not Going To Tell Me How To Think’

October 19, 1992

LANSING, Mich. (AP) _ Jo McLachlan could have hidden anonymously in the pews after deciding to reject the Catholic Church’s position on abortion.

She didn’t. Instead, she wore an abortion rights button to Sacred Heart Catholic Church, even when she read Bible passages from the altar during Mass.

″They’re not going to tell me how to think, not going to preach to me from the pulpit on a political issue,″ she said. ″I took a lot of heat, but that was all right.″

For 18 long months, she said, she was the subject of a campaign of silence by her fellow parishioners in Evart.

″No one in church would speak to me except the parish priest and my husband,″ she said. ″That’s OK. You certainly learn who your friends are. I was a church secretary, lay reader, taught religion classes. I was very, very active in my church. That was all pulled out from under me. It was important enough to me to pay the price for my convictions.″

McLachlan is co-coordinator of Michigan Catholics for a Free Choice, a small group willing to publicly challenge the church’s stance that abortion should be condemned except in cases in which the mother’s life is in danger.

Though the Michigan chapter is only in the early stages, Catholics for a Free Choice has 60 chapters in 35 states, said Jane Reilly of Cleveland, the grass-roots organizer for the Ohio chapter who helped spur the formation of the group here.

Still, the group’s national mailing list of more than 13,000 Catholics is puny compared to the church’s muscle in the anti-abortion movement. The Michigan chapter, for example, has only about 200 members out of an estimated 2.27 million Catholics in the state.

Group members say that many of the nation’s 55.6 million Catholics probably disagree with the church’s anti-abortion stance but are afraid to buck the male-dominated hierarchy.

″If they were to go after each person who had an abortion, these churches would be empty,″ Reilly said. ″People are following their conscience on these issues.″

Christine Doby, the coordinator of the Respect Life Office in the Diocese of Lansing, said Catholics for a Free Choice generates little respect within the church because of its willingness to dissent publicly.

″They’re not looked upon as a group it’s important to listen to,″ Doby said. ″The Catholic Church is not an army. There’s no attempt to make people think alike or act alike, but it is an association of believers.

″While there is dissent and dispute, it’s one thing to do it within the church. It’s another thing to attack the church and to attack leaders in the church.″

Kim Lane Schepple, who teaches law and public policy at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said the church’s opposition to artificial birth control paved the way for dissent over its abortion stance.

And the church hierarchy has responded more aggressively to pro-choice Catholics than to those who dissented on birth control, she said, noting, for example, that a California bishop threatened Catholics who were visibly pro- choice with excommunication.

″The church has been really playing hardball on this,″ Schepple said. ″So people can dissent, but they’re taking quite a risk.″

McLachlan said parishioners ended their silence toward her near the beginning of this year after she organized a discussion forum during which she compared her challenge of the church’s abortion position to widespread disregard of its ban on artificial birth control.

Raised a Methodist, McLachlan, 40, converted to Catholicism in 1972 but rejected the church’s view on abortion after studying the issue.

″I don’t believe that a fetus prior to being able to breathe is a person,″ she said.

After she began speaking out, 13 Catholic girls who feared they were pregnant came to her house seeking advice during one six-month span, she said. McLachlan said she took them to Planned Parenthood for counseling and for pregnancy tests, all of which were negative.

She said she was threatened with excommunication by Bishop Robert Rose of the Diocese of Grand Rapids during her unsuccessful 1990 run for state Senate on the Democratic ticket. But a spokesman for the bishop denies that, saying the excommunication threat contained in newspaper accounts was a mistake by reporters.

Mike Ghering, director of communications for the Diocese of Grand Rapids, said the church planned no action against pro-choice Catholics.

″We certainly have no plans to do anything like that,″ he said. ″It seems to me the person themselves makes the decision to distance themselves from the Catholic Church.″

McLachlan and Michigan Free Choice co-coordinator John Nuerenberg wrote the bishops of the state’s seven Catholic dioceses last year trying to start a dialogue on the church’s abortion stance. Only Rose replied, Nuerenberg said, and the two have exchanged letters since.

But Ghering said the bishop has no interest in a dialogue with the group.

″He believes there would be no point to it. It seems quite clear that they’ve made up their minds on the issue of abortion. The Catholic Church will not and cannot change a doctrine so basic to the church,″ he said.

A convert to Catholicism in 1969 who was raised Episcopalian, Nuerenberg, 45, always was pro-choice. He said he dislikes the church’s attempt to impose its views on non-Catholics by lobbying for passage of anti-abortion laws.

″To me, it’s an archaic, male-dominated hierarchy that is imposing their values on the individual and, in this case, I don’t feel it’s the right position,″ he said.

Nuerenberg said he has found quiet support for his pro-choice views at St. Robert’s Catholic Church in Ada.

″Virtually every Catholic that I have run into is very willing to talk about it and supports what I’m doing,″ he said. ″This is cross-generations, the support I’m getting.″

McLachlan said she is as devout as any Catholic.

″I love my church and I love my religion,″ she said. ″There will be people who say I’m not really Catholic. That’s not true. We have the same basic ideals. I just don’t think a group of men should tell me what I should do with my body or anyone should tell another woman what she should do.″

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