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Catholic leaders say new parents will need more assistance in a post-Roe world

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Catholic Church has long been clear on its anti-abortion stance. But now in this post-Roe landscape, how does the church plan to support pregnant people and parents who would otherwise have sought an abortion but now can't? To learn more about that, we're going to talk now with two people who are already doing this kind of work - Mike Phelan, director of the Office of Marriage and Respect Life with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, and Sister Bethany Madonna of the Sisters of Life, a group that provides counseling and resources to pregnant people.

Sister Bethany told me many of these people come to her under difficult circumstances and in some cases have already scheduled an appointment for an abortion.

BETHANY MADONNA: But they reach out to us with this little glimmer of hope - tell me that there is another option or another way.

CHANG: So what are the conversations like?

MADONNA: They're miraculous because we've had women get off the table. We've had women at the abortion clinic door turn around. We've had women who have no faith at all for the first time in their life say a little prayer that God would do something if he exists.

CHANG: And then beyond influencing their decision on whether to go through with an abortion, what further support do you provide?

MADONNA: We have co-workers of life who are men and women who have come forward to say, we'll do anything to support the women that you serve. And we watch them open their homes, get apartments, scholarships, jobs, clothing, resources of all kinds. We basically see all of their needs met. God has a lot of money, and he sends people who want to be very generous with these women, and then we try to be the bridge.

CHANG: Mike, I know that you have said after the Dobbs decision had been leaked earlier this year that the Catholic Church stands, quote, "ready to help women who need help." So let me ask you, does the church have an actual plan to ramp up its support now that many more women, many more people may not have access to abortion?

MIKE PHELAN: Yes. And so I've been very grateful to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, particularly Archbishop Lori and Archbishop Naumann, for launching Walking with Moms in Need. In anticipation of the shakiness of Roe, about two years ahead of time, the church here in the United States decided to focus again on making the parish, so every local church, a center of accompaniment, a lot like what Sister Bethany is talking about - this readiness to receive and to help and to honor a woman who comes forward looking for assistance. And that training has been happening now for two years, and the church is beginning to really get this in place. It's been challenging with the whole virus situation...

CHANG: Right. Right.

PHELAN: ...In many ways.

CHANG: But can you put that in concrete terms? What kind of assistance?

PHELAN: So good question. Members of the parish called companions or angels come alongside two-by-two a woman to help her get to her appointments, to help her to receive all the prenatal care that she needs, any other additional medical care that she needs, any rent assistance. In the short term, the goal is to be available for as long as the woman needs and wants the help.

CHANG: Are there enough resources for that presence to be available throughout the child's life, the child who comes into the world because an abortion was not available or the person decided not to go forward with an abortion? Are those resources indefinitely available?

PHELAN: Well, I think they are generously available. And obviously there is a tremendous need, which is going to require of us in the church to step up in a deeper and a new way, in a very deeply personal way, rather than simply referring to organizations which are wonderful and generous but often not enough.

CHANG: I'm pushing both of you on this question of what resources, what kind of support is out there long term because, as we know, raising a child takes more than seeing a pregnancy through to term. And I want to just point out, you know, a 2020 report from the United Nations Children's Fund - this is UNICEF - found that the U.S. ranks near the bottom of dozens of wealthy nations in terms of child well-being. The U.S. also has a higher child mortality rate than its peers, and it's frankly the only rich country with no guaranteed federal paid family leave. Do you know, is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared to push lawmakers and others to provide more resources to families, to children who are born because abortion was not an available option?

PHELAN: Yes. Currently, we're grateful that abortions have suspended in Arizona. This means, though, that we've got about a thousand women a month who are in a situation where they've got to be able to find help quickly and then be supported through that.

CHANG: Which is a daunting task.

PHELAN: Very daunting. But I'm also happy to report...

MADONNA: And exciting.

PHELAN: ...That the Arizona - it is exciting. But as Sister Bethany mentioned, you know, God's not short of cash. And the resources are there. And, in fact, the Arizona legislature passed a couple of measures to provide for foster care help in the form of stipends to those that take on foster children, as well as other additional help for prenatal care and for organizations that provide housing.

CHANG: Sister Bethany, is your organization in a position now, does it have enough resources now to support people who no longer have abortion as an option, to support them - not only to see the pregnancy to term, but to support the parenting of the child, the raising of the child for maybe the child's entire life?

MADONNA: You know, we had served a woman who had twins and just got them both scholarships to school. So I do have to say that we have to recognize that it takes nine months for a child to come to term. So there's time. It's doesn't - we don't have to have every resource for 18 years in one place at one time. That's the miracle of it. It's letting others step forward to provide.

CHANG: In addition to whatever resources the church can provide, what do you think the federal government and state and local governments need to provide?

MADONNA: I would say safe, affordable housing. That is, like, the dream that so many of these women come with - a place to call home, you know, and a place that is mine and a place that I can prepare to raise this child where they're safe and can receive their child.

CHANG: Mike, you had said after the Dobbs decision was leaked that not having any abortion in this country would, quote, "be the ideal" because you say that abortion is equivalent to the killing of a human person who is innocent. So I'm wondering, at this moment, do you feel the work is not yet done as long as there are some states in this country where the right to abortion remains?

PHELAN: Sure. Well, you adequately defined abortion there.

CHANG: Well, I'm using your words.

PHELAN: Well, it's the intentional ending of a life that is in a very vulnerable and small stage. And we were all in that stage at one point. At one point, each of us listening here and talking was the size of something we call an embryo or a fetus. And we survived at that time. Somebody was generous enough to help us. And that's the ideal, is a society that says that is what we're all about. No human person is beneath our concern. And that's the goal. So absolutely. We want to make abortion not just illegal but unthinkable and recognize each human person, each little person, each elderly person has the real gift in the image of God that they are.

CHANG: Mike Phelan is director of the Office of Marriage and Respect Life with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Phoenix, and Sister Bethany Madonna is with the Sisters of Life. Thank you both so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

MADONNA: Thank you, Ailsa.

PHELAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.