Breakfast with an authoritarian
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Bay Windows
August 23, 2007


Breakfast with an authoritarian

Russell (not his real name) is a closeted, conservative priest whom I have known for thirty years. He is active with an anti-abortion ministry. I learned that he was gay a quarter century ago when I found him in Mr. P’s, a now-vanished gay bar in Dupont Circle that became notorious in September 2000 when “ex-gay” leader John Paulk was caught there.

On the night I found Russell there, a young man sitting at the bar told me that Russell had invited him to his house in another city that he shared with several other priests. I mentioned this to Russell, who said, “I’m a bit more modern than your uncle,” referring to an uncle of mine (now deceased) who was an older priest. I replied, “You took the same vow of chastity that he did.” I happen to think that mandatory celibacy should be abolished and that the priesthood should be open to women, but Russell’s allies in the Church hierarchy reject such proposals out of hand.

Last March, I met Fr. Russell for breakfast with mutual friends from the 1970s. He offered the Vatican’s usual anti-abortion combo of moral homily and advocacy of a government ban. He declared cheerfully that the supply of abortion doctors is dwindling, and that much of the world disapproves of America’s laxity on abortion. He talked about liberals’ prejudice, but it is unpersuasive to argue that the real intolerance is from those opposing government coercion. Curious to see how he would react, I mentioned the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. He froze, and cut off the discussion.

At that breakfast, Fr. Russell spoke about studies alleging that women suffer psychological damage after choosing abortion. This sounded like right-wing pseudoscience, so last week I decided to try drawing him out further with a sympathetic-sounding email asking him to recommend further resources on Post Abortion Stress (PAS) Disorder. I mentioned Norma McCorvey, the ‘Roe’ in Roe v. Wade, who recanted her support for abortion in the 1990s. Sure enough, Fr. Russell emailed me back from Amarillo, Texas, where he was attending the annual Pro-life Retreat and Conference being held by a group called Priests for Life.

Fr. Russell pointed me to Dr. Theresa Burke at and Dr. David Reardon at, among other sources. His message raised familiar anti-abortion tropes, such as the conflation of biology with the issue of legal personhood. (Unfortunately for him, the government issues birth certificates—not conception certificates.) He invoked an apocalyptic scenario: “Some choices are intrinsically evil and, if followed, end civilizations (in our case it is the evisceration of a culture precipitating an implosion to be filled by Allah’s whims).” Does that phrase “intrinsically evil” sound familiar? Apparently, abortion will accomplish what Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and other genocidal monsters failed to do.

Russell mocked Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life….” Russell retorted, “No mention here about what has been rooted in the thinking and behavior of mankind from pre-history onwards. Just what the INDIVIDUAL wants meaning to mean, as it were. Sounds like a Unitarian Mission Statement if such an oxymoron should attempt to exist.” Can’t you feel the ecumenical spirit?

You may recall that Justice Kennedy reused the same offending quote in his Lawrence v. Texas ruling overturning state sodomy laws. That is no coincidence. Another sign of the intersection of abortion rights and gay rights is the fact that anti-gay activist “Dr.” Alveda King (who has only an honorary doctorate) was a featured participant at the Amarillo conference. Ms. King has an article on about her own now-regretted abortions in which she states, “Every aborted baby is like a slave in the womb of his or her mother.” File that one away under Unhelpful Comparisons.

I found my way back to reality by reading Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s blistering dissent in Gonzales v. Carhart, in which the Supreme Court last April narrowly upheld the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. Ginsburg observed that “the Court invokes an antiabortion shibboleth for which it concededly has no reliable evidence: Women who have abortions come to regret their choices, and consequently suffer from ‘[s]evere depression and loss of esteem.’ ... This way of thinking reflects ancient notions about women’s place in the family and under the Constitution—ideas that have long since been discredited.”

Justice Ginsburg cites an article by Susan A. Cohen from the Summer 2006 Guttmacher Policy Review. In that article, Cohen discusses the methodological flaws in the studies cited by Reardon and others, and notes that PAS is not recognized by either the American Psychological Association or the American Psychiatric Association.

The truth is that anti-choice zealots only use the trappings of science to mask their authoritarian purpose. To people like Fr. Russell, the freedom to choose is something to fear. Russell’s own sexuality terrifies him. I am inclined to treat him as a cautionary example, similar to the way he discusses women’s alleged post-abortion traumatic stress. I could tell him that suppressing his God-given homosexuality may help him avoid facing painful challenges, but it diminishes and corrupts his soul. The difference is that, unlike him, I do not invoke junk science nor seek to impose dogma on my fellow citizens.

Copyright © 2007 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.