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TRNN’s Jessica Desvarieux speaks with author Patricia Miller on how Pope Francis’ pro-life position on abolishing the death penalty expels conservatives’ use of abortion as a trump card over social justice issues

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux coming to you from Capitol Hill, where Pope Francis has made history. He’s the first pope to ever address a joint session of Congress, and many Republicans are hoping that he will help them further their agenda to defund the nation’s leading provider of abortions, Planned Parenthood. Here’s what the pope had to say. POPE FRANCIS: The golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me from the beginning of my ministry to advocate at different levels the global abolition of the death penalty. DESVARIEUX: Calling for the abolition of the death penalty instead of the abolition of abortion have some wondering if the Vatican is shifting its priorities. PATRICIA MILLER: What the real shift is is he is putting abortion on the same plane as other issues Catholics need to worry about, the social justice issues like income inequality and climate change. So what he’s really doing is removing from the conservatives kind of the abortion trump card, which was as long as you’re cool on abortion with the Catholic church you can kind of do whatever you want on the social justice, economic front. DESVARIEUX: Patricia Miller is the author of the book Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. She says anti-abortion groups backing Republicans have new steam for their crusade to defund Planned Parenthood after a series of secretly taped videos drew national attention to how Planned Parenthood provides biomedical researchers with aborted fetal tissue. In one of the edited videos you can see a Planned Parenthood doctor appearing to be haggling over the price of fetal tissue. SPEAKER: If this is in the ballpark then it’s fine. If it’s still low then we can work around it. I want a Lamborghini–no. I said I want a Lamborghini. SPEAKER: Don’t we all. SPEAKER: Exactly. DESVARIEUX: Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards apologized. CECILE RICHARDS: This is unacceptable, and I personally apologize for the staff member’s tone and statements. DESVARIEUX: But defended her organization’s practice, saying Planned Parenthood does not profit from donated fetal tissue. RICHARDS: Doctors repeatedly said, it’s all been edited out, Planned Parenthood does not at all profit from fetal tissue donation, which is an important element of healthcare research in this country. DESVARIEUX: This issue has reignited the conservative Catholic base to oppose Planned Parenthood. Under the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops there is an entire department devoted to fighting abortion, while according to Mother Jones there is only a single staffer working full-time on climate change. This has some asking whether Pope Francis can make a real shift in the U.S. where so much focus has been placed on the destruction of Planned Parenthood since its inception in the 1920s. MILLER: The very first big public meeting of the group that was the forerunner of Planned Parenthood that they had in New York City to promote the then very radical idea of family planning, the Catholic archbishop of New York had the cops go and shut it down, and have people–you know, literally, you people are indecent, you’re talking about family planning. We have to shut this down. So that began a very long, contentious relationship between Planned Parenthood and the Catholic church all throughout the 20th century as Planned Parenthood worked to try to make birth control accessible to poor women and young women through public funding. It was the Catholic church who time and time again tried to shut that down. DESVARIEUX: Now Republicans are trying to shut the government down by opposing a spending bill that would continue to fund Planned Parenthood because it provides abortions. But according to the organization, only 3 percent of its services are related to abortions. The vast majority of its work relates to women’s health, like cancer screenings and sexual health services. If defunded that would be catastrophic for the organization, since 40 percent of its funding comes from federal and state governments. So what is really at the heart of the Republican and Catholic church focus on abortion? MILLER: Abortion has been like their, kind of, oh, look over here at abortion, people, abortion is horrible. And over here we’re going to do whatever we want on economic policy. I mean, it’s an old strategy. It was a strategy that was first pioneered by the Christian right in 1980. But it still works, and it’s really worked to kind of take a significant portion of the Catholic population and move them towards the policies of the Republican party simply on the fact that they agree with the Catholic church on abortion. DESVARIEUX: But Republicans counter that Democrats use women’s health as a distraction, and that they would redirect funding from Planned Parenthood to community health centers. SEN. JONI ERNST (R-IA): Our legislation ensures that federal funding taken from Planned Parenthood will be made available to other entities that provide health services for women. MILLER: But that was tried in Texas, and the results were disastrous. There was a study that was just released. There were not nearly enough providers up and willing and running to be able to take a whole new group of patients. The number of abortions went up in Texas, the number of women receiving health services went down in Texas. It was a complete disaster. DESVARIEUX: Low-income and young women are particularly vulnerable, since many rely on Planned Parenthood for reproductive healthcare. And Miller says if Pope Francis wants to speak to their concerns, the church must come to terms with their reproductive rights. MILLER: It really leads to the conclusion that they just are against women’s sexual agency and sexual autonomy and reproductive autonomy, and want women to go back to the days where they just had a lot of babies and didn’t have much say in the matter. DESVARIEUX: For the Real News Network, Jessica Desvarieux, Washington.


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Patricia Miller is a Washington, DC-based journalist and editor who has written extensively about the intersection of politics, sex and religion. She is author of Good Catholics: The Battle Over Abortion in the Catholic Church. Her work has appeared in The Nation, Huffington Post, RH Reality Check and Ms. Magazine. She covers the politics of sexuality and the Catholic Church for Religion Dispatches. She was formerly the editor of Conscience magazine, the leading journal of pro-choice Catholic thought, and the editor-in-chief of National Journal's daily health care briefings, including the Kaiser Daily Reproductive Health Report.