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Black Catholics react to the overturning of Roe v. Wade

50 years of abortion rights have been upended by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, eliciting polarized reactions from legislators and top Catholic clergy.

From top left: US Reps. Anthony G. Brown and Adriano Espaillat, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, Archbishop Shelton Fabre, and Auxiliary Bishops Joseph Perry and Joseph Espaillat.

On Friday morning, the US Supreme Court delivered its long-awaited decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, additionally overturning Roe v. Wade and effectively returning the issue of abortion to state legislatures.

The 6-3 decision in Dobbs featured a majority opinion from Associate Justice Samuel Alito, with Chief Justice John Roberts joining the majority (but dissenting from the 5-4 overturning of Roe and the reiterative 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey).

Five of the court’s six Catholics joined the Dobbs majority, including the lone Black justice Clarence Thomas—who also issued a single-author concurrence calling for reconsiderations of SCOTUS decisions on same-sex marriage and contraception.

The conservative justices had come under fire in recent weeks, following a leak of Alito’s majority opinion draft on May 2nd. The final document does not veer from it significantly, with both calling the 1973 decision in Roe “egregiously wrong.”

US Catholics have been sharply divided on the subject, though a clear majority (64%) support the status quo and believe abortion should be legal, according to a recent poll. Both of the nation’s Black Catholic congresspersons, Reps. Anthony G. Brown of Maryland and Adriano Espaillat of New York, quickly spoke out against the Dobbs decision.

“SCOTUS is jeopardizing the health of millions of Americans, particularly Black, Latina, indigenous and underserved women,” Brown said late Friday morning.

“Now is not the time to be despondent, now is the time for action.”

Espaillat said the decision “erodes the legitimacy of the county and our nation’s commitment to the rule of law.”

“The Supreme Court has failed the American people.”

Catholic bishops, historically one of the strongest forces pushing for Roe to be overturned, have also reacted strongly to the new decision. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops was among several groups that submitted an amicus brief in support of today’s SCOTUS decision, and wrote against Casey in 1992.

Black prelates were among those responding to the Dobbs decision Friday, mostly by way of their state bishops’ conferences, though in some cases with a markedly measured tone.

The Catholic Conference of Illinois—which counts an African American among its members in Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Perry of Chicago—released a response within a few hours of the ruling, saying it was “pleased” with the decision.

“The Catholic Church has consistently opposed legislation and other policy initiatives designed to undermine the sanctity of human life at any stage from conception to natural death,” the conference said in the unsigned statement, acknowledging their position in a state where abortion restrictions are not on the table.

“With that reality as a backdrop, [the] state government has nothing to lose and everything to gain by working towards reducing the number of abortion[s] and increasing assistance to help pregnant mothers in need.”

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Espaillat of New York, recently listed by the USCCB as one of the nation’s Black prelates, joined his state’s Catholic conference to “give thanks to God” for the decision in Dobbs, in a statement calling it “a judicial victory, not a cultural one.”

“To change the culture and build a culture of life, we need to enact family-friendly policies that welcome children, support mothers, cherish families and empower them to thrive,” the bishops noted.

The Catholic bishops of Kentucky, led by their recently installed metropolitan Archbishop Shelton Fabre of Louisville, took a more measured approach, beginning their statement with a short treatise on the Church’s Whole Life position in regard to human dignity.

“For centuries, the Catholic Church has proclaimed a rich social teaching based upon a deep respect for the sacredness of every human life, including life in the womb,” they said, omitting effusive praise for Dobbs.

“We would like to propose that we take this opportunity to channel what we regard as a positive, life-affirming decision into action to support women, children, and families in our Commonwealth.”

Cardinal Wilton Gregory of Washington issued a personal statement on Friday afternoon, lamenting that America had for so long put “freedom of choice before even the inalienable right of life itself.”

“We rejoice in this latest step in our journey,” he said.

“Locally and nationally, we still have more to do to advance the dignity of human life and to make sure that the full range of life issues are adequately addressed. This includes supporting pregnant women in making life-affirming choices, providing better availability of prenatal and postnatal care for children and their mothers, advocating for affordable child care and safe schools, and advancing policies that support mothers in school and in the workforce.”

The USCCB itself issued an official statement calling for “the work of building a post-Roe America.”

“We pledge ourselves to continue our service to God’s great plan of love for the human person, and to work with our fellow citizens to fulfill America’s promise to guarantee the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all people.”

Other state bishops’ conferences with Black prelates, including Louisiana and South Carolina (comprised of the Diocese of Charleston), have not issued statements on Dobbs as of early Friday afternoon.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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