ROME — Anti-abortion activists have reacted with delight to Pope Francis’ latest anti-abortion statement in a recent interview, despite having been among the most vocal critics of the pontiff early on for his perceived unwillingness to wade into the culture wars.
“We commend Pope Francis for continuing to shed light on this tragedy that claims tens of millions of unborn children around the globe every year,” said Carol Tobias, President of the National Right to Life Committee, the oldest and largest anti-abortion group in the United States.
It’s taken a few days for the pope’s latest line on abortion to make the rounds, given that it was virtually buried in an interview that appeared Monday.
Speaking to an Argentinian journalist with the newspaper La Voz del Pueblo, Francis said he finds it “curious” that there are countries with strict child-protection laws that penalize parents for slapping their kids, yet allow them to kill those children before they are born.
“These are the contradictions we live with nowadays,” Francis told journalist Juan Beretta.
To find that quote one has to consult the full transcript of the interview, since the anti-abortion line didn’t make the journalist’s cut when he published the conversation in the local paper. Hence it also wasn’t picked up by Vatican Radio in the version of the conversation it posted on its official web site.
However, the full text is available in Spanish thanks to Argentina’s Catholic Information Agency (AICA).
Responding to the last question, Pope Francis shared a story he has told before about insulting his fourth grade teacher and his mother physically punishing him. In February, the same anecdote got him into trouble with advocates for child rights who accused him of promoting corporal punishment and physical violence toward children.
“It’s true, today’s methods of punishing children have changed, there’s a different sensitivity,” Francis said at the time. “[In my childhood] you got two slaps and that was it. I always say: ‘Never give a slap in the face to a boy because the face is sacred, but two or three slaps on the butt are not bad.’”
Never one to hide from controversy, Francis said he knew those comments had sparked negative reaction. Yet instead of retracting them, he said the odd thing was that the countries from which he drew the most blowback are also the ones with the most permissive abortion laws.
According to Stephen Phelan, director of mission communications for Human Life International, Pope Francis “is exactly right.”
“The disconnect is stunning,” Phelan told Crux via e-mail. “At one moment, the child can be destroyed for any reason and at another, a parent may not even discipline him.”
Human Life International is based in Front Royal, Virginia, with offices in both Rome and Miami.
Phelan said that even though it’s good to condemn all forms of child abuse, “it’s especially necessary to point out, as the Holy Father has, that the most violent form of child abuse is abortion.”
Tobias said there’s a dichotomy in countries that rightfully protect minors but allow unrestricted abortion.
“It’s a travesty that organizations like the United Nations Population Fund and International Planned Parenthood, which work to enshrine abortion as a ‘human right’, pressure countries to legalize abortion for any reason,” she said.
During the early days of his pontificate, Pope Francis was sometimes seen by anti-abortion advocates as “soft” on the issue.
Speaking to the semi-official Vatican magazine La Civilta Cattolica in 2013, for instance, the pontiff said the Church can’t insist only on these issues, adding that “when we speak about them, we have to do so in context. The teaching of the Church is clear and I am a son of the Church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
Yet in subsequent statements, he has made his support for the pro-life cause clear.
He called abortion “horrific,” for instance, during his annual address to diplomats accredited to the Vatican in 2014. Addressing a group of doctors and ethicists last November, he described abortion, embryonic stem cell research, and euthanasia as “playing with life” and “a sin against God.”
The pontiff has backed those words with gestures.
During a visit to South Korea last August, for example, Francis made a point of visiting a symbolic cemetery for the victims of abortion, located on a hilltop outside Seoul with white crosses representing aborted children under a large statue of the Holy Family.