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Violence against women -- a cause for pro-life activists


Today we are witnessing the opening up of political space in what has been the subject of a hopelessly polarized debate, namely abortion. This, thanks to the vision of the Seamless Garment Network (NCR, Jan. 21). The organization opposes not only abortion but also the death penalty, the arms race and other threats to life’s sanctity.

What makes the Seamless Garment Network truly unique, however, is that it is a coalition of activists who disagree on whether to criminalize abortion -- and who therefore champion a more inclusive and, I believe, revolutionary cause.

The network’s goal is not to expend its resources trying to make abortion illegal. Its goal is to “make abortion unthinkable,” according to the network’s executive director, Mary Rider.

It’s an idea whose time has come. The network must seize the moment to reach out to people who have grown numb to the predictable discourse of both pro-life and pro-choice advocates; to win their trust by showing that people on both sides of the issue can work together.

I am convinced that the pro-life movement has not been ambitious enough. Pro-life activists have largely failed to analyze and to publicize various forms of violence perpetrated against the unborn.

Take the epidemic of domestic violence as an example.

What if activists loudly and consistently spoke out for the millions of women whose desires for healthy pregnancies are thwarted by violence -- violence that takes place not at abortion clinics but in the so-called sanctity of the home? Where the deadly weapon is not an abortionist’s syringe but the fist of a man who claims to love the woman he’s beating up.

There’s a new study out on women’s health titled, “Ending Violence Against Women.” It was released by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the Center for Health and Gender Equity.

One of every three women worldwide has been beaten, raped or somehow mistreated, according to the report. Besides immediate physical injuries, such treatment of women has been linked to problem pregnancies. The report states that studies have linked abuse of women to miscarriages, premature labor and fetal distress.

This global perspective reflects what we know about the United States in particular: Violence against women is as American as apple pie.

In this country, domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women. The Justice department estimates that each year 3 to 4 million women are beaten in their homes.

According to the Center for Disease Control, three-quarters of women over the age of 18 who are raped or assaulted are victimized by husbands or ex-husbands, boyfriends or ex-boyfriends, the person they live with or a date.

Pregnant women and those who don’t yet know they are pregnant pay a heavy price, according to Lorena Howard.

“It happens all the time. Women have told me about losing two or more babies because they were beaten,” she said. A leading Chicana activist here in Tucson, Ariz., Howard works at a shelter for battered women.

Problem pregnancies are often made worse when women smoke and drink because of the stress of “living under siege,” she said.

She recently visited with a woman at a Catholic hospital -- 35 weeks pregnant -- whose partner punched her in the stomach.

“Think of it,” said Howard. “It’s living at war.”

Making domestic violence a pro-life issue would go a long way toward saving unborn children -- and their mothers, she said. (In 1998, almost a third of women murdered in this country were killed by husbands, ex-husbands, boyfriends and ex-boyfriends, according to FBI statistics.) Perhaps churches could declare themselves sanctuaries for battered women -- whose bodies are, after all, sanctuaries for evolving life.

Such a campaign would also require taking a hard look at how we can better socialize boys -- and rehabilitate male abusers; how we can confront the myth that violent behavior is part of proving one’s manhood or an appropriate way to vent anger.

Then of course there is the problem of state violence against women and the unborn: the refusal, on the part of the richest nation in the world, to meet the basic needs of its poorest citizens.

Our economy may be prospering, but millions of women are not.

They lack the basics that facilitate a healthy pregnancy, such as health insurance, good food and an environment free of toxins linked to miscarriages and so on. This situation will persist as long as politicians continue to pat babies on the head with one hand and throw money at the Pentagon with the other.

The antiabortion movement, like all social movements, has relied heavily on political theater: praying the rosary in silence in front of clinics, crying out to women not to kill their babies or demonstrating with blowup photographs of fetuses.

The challenge for the Seamless Garment Network is to come up with potent symbols that can galvanize a new generation of activists.

Why not march with photos of fetuses to the offices of politicians who refuse to support universal health care?

Why not pray the rosary in the lobby of the senator who axes funding for battered women’s shelters, job training and day care -- programs that would reduce women’s economic dependency upon their abusers?

Why not march on the Pentagon and run a full-page ad in The New York Times on defense spending titled, “Who Are the Real Baby Killers?”

The list goes on. The Seamless Garment Network has won half the battle, by finding some common ground that people on both sides of the abortion issue can stand on. The group offers real hope for changing the terms of the debate. A lot of people will be watching.

Demetria Martinez lives in Tucson, Ariz.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2000