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Issue Date:  April 21, 2006

The continued betrayal of women

U.S. culture exhorts them to be sexual, but not pregnant


After the massacre, they tried to abort Maria’s baby. The Xalbal massacre of 1982 in Quiche, Guatemala, sent a pregnant Maria and her four little children running from village to village to escape the butchering military who had just murdered her husband and oldest son. After the massacre, a group of terrified Mayan women tried to abort Maria’s baby, who later became our adopted son.

The story of women caught in dangerous, impossible, unwanted pregnancies has been repeated for centuries. Birth control and abortion are as old as womankind, not some feminist invention inspired by “the pill” or Roe v. Wade. Women of all backgrounds have devised ways to end pregnancies -- potions, crude tools, back-alley butchers and, recently, upscale clinics in offshore resorts.

U.S. abortion statistics are horrendous -- 1.3 million last year. Statistics show 93 percent of all abortions occur for “social” reasons, not for reasons of rape or health. Almost two thirds of abortions are obtained by unmarried women. Women under age 25 undergo 52 percent of all abortions, and half of these are girls under 20; 50 percent of all pregnancies are “unintended.” So alarmed about the numbers is the U.S. electorate that many think the antiabortion vote determined the last presidential election.

But like the teenage girl in my Catholic high school who became pregnant and vanished through some mysterious hole in the school community, never to be seen again, the forces that lead some women to terminate their pregnancy are equally fierce. Unlike men, sexually active women can get caught with the evidence and must live with the consequences -- baby or an abortion. Some cannot cope with the pregnancy: the disruption or scandal in a planned or prominent life; the traumatic reminder of forced or violent sex; or the demands of a baby.

The inability to cope with a pregnancy in 21st-century America signifies something different from the desperation of Guatemalan Maria, something equally disturbing.

In spite of women’s economic and professional gains, U.S. culture still trivializes their personhood and exploits their femaleness. Women have bought into it big time with cosmetic surgery, “Desperate Housewives” and so on. Women are exhorted to be sexual, but not pregnant. Where the marketplace is sacred and profit is a sacrament, sex not only makes babies, it makes money -- lots of it. Sex advertises almost every product on the market. Porn, escort services and the sex trade generate billions. TV sitcoms, lyrics, movies, youth fashions, all are laced with sex. Ten years ago therapist Mary Pipher wrote in Reviving Ophelia about a culture that was so “look-obsessed, sexist and poisonous” for growing girls that sexual acts were not uncommon for girls in junior high.

The images offered by some right-to- life activists of women casually flocking to abortion clinics to “murder” their babies bear no resemblance to the experiences of thousands of girls and women I have known over my years as wife and mother, Birthright volunteer, community and church activist, public health nurse and counselor to poor women, including a stretch living in a Guatemala slum. I know that many women live out their monthly fertility as a serious, sometimes burdensome responsibility. Yet the large percentage of “unintended” pregnancies suggests that, for whatever reason, there are those women who cannot or will not manage that monthly reality.

The preponderance of men leading the charge against abortion in the United States seems strange indeed at a time when concern for the welfare of women and children seems at a low point. Perhaps the control men have traditionally held over women’s affairs is at issue. It is not lost on women that the churches most condemnatory of abortion tend to deny significant roles to women, and no group has been more publicly rebuked than Roman Catholic women. These women, who obtain some 33 percent of all abortions, are excommunicated by their church, but there is no censure for the men who father these babies women refuse to carry.

For years, women have been pushing pro-life thinking and sounding the alarm on cultural forces that hurt women and children, often to be ignored. A Catholic laywoman began a pregnancy support program, Birthright, some 50 years ago that grew into a large national organization largely ignored by the institutional church. The U.S. bishops made the astounding announcement years later that they were inaugurating their own pregnancy assistance program -- a duplicate of what women had been doing for years. When mothers began sounding the alarm on priests abusing their children, one bishop advised chancery officials to leave the phone off the hook when women called.

Network, a national Catholic social justice lobby in Washington organized by religious and lay women, educates and lobbies around issues of justice in national policy, advocating positions on trade, defense spending, war and the nuclear buildup, as well as issues such as health care, education, minimum wage, affordable housing -- all pro-life issues affecting women and children. Some Catholic members of Congress denounce abortion but routinely vote against Network’s pro-life positions. In my recent work in a Kentucky clinic for poor kids, each day brought lines of stressed moms with improperly immunized kids, sick over and over, passed from one marginal parent to another, often going days without prescribed medicines because the parents had no money.

One woman, Kathy Kelly, cofounder of the now disbanded Voices in the Wilderness, faces possible imprisonment for her work to get medicines to suffering Iraqi children during the U.N./U.S. sanctions during the late ’90s when over half a million children died. Cindy Sheehan’s confrontation with power over the invasion of Iraq won her the invective “ignorant cow.” In the words of theologian and Immaculate Heart Sr. Sandra Schneiders, “If a woman’s personhood is cheap, why is fetal life so sacred?”

The Kentucky poet and essayist Wendell Berry suggested, “You have to be able to imagine lives that are not your own. … If you want … compassion, you must be compassionate … if you want forgiveness, you must be forgiving.” Respect for life is a value to live out with unborn child and mother in mind and heart. It is nowhere to be found in the caustic language coming from hate radio and some churches that rarely voice concern for the well-being of women, willingly or unwillingly pregnant. In a recent post to an abortion recovery group, a grieving woman said, “The pro-life movement wants to demonize the woman and concentrate on protecting the child, but you can’t rip a baby from a woman’s womb without ripping out her heart.”

And so the Guatemalan widow, Maria, carrying life unborn and born, was betrayed by her government’s army. Maria’s boy, our adopted son Julio, was born with significant physical handicaps. He anguishes over his limitations, attends school part-time and works as a bilingual clerk at a Hispanic clinic.

Betrayal continues when those who proclaim the Christian Gospel preemptively condemn women over abortion without working to understand the reasons. There can be no doubt that Jesus gave his special attention to both children and women. In the current dialogue over abortion, we might imitate his love that so understood the misery of a woman, ostracized and suffering with “female bleeding,” that he allowed her to touch him and be cured.

Mary Ellen Neill is a public health nurse and mother of six. She is currently active in Central American affairs.

National Catholic Reporter, April 21, 2006

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